Overcoming the Hyphen

Overcoming the Hyphen

Seventh Sunday of Easter (B)  |  Fr Oliver James Keenan calls us to chip away at the gap between love and truth.

We’re used to talking about ‘true love’. In fact, Wikipedia—that great Areopagus of our time—lists no less than 43 songs that bear this evocative phrase as a title. The experience of true love is one that relativizes all inauthentic experiences of love, showing up the fatuity of our infatuations. The powerful experience of love configured by truth becomes the criterion by which we are able to judge our emotional lives, determining authentic and inauthentic movements of the heart.

Today’s gospel seems to flip this familiar couplet around: it talks about a truth that loves. This truth makes us perfectly one. Our encounter with this truth, perfectly configured by love, becomes the criterion for judging our whole lives. The light of this truth falls on the small falsehoods of our own fashioning and shows them up to be mere idols. For this truth-that-loves is Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh.

I suppose it’s quite easy to get our heads around a loving truth, but that’s not quite what the gospel talks about. Instead, we meet a love-truth. Jesus declares Himself to be the eternal truth that is eternally identical with infinite love. There’s nothing indefinite or arbitrary about this love-truth. Jesus does not pray that we be united in a truth, as if we could reach any meaningful form of unity by agreeing that the earth is not flat. If there is to be eternal and perfect unity, it could only be unity in the Truth, that objective Truth that transcends all the limitations of history. Christ is the Truth that makes all things true, so he is the Truth in which all creatures can find their home, in which all truths can reach their glorification as the wounds of division and misunderstanding are healed. But precisely because this Truth is the truth that makes all things true—the Word through which the world was made—it is by no means an unreachably remote reality. Christ ‘plays in ten thousand places’, as the poet puts it. Love is always love of something, or—more properly—someone in particular. The love-truth of God comes to us as a human person who can be touched and manhandled, who is no less bodily in his glorious ascension than on the cross at Calvary.

Even saying that Jesus is the divine love-truth isn’t quite right. The problem is the hyphen. It suggests two distinct realities that are brought together and held in a certain tension. Hyphens serve either to separate (as in un-ionized, rather than the American spelling of unionised), or to artificially join otherwise distinct ideas together (as in a ‘four-wheel drive’). In God, love and truth are perfectly identical. The hyphen is only there to help us to understand more clearly. Love and truth are two ways of speaking about the same innate perfection of God himself, two different perspectives on God’s dance of love and truth as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet in human creatures, who have only a limited share in God’s perfection, truth and love are fractured. At first, only minimally or potentially so, owing to the distinction of the faculties of knowledge and will. From the very beginning the human person existed in the rhythm of a life received from God and offered back to him in acts of knowledge and love. Yet the fall turns the relationship between knowledge and love into a fractious tension. Sin inserts the hyphen, and it gradually expands it.

To some extent, we are all living in the hyphen. Consequently, we don’t always experience love and truth as existing in perfect harmony.  Sometimes they pull us in different directions. Our knowledge of what is truly good for us can summon us to do things that feel like they are going to break our heart. What we take as an experience of profound love can lead us to dispense ourselves from moral obligations that on one level we know are binding. The hyphen in love-truth is the gap between head and heart, a disjunction that the grace of God helps us to overcome. It’s perhaps because of this fracturing that we so often operate with thinned-out versions of love and truth. Love has been reduced to passing feelings, no longer self-giving and self-diffusive, but fundamentally about satisfying our own needs. Truth is reduced to a predicate, no longer the perfection of the creature’s mind as it encounters God’s presence in the world, but a quality of even the most banal proposition. The hyphen is dangerous: the longer it gets, the more ‘truths’ can be used to oppress and cheap ‘love’ manipulated into denying truth.

The grace of God helps us to overcome the hyphen in our lives, to reunite knowledge and love by being consecrated in Christ. St Paul hints that the process of growing to Christian maturity is one of learning to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15). The form that this unity takes in our lives is deep and authentic joy. We rejoice in truth in the communion of love by which it is found. So in kindling the flame of resurrection joy, we are continuing to chip away at the hyphen.


Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 20-26  |  1 Jn 4:11-16  |  John 17:11-19

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.

fr. Oliver is Master of Students of the English Province, teaches dogmatic theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, and has recently been appointed Director of the Aquinas Institute.