Friday, October 1, 2010

Fact and Feelings: Objective Truth vs Subjective Experience (Part 1)

Welcome to the first installment of "Philosophy Fridays!"  In the interest of all of our very precious blog time, let's get right down to it.

"What is truth?" Pontius Pilate's words as recounted by St. John (18:36) tell us just as much about the man who asked them, and are just as much a searching of his own troubled heart, as they are about the God-man, Jesus Christ, who stood accused before him.  Pilate, in his questioning of the accused and the accusers (the Jews), became even more troubled when, after he had Christ scourged, found out exactly why the Jews were so violently adamant about having this seemingly innocent man not only scourged and publicly humiliated but executed in a way reserved for the most horrible of criminals: crucifixion; "by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God. When Pilate heard these words he was even more afraid" (John 19:7-8).

In a way, Pilate's searching and questioning are a microcosm of the great question of the broken human condition:  What is truth?  Where can we find it?  How do we know it when we find it?  These are the the great questions that philosophers and theologians have pondered for the entirety of recorded human history.  In today's world, sadly, it seems that we have become surrounded by so many distractions and "creature comforts" that many are numbed by the droning on of everyday life and do not even bother to ask the questions any more.  Where we do, just as many others have become convinced by what Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as the "dictatorship of relativism," that truth is whatever we experience and believe it to be, and changes just as fluidly as societal norms.  When that happens, we begin to put feelings and sensory experiences above the truth that they are meant to point us toward.  Our feelings and experiences begin to take the place of faith and become idols in themselves, to the point that fact and truth become like flags waving in the wind instead of a firm foundation. This topic, the meeting of subjective experience with the objective, unchanging Truth that was at the heart of Pilate's question, is what I'll start on here and get more into in the weeks ahead.

Catholic Professor and Theologian Peter Kreeft, in his recent book Jesus Shock, retells a story by the Chinese Christian writer Watchman Nee that I think captures the properly ordered relationship between fact, faith, and feelings and what happens when that relationship gets out of whack:

Fact, Faith, and Feeling are three men walking on a wall.  Fact goes first, Faith second, and Feeling third.  As long as Faith keeps his eyes ahead on Fact, all three stay on the wall and make progress.  But as soon as Faith takes his eyes off Fact and turns around to see how Feeling is doing, Faith falls off the wall, and Feeling follows, while Fact walks on.
"The point is obvious," Kreeft adds, "the object of our faith is not feeling but fact, not subjective experience but objective truth." That, in a nutshell, is what it's all about.

Whether it is pop psychology, science, or what I like to call "feel good faith," the world offers so many ways (and so-called experts) to boost that subjective experience by giving us temporary, here-and-now answers, but do any of them ultimately satisfy our deepest longing for that eternal, outside-ourselves Truth?

Well, let's look at it with another analogy.  Imagine a play.  The key actors, in the hundredth or two hundredth casting and finding themselves somewhat removed from the original casting of the play, begin to wonder what the point of the play was in the first place.  Why was it written?  What message was it meant to convey? In other words, what is the point?  Assuming the playwright/producer/director is still alive and very much active in the play, although not in a way that the actors can explicitly perceive, wouldn't it make sense for the actors to take those questions to him?  What if they didn't?  What if they instead began to ask the question of each other (through speculation), of the set (nature), or even of the script (history) that has been lined out, crossed through, and highlighted in odd places by previous performers?  Could they reliably turn to any of these sources for the answer to the question that only the author himself can answer?

That turning inward and refusal to take the question to the author (and take his word for it--literally, since he sent his Word to us in the flesh) is exactly what we do when we refuse to take our longing to God and instead fill the desire that he leaves with other "stuff."  We substitute our own limited experience, perceptions, thoughts, etc. that leave us unsatisfied--our "truth"--for the Truth that never fails to satisfy.

Pilate probably didn't realize that the question he asked, he may as well have asked on behalf of an entire human race desperate to know the Truth.  He probably also didn't realize that the Truth was right there, standing right before him, who had already declared that "I am the way, and the truth, and the life..." (John 14:6).  His question had already been answered, and in a manner so generously, infinitely inconceivable that it could only be perceived with the eyes of faith and not feelings or the senses.

To be continued in Part Two.


  1. It is amazing that we can know objective Truth. In some ways it seems so obvious. Obviously some things are true and some are false. But when you start to question how you KNOW objective truth, it is quite the blessing that He allows us to know Truth! GREAT POST! I'm looking forward to this series!

  2. This is fabulous!! Thank you! We have become so fuzzy-headed in this society that not only do we not know the answer, we don't even know to ask the question! What is truth???

  3. Thanks Leila. The lack of objectivity and obedience/humility in the world, but especially among the professed faithful, has bugged me more and more over the past few months. I think it comes in large part from failure to realize what a rich and consistent tradition the Church has had in proclaiming the same Truth for 2000 years, and will until the end of time. So...there's more where this one came from.

    (Thanks also for catching my typo. Sometimes the fingers get moving a bit too fast and the eyes don't catch it).