Most regular readers of this blog will readily admit that relativism, that is the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth, is absolutely absurd and unlivable. So ubiquitous is this false understanding of reality however that there is not a single one of us that remains outside the grasp of its tentacles. Whether we believe in it or not, it still affects us in ways we might not initially realize. It is one specific way that I want to address in today’s entry.
Relativism is not only damaging because it fails to recognize universal truth claims. It is not only damaging because it is unlivable, causing a fracture in our personality between what we believe and how we act. These are injurious only to those who profess belief in relativism. It is most damaging because it depreciates truth in everyone’s eyes. Where relativism reigns, there is a universal indifference towards the truth.
“Wait”, you say, “I am not indifferent to the truth at all.” Really? How many times, when confronted with a falsehood, have you just thought “it is not worth it to say anything”? We might justify it using the Gospel maxim of “not putting pearls before swine” or speak of “picking our battles,” but most of the time we think that ultimately it doesn’t matter. Perhaps this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, but I would dare to say that it happens more often than we would be willing to admit.
The truth (see what I did there?) is that it does matter and matters immensely. We are not preserving the pearls of truth nor picking our battles. There is no danger of losing the pearls of truth because they are not really pearls. Unlike material goods, spiritual goods like the truth multiply when shared. What this means is that the truth has a power all its own, even when we don’t share it with great eloquence or fancy arguments. It has no power when it is kept inside, but once unleashed, it can destroy falsehood.
The Truth and Charity
Note the important distinction between destroying falsehood and beating a person. This destruction of falsehood is not an excuse to beat your opponent to submission. What I am suggesting is that we re-capture the distinctively Christian habit of forcefully and charitably attacking untruth. This is always done with two motives, each equally important—destroy the falsehood and win the person. The truth will set you free.
This is one of the reasons that GK Chesterton remains one of the best apologists for the Christian faith even today. He attacked untruth wherever he found it. He never shied away from debate. But he was often criticized for how gently he treated his opponents. Unyielding when it came to untruth, he would still speak kindly to and of his opponents. His goal was to “kill and wound folly” not his opponent.
In fact, at the heart of the Christian message is charity, that is, the habit of loving like God loves. God loves in truth and with Truth. For many of us we treat the truth as something that we own rather than as something to be given away. And because we are possessive of it, we lose our confidence in its power. It really becomes “my truth.” As Pope Benedict XVI has said on a number of occasions, “none of us have the truth. At best, we can say the truth has us.” You cannot both believe a truth while at the same time not believe in its evidential power, standing all on its own. With this realization comes the ability to always remain charitable in our untruth slaying.
The Value of Arguing?
The truth is the truth whether I can argue for it or not. In fact I may not be able to argue it, but still I have an obligation to stamp out the falsehood. Simply saying “that is not true” is enough, although quite obviously it is much better to be able to say why it isn’t true. Even still, not being able to argue should never be a reason not to speak out against untruth. The humiliation of not being able to defend the truth often motivates us to learn how. Charity is truth, but so is humility. Trust in the hidden power of the truth.
Most of us are jealous of our own ideas so convincing someone of their falsehood is often difficult. But do you know who else is listening? This is something that I came to realize when I took a trip to Mississippi just after Hurricane Katrina to help with cleanup with two guys I knew. One of them was my college roommate who could never understand why anyone in their right mind was Catholic. Over the years we had covered pretty much every topic related to the Faith. A few hours into the trip, he said something (I don’t recall exactly what) about the Blessed Mother that was not true. I immediately called him on it, even though we had talked about this before. We spent a couple of hours going back and forth about the Faith. He was just as unyielding as I was. The whole time the guy in the back seat was quiet and didn’t say a word. Two months later he called me and told me that he was entering RCIA and that the eavesdropped conversation was the thing that put him over the top. My arguments were not to him specifically, I didn’t even know his objections. Instead he heard the truth and it opened up everything for him. All this because I was unwilling to leave a falsehood floating around the car.
Perhaps you may not win the person over to the truth, you may stop them from unthinkingly repeating what they are saying. If what they are saying is untrue, it will crumble under its own weight. He may not agree with you, but he will think twice before saying it on another occasion. It will keep the falsehood from spreading.
Unleash the truth!