The Story of the Truth Quest

The four practices of the truth quest constitute the endless search for knowledge of the best way to live. They emerged during the nine-tenths of human existence we lived in small, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers, without warfare or slavery, caring for and sharing with one another in a nurturing wilderness. The synergy between fire-making, the appearance of language, and the development of culture generated that leap in self-reflective consciousness which made us fully human. With self-reflection came expanded memory, a blazing imagination, and a realm of creative freedom. As human beings recognized that some choices were obviously better and others worse, good, and evil emerged. The truth quest began. 

The Genesis account of creation identifies the discovery of “knowledge of good and evil” with expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the shift to agriculture. The evolutionary story suggests that this discovery occurred tens of thousands of years earlier when we humans still lived a nomadic existence where wild nature provided directly for all our needs. It appears that the tension between good and evil intensified dramatically with the emergence of the warring and slave societies of the Biblical period.

Each one of us relives aspects of this evolutionary leap as we grow and wake up to self-consciousness in a story already in progress. We are born as wild creatures into a family within a tightly structured society, at a place and time not of our choosing. The particulars of our personal situation shape our awareness of the larger social, cultural, and physical realities of which we are a part. We live our lives and seek knowledge ‘in-between’ what created us and what we create, conscious that the ultimate origin and destiny of the human drama are the deepest mysteries. 

NASA Hubble Space Telescope captured this Ultra Deep Field view during 841 orbits between 2003-2009 focused on one small patch of empty sky. Combining images revealed approximately 10,000 galaxies more than 13 billion light-years away. Each blur and spot of light is a galaxy containing billions of suns. This is our big reality.

Certainty is thus impossible, but ever-expanding knowledge is essential. Keeping this in mind helps us avoid the murderous absolutes of cults, religious dogmas, and political ideologies. Openness and questioning continually drive the quest generating answers to practical questions. As we reflect on how we learn and grow throughout our lives, we can identify four tightly interwoven practices guiding our searching.


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Mandala by graphic artist Marianne Murphy. Diagram by Cyril Rothenberg.




This involves personal growth as we pass through the stages of life and live out as many of the archetypal human experiences as fully as possible—birth, infancy, adolescence, productive maturity, old age, and the final confrontation with death. It also requires deep reflection upon and integration of these lived experiences. A variety of spiritual and psychological disciplines—inner work—enhances this. Individuation is expressed in self-knowledge, psychological integration, and the wisdom of elders, commonly called ‘character’ or ‘integrity.’ Ultimately we search for meaning with the totality of our lives.



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Courage is required to talk truth to power, with love. This is the wisdom contained in the ‘Socratic method’—the dialectic: face-to-face communication takes us beyond our own direct experience by imaginatively entering the lives and thoughts of others and making their experience part of our own. The back-and-forth of honest, empathic discussion helps us create a shared realm of ‘inter-experience’ which becomes the foundation for authentic relationship and, by extension, a truth-loving community. 




This is expressed by the African concept of Ubuntu, whereby we are constituted, in part, by our connection to others. Accordingly, our participation in community life generates mutual care and a societal reality-check, both vital for personal growth, honest discussion, and making shared meaning narratives. The more democratic and egalitarian the community, the greater the level of trust and honesty the more we can create and share wisdom. 




The larger context clarifies meaning and relationship. As we integrate our own story with the stories and insights of others, we collectively contribute to an ever-expanding big picture which over time becomes an entire cosmology. The story of the evolving whole binds individuals into a community of wisdom seekers.

The quantitative knowledge of science is essential to the truth quest but insufficient. It cannot, by definition, offer value or meaning since both are grounded in emotionally permeated experience. The practices of the quest work together to do exactly this: to give meaning and value to our life experience, as informed by the facts and theories of science and history. The quest is energized and guided by the overarching experience of the natural world as awe-inspiring—the manifestation of the great mystery of creation out of which humanity emerged, and by which it is sustained. 

The Quest in Civilization

About ten thousand years ago the Neolithic, or agricultural revolution marked the beginning of the decline of the nomadic way of life and initiated division of labor and social hierarchy. Roughly five thousand years later, domination intensified with the rise of centralized warrior and slave-based societies. Torture and terror were introduced as additional principles of order. Humanity was traumatized, ‘cast out of the Garden of Eden.’ The quest for a better life intensified. Surplus wealth and specialization amplified the search through the development of writing and then science. But the four practices split apart, and their essential synergy was lost.   Hierarchical societies, held together by fear and obedience repressed the growth of the whole person, damaged the moral autonomy of the individual, and undermined the democratic dimension of truth-seeking. Inevitably such societies became disconnected from reality, fell into chaos, and collapsed. Authoritarianism is inherently stupefying.  

The Last Leap-in-Being—the Axial Age

The religious and spiritual revolutions initiated by the great teachers of the first millennium BCE—Zoroaster, the Hebrew prophets, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and later Christ and Muhammad—responded to self-inflicted suffering and injustice by attempting to recover our lost humanity. Their shared revelations were relatively simple: awe in the face of the mystery of existence and the wisdom fostering qualities of humility, generosity, and loving-kindness. They taught that transformation comes through awareness of our creative participation in the great cosmic order. However, their teachings were inevitably distorted by prevailing systems of domination.  Much of organized religion today still serves social hierarchies, requires blind obedience, worships the text, and is hostile to questioning.

The Coming Leap-in-Being

The practices of the quest reappear in times of crisis, openness, and cultural ferment. We see the political possibilities of the quest quite clearly in the creative explosion of the classical Greek polis when the four defining practices were explicitly promoted, although still confined to adult Greek males. 

The Liberal revolutions of the European Enlightenment recovered and elaborated parts of the quest for a literate and scientific elite; but they also produced the urban, industrial, mass societies which isolated the individual and distorted the quest. 

Today the very extremity of our global crisis creates an extraordinary opportunity for creative transformation. Our urgent practical priority is to clarify the truth quest, bring it into the center of our culture, and make it available to all. This would constitute the fulfillment of the unrealized promise of the Axial age and the Enlightenment—an evolutionary leap-in-being through conscious human choice.