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The whole truth, and nothing but the truth

Fr. Nicholas Ayo | Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The truth is harder to come by than law courts may hope for. The “whole truth and nothing but the truth” may be God’s alone. We pursue with difficulty a multiplicity of truths. “What is truth,” Pontius Pilate said, and as a governor he was well versed in partisan politics. Truth is always a bit more complicated. I tell my students on the first day of class the following caution: “I do not always say what I mean; I do not always mean what I say, and what you heard is not what I said.” Perhaps that disclaimer is an exaggeration, but it should give pause. Pursuit of truth is fraught with the complications of saying and hearing. I also tell my students what window I claim to have on the truth. I am a white, middle-class, American, male, cleric. That’s my background and my viewpoint, and I am fully aware that viewpoint is enough to peeve the whole world. My viewpoint, however, is neither worse nor better than another, all things being equal, but it is limited. Everyone else sees from a limited viewpoint as well, though perhaps not everyone will recognize his or her own situation. No one knows the whole truth and nothing but the truth but God alone. Uniquely God does not observe the truth; God is the truth. God creates the truth that we discover.

Propaganda, ideology, advocacy, special interests, advertising, and political rhetoric do not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Such discourses tell what is good about their position and what is not good about their opponent or competitor. What is not good about their own position and what is good about their opponent or competitor is passed over in silence. Resumés tell what is strong about their authors and overlook what is weak. Sacramental confession tells our sins but is silent about our virtues. The whole truth and nothing but the truth may still elude us.

Post-modernism has urged a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” One need not conclude, however, that the pursuit of truth is impossible. One need conclude only that truth comes with historical baggage and packaged in language that is opaque. Christianity for many centuries was cozy with slavery in its midst, and today is appalled by slavery. Christianity for many centuries was cozy with no freedom of religion, and today is appalled by lack of religious freedom. I like to think such changes were changes to stay the same. The truth of human dignity was never denied and always acclaimed, but it was not understood that slave people were human. The persecution of heretics was thought to be quarantine of a spiritual “Typhoid Mary,” who might infect unto spiritual death a whole population, but it was not understood that neither the faith that saves nor personal conscience can be compelled. Notre Dame became a coed university in 1972. It changed to stay the same. Notre Dame was devoted to educating the leaders of society – doctors, lawyers, mayors, professors, bankers, editors, et al. When women became involved in those professions, then women belonged at Notre Dame, which changed in order to stay the same.

Human beings can know truth, but in this world not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Whether we quote Sacred Scriptures or appeal “to what the Church teaches,” or whether we cite empirical science or claim human wisdom, human beings are limited in knowledge and often spin the truth because sin taints us all. That should come as no surprise to those who know our human minds are darkened and our wills are weakened, and that we need the Holy Spirit, given to all people, who illumines our minds and enkindles our hearts. A deep humility befits us all, believer and unbeliever alike, in our pursuit of the “whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

This week’s Faithpoint is written by Fr. Nicholas Ayo, CSC, Professor in the Program of Liberal Studies. He can be reached at ayo.1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Faithpoint are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.