Wednesday of the fifth week of Lent
Readings: Daniel 3: 14-20.24-5.28; Daniel 3: 52-6; John 8:31-42
You will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).
‘Truth’ is an ominous word for many people today: like a dangerous animal, truth has to be caged. Its range of activity is strictly demarcated and policed. For example, our culture tends to be happy to talk or think about scientific or empirical truths, yet what counts as ‘truth’ in these circumstances is strictly controlled by the conventions of the scientific method. These conventions carefully define what counts as a truth claim and when such a claim can be made: scientific truth is safely under lock and key.
Similarly, society at large seems to be more or less happy for an individual or a community to have a local ‘truth’, beliefs about the world and how people should live in it that are true for them, as long as this local truth does not break out of its appropriate context and impose itself on others. This time the boundary is more porous. It is acceptable in some circumstances to try to persuade others that you are right, that you know the truth, as long as no one is coerced or put under any sense of obligation. ‘Truth’ here is confined to the insides of people’s heads, their particular point of view, or the point of view of their particular community: this local truth can only go beyond these boundaries if we permit it, if we give it our consent. We are the arbiters and the judges of truth, we choose when it can leave its cage.
Now, the attempt to imprison or restrict or relativize ‘truth’ is very understandable. Both the world around us today and the pages of history books witness to occasions when individuals, organizations and institutions have acted in profoundly oppressive ways, sometimes profoundly evil ways, on the basis of a totalizing ideology, a claim to know the ‘truth’. Against this backdrop, resistance of those who might try to impose a particular world view, a particular vision of ‘truth’ might seem a sensible way of protecting liberty and promoting justice. Yet at this point we run into a problem: isn’t the claim that there is no truth itself a totalizing truth claim that has been imposed on society and which therefore has the potential to be oppressive? And surely we would not want to sanction every opinion or perspective with the stamp of a local or cultural ‘truth’? Surely there are some ideas or actions, for example genocide, that are just wrong? From what foundation, then, and against what criteria, can we distinguish ‘valid’ local ‘truths’, valid visions of the world, from ‘invalid’ or immoral or evil perspectives? To put this another way, if truth is caged, then what else can we use to distinguish right from wrong?
Of course, the above is a caricature, but I think it is fair to say that the integrity of a moral system and indeed of a society more generally is dependent on its grasp of the truth: how things really are. We cannot imprison truth: on the contrary, a lack of truth imprisons us. In other words, a society must have at least a basically correct grasp of what traditionally has been called human nature if it is to be healthy and its members are to flourish. To know how to live with each other, we must first have an at least vaguely accurate picture of who we are; if we are to have a grasp of what it means for a human being to flourish, then we must have a grasp of what a human being is.
This is why ideas matter: if we have a false or incomplete understanding of what it means to be human, a false or incomplete understanding of what is good for a human being, then this error can become a barrier between us and fulfillment, a barrier between us and happiness. Human beings cannot cage the truth; on the contrary, we are imprisoned by our misunderstanding: it is the truth that sets us free. In Christ we see this liberating Truth embodied in a way of life: Jesus shows us that human fulfillment consists in loving God and loving neighbour. In his life he shows us what such a fully human life looks like. He shows us that the goal or end of human life is to enjoy eternal life with God in heaven, and friendship with God and through him each other in this life. At the same time he makes this life of love and friendship possible for us by grafting us to himself, making us members of his body, drawing us into the eternal exchange of love that is the Holy Trinity and enabling us to become channels of that love here on earth. Christ, then, both shows us what it means to be truly human, and gives us the means to be fully human: this is the true sense of freedom.