And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
—Leonard Cohen, Suzanne
Fighting for truth—it sounds exciting. The clarion call to battle, the rush of blood to the brain, the adrenal surge of danger and risk and glory and a prize worth winning... and all for truth!—a worthy goal indeed. One that justifies a passion which, for anything less, would feel like blood lust. As the Chanson de Roland has it: Paien unt tort e chrestiens unt dreit—pagans are wrong and Christians are right. For a long time, that was good enough for me.
But what is truth? It's a fair question; just asking doesn't make you Pontius Pilate. In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas equates truth with being—at least, with being at the level of manifestation. In fact, for Thomas, truth and being are convertible terms; truth is the face that being turns to our minds. This is just as exhilarating, in its way—but it casts the quest for truth in a different light, leaving the quester rather less a soldier than an explorer, in search of new worlds.
But what is truth? Just asking doesn’t make you Pontius Pilate.
It does, however, cast some doubt on the original, chivalric struggle for truth. Being, in all of its goodness, turns its face to the world—but, in doing so, it is not giving itself to any of us as a personal or a permanent possession. God may have chosen the Christian faith and the truths of sacred revelation as a unique gift of Himself to humanity—in fact, I believe He has. Yet this does not commission us to be lords of truth, waving terrible swift swords about, fueled with aggression born of personal certitude. For, once we have shared the truth as idea, personal certitude is all we ultimately have to offer.
Personal certitude, and the witness of example—what the Scholastics called moral truth, the correspondence of our external actions to the truth within. And this is perhaps the thorniest truth of all—for this is where we run the risk of being neither soldiers nor explorers but actors or even play-actors, grimly determined to "set a good example"—more or less what our Lord referred to as "whitened sepulchers." As if truth needed an advertising agency! This perversion of the witness we are supposed to be giving reveals an unnerving vulnerability in us.
We run the risk of being play-actors, grimly determined to ‘set a good example.’
Good example is not some kind of promotional campaign. Good example is the natural consequence of good order in the mind and heart. And the commonality between all the sword-swinging and exploring and advertising that we do about truth is revealed as a twofold insecurity.
First of all, truth is not in need of our allegiance. God's a big boy; He's perfectly capable of taking care of Himself. If He isn't, I can't say as I know who is. The truth is not simply going to go away if we stop banging it into people's heads, mauling it over with our grubby little minds, buying (or being) billboards with favorite formulations emblazoned in five-foot-high letters—or simply holding our collective breaths and believing it as hard as we can. Truth is tough; it's much tougher than we are.
Which brings us to the really scary part: All of this extroverted energy is hiding the deeper insecurity that we aren't as sure of the truth as we should be, that the mind and the heart are in no condition, as yet, to be light to the world. At least, I know mine aren't. This struggle for truth, the internal struggle to hold onto the truth and live in the light, is nothing like being a soldier, or an explorer, or an actor, or a promoter. It's more like being a swimmer—a swimmer always at the point of becoming a drowner, a swimmer far out from shore in a dark sea, yet never quite alone. This is the struggle for truth to which we are called most deeply, the path of faith, the one that ends only in Heaven, where faith and hope dissolve in the fullness of divine love.
The struggle for truth, the path of faith, ends only in Heaven…