Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fact and Feelings: Objective Truth vs Subjective Experience (Part 2)

Last week's post addressed the question posed by Pontius Pilate of Christ, What is truth?

The question that flows from that, even if we accept that there is objective truth, is, How can we know the truth when we find it?  Can we rely on our consciences, our "moral compasses," so to speak, to tell us when we have found it?

Well, first the short answer: no, we can't.  Our compasses have been contaminated and no longer reliably point toward north.

Of course that answer deserves some explanation.  Our intellects have been darkened and wills weakened by original sin to the point that they are unreliable when it comes to identifying truth on our own.  In fact, not only are we not able to recognize truth on our own, we also cannot accurately tell how far from the truth we have strayed (i.e. we cannot even recognize the existence or degree of our own sin).  This is a concept that is largely lost on our society today, which tends to discount the possibility of sin altogether and explain our suffering under the human condition "as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc." (CCC 387).

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, admitted that even once he recognized and conceded that there was evil, he could not discern where it came from.  This "mystery of lawlessness" as he referred to it, was only resolved by his conversion to the "mystery of faith."

So then, if we cannot recognize our own sin, what good is our conscience?  Doesn't it play a role?  Isn't our ultimate responsibility not to violate our conscience?

I tend to think of our conscience as being like one of those old cassette tapes (you remember those, don't you?).  The quality of the recording depended on two things: the quality of the cassette receiving the recording, and the clarity with which the original recording was transmitted to it.  In the same way, our consciences are only as good as we allow them to be by: (1) disposing ourselves--through an attitude of humility and obedience--to the source of truth and the grace by which we receive it; and (2) Seeking out that authentic truth as He has revealed himself to us, and not as we would intend him to be.  Just like a cassette tape whose fidelity quickly fades when it is re-recorded from itself or other tapes instead of the master, so it is with our consciences; their fidelity quickly fades when not frequently and properly oriented to the source of righteousness and goodness.

So, yes we do have a grave responsibility not to sin by violating our conscience, but that is only half of the equation.  The other half lies in our responsibility to form our consciences to be like the mind of Christ; in other words to have no tolerance to what he has defined as sin and to act as he has commanded us to act.

Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained this idea in his essay, Conscience and Truth, which is included in the compilation Values in A Time of Upheaval:

It is true on this level of judgment (conscientia in the narrower sense) that an erring conscience obligates.  The rational tradition of Scholasticism makes this proposition absolutely clear. As Paul had affirmed (Rom 14:23), no one may act against his own convictions.  But the fact that one's conviction is naturally binding at the moment one acts does not mean a canonization of subjectivity.  One who follows the conviction at which he has arrived, never incurs guilt.  Indeed, one must follow such a conviction.  But guilt may very well consist in arriving at such perverse convictions by trampling down the protest made by the anamnesis of one's true being.  The guilt would then like on a deeper level, not in the act itself, but in that neglect of my own being that has dulled me to the voice of truth and made me deaf to what it says within me.

So, the ability to recognize the truth and live according to it--wisdom--is not something that comes organically from within us, at least in our fallen state.  Rather it has existed from the beginning of creation (cf Proverbs 8:22-36) and is given to us as a gift, to correct, untwist, and reorient us back to the purpose for which we were created, to know, love, and serve God.  To go with the early compass analogy, the grace and gift of wisdom frees our compasses to swing back toward north, so that we are able to live lives oriented toward the Truth--toward Christ--and not toward ourselves and society.  It cannot be obtained by grasping at it, only by submitting ourselves to His loving authority, as has been handed down to us in His Church.  Then we are able to do as St. Paul commends us in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, To avoid the deception of the "man of lawlessness" (cf 2 Thess 2:3-10) and to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess 2:15).



  1. I'm loving this blog....Looking forward to reading it from the beginning. You were given a gift because no matter how much I read, I just can't "spit" it out like that! hahahaha

  2. "If God never imposed His Law, there would be no sin. We would be free to do as we please." Quoted from "Explanation of Catholic Morals".
    According to this is Sin not an Objective Truth?
    If it is not, then I'm a totally confused Catholic!

  3. Anon,

    Thanks for commenting on a way-back post.

    It is very true that if God never imposed his law, there would be no sin, or at least we would not be aware that our actions were sinful. BUT that would also be very bad, and the human condition would be without hope, because it would mean that God had completely abandoned us to our sin and felt no need to correct us, chastise us, and show us the way back to himself. That is my own "taking it to its logical conclusion," not necessarily any Church teaching.

    I would offer that sin is certainly real (if not, there would have been no need for a Savior to come in the flesh and "make it right"), but not objective truth. In fact, sin is directly opposed to the Truth (with a capital "T"). It is the result of us buying into the lie that we can have things our own way.

    Does that help a little with the confusion?

  4. Does the natural law not show us our sin, decernable through our reason? I know by reason it is wrong to steal. Ie: The number "1" exists if I choose to believe it or not, or even know of it, same as "0". It is an object truth. Love is an object truth, as is God. Therefor it's oposites must be an object truths as well. Object truth can not be the exclusive property of the good. The darkness and the light both exist, both undeniable, as John's gospel tells us. ...Dana

  5. Dana,

    Thanks for commenting again. The natural law certainly points toward God and helps to identify some of our sins, specifically sins which violate the natural order of creation (e.g. homosexual acts), but falls short of the complete revelation of truth given to us by Christ. Likewise our reason falls short because our wills have been weakened and our intellects darkened by sin.

    With regards to good and evil as objective truths, I'm not sure what passage you were referring to in John, but the way that you worded it, "It is an object truth. Love is an object truth, as is God. Therefor it's oposites must be an object truths as well..." hints at what is known as dualism, which views good and evil as "equal and opposite" forces, with a never-ending give-and-take relationship. The dualistic argument is not in keeping with the Christian perspective that (1) evil has not always existed; and (2) evil will not always have an influence over creation. C.S. Lewis gave a good (and easy to read) discussion of the error in dualism in "Mere Christianity" Book Two, Chapter 2: The Invasion:

    "There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism...the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war."

    He goes on to point out the flaws in dualism, expanding on the two points above. The most important is that evil cannot exist of its own volition. It always comes out of something good (including good desires) gone bad (by choice). Satan, who was the most powerful of angels, chose to rebel and "went bad" at the beginning of time. He was a creation of God, Lucifer, and so by definition the magnitude of his power--now, as Satan--is below and less than his creator. Jesus, the Word through which everything, including Lucifer, was created, "saw Satan fall like lightning from the sky." Jesus describes him in John 8:44, as "a murderer and a thief from the beginning, [who] has nothing to do with the truth because there is no truth in him...a liar and the father of lies."

    Satan cannot create. He can only twist and distort what God has already created, through our choice of free will to join him in rebellion. Goodness--God--has existed and is omnipotent from all eternity, from outside time and creation, and will always be so.

    Christ--again, Truth incarnate--"has been given all power in heaven and on earth." He, the Truth, is God, and as God is infinitely powerful. His power to create, restore, and heal, is far greater than Satan's power to twist and destroy, but that power can only take effect in our lives through our faith in him. Satan knows that his days of "roaming the earth" (1 John 5:8-9) are numbered, and will end when Christ returns in glory.

    That got a little longer than I intended it to be, but I hope it helps.

  6. You jumped on the Dualism thing rather quick and created a tangent argument.

    I was speaking in terms of this created world, where (God) good and (satan) evil, do exist and their battle over man's sole is a reality. To deny Satan (evil) as an object truth of this world would indeed be a post-modern view. We become no better than Pilate.

    We know as Christians, God was here first, Him and only Him.

    But bare in mind Christian theology generally accepts a modified moral dualism, recognizing God as supremely good and Satan as a deteriorated creature bent everywhere upon the intrusion of evil. This, however, is not dualism in the sense of its usual definition, since Christian theology does not consider Satan to be ultimate or original, and sees him ultimately excluded from the universe.

    That being said, my point is with your confirmation of the statement "If God never imposed his law, there would be no sin."

    This would mean in some fashion God spoke sin into existence. Which is totally wrong. Sin must have existed before God spoke the Law to Moses. God teaching our errant free-will.

    God tolerated the fact we could choose against the good (sin), when He created us with free will.

    God did not create sin, but He tolerated the possibility of it.

    Yes, the fullness of truth can only be through Jesus Christ. But God wrote His Laws on our hearts for a reason.

    Your said ...." the ability to recognize the truth and live according to it--wisdom--is not something that comes organically from within us, at least in our fallen state"...

    But it is organically in us, put there by God. We are not born wholly corrupted, that is not Catholic teaching. We are wholly good, but with the weight of original sin. And after baptism only our proclivity to sin remains.

    We can know the truth through Faith and Reason. Faith in God's Laws and the Gospel as well as the Laws written on our hearts (conscience). And yes, forming our conscience through Faith and reason is our Christian goal to become like Christ.

    In Christ,