Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Truth and the Common Good

While reading Pope Francis's first encylical, I was reminded of Chris Carter's admonition: 'the truth is out there.' The thematic angst that unified his series The X-files is akin to the fear of a totalizing truth that informs free and democratic peoples and governments. Lumen Fidei drives to the heart of the unspoken hermeneutic of suspicion brought to bear on 'the truth:'

Truth nowadays is often reduced to the subjective authenticity of the individual, valid only for the life of the individual. A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems. But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. As a truth of love, it is not one that can be imposed by force; it is not a truth that stifles the individual. Since it is born of love, it can penetrate to the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman. Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all [II, 34].

Francis speaks of a truth that is not arrived, has not yet been received: a truth in potentiality. Such a truth is poised to embrace the 'common good' in its availability to the 'encounter with the Other.' The pope inverts the relationship between truth and the individual as it resides in contemporary discouse by relocating it outside the subjectivity of the individual.

This truth is what faith is made of. In explicating Is. 7 [II, 23ff], the pope describes King Ahaz's dilemma.  Isaiah advises the king that faith in God, not an alliance with the Assyrians, will secure his interests. By grounding Ahaz in the memory of a trustworthy and faithful God, Isaiah prepares the king for a living faith buttressed by knowledge and truth. And so we moderns too are challenged and admonished to stand in faith, or, perhaps not stand at all.

In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared, the only truth that can serve as a basis for discussion or for common undertakings. Yet at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual, which consist in fidelity to his or her deepest convictions, yet these are truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good. But Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion [II, 25].

Modernism loves its meta-narrative. Science and technology are its gods, and its methods and products are its religions. The truth is whatever works; were it to stop working, another truth will take its place. Apart from the immense practically of such an applied pragmatism, the resultant relativism of any idea of a 'common good' astonishes even the most complacent among us. Most cynically, the common good is whatever the economic and political currents determine it to be. Modernism cannot finally look to an overarching human project, just the many projects that emerge from time to time in election cycles or corporate strategic planning, even as technology, seeking meaningful application, sometimes provides little more than bland palliation.

Lumen Fidei seeks to contextualize radical faith not within any given culture but within authentic truth and knowledge. Indeed, faith without both is not salvific, but merely sentiment. Moreover, the encyclical grounds faith, knowledge and truth in memory as an antidote for a certain collective amnesia of the past, of tradition, of God's breaking into the created order, God's entering into history. Indeed, this document presents an invitation to ways of knowing beyond pure empiricism and pure reason.

My purpose in this post cannot be to comment completely on the systematic development that structures Lumen Fidei. Rather, I mentioned a few of its observations and exhortations. Much will be said of the encyclical, for it is the nexus between two papacies (I see no reason to doubt the assertions that Benedict had a palpable hand in this document, continuing as it does in the style and themes of Deus Caritas Est ), and it is so very pastoral in its message.

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