Sunday, January 25, 2009

Editorial: The Truth that Handles Us

What is truth?

The truth is often simple, but the words we use to express it seldom are. The word “hammer” has nothing to do with a hammer. There is no connection other than what we agree upon. A rose by any other name really does smell as sweet. Yet we all use the word “hammer” to signify a hammer nonetheless. Hammer does mean hammer. Rose does mean rose. But they also mean not hammer and not rose. Words are self-effacing. They always point away from themselves.

When we say hammer, we are also asking if it is a hammer, or we wouldn’t say anything at all. When we say rose, we are asking what it smells like. When we say welcome, we are wondering just who these people really are. And when we say that we have faith, we are praying that we will.

Truth is self-questioning.

Every statement invites a question: “I trust you.” Just as every question invites a statement: “Do you trust me?” To say that something is true is only a way to avoid having to repeat it. But then why say something in the first place? To seek confirmation, to ask a question: “Lord, I believe. Will you help my unbelief?”

Truth has two lips. We tell the truth through a question and a statement. The witness testifies before an inquiring court, and from this place pours truth. We greet each other with twin lips, “How are you?” and “Oh, I’m…” Or, better, “I love you,” and, “Do you love me?”

In Matthew, Judas says, “Whoever I kiss, he is the one, seize him.” Immediately, he goes up to Jesus and says, “Greetings, Rabi!” and kisses him. But Jesus says, “Why have you come?” and the soldiers lay hands on him. Christ’s betrayal and our salvation is accomplished by the bilabial work of truth.

Truth is self-questioning. Truth is a kiss.

Truth entails a meeting between one self and another on the question of what is true or what to do. Consider Moses, high up on Mount Horeb, looking at the blazing bush. He assents to no proposition, but indulges in some rather strident questions.

Yet this conversation liberates a nation. Kisses of family and legacy set Moses on his way. And these statements and questions about misery that is not ultimate, about suffering that is not forever, this fire that does not consume, set a people free.

Of course, truth will do that.

When the Romans invaded the Holy Land, they brought their Greek culture with them. Jewish Hellinization was the chief anxiety of the age of Christ. Yet for economic reasons, Rome allowed Israel certain liberties, including coins not bearing the blasphemous image of an Emperor claiming to be God.

So when the Pharisees came to Jesus asking a question about taxes, the situation was already rather fraught. Only if Israel's puppet king collected more taxes than the Romans thought they could get on their own would you get to keep your culture.

Jesus did nothing to alleviate this anxiety when he asked the Pharisees to produce a coin, which bore the Caesarian image. He was asking them, “Hey, you priests, you holy scribes, why do you have this big, stinking, blasphemous coin? Could it be because it has a higher exchange rate than plain silver? And you’re defrauding your own people, you lying, self-righteous hypocrites?”

Truth is not easy for those who lie, for whitewashed sepulchers. If the truth is not in us, the kiss of truth can be the kiss of death. But in the end truth doesn’t just set us free from slavery. Honest discussions also liberate us from corruption, deceit, and manipulation.

Truth is a kiss. Truth is conversational.

Christ had questions for everyone. Before his arrest, he twice asks the soldiers, “Who do you seek?” He thrice asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And he asks his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

These are the same questions we ask ourselves. Who are we after? Who are we for? Who do we love? These are not Christian questions. They are human questions for which Christians answer Christ. They are questions in the conversation about the true nature of identity and desire and fulfillment and our place in relation to each other.

It is our statements of truth that are conditional and temporal and personal and provisional. But it is our questions about truth that are universal and absolute, unyielding and inviting and something like eternal. They are the things that strike us to the core. Questions matter. Questions change our lives.

On his way out of Median, Jacob is left alone, and a man wrestles with him until the break of day. And when the man sees that he cannot prevail, he touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of joint. When he asks Jacob to let him go, Jacob demands to be blessed. So he asks him, “What is your name?” and Jacob says “Jacob.” And the man says, “You are no longer Jacob, you are Israel, because you have wrestled with God.” And Jacob asks for his name, but the man only blesses him. So Jacob names the place Pineal, because he has seen God face to face.

What is your name? Who do you say that I am? Who do you seek? Who are you facing, who are you grappling with? On questions hinge the key moments of our lives.

Truth is conversational. Truth is transformational.

When Saul is alone on the road to the synagogues of Damascus, suddenly, a light from heaven shines around him. Then he falls to the ground, and a voice from heaven asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord says, “I am Christ, who you are persecuting.” And Saul asks, “What do you want me to do?” The Lord says, “Get up and go into the city, and you will be told.”

Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is a question that he never answers, except, of course, with the remainder of his life. If the greatest truth we are capable of is repentance, this transformation exemplifies that truth. Redemption is about turning from facing away from God to seeking God directly. Paul certainly does this: Who are you, Lord? What do you want me to do?

Yet when he tells the crowd in Jerusalem about it later, he says that he was not alone. Those who were with him saw the light but did not hear the voice. More, when he testifies before Agrippa later on, he alone sees the light, though everyone falls down upon hearing the voice.

Is Paul a liar? Not necessarily. He experienced a lavish spectacle, a truly extraordinary thing. And the truth about spectacles, is that, while you see them, they also change the way you see. Spectacles, eyeglasses, once called seeing stones, clarify your vision. But they blur everything you’re not quite facing.

So we would do well to note that Saul is blinded, not by the darkness, but by the light. Small wonder he didn’t get the details right. We never tell the same old story. We always change our testimonies. That’s what keeps attorney so anxious. And it’s why we keep telling tales. Reality is larger than any truth we tell about it. So maybe we can forgive Paul for making a spectacle of himself.

After Jesus escapes an early execution, he sees a man blind from birth. He then declares himself the light of the world. He anoints the man’s eyes with clay, and tells him to go and bathe in the pool, after which he sees. But the Jews do not believe, despite the testimony of the man’s parents and the man’s repeated witness.

The man’s blindness allows him to see the truth of Christ. Yet the Pharisees’ lawyerly clarity does not permit them to see anything at all. They remain unchanged because they cannot see the truth.

Truth is transformational. Truth is emergent.

If we are Christians, the truth lives within us. If what goes into the mouth does not defile, but what comes out does, then we must wonder what purifies, and which way it goes. We are the vessels of truths greater than ourselves. We cannot contain the truth, but truth escapes us nonetheless. We are the light of the world, and the light of the lives of men. All we can do is decide whether or not to hide.

Decade by decade, country by country, the world is turning against capital punishment. This country, state by state, is making the same decision. And this is the same process by which the world denounced slavery: country by country, state by state, until the revolt of the American Civil war.

These processes are slow. These truths are not self-evident. If it were obvious that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, history would have turned out rather differently. Though the moral reality of slavery was written across the face of every subjugated person, their masters obviously never asked them for statements about the question.

That America was and has been in the rear of the emergent truths about the immorality of slavery and sanctity of life is certainly troubling. But it must truly be hopeful that the spectacular blindness of those who subjugate and kill could not and cannot stop the conversation about what it means to be human, and what it means to be free.

Sometimes, truth takes time. It happens nonetheless.

The ongoing conversational project of truth describes our interaction with reality more than the nature of reality itself. We must note that there are more than six billion people. And the universe seems boundless at both the microscopic and telescopic levels. Clearly, we are in no danger of approaching the end of truth.

Truth is emergent. Truth is infinite.

Consider, for example, the dilemma of free will and determinism. This conversation continues precisely because it is paradoxical- no less so biological determinism, the belief that the chemistry of our brains and bodies makes our choices for us.

But if that is the case, then our knowledge of the situation forces us to make a choice about what
we do with it. Is it right to raise an entire generation of children on drugs that squash their emotions? To glibly medicate our psychologies, without considering the spiritual causes of our psychic woes?

Biology cannot tell us what to do with our biology.

Yet freedom is the most constraining thing we can experience. Once we have the knowledge, we must make the decision. And we choose by eliminating options. Our choices take further choices from us. The more clearly we see what to do, the more we seem instruments of what we’re doing. The more I become like Christ, the more it seems that Christ in me accomplishes the imitation.

I don’t see why we need resolve the tension. The question of God’s will, or our own, might be the best question and answer that we have. We should deepen, and not decrease, the kiss of the dilemma. After all, our journey toward Christ is the process of turning our statements of belief into the exclamations of our lives.

Could we do better than to take as our topic the question of me in Christ or Christ in me? Were the martyrs chosen by God to die? Or did they choose to die for God?

Surely, they must be laughing about it now. The problem of our culture is not that we have so many statements of truth, but that we have so few real questions. We’re all relativists, but we all know Hitler was wrong. We are people who don’t look hard enough.

Yet the self-questioning call of Christ is precisely to ask what it means to be slaves to God and one another. We must wonder how to kiss each other’s feet. In our enlightened emancipation, this is the most contradictory conversation we can have. Yet we live out our answers with the transformed punctuation of our hearts and minds and deeds, to host the spectacular emergence of truths about infinite reality.

Because, ultimately, we can know what to do without knowing what we’re doing. And we find ourselves choosing things we cannot choose. And we cannot say if we have the truth or if the truth has us instead.

But when we finally find ourselves willing to live for the truth or find that the truth is that we are willing to die, it is precisely then that we also find that we are living the very finest moments of our lives.


Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed all your posts--the lovely poems and the thoughtful editorials.---Thankyou very much.

Curious Monk said...

i aim to please! and since i can't imagine i have many readers, i try to please them all the more. it's certainly gratifying to hear your appreciation.