In the end, only love (of which faith is a particu…

In the end, only love (of which faith is a particular form) can achieve the well-nigh impossible goal of seeing a situation as it really is, shorn of both the brittle enchantments of romance and the disheveled fantasies of desire. Clinical, cold-eyed realism of this kind demands all manner of virtues—openness to being wrong, selflessness, humility, generosity of spirit, hard labor, tenacity, a readiness to collaborate, conscientious judgment, and the like; and for Aquinas, all virtues have their source in love. Love is the ultimate form of soberly disenchanted realism, which is why it is the twin of truth. The two also have in common the fact that they are both usually unpleasant. Radicals tend to suspect that the truth is generally a lot less palatable than those in power would have us believe, and we have seen already just where love is likely to land you for the New Testament. In one sense of the word, dispassionateness would spell the death of knowledge, though not in another sense. Without some kind of desire or attraction we would not be roused to the labor of knowledge in the first place; but to know truly, we must also seek to surmount the snares and ruses of desire as best we can. We must try not to disfigure what we strive to know through fantasy, or reduce the object of knowledge to a narcissistic image of ourselves.

Holding Out Hope for Cynicism

I have occasionally been accused of being cynical, mostly by a bunch of jerks. I will readily confess that I have a tendency towards seeing what’s wrong instead of what’s right, and that the words coming out of my mouth are often called “pessimistic,” “negative,” and “gloomy”—especially by empty-headed optimists.

I recognize that cynicism (or its less resigned cousin negativity) is not a commendable way to approach the world, nor to endear yourself to people. Dale Carnegie would not hold me up as a role model.

But I do want to put in a good word for cynicism. I might even have the audacity to say that cynicism is nearly the same thing as hope. To (ab)use a tired metaphor, I’ll say that they’re two sides of the same coin.

Engraved on this metaphorical coin is the phrase “things are not the way that they should be.” This knowledge may spring from a reasoned critique or from that locus of intuition colloquially known as “the gut.” Usually it’s a mysterious combination of both. Those who are cynical and those who are hopeful recognize this wrong-ness-in-the-world.

Cynicism and hope therefore must be apocalyptic: they believe that there must be something great (and likely terrible) must happen to usher this world into the one it should be. I know that many are mentally begging to tell me the difference between cynicism and hope at this point, but I’m going to delay. Cynics don’t often get to stand up for themselves.

Now, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, cynicism and hope are apocalyptic, dreaming of a world laid on very different foundations than our own. This is why, for instance, it will be quickly shown that the “hope” peddled by Barack Obama is nothing of the sort. Obama’s “hope” is a drearily reformist affair, not daring to ask, for instance, if it might be better for the world if the USA did not exist. Real hope is always far too radical to run for office.

But I wasn’t speaking of hope as much as what hope and cynicism have in common: being deeply troubled by the world as we find it. In this sense, cynicism has much to recommend it over apathy, which couldn’t be troubled to be troubled by much of anything.

Now at last we can speak of that small difference between cynicism and hope: whether or not we believe that the world will actually change into what it should be. And even this important difference might not be as large as it appears on first glance, since we can look at cynics are frustrated hopers. Cynics therefore provide better material to work with than those flimsy apathetic people who don’t care enough to develop frustration—except perhaps in the people futilely trying to convince them to care.

If I’m right about this analysis, the presence of cynics should itself give us reason to hope. It’s heartening to know that there are many people out there who don’t take the way things are as a given. It’s encouraging to know that there are people who aren’t interested in bowing and scraping at the altars of the Powers That Be. It’s enough to make this cynic smile.

Well, almost.

Writing as a Sacred Trust

There’s a tempest brewing around in my mind every time I sit down to write. I am overcome with the realization that there’s a certain type of responsibility built into everything I write.

Although I believe that knowledge is always in process, there is a definitive act that takes place when we put pen to paper (or fingers to keys). If truth is a journey, everything that we write is saying, in effect, come follow me.

This is the opposite-from-usual response to the pluralism and relativity implicit within “postmodernism.” So many postmoderns seem to treat their writing as disposable and inconsequential, leading to the oft-true indictment of their works as nonsensical and rubbish. Yet my response is to find that my words and writings and more important, not less, in this milieu precisely because they are my words. But they are not merely my words. They are words shaped by and shaping a community.

I can think of no other way to describe this than to call it a sacred trust. We should not say come follow me (or, even better, come follow with us) lightly, no matter if we know completely where we’re going.

Lord Christ, have mercy.

The Trouble With Absolute Truth

One consistent thread of postmodernism is to deny that human beings can possess absolute truth. This is not necessarily to say that Absolutes do not exist (although some indeed say this), but rather that our condition as human beings makes it impossible for us to grasp them. This makes a lot of people very uncomfortable and some downright angry.

Merold Westphal, in Overcoming Onto-Theology, makes the following observation about these objectors:

One does not even have to listen very closely to those who present themselves as defender of Absolute Truth or Absolute Values to hear the all too frequent follow-up: “And since We are the defenders of Absolutes, it should come as no surprise that we are the ones in possession of them. Our theories are the Truth and our practices are the Good.” One of the tasks of a theologically motivated appropriation of postmodernism is to challenge this move in all its forms, blatant and subtle. For just as I do no become purple by speaking about violets, so I do not become absolute by speaking about God. The divine character of revelation does not cancel out the human character of my attempt to say what it means. (79)

Understanding Truth Relationally

From Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, § 31-32:

…there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being-the one who seeks the truth-is also the one who lives by belief.

In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.

It should be stressed that the truths sought in this interpersonal relationship are not primarily empirical or philosophical. Rather, what is sought is the truth of the person—what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within. Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security. At the same time, however, knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them.