Fr Billy Swan
As C.S. Lewis shared his grief after the death of his wife, the greatest compliment he paid to her was that she wanted the truth at any price (A Grief Observed, Harper Collins, 1994, p. 28). High praise indeed but not the type we normally hear in funeral eulogies these days or when we come to celebrate the qualities we admire in other people. For Lewis, his wife’s passion for the truth, confirmed and inspired his own conviction of how important it is for the future of humanity - to seek the truth and conform oneself to it. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis describes a disturbing development in the evolution of the age in which he lived; namely that instead of conforming ourselves to the truth, we bend the truth to what we want it to say: “For the wise people of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline and virtue. For modern humanity, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of humans, and the solution is a technique” (The Abolition of Man, Macmillan, 1943, p. 87-88). Lewis wrote these words in the middle of the twentieth century. In the light of almost eighty years since then, they can only be described as prophetic as our appreciation for objective truth weakens all the time. In the words of Bishop Barron, young people in particular are vulnerable to what he describes as a “deeply distorting ideology, that is not only distancing them from reality, but also making real argument about most matters of importance, including religion, virtually impossible as reality shifts and drifts according to the wills of individuals” (Arguing Religion, 38).
The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi to the crib in Bethlehem having followed the light of the star which led them to Christ. In this episode from Matthew’s Gospel, we are invited to see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that all the peoples of the earth would be led to the God of Israel with a joyful, trusting faith and bow down in worship before him (cf. Is. 2:3). For generations of the faithful, these wise men represent the whole of humanity whose thirst for truth propels them forward and is at the beginning of every religious quest. They are symbolic of the pull, the fascination being exerted on them by God’s objective truth and unfolding plan. The Magi, like us, have felt something of the magnetism of God and his truth that leads us forward to know not just some of the truth the whole truth. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “These figures are forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age…They represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward Christ” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Image Publishing, p. 96, 97).
Here Benedict urges every honest enquirer and indeed all the baptized to follow the light of truth wherever it leads. By truth we mean not just scientific truth such as data or knowledge about things but also religious truth that asks deeper questions about the causes and purposes of things. The Magi did not pursue data or scientific facts. They sought a person “the infant king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). Notice too how the Gospel says that as they set out on their journey, they followed “his star” which led them to Christ. And when they saw the star it “filled them with delight” (Matt. 2:10). Seeking the fullness of truth is a delightful enterprise and honestly seeking it leads us to the source of truth who is Jesus himself, the “truth”, the way and the life (John 14:6).
The problem with our modern culture is that although we still value the truth, we are more and more losing our desire to live according to the truth. This is because of how we perceive truth that inconveniences us and might impinge on our freedom. And if our freedom is curtailed by a truth that is unwelcome then our fear of being unhappy intensifies. But as Thomas Merton correctly points out: “It is the duty of man to try to focus on the truth whatever it may be and not to deceive himself by trying to make the truth conform to what makes him happy” (The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, W. H. Shannon, ed., 2011, p. 321). This means placing a higher value on what is true than my personal desires and wishes. Wanting something to be true does not make it true. Truth is not invented but discovered.
The consequences of a waning desire to live by what is true leads to what Lewis prophesized – the abolition of man. This happens on a grand scale when human rights are not acknowledged but rather conferred or denied by one group more powerful than another. This is what we saw in the last century with the ideology of National Socialism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union. It is played out today in eugenics and the abortion industry where the rights and lives of the unborn are bracketed out in order to focus exclusively on the choice and welfare of the mother, important as this is. It is seen in the inconvenient truth of climate change when scientific data and predictions are ignored in order to protect our freedoms, livelihoods and lifestyles.
Yet, our half-hearted commitment to truth can also lead us in more subtle ways to manipulate the world into delivering what we want. In his book 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson shines a light on our tendency to deceive or to put it another way, not to live by the truth. In a chapter called “Tell the Truth - Or at Least Don’t Lie”, Peterson talks about what he calls “life-lies” that we court, even daily. Examples include students giving professors in College what they want to hear; garnering credit for myself; justifying my cynicism; proving that I am right; ensuring that everyone likes me; to always appear as the sainted one. For Peterson, what all of these strategies have in common is that they try to manipulate reality with perception (12 Rules for Life, p. 209-210).
The feast of the Epiphany is a call to conversion. It is a call to stop manipulating reality with perception and to begin conforming perception and ourselves to what is real and what is true. It is about our desire to love the truth, seek the whole truth and letting the light of truth lead us to wherever it takes us. It is about becoming more like Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis’ wife, and to want the truth at any price.
I conclude with a prayer for the honest seeker of truth that contains the hope that all who honestly pursue the light of truth will be led, like the Magi, to the source of truth who is Jesus Christ.
“God, I don't know whether you even exist. I'm a skeptic. I doubt. I think you may be only a myth. But I'm not certain (at least when I'm completely honest with myself). So, if you do exist, and if you really did promise to reward all seekers, you must be hearing me now. So I hereby declare myself a seeker, a seeker of the truth, whatever and wherever it is. I want to know the truth and live the truth. If you are the truth, please help me” (Peter Kreeft and Ron Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Intervarsity Press, 1994, p. 387).