Seeking (and Finding) Truth”
Pilate touched on it so long ago: “What is truth?” It’s the one question that confronts us all, the answer we all seek. At the most basic level, truth involves moral uprightness, being truthful; seeking answers or wisdom; right judgment. C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most influential Christian mind in modern times, defined truth the same way that Aristotle and common sense do: the mind in accord with reality – being in touch with reality.
Practically speaking, we encounter Truth, or issues of truthfulness, constantly in our daily lives. How do we know what is true – the “truth”? So far, we’ve only touched on one way of knowing: experience, which is pretty much all the world recognizes.
But there are, in fact, three ways to come to know something: experience, reason, and authority
Because God is a personal God, He comes to us in many different ways. In matters of beauty, personal experience is paramount; He knows what will attract us – what will get our attention. In matters of truth, God is also personal, meaning that He will reveal His Truths to us at the right time – when we are ready to hear it. But it doesn’t mean those Truths will be different from person to person. God is personal, not subjective. There’s a BIG difference. Truth is the same for everyone – eternal and timeless, across all cultures.
Experience: Putting Truth to the Test
We hear it a lot these days – “my truth”, “your truth” – what academics refer to as ‘relativism’: what is true for me may not be true for you. But what many people fail to realize is that objective Truth (capital ‘T’) does exist. And it exists whether we know it or not, like it or not, or even believe it or not. That’s the definition of “objective” – something that doesn’t depend on someone’s feelings or interpretation; it exists independent of thought. It’s like gravity. As inhabitants of the earth, we’re all subject to it; and it’s ‘working on us right now. It exists apart from us, whether we believe it or not. It just “is”.
Let me give another example. I went to the grocery store recently and bought some ice cream. But then I noticed that no one was really eating it. My family, not eating ice cream? What’s up?? Then my husband explained that it didn’t taste very good. To him, it tasted sort of fake and plastic-y. Well, come to find out, what I had bought was “frozen dessert” not ice cream, and it said so on the package. (What can I say, it was on sale…) But I was still a little skeptical. It looked like ice cream and was right next to all the other ice cream in the store. My husband decided to perform a little test. He put a scoop of real ice cream in one bowl and a scoop of the frozen dessert/ice cream in another bowl and left them out overnight. Well, sure enough, he was right. The frozen dessert wasn’t frozen anymore, but it hadn’t melted either. It sort of turned into this oily-looking blob. Disgusting. No more frozen dessert for us – even if it is on sale.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could test every theory, every question? But it’s just not possible. Some things we have to take on faith – trusting in reason or authority.
The world today proposes countless options – “31 flavours of truth,” to use a phrase of Fr. Brian Larkin’s. The world believes that there isn’t a truth big enough for all of us. Are we free to believe whatever we want?? Of course! But it can’t all be the TRUTH. There must be objective Truth, some standard by which we measure our lives – an absolute. As C.S. Lewis so cleverly pointed out, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”
Reason: Making Sense of the World
Contrary to what our modern culture would have you believe, truth isn’t limited to the ‘great minds’ of the world – to the world of academia. Universities and professors don’t have a corner on truth. It’s accessible to all of us. “Many of our society’s most ‘advanced’ minds and media opinion-molders have abandoned belief in objective truth as hopelessly backward, naïve, and old-fashioned.” According to Peter Kreeft, “It is much more likely that you believe in objective truth if you didn’t go to college.” And, frankly, that’s a little strange.
God imbued us with an intellect and a reason so that we can know Him. He’s within reach, even in the most remote locations of the world. Let me share with you a little more of my own story:
In 1997, my family and I moved to Russia. There were just 4 of us then – my husband and I, along with our two children, Paige and Philip, who were 7 and 6 at the time. David and I had visited a few years before – when his parents took a job assignment in Moscow – and were amazed at what a beautiful country it was. It defied all the notions we had held about the land behind the “Iron Curtain.” Growing up in the era of the Cold War, I knew that truth had often been in short supply in Russia, especially under Communism. The fact that the government-run newspaper was called Pravda (Truth) was a dead giveaway. But being there and seeing the country for ourselves first-hand left a much different impression. It was mysterious and intriguing, with a rich culture and storied past. So, when David’s company offered us an opportunity to move there ourselves, we decided to take it. It was a real leap of faith: we didn’t really know what it would be like, or how our children would adjust. If nothing else, it would be an adventure!
We lived in a little town about 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow, in the Komi Republic, called Ukhta. In many ways, it was such a simple existence. We lived in a little apartment on the 6th floor, and I homeschooled the kids so there’s was lots of family time. Every day I’d send my son down to the kiosk to buy fresh bread that had just been delivered from the bakery. We enjoyed going to the banya on the weekends where the women would sit around and drink tea, while the men would have their vodka and dried fish. It was a very simple life.
But I don’t want to make it sound like it was all easy. There were hardships, for sure, and great loneliness; we were very homesick at first. But, as we soon found out, it was also a time of discovery and growth. With everything we had known stripped away, we learned what was essential, what gives life meaning, and we grew so much closer as a family. For me personally, it was also a time of great spiritual growth.
Though I had converted 10 years before, it wasn’t until this time that I really began to realize what my Catholic faith meant to me. There was no Catholic church in our town, so we weren’t able to go to Mass or receive the sacraments. So, we did other things – whatever we could. Equipped with our St. Joseph’s Missal and the Glory and Praise Song Book, we had what I guess you’d call a family liturgy every Sunday on the couch in the living room. When I think back now, it’s amazing to me that we did this. It must have been God’s grace, for we weren’t even what I’d consider a very “religious” family.
For me, it was more out of obligation to my children – my sense of duty as a parent – than any real devotion. But God spoke to me through the Scriptures, and I began to pray in earnest daily. For the first time ever, I read the Bible cover to cover. And whenever we went on vacation to another country, we tracked down a Catholic church and went to mass; it didn’t matter if it were in German or Spanish or whatever language, we were there. All those things that we had taken for granted before suddenly began to matter so much. How ironic that here, thousands of miles from home, in what seemed to be an essentially God-less land, a place that for generations had been stripped of Truth, I come to know Him. He was there with us all along.
Here’s the lesson, I think, from our time in Russia: Don’t be fooled into thinking that anyone, or anything, is beyond the reach of God. In Russia, it was Communism that tried to do away with Him. But now, in our own day, it’s relativism and scientism. We’ve already touched on relativism, but what about scientism? The world today tells us there’s a conflict between science and faith; many scientists are out to ‘disprove’ God. But God isn’t a theory to be proved or disproved. He is a Person, as Aristotle would say, the “Unmoved Mover,” who operates outside of natural law. Someone or something had to set everything in the world into motion. Just as if you were to set up a row of dominoes, something (or someone) would have to touch the first domino, to get them going. This is one of the most compelling reasons for the existence of God. “As Catholics, we believe that reason, revelation, and science will never be in ultimate conflict, as the same God created them all.”
Has anyone studied Biology lately?? I have, last year when my daughter took Bio 20 – Human Systems. Let me tell you, the human body is an incredible machine, designed with order and intelligibility. The way everything works together is simply amazing. There’s nothing random about it at all (except disease). What can we make of this? Such order and intelligibility cannot be the result of mere chance. Someone put a lot of thought into it (and as Christians, we know who that Someone is). As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described so beautiful once in a homily, “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”
By Whose Authority…??
In the course of researching and writing these talks, my son asked me a great question. He said, “Mom, how do you know what’s really true? I mean, you read books or look up information online, but where do those people get their information? How can you be sure they’re right?” Well, obviously if you go back to the source and then keep going back to that source, and so on, where do you finally end up? Hopefully to the original source. It’s impossible to always do that, but it brought up a good point: Make sure your sources are reliable.
As Catholics, we can be confident that the original source of the Church is Christ himself, founded on the apostles, on the rock of Peter, our first pope. And we can even trace that lineage down through the ages to Pope Francis today. Saint Pope St. John Paul II once said that “The Church is in the business of truth.” What did he mean? Not being swayed by passing fads or fleeting ideas.
The Sum of the Truths of our Catholic faith, what we call the Deposit of Faith comes from Divine Revelation, passed down through the ages (Sacred Tradition), and Sacred Scripture – all through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
To know the truth, to be fully free, it’s necessary to submit to a greater authority. And this is true in all areas of life, not just in matters of faith and morals. We can’t know everything firsthand – by experience – so we go to the experts. What do you do when you need advice in law or medicine? You go to a lawyer or doctor, of course. When it comes to faith and morals, many people try to ‘go it alone’ and figure out everything for themselves. But this approach is overwhelming and unnecessary. To be sure, trusting in the authority of the Church requires humility and deep FAITH – an understanding that our Mother, the Church, has our best interest at heart.
Why All 3 Ways Are Important
How can we know with any degree of certainty the truth that lies before us at any given moment, when there are SO many competing voices: The Church, secular society/popular culture, the flesh, and Satan? Here’s a quick little test that has worked for me countless of times: if the “world” has embraced it – whatever it is, some particular trend, idea, mindset, behavior, etc. – chances are we as Christians should reject it. I’m sure that sound a little cynical, but it works. We are called to be “countercultural” – this is what that means.
Also, it can be tempting to focus on one aspect of coming to know the Truth – we all have our preferences and weaknesses. For instance, we might make it into a purely intellectual pursuit, an act of the mind (like me), when it’s really about the heart. At other times, we might rely entirely on our own experience and fail to use common sense, an aspect of reason. Or, we could blindly ignore what experience tells us and keep making the same mistakes over and over. All three ways of knowing – experience, reason, and authority – are important and are wrapped up in the idea of faith. We’re not compelled to believe something because of authority, but the so-called experts back up our belief.
Let me give you two contrasting examples: Ana’s laundry and the Eucharist.
My 11-year-old daughter, Ana, has a habit of leaving all her clothes on the floor so that I can never tell what’s clean and what’s not. When I ask her, I know she will invariably reply, “It’s all dirty.” As I look at this mound of laundry, I’m skeptical, but how do I know the truth?? In this case, experience and reason prevail over “authority” (Ana’s word – the person who actually knows the truth). The wise mom that I am, I employ the sniff test (as unpleasant as that is) and common sense – I know it’s literally impossible for my daughter to have worn (and have gotten dirty) so many clothes in such short of time. And besides, I haven’t seen half of them on her body. She’s clearly out of touch with reality in saying all the clothes are dirty!
With the Eucharist, experience fails us (it still looks and tastes like bread and wine), but Scripture is very clear, as is the authority of the Church on this one. Priests give up their entire lives to celebrate the sacraments and martyrs to their deaths for these truths. Not to mention Eucharistic miracles…There’s lots of “proof” that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ.
Ultimately, why does all this matter? Why is Truth so important? Because it’s only when we understand the truth about ourselves and our place in the world that we know the meaning of life/the reason for our existence, hence the aim and direction of our lives. Saint Pope John Paul II summed it up perfectly: “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.” Truth, then, is the Person of Christ. Only when we surrender our lives to this Truth and rely on His grace will we find what we truly seek.
– Kelley Holy