Thursday, September 12, 2013

Truth is not relative, but relational

Pope St. John Paul II’s insisted that we can know the Truth because the Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, who said of Himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). While this is an attractive thought, it needs to be worked out a bit lest it become an empty slogan.

One fruitful starting point for such a working out is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which cannot be understood when separated from what has been described as “his christological understanding of reality.” For Bonhoeffer, ethics prescind “from the reality of God as revealed in Christ.” Of course, the same could be said for the philosophy of Karol Josef Wojtyla.

What brings this issue to the surface? A letter written by Pope Francis in response to an article written by the former editor of Italy’s most widely read daily newspaper, La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, a self-professed atheist and secularist, but addressed to unbelievers. In the article to which Pope Francis’ letter is a response, Scalfari asked three questions.

One of the questions posed was about the nature of truth, asking if truth is absolute. Like Bonhoeffer and Wojtyla, Bergoglio described truth as a dynamic relationship between each Christian and Jesus. While this does not mean that truth is relative, it does mean it is relational. To one Jesus will not say, “Have an abortion” and to another “Don’t do it.” I am tempted here to digress about the various means Christ uses to speak to us (i.e., Scripture, the Church’s magisterium), but I will resist that temptation. We can know the truth because the truth is a person, one who actively seeks us, while at the same the time resting in the assurance that this person, Jesus Christ, "is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb 13:8).

To be a Christian is to live in freedom, which means, among other things, not having truth imposed on you from without. Rather, it means being faithful to someone you love, letting your love for Him guide your actions and words (something far easier to write than to do). Faith is proposed, something issued as an invitation, like, "There's someone you simply must meet." It certainly does not mean remaining silent in the face of evil. Pope Francis dealt with this in his answer to another question posed by Scalfari about whether, or in what manner, a non-believer may sin (hearkening perhaps, to the distinction made by St. Paul in Romans between those who have the law and those who do not in the second chapter of Romans). To stick with the speaking/hearing metaphor, the ear that listens, as St. Paul also noted, is the human conscience. As the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus used to insist, rather than What Would Jesus do, we need to ask, What would Jesus have me do?

The Holy Father went on to assert that we experience the truth as a living relationship. The Holy Father wrote, “We don’t own truth, but truth embraces us.”

I think it is safe to say that this living relationship has everything to do with Jesus’ two great commandments, loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is the Christian answer, the answer that keeps us from reducing faith to mere morals. Christ is the answer that overcomes moralism, who keeps us from reducing truth to something external and static, a burden and chore, instead of liberation and joy.

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