Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What is Truth

I've been having a thought lately, spurred on mostly by C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. In the very first letter, and in many of the subsequent ones, Screwtape tells Wormwood that it never occurs to humans (at least, present-day humans) to ask if something is true. They (we) ask whether it fits with the style of thought that we are used to, what progressed up to the idea in question and how it fits with our current lifestyle. In fact, you seldom hear anyone nowadays ask if the fresh piece of gossip is true, or if the most recent scientific findings are true, or if the latest historical publication is true. The main reason we don't question these things is because society requires a high degree of trust in order to operate. We must trust one another if we are to live together. At some point, we begin to take it for granted that people are telling the truth. At this point, lies quietly slip in and become difficult to kill.

The idea struck a chord with me and so I decided to try an experiment. Whenever prodded with a situation that called for my thoughts on this topic or that, the first question I would ask (if sensible) would be: "Is it true?" Please note that this question proves very ineffective for questions relating to taste, or personal opinions. It is meant for matters that turn on a moral question, or those that require one to search outside of one's self for the answer.

In a discussion with a friend, the comment was made that a mutual Catholic friend of ours was contemplating sending his son for first communion classes. This had raised something of a scandal with the "old church ladies" (a.k.a. a lot of gossip), because our mutual friend had not formally had a first communion himself. My friend said that if he encountered this behavior in his congregation, he would immediately leave and find a different one. It bothered me a bit that he was willing to change congregations so quickly, especially because he is a member of a non-denominational church. Leaving that congregation would essentially mean leaving a micro-denomination and moving to another one. It was even more troublesome that he thought that someone could and should abandon the Catholic Church in a similar manner.

This led to the big question: Is the Church true? Or, put another way, Are the Teachings of the Church true?

Thinking it over, there are only a handful of answers to this. 1) Yes; 2) No; 3) I don't know; 4) What is truth? Interestingly, it also sets up quite the stage for the questions that follow.

1. Yes, the teachings of the Church are true. - This leaves two options: to follow them or not. The first seems almost obvious; once one recognizes that the teachings of the Church are true, it seems only logical that one should follow them. However, there are still those that will choose, for whatever reason, not to follow them. Those in the latter group are the most pitiable of all people. They have seen and recognized the light, but have chosen the darkness.

2. No, the teachings of the Church are not true - This immediately begs the question, if the Church does not teach truth, why do so many people keep taking her teachings as their own? Or why when studies are done on human behavior, they conclude that humans should act in the same manner that the Church prescribes? The Church is not opposed to rational thought. In fact, informed Catholics will tell you that oftentimes that rational thought applied to the facts lead back to the Church, not away from it.

3. I don't know if the teachings of the Church are true - An honest answer, but more of a stage of development. One realizes that it is only a step on the path to one conclusion or the other. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to tell the professor that you do not know the answer the first time you are asked. However, if you are asked again at a later date, and continue to give this answer, you will fail your class. If the current answer is that you do not know, then the real question is whether you are you willing to find out? If one answers that they are willing to learn and test the teachings of the Church for themselves, wonderful. Such studies will soon place them into one of the preceding categories. If one refuses even to learn what the teachings of the Church are, that means they have preconcluded option 2 and will resist any attempts to sway them from that position.

4. What is truth? - Put another way, this is stating that there is no absolute truth. It is a denial that there is a right and wrong. No individual that is honest with themselves can accept this position for long. It is an easily contestable point, which C.S. Lewis and other philosophers and theologians have answered already; I will not repeat those points here, but I refer one that would take this stance back to option 3.

These are only my beginning thoughts on the subject. If I have missed something, or am off the mark, then I am open for correction.