Thursday, January 9, 2014

Rejecting the False Dichotomy of Love and Truth

The explanation of the connection between faith and certainty put forward by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is well known. For Wittgenstein, believing can be compared to the experience of falling in love: it is something subjective which cannot be proposed as a truth valid for everyone. Indeed, most people nowadays would not consider love as related in any way to truth. Love is seen as an experience associated with the world of fleeting emotions, no longer with truth.

But is this an adequate description of love? Love cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity, but in order to open it to the beloved and thus to blaze a trail leading away from self-centredness and towards another person, in order to build a lasting relationship; love aims at union with the beloved. Here we begin to see how love requires truth. 

Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.
Lumen Fidei 27

Reflection – This section of the encyclical seems to be generating interest and discussion, both in my combox and on my FB page. I am in full swing giving a retreat to seminarians right now, and can contribute little beyond the actual posts – anyhow, discuss away.

Here we see Pope Benedict (this is definitely his work) tackling the false dichotomy of truth and love. In this passage he shows the insufficiency of love without truth; tomorrow he will discuss the inadequacy of truth without love.

It is easy to craft some fantastical soap-opera scenario to demonstrate this,  whereby Joe falls in love with Jane and they enter an intense romance, eventually becoming engaged. Joe finds out, shortly before their wedding, that not one thing Jane has told him about herself is true, from her name to her virtually every biographical fact, even to her likes and dislikes, opinions and beliefs, hopes and dreams. For some reason or other, her whole presentation of herself was a tissue of lies.

Would Joe simply shrug that off and say, “That’s OK – I don’t actually need to know anything about you!” and proceed happily along? It is entirely possible that Joe has in some fashion in their courtship encountered the real ‘Jane’ (or whoever) and would be willing to forgive the deception and move forward… but in anything resembling a healthy human dynamic, that moving forward would mean moving towards truth, towards knowing who this person really is and establishing the relationship on an actual footing of mutual disclosure and knowledge. If ‘Jane’ were unwilling to do that, then in what sense are she and Joe even in a relationship?

OK, enough with the melodrama (in tomorrow’s episode, the arrival of Jane’s mother brings a shocking revelation to Joe – she’s a Yeti!!! (You know, I could actually write this stuff)).

The fact is, with the stirring up of love in the heart, there is a stirring up of a deep hunger to know the person. And also, to know what is good for that person, what will help them, serve them, do them well. Think of the movie Lorenzo’s Oil, based on a true story, where the father of a desperately sick child ended up developing a treatment for his son’s rare disease despite having no medical training or knowledge beforehand.

Love is not opposed to truth or in some other category than truth. Love seeks truth, both the truth of the beloved and the truth for the beloved. It is love, in other words, that unites the true and the good in a contemplation of the beautiful.

All of this is miles away from where we started and where we need to get back to – the Church’s ongoing proclamation of hard and unwelcome truths and dogmas in the modern world. But surely this is at least addresses the charge that to proclaim an unwelcome truth is an unloving act. If I love someone, I sure as heck want to know if they have cancer, and how bad it is, and how radical a course of treatment they need to engage in, even if it will cause them (and me) great pain and travail.

The Church, in its love for the modern world, has to deliver a certain amount of ‘bad diagnoses’ and prescribe a certain amount of painful medications and arduous therapies. You may disagree with the diagnosis and reject the therapy, but at least theoretically, you can see that this is a loving act. As I said to the seminarians here yesterday, the Church has to keep preaching the hard teachings about morality for the simple reason that people are dying, every day, because those teachings are not accepted.

It would be the opposite of love—hatred and indifference, really—to withhold the truth from the world about these matters. Love requires truth… but truth requires great love and mercy, and that’s where we’ll go tomorrow.


  1. "Love is not opposed to truth or in some other category than truth. Love seeks truth, both the truth of the beloved and the truth for the beloved. It is love, in other words, that unites the true and the good in a contemplation of the beautiful.
    All of this is miles away from where we started and where we need to get back to...."
    Hello again Father Denis. I have one quibble with the first sentence of your second paragraph that I have quoted. I disagree with the 'miles away' description of the above quoted beautiful paragraph vis a vis 'the Church's ongoing proclamation of hard and unwelcome truths and dogmas in the modern world.' I think you have put your finger on the very air we need to breathe in making that proclamation. May the Lord always bless you in your ministry.

    Blaise (anonymous 1 from yesterday, and no longer anonymous I suppose)

  2. This is a great teaching from lumen fidei, but I think the Pope is being unfair to poor old Wittgenstein. if I understand him correctly, when he compared faith to falling in love he did not mean that faith was an ephemeral emotion. Wittgenstein was in his later work was primarily concerned with combating the sort of philosophical skepticism represented by positivism. To do this he examined language, its limits and how we use it. So I think his point about faith was more about the incommunicability of the personal relationship with God rather than the impossibility of talking about religion at all. His famous beetle-in-a-box is closely related. The idea, briefly, is that everyone has a "beetle" in a little box, but no one can look into anyone else's box, so what does the word "beetle" really mean? If you listen to someone talk about his or her latest romantic partner, you get something of the same phenomenon (Okay, she's pretty, but come on...). Evangelization is the same way. I can tell you about God, but I can't give you an experience of God. That is why Jesus has come to dwell amongst us, to live with each person in the innmost heart. And no, we can't look into one another's boxes.

  3. For some reason Blogger is not allowing me to reply directly to comments (grrr). Neil, the Pope is not ascribing the view to Wittgenstein that love is mere ephemeral emotion. If you read LF carefully here, he gives a good (albeit brief) account of W's position, then goes on to describe the popular notion of love as emotion.
    I think Wittgenstein can and should be critiqued on this point, though. Not least because you, as most people do, end up saying things like "Wittgenstein, if I understand him correctly..." - the man's philosophy does seem a bit incoherent and unintelligible, which is truly not a point in his favor. And is it really true that the object of our love is utterly incommunicable, like a beetle in a box? I think that is a strange position to take - after all, if Bob is madly in love with Stacey, we cannot feel his feelings for her, but he can tell us all about her (at length, if we let him, that chatterbox!) and have no end of details about how wonderful she is. All of which may be true. It still doesn't make us feel what he feels (nor would he be pleased if it did) but we sure do learn a lot about Stacey.


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