Good morning, Gentle Reader. I had a terrible night – a lot of pain and no sleep – so if what follows seems to come out of the Bizarro dimension, please bear with me. The subject on my mind strikes me as important enough to risk it.
At The Catholic Thing today, we find an important and thought-provoking essay by Monsignor Robert Batule about the interdependency of truth, law, and justice. The central thread of Monsignor Batule’s thinking is that just law must be founded on irrefutable truth:
In Saint John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, the personification of Roman law, to answer the charge that he is a king. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (Jn 18:37)
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” (Jn 18:37) Jesus proclaims. All of what Jesus just says being lost on Pilate, the procurator dumbfoundingly asks, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38)
When the truth does not matter, should we be surprised that justice is similarly mocked?
Pilate, of course, was about to kowtow to an ugly, angry mob: to condemn Jesus to death while releasing justly condemned Barabbas from his sentence. While that injustice was essential to Jesus’s Passion and Resurrection, and so in at least that sense was “necessary,” it also illustrates the prerequisite of all injustices: to contradict and contravene what is.
If the overwhelmingly greater part of contemporary “law” and governmental action is contradictory to the truth, we have a complete explanation for what has become of the Land of the Formerly Free. It’s very nearly a tautology that you cannot serve justice with untruths. But then, justice itself has been under attack for quite some time now.
Some time ago, I wrote:
In the ideological clashes of today, the attention of the greater mass of Americans is focused on secondary matters. Arguments over national defense, tax rates, social policy directions, regulatory structures, and so forth continue to rage, but with less prospect of being satisfactorily settled than ever before…because a critical pinion for all argument of any sort has been undermined near to collapse.
The pinion of which I speak is the concept of objective truth.
It’s hard for most people to grasp that objective truth is a conception, rather than something self-evident. Yet furious philosophical battles have been fought over it. The negative side has never conceded defeat. They’ve advanced reason after reason to doubt the existence of objective reality. As each one is destroyed, they shift to another. In a sense, their proposition is its own strongest weapon, for they respond rather frequently to even the most obvious points by saying, “No, that’s your truth” — an implicit claim that it’s the not the observation but the observer’s willingness to accept it that really matters.
John Q. Public has heard little of this, of course; it’s mostly fought in the ivory towers, and in the publications that cater to professional intellectuals. All the same, it matters to him more than he’s able to appreciate.
I’m sure my Gentle Readers can produce innumerable examples of this “your truth” business merely from reading the news. And it goes without saying that if “your truth” and “my truth” can be in contradiction, then objective truth — that is, the facts as they can be verified by any honest observer – cannot agree with us both. One of us is simply wrong. Indeed, we might both be wrong.
Monsignor Batule’s concern is with the contemporary tendency to dismiss objective facts in favor of personal preferences, specifically to evade the recognition that one has sinned. If we leave aside the matter of sin for just a moment, we confront the basic evil more clearly: Who has the power to decree what the facts of reality shall be? Anyone? Bueller?
Atheists might have a hard time with that question. The honest ones will allow that what is, is. However, to answer the question as proposed requires a larger concession: the existence of a Supreme Being with absolute power over reality as we experience it. In the absence of such a Being, facts must hang alone and unsupported in a metaphysical void. A bit of Heinlein is relevant here:
“May it please milord hero, the world is not what we wish it to be. It is what it is. No, I have over-assumed. Perhaps it is indeed what we wish it to be. Either way, it is what it is. Le voila! Behold it, self-demonstrating. Das Ding an Sich. Bite it. It is. Ai-je raison? Do I speak truly?”
But Who decided that “It” shall be that way?
The atheist would dismiss the question as inherently unsound – founded on a premise that there must be / have been a Decider. But without One, can we reach basic conclusions of any sort? Can we have a common conception of justice? Can we say about any particular event that “This is unjust” – and defend our position without recourse to teleology or solipsism?
Can we refute the supremely arrogant proposition that a man – or Man – can become God?
I can’t close this subject off without citing a passage from C. S. Lewis:
“Do you mean really to join us, young man?” said Straik. “There is no turning back once you have set your hand to the plow. And there are no reservations. The Head has sent for you. Do you understand—the Head? You will look upon one who was killed and is still alive. The resurrection of Jesus in the Bible was a symbol: tonight you shall see what it symbolized. This is real Man at last, and it claims all our allegiance.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” said Mark. The tension of his nerves distorted his voice into a hoarse blustering cry.
“My friend is quite right,” said Filostrato. “Our Head is the first of the New Men—the first that lives beyond animal life. As far as Nature is concerned he is already dead: if Nature had her way his brain would now be moldering in the grave. But he will speak to you within this hour, and—a word in your ear, my friend—you will obey his orders.”
“But who is it?” said Mark.
“It is François Alcasan,” said Filostrato.
“You mean the man who was guillotined?” gasped Mark.
Both the heads nodded. Both faces were close to him: in that disastrous light they looked like masks hanging in the air.
“You are frightened?” said Filostrato. “You will get over that. We are offering to make you one of us. Ahi—if you were outside, if you were mere canaglia you would have reason to be frightened. It is the beginning of all power. He lives forever. The giant time is conquered. And the giant space—he was already conquered too. One of our company has already traveled in space. True, he was betrayed and murdered and his manuscripts are imperfect: we have not yet been able to reconstruct his spaceship. But that will come.”
“It is the beginning of Man Immortal and Man Ubiquitous,” said Straik. “Man on the throne of the universe. It is what all the prophecies really meant.”
[C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength]
Ponder that passage awhile. For if there is no God, why should Man not strive to become God? Why should Man not work his will on life itself through cloning, zygotic microsurgery, combining genes from different species, experimenting on embryos, the harvesting of organs from unborn children, “sex change” surgeries, and so on? Why indeed is there anything wrong with snuffing out the lives of the “superannuated,” the “surplus population,” the “undesirables?”
If you can reason your way to any of that, keep your hands where I can see them.
Heavy stuff, I know. I grappled at length with all those questions before I returned to the Church. I have no doubt that others could say the same. If my own experience is relevant, sharing them with others doesn’t lighten the burden any.
But it’s the third Sunday in Lent, a good time for confronting such propositions in the raw. Our faculties for moral reasoning require quite as much regular exercise as our bodies. Tough metaphysical questions are ideal weights for the job. Having said that, I’ll close with my usual valedictory:
May God bless and keep you all.