Saturday, October 27, 2012

Truth and Community

To the extent that men allow themselves to be guided and cleansed by the truth, they find the way not only to their true selves, but also to the human ‘thou’. Truth, in fact, is the medium where men make contact, whereas it is the absence of truth which closes them off from one another.

The Nature and Mission of Theology, 39

Reflection – I’m in Toronto this week, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned on this blog yet. We have a Madonna House here in the big city, in the west end on Parkside Drive, and I’m giving a retreat and offering my priestly services to the seven valiant souls preaching the Gospel with their lives here in Canada’s biggest city.

So, being in Toronto this week I’m much aware of the five million human ‘thous’ surrounding me on all sides for miles around. It’s… very different from Combermere! And the challenges of peaceful co-existence in a big city are very real. Ratzinger’s reflections about this are penetrating and profound, worth a careful reading and reflection.

The general tendency of modernity is to say that, for purposes of peaceful co-existence, we have to set aside questions of truth. After all, in a big city like Toronto, people of all religions and no religion are all jostling up together in the subways and on the sidewalk. Surely we must adopt a sort of ‘practical relativism’ at least, just to be able to live together. It’s common sense, right?

Ratzinger challenges this ‘common sense’ approach. He observes that unless there is some common ground, some shared medium of reality, no communication is even possible at all. There has to be some shared truth for two people to even exchange a greeting or meet on the same field of reality. Suppose I say ‘hello’ to you, but for you ‘hello’ means something grievously insulting. You haul off and punch me in the face, and I say something appropriate to that situation (and inappropriate for a G-rated blog!), but that pithy sentiment to you means ‘thank you! Do that again!’ Well… what we have here is a failure to communicate, as the old movie line said.

This is pure logic, that any communication requires a commonality of meaning, of truth. But we have to take this logic and run with it as far as we can. Because what is shown here is that it is not truth which divides and isolates, but a lack of truth. If we simple leave things at the level of ‘you think what you think, and I think what I think, and that’s the end of the matter,’ then it truly is the end of the matter. It is certainly the end of the conversation. If the matter is important enough, it may be the end of the relationship. When there is no way of seeking the truth together, when there is no chance of at least coming together in a mutual desire to know the truth, we are deeply isolated.

De gustibus non disputandem—there is no discussion in matters of taste. I like hot foods and you like sweet and there is no right or wrong, truth or falsehood in that. But in our post-modern world, all statements are reduced to matters of taste. I like the taste of Catholicism and you like the taste of radical atheism… and so there is nothing to discuss.

Taste is about what we want. When all truth claims are reduced to this, then it becomes a matter of appetite and desire and wanting to believe what we want to believe. It all gets very dark and sub-rational and somehow less than human. And in this, communication fails; community fails.
Truth, then, stands as the great safeguard and guarantor of human community and communication.

Unless we have a commitment to seek the truth and accept its demands, unless we accept a certain asceticism of the truth, we cannot be together with one another. Ultimately, we are just concerned with our own wants, likes, dislikes, and everything and everyone else is subordinated to those. Truth, and the humility and discipline it demands of us, is the precondition of genuine love and communion.

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