Monday, July 18, 2011

Values in a Time of Upheaval Chapter 4: What Is Truth?

Welcome to the first installment of a series of posts reviewing Values in a Time of Upheaval a little more closely.  As I mentioned in Saturday's primer, I'm starting with Chapter 4 because it is the most striking and aligns precisely with the singular question that drives right to the heart of all of our other questions.

Pilate questions Jesus in The Passion of the Christ
What is Truth?

Those three words, asked of Jesus by Pilate as he stood falsely accused (cf. John 18:38), reverberate through history.  They seem to be amplified today, at a time when so many in our culture searching for the answer without finding it, or worse, have given up asking the question altogether.  Despite the temptation to give up in the face of what seems to be so much diversion and misinformation, the question has to be asked and cannot be avoided, for Truth cannot be found unless it (He) is sought with sincerity of heart.  The greatest danger lies when the seeker asks the question as a "loaded" question, with unmovable skepticism, and refuses to believe that it can lead to any answer other than that it is unanswerable.

The question, and the scene that surrounds it, are the centerpiece of the Pope's discussion in Chapter 4.  He begins the chapter by reflecting briefly on the prerequisite condition of freedom, that eventually leads into the deeper discussion:
The participation of everyone in power is the hallmark of freedom.  No one is to be merely the object of rule by others or only a person under control; everyone ought to be able to make a voluntary contribution to the totality of political activity.  We can all be free citizens only if we all have a genuine share in decision making.
So, to be truly free, we must all be able to contribute our "two cents," and know that our opinions are heard, weighed, and valued.  But being free in the sense of society does not mean being free to act on whatever whim we choose.  That freedom itself has to be anchored, grounded in something:
...the freedom of the individual to order his own life is declared to be the real goal of societal life.  Community has no value whatever in itself but exists only to allow the individual to be himself.  However, if the individual the highest goal lacks contents, it dissolves into thin air, since individual freedom can exist only when freedoms are correctly ordered.
So our freedom must be ordered, or oriented, toward something in order to have meaning.  But, if we have billions of people, each a sovereign, what common goal or purpose can their freedom all be oriented toward?  Probably the most common and widely accepted answer is the "common good" (i.e. the best possible opportunity for each individual to reach their full human potential, not to be confused with the collective good of society at large). But even the "common good" of man remains vague and has to be further defined and grounded.

When it comes to evaluating the ultimate goal of a democratic form of government, digging deeper into the meaning of the common good leads to one of two positions.

1. First, the radical relativistic position, which makes the governing activity itself the highest source of good, by replacing the historical, Christian concept of good and goodness with the idea that will of the majority ultimately decides and comes to occupy the position of "truth."  This is the secular-humanistic view, and is the basis of pure democracy.

2. Second, the "truth first" argument that, to quote the Holy Father, "truth is not a product of politics (the majority) but is antecedent to political activity and sheds light on it.  It is not praxis that creates truth but truth that makes praxis possible." This is the Christian view, and is the foundation of the republican form of government that began to be explored even before the time of Christ by Plato and Aristotle, where certain preexisting realities (what our Founders referred to as inalienable rights) set boundaries on the power of the state, which derives its power, in turn, from the consent of the people.

In his conclusions, the Pope notes that, in order to properly fulfill its role of regulating society the state must "[create] a balance of freedom and good things that allows each individual to lead a life worthy of man." This requires some power to guarantee the law, but it must remain clear that the government must use its power to "safeguard the rights of each individual and the welfare of all.  It is not the task of the state to create mankind's happiness, nor is it the task of the state to create new men. It is not the task of the state to change the world into paradise--nor can it do so."

The bottom line is that, to preserve freedom grounded in truth, that state must "receive from outside itself the essential measure of knowledge and truth with regard to that which is good."  Further,
According to Maritain, the primary right of a people to govern itself can never become a right to decide everything.
This reality--the clashing of  two opposing views--plays out briefly and dramatically in the exchange between Christ and Pilate.  Referring to the German scholar Heinrich Schlier, who wrote against groups within the Protestant churches who cooperated with the buildup of National Socialism, the Holy Father notes that, according to Schlier,
...although Jesus in his trial acknowledges the judicial authority of the state represented by Pilate, he also sets limits to this authority by saying that Pilate does not possess this authority on his own account but has it "from above" (19:11).  Pilate falsifies his power, and...the power of the state, as soon as he ceases to exercise it as the faithful administrator of a higher order that depends on truth.
Jesus didn't comment on which specific form of government would best serve the needs of man and society, but he did lay out, in this exchange, what a government--no matter what its form--could never do.  It could never take the place of God or supplant his truths with the will of a fallible majority.  The minute it seeks to do so, and attempts to eliminate him from the position of ultimate authority, it loses any legitimate claim of power.

If you've made it this far, thank you for hanging in there.  Please chime in with your thoughts about how this political philsophy might apply to us today.  Until the next installment (chapter TBD), God's peace.


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