Thursday, October 25, 2007

What Is Truth?

This is a reprint from the online Journal The Shire, written on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 2000.

Pilate's rhetorical question was left unanswered by the Evangelist, no doubt as an intentional device on the part of the latter to elicit musing on the question. Christ is Truth, as He said, I am the Truth. There must be a qualitative difference, then, between the revelation of God in the Gospel, and every other written or spoken word. What is it? No one has seen God at any time . The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. What does this mean?

Questions of this nature arise when we consider the various legends associated with martyrs. Martyrologies are generally held to be a mixture of fact and fiction. Who can say whether it is all in the realm of actual historical reality that St. Bartholomew stalwartly maintained his confession while being clubbed by pagan priests, flayed alive, and crucified upside down? Or whether St. Laurence truly mocked his tormenters during his roasting on a gridiron? Or that the flames of the pyre surrounding St. Polycarp refused to touch him, whereupon he was thrust in the side, and blood and water issued forth which quenched the flames? Historians like to pick at such stories and reckon that there is some fantasy there. Yet they must also acknowledge that there is some basis in fact. What is truth?

St. Anselm of Canterbury was said to have made the sign of the cross on a burning building and doused the flame thereby. Some historians have considered this a reference to his success in obtaining peace with the King of England over the question of investiture, after a protracted struggle between the crown and the Church. The reference to the struggle, to Anselm's exiles, and to the resulting peace, is thus all made enigmatically through the depiction of the archbishop's sign of the cross on the flame. Did he actually douse a flame on a true church he was passing by making the sign on it? Probably not. Is this not only, then, a figurative means of expression? What is truth?

Now we consider the Gospels. They too contain many wondrous accounts. Jesus walks on water. Jesus feeds a multitude with a few loaves. Jesus heals the blind. Jesus rises from the dead. One can begin to see where certain scholars have questioned the veracity of these events as well. What if they, too, are embellishments? What if Jesus= stroll on the lake merely indicates His authority over Baptism? What if His multiplication of loaves merely points to His sacramental feeding of all nations? What is truth?

The answer to these questions must be found in the Gospels themselves. It is upon hearing them, reading, marking, and inwardly digesting them, that one finds in them a genre like unto itself, one which is unquestionably meant to be completely historical while at the same time being figurative, instructive, and catechetical. St. John insists, for example, that he truly saw blood and water issue forth from Jesus' side: "He who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe." Yet this insistence gives the very clear impression that he wishes the hearer to ponder the catechetical meaning latent in the event: The Blood of the Holy Supper and the water of Holy Baptism issue forth from Christ. Indeed it is only St. John who records that rhetorical question of Pilate, What is truth? (St. John 18.38)

Thus we find that in the Gospels there is a unique blending of history and instruction. Maybe the difference between the Gospels and various martyrologies is that inasmuch as the latter do not provide the foundations of faith, and are not in themselves words of God, they have over the years become freer to depart from the historical facts. Not as much depends on them, certainly, and thus their use as catechetical tools begins to outweigh the necessity that they be entirely accurate as to their historicity. This is not the case, however, with the Gospels, which themselves make this very point. It is especially St. John who insists: "This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things that Jesus did . . ." (St. John 21.24-25). We simply do not find this kind of testifying in martyrologies.

The critical scholars' mischievous questions about the veracity of the events of the Gospels do nothing but tend toward shipwreck of the faith, and they must therefore be firmly answered. Of course Jesus actually walked on the water; of course He fed the five thousand; of course He gave sight to the blind, etc. And of course He truly rose from the dead. But that is not all! These events have been turned by the providence of Almighty God into catechetical tools, given meaning by the Gospel, to provide real-life illustrations of what He wishes us to know. Yes indeed, His walk on the sea illustrates his authority in Baptism; surely He feeds multitudes today, in the Holy Supper; and in the Gospel He gives faith, that is, sight to the spiritually blind. And His resurrection not only signifies, but actually provides living evidence to the faithful that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

What is truth? Truth is history and catechesis divinely wrapped into one magnificent Word of God: Christ for us.

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