Our post-truth society is afraid to look truth in His face

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“Truth? What is truth?”: Greg Hunt as Pilate in ‘Son of God’ (2014).

Recently the Oxford English Dictionary announced its Word of the Year 2016 was ‘post-truth’. It defined ‘post-truth’ as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Use of the term ‘objective facts’ here is telling, as it implies that the OED has accepted that some facts are not objective or that there might be such things as ‘subjective facts’; the OED used to have a different word for this: ‘opinion’.

The idea that we are in a post-truth, totally opinionated, political world is now being used for ideological purposes by various interests, as Gerard Henderson pointed out recently in The Australian. The post-modernists have, of course, been pressing that thought on our cultural world for a generation and more.

At the height of that debate the philosopher, John Austin, began a conference paper on the nature of truth by quoting Pontius Pilate: Quid est veritas – What is truth? (Jn 18:38). Austin noted that Pilate was ahead of his time, for now we know that “truth itself is an abstract noun, a camel, that is, of a logical construction, which cannot pass through the eye of the needle even of a grammarian”.

The question of truth is a great favourite of our time because we have no idea what is true or even what we mean when we use the word truth; as a result philosophers, cultural theorists and media pundits endlessly debate whether truth is a substance, a quality, a relation, a word game, or a myth.

What Pilate might have understood, if he had waited around for Jesus’s answer, was that the Truth was right in front of him: the God-man standing before him was ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (Jn 14:6). But instead Pilate turned away, handing Jesus over to his persecutors, perhaps because he feared what he’d hear if he stayed and listened.

And many people today are just like that, either sceptical about the very idea of truth or resistant to its demands. So Jesus came as Light to the world but some preferred the darkness. Though light comes as a friend it can feel like an intruder. Light disturbs us, makes us blink; and so, instead of joining Christ in praying “Father, consecrate them in the truth” (Jn 17:17), our age joins Pilate in wondering, “Truth? What’s that?”

Now, as my habit advertises, I am a Dominican friar. When the great scholar Blessed John Henry Newman became a Catholic, he considered for a time whether he should take the white wool and black cape of Dominic. But on investigation he found that, in Italy at least, the Dominicans kept good wine cellars but didn’t seem to do much: “The idea I like exceedingly,” he wrote, “but it seems to me that the Dominicans are a great idea extinct!”

At least Newman looked into them a little before writing the friars off. All most people know about them is the mythical Friar Tuck from Robin Hood. Undoubtedly, like Tuck, many of us are fat and jolly. But there’s more to us than that. The Dominicans have been around the universities since their beginning. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the first unis such as Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, Cologne and Salamanca ever evolving without the friars. They taught and learnt philosophy and theology, law and medicine, the arts and sciences. They filled the teaching chairs and the student desks. And they left behind such eccentricities as the Dominican Batman cape which evolved into today’s academic gowns.

Do these mediæval friars have anything to say to the twenty-first century? What was it that so fascinated the first university that so many of them wanted to be friars and still fascinated the likes of Cardinal Newman and others centuries later? Apart from their habit it was surely this: the Dominican friars were driven by a passion summarised in their motto: veritas. They had a fervid interest in discerning and contemplating the Truth and then communicating it to others in preaching and teaching.

Of course truth, if you’ve ever looked for it, can be elusive, hard to find and hold onto with any certainty, and even harder to communicate to others. Some things in life are just complicated and there are many different considerations, many points of view. At other times we are disinclined to do the heavy brain work truth requires; our age lacks confidence in its ability to identify and articulate the truth and encourages a certain laziness with respect to speculative and moral thinking.

Indeed, modernity fears those who have too much certainty, those who think they’ve got reality all sewn up. We’ve seen too many inquisitors, ideologues, fundamentalists and terrorists who think they’ve got a monopoly on truth, to make any grand truth claims anymore ourselves.

But there is more at work in modernity’s flight from truth than timidity or humility. Often, I suspect, it’s a matter of not wanting to look too hard at our God or our world or ourselves for fear of what we might see. The fact is that truth often interrogates, threatens, cuts us to the quick: regarding our unjust social structures, institutions, policies; our long-ingrained misinformation, prejudices, ideologies; our inhumane behaviour, bad ways of relating, self-centredness.

Truth tells us that we are very gifted, qualified, even generous people. But it can have harsh things to say about how we use our gifts and privilege, our degrees and experience, how limited is our generosity. Truth demands a rethink, an intellectual, moral and personal conversion. It is not just because veritas is so hard to capture and communicate, but also because it is so subversive, so seditious, so profoundly disturbing that we are so often resistant.

Yet those first friars were convinced that the truth is εὐαγγέλιον, ‘God-spel’ or ‘Good News’. The post-truth 20th century, perhaps more than any other, has seen what Bad News the big lies are and how lethal: lies like Nazism and Communism, genocide and jihad, whole systems of propaganda and violence on which some modern states thrive and others divide.

Some would say ours is a culture of lies: financial lies we call advertising, tax-evasion and credit beyond our means; political lies we call pragmatism and self-promotion and ‘all for the sake of the party’; personal lies we call freedom, fashion and self-fulfilment. Lies like happiness through infidelity in our relationships, through aborting our babies, through abandoning our unemployed, sick or elderly people, through war with our enemies, through rejecting the indigenous and the refugee, through self-indulgence and neglect of a thousand different kinds.

What drew the likes of St Dominic, St Thomas Aquinas, St Albert the Great, St Catherine of Siena and so many others to the Dominican thing – and others to the Franciscans or other orders, or simply to the universities and the new learning as lay students – was their conviction that truth liberates us. From falsehood, superstition, fear. From the mirages created by various interests. From the illusions we create for ourselves.

Truth dis-illusions, without making us cynical. It releases the spirit from unnecessary anxiety. It heals inauthenticity, that division of heart which is so corrupting. Truth is radically humanising, freeing us from all that holds us back and makes us less than we could be and should be. Only Truth sets us free (Jn 8:32), free to love. You cannot love someone you don’t know. That is falling in love with a mirage, a figment of the imagination, a fraud. You can only begin to love what you have begun to know and then the more you love them, the more you will get to know them. Knowledge and love feed each other and without one or the other we can never be truly free, let alone use our freedom in ways that will bring true happiness.

So truth is not a constraint on freedom, as the relativists tell us. Light is no threat to our eyes, even if it makes us blink; enlightenment no threat to our minds, even if it makes us think. Our eyes and minds are made for this. Truth stands before us as it, as He, stood before Pilate. How do I respond? Will I look truth in the face, let it interrogate me, even change me? And when it has changed me, will I speak it openly to others and live it myself, however inconvenient that might sometimes be?

Truthing – searching for, identifying and critiquing the truth, articulating and sharing it, applying and continually re-examining it – is impossible without faithfulness – the inspiration, commitment, loyalty that means we will persevere in truthing.

There’s another sense in which the pursuit of truth requires faith. If I want to seek the truth, as the Ancient Greek philosophers observed, I must first admit that I don’t know it all. But in this moment of humility and vulnerability, when we acknowledge our need, we open not just our minds to the possibility of learning but our characters to the possibility of faithfulness.

St Paul used to brag, somewhat paradoxically, that it was when he was weak that he was strong (e.g. 2Cor 12:10). It was when he recognised his need, his impotence, his ignorance, that he lent most on God; it was then that he began his dialogue with divine fidelity. And, as Pope Francis has said, God’s faithfulness never disappoints, for “God is faithful, first and foremost, to Himself. Therefore, He will bring to completion the work that He has begun in each one of us by His call. This gives us great assurance and confidence: a confidence which rests in God and requires our active and courageous cooperation in the face of the challenges of the present moment.”

The theme for this iWitness conference is ‘Keeping the Faith’, and we might well wonder how to keep the Faith in today’s rather challenging world. The answer Dominicans give is to keep faithfully seeking the truth, for the truth can never contradict or undermine your faith. Indeed, as St Thomas Aquinas taught, “every truth by whomsoever spoken, wherever it is found, if it is true it is from the Holy Spirit”.

And having sought the truth, in prayer and study and contemplation, we must not hoard it like Scrooge counting his gold in The Christmas Carol. No, truth once encountered, however partial, however humble, is to be shared and to be lived. And that means true contemplatives must be true evangelists, and true contemplative-evangelists be true saints. If we choose to be spectators, couch potatoes at the game of life, then we have failed truly to see the game playing out before us. For Truth compels the Disciple to drop everything and go follow the Master, inspires the Good Samaritan to stop and care for the wounded man, sends the Shepherd in search for the lost sheep, propels Christ and those conformed to Him to die and rise for the salvation of the world.

As our Holy Father Pope Francis has said, “We must not resign ourselves to the monotony of daily life,” but should instead “cultivate projects of greater breadth and go beyond the ordinary. Don’t let yourselves be robbed of your youthful enthusiasm! Don’t allow yourselves to be fettered by weak ways of thinking and uniform ways of reasoning! It would be a mistake for you to accept the kind of thought that banalises everything, a globalisation understood as mere uniformity.’

In the Book of Revelation we are told that the Son of God is “the faithful and true one” (Rev 19:11). Another title for Him in that book is “the great Amen” (Rev 3:14). Amen is related to the Hebrew word emet meaning true. When we say Amen to a proposition or prayer we are nodding with our minds and voices. And there is no better model of Amening to God than Mary’s. There are many aspects of her life and character worthy of our devotion — after two thousand years of Mariology there’s much still to be said!

One crucial incident to which this season of Advent draws attention, as does the Angelus we recite every day, is the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38), where we see the young Mary ready and willing to hear mysterious, even frightening, things. We are told, more than once, that Mary pondered these things. She took them to heart; she applied her mind; she allowed these things to challenge and change her, to point her in new and unexpected directions, to inspire her going forward. Mary’s pondering pattern is one upon which we might reliably craft our entire lives.

St John Paul II once pointed out the Annunciation highlights four dimensions of faithfulness and truth.  When the angel first tells Mary she will bear the Son of God, she does not respond, “Sure, no worries, go for it.” She’s not a robot, an app, a puppet: she’s the finest human being, and so has a human mind. She wants to understand God’s plan, not just to accept matters of faith but to comprehend them as deeply as she can. Quomodo fiet, she asks, ‘How can what you’ve said come about?’

So the first moment of the Annunciation exchange is questioning. Mary wants answers; she wants to know what this message really means, means for her. She gets lots of answers: you are full of grace; the Lord is already with you and now will be in an extra-ordinary way; your son will be Jesus, ‘God saves’, the new King David, the Holy One, the Son of the Most High; His reign will never end; and as proof that nothing is impossible to God, your elderly and barren aunt Elizabeth is now six months pregnant.

It was quite a conversation! In answer to the big question, quomodo fiet, God’s Angel tells her that “The Power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow and you will conceive.” We know this ‘Power’ is the Holy Spirit and to cover someone, in the coy language of the Old Testament, is to do what makes babies. But why speak of shadow when God is Light?

Well, in the Old Testament God did sometimes appear out of the shadows, as when a pillar of cloud went before Israel in the desert (Ex 40:34-36) or a mist surrounded Moses on Mount Sinai as he received the ten commandments (Ex 24:15-16). In the New Testament, likewise, the voice of God is heard coming from a cloud at Jesus’ Transfiguration (Lk 9:35). Sometimes, it seems, to encounter God face-to-face would be as blinding as staring at the sun; and so God gives us sunglasses; He conceals Himself even as He reveals Himself. The truth, like the Dominican habit, is not just white but black-and-white.

The Shadow of the Most High will make Mary not just into a monstrance for exposing the Son to the world, but also a tabernacle where His Real Presence might be reverently hidden.  But if she is to consent Mary must know at least a little of what she is consenting to. So instead of shunning Mary’s question, as if it demonstrated too much wilfulness and too little docility, the angel rewards her curiosity with insight.

Once she’s been given some explanation, Mary’s quomodo fiet becomes a Fiat, Amen, ‘Let it be done’. Here we see the second aspect of faithfulness and truth: reception. As St John Paul noted, “This is the crucial moment of faithfulness, the moment in which a person perceives that he will never completely understand the ‘how’; that there are in God’s plan more areas of mystery than clarity; that, however hard he may try, a person will never succeed in understanding it completely.”

So even as Mary seeks understanding, and rightly so, she has the humility to accept that she will not get it all, that in this life, at least, truth is always partial or at least our grasp of it is. So if imitating Mary is questioning we must also imitate her acceptance; after we have tried to understand God’s plan for us, there comes a point, as I discovered for myself as I lay paralysed in hospital earlier this year, when we can say no more than, “Thy will be done.”

Following on from this acceptance is consistency, the third aspect of faithfulness and truth: having accepted God’s will for our lives, it is our job to order our lives, our choices, our actions, to fit in with this plan. This may mean, as it did for me, accepting the frustration of helplessness; or it may mean facing discomfort, misunderstanding, even persecution. This is where we live out the truth faithfully. As I said before, true contemplatives must be true evangelists, and true contemplative-evangelists be true saints.

Fourth and finally, we have constancy; for consistency without constancy is nothing more than whim. Anyone can be consistent for a few minutes, days, maybe even all of Advent; it’s rather harder to be consistent all year, for several years, an entire lifetime. Again, in Advent, as we prepare with hope for the joyous coming of Our Saviour, it’s not too difficult to be consistent, to be faithful to the truth for now. But we must be committed to asking and receiving, to mystery and understanding, even when it is a challenge to know and hope, a struggle to live our beliefs and our hopes. Faithfulness and truth must mark not just a moment but a lifetime: and so “Mary’s fiat in the Annunciation finds its completion in the silent fiat that she repeats at the foot of the Cross.”  The truth must be lived with fidelity, then, not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s difficult; not just when it’s fashionable, but also when unpopular; not just where it makes us feel happy or heroic but even when it seems hard or mundane.

Because truth frees and unites and impassions us to act authentically, credibly, veraciously, our lives can become a Gospel, a story of Good News, a book where the world may read the truth. Black and white is the habit of my Order, as I said, because the truth is black and white. These are the colours of reading and writing, of communicating a narrative to the world.

Many people today would say instead that all is grey. After all, we want to be tolerant and flexible, not closed-minded or judgmental. We don’t want people to impose their views on us or to impose our views on them. So talk of truth and fidelity can be a bit intimidating.

Yet if people are going to be tolerant, they have to respect each other. They have to accept that you don’t kill people or bash them up or coerce or brainwash them just for disagreeing with you. People have to know that there are some things we never do to each other. They have to learn how to relate and live well with others, how to listen and speak, to put a point of view respectfully and have real conversation.

Tolerance and respect require rules to the ‘game’, some pattern for human life and community. What I’m suggesting, therefore, is that a free society requires a lot more than a live-and-let-live attitude: it requires reverence for human persons, for life and freedom, for law and order, for facts and values. There have to be some truths on which to base our common search for other truths. A post-truth society is one no longer capable of respect and tolerance.

I’m reminded here of a movie which came out earlier this year, Captain America: Civil War. Steve Rogers, the title character, is a man who lives his life trying to understand and live the truth, whatever the consequences for himself. This is what inspires his self-sacrifice: as he declares “If I see a situation pointed South, I can’t ignore it.” He understands that sometimes living the truth faithfully means knowing where you stand and being ready, if needs be, to go against the current.

In one of the most moving scenes of the film Captain America attends the funeral of an old girlfriend. Her niece describes how she once asked her now deceased aunt how she succeeded in a world that gave so few chances to women. Her aunt replied, “Compromise where you [rightly] can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, you move.’”

Christ was like that: “If you persevere in living my word, you will truly be my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” He said (Jn 8:31-2). Notice, He didn’t say: “Hey, you guys, invent your own reality, do your own thing. I’m-ok-you’re-ok, it’s all cool. It doesn’t really matter what you think or do.” No, Jesus is straight with us. “For this was I born and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37). God cares takes a great gamble with us. He gives us heads and hearts, reason and freedom, awesome gifts we can apply to self-mastery or self-destruction, heaven or hell. But He does not leave us groping in the dark, not knowing what on earth to think or which way to go. No, He gives us minds and hearts, facts and values, vision and reality, principles and purpose, inspiration and direction. He gives us the gift of the Church as teacher and encourager. We don’t have to invent truth for ourselves: there is, thank God, truth out there for the taking, for us to seek and find, to question and receive, to embrace and communicate, to apply like Mary consistently and constantly. A life lived in faithfulness and truth: this is the life, the only life, that will truly inspire and faithfully fulfil us. I pray for such a life for each one of you.

This is the edited text of the address by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the iWitness ‘keeping the faith’ conference in Collaroy on 10 December 2016.