"Creation of Adam" (detail) by Michelangelo

“Creation of Adam” (detail) by Michelangelo

What is truth?

This is not an idle question, especially for teenagers. They may not ask it this way but there is a hunger, a need, an intense yearning to grab onto something that makes sense of their existence. The young man’s question to Jesus “Master, what must I do?” (Mk 10:17ff) is not merely a pragmatic question. It is a heart-felt plea for meaning and direction. Jesus’ answer leaves the young man sad and he walks away. He is not willing to give everything up to follow Jesus, he does not recognize THE TRUTH about himself—namely that he is meant for union with God—even when He stands before him.

This is not an idle question for humanity either. “The pragmatist’s question, tossed off with a degree of skepticism, is a very serious question, bound up with the fate of mankind. What then, is truth? … Can it serve as a criterion for our intellect and will, both in individual choices and in the life of the community?”[i] Let’s not kid ourselves: as go our young people so goes the future of mankind. You get a real sense of this when you’re supervising five hundred fourteen-year-olds who are all in a cafeteria during lunch in the middle of a Canadian winter!!

For teenagers, then, this is perhaps THE most important intellectual question for this simple reason:

If teenagers do not enter their adult years already convinced of the reality of Objective Truth, knowable by human reason, they will be increasingly enslaved by the idea that there is no common universal truth—a philosophical position known as Subjectivism.

I know my statement sounds bold and generalized but personal experience and common sense has taught me that this is the case. Teenage years are vitally important. I tell my students that they are determining what virtues and vices may well define the rest of their lives. Soon they will find themselves unable to change without great difficulty so they better set the course now while they’re more flexible and are not subject to increasingly difficult demands in life. From discussions I’ve had with former students who are now in secular university those who did not leave high school convinced of an objective truth are even more entrenched in their subjectivism and skepticism, while those who left on a firm foundation have managed to at least keep their bearings.

A working definition is needed…

In the true Socratic Method I don’t ‘give’ a definition but have the students work towards one based on examining their answers. The most common response provided when asked ‘what is truth?’ is…

“That depends, what is true for you may not be true for me.”

“So, you’re saying that the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth.”

Heads nod.

“Isn’t that a contradiction?”

Shocked looks …… contradiction?! …..

“How can you negate absolute truth with a statement of absolute truth? The statement ‘there are NO absolutes” is itself an absolute.

This is where I take my students back to the Universals I spoke of two articles ago. Since the intellect grasps universals that have an objective reality, then there must be Universal Truths.

How do we know what these Universal Truths are? By examining the First Principle of Being and Essence, which we examined briefly in the last article. We know there are some absolute principles that apply to all ‘being’.

This leads us to a working definition of “truth.” Permit me a few long quotes from Pope Benedict where he reflects on Pilate’s question “What is Truth?”

The classic definition from scholastic philosophy designates truth as “adequatio intellectus et rei” (conformity between the intellect and reality; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q.21, a.2c). If a man’s intellect reflects a thing as it is in itself, then he has found truth: but only a small fragment of reality—not truth in its grandeur and integrity.

We come closer to what Jesus meant with another of Saint Thomas’ teachings: Truth is in God’s intellect properly and firstly (proprie et primo); in human intellect it is present properly and derivatively (proprie quidem et secundario)” (De Verit,. Q. 1, a. 4c). And in conclusion we arrive at the succinct formula: God is “ipsa summa et prima veritas” (truth itself, the sovereign and first truth; Summa Theologia I, q. 16, a. 5 c). [ii]

TRUTH, therefore, is intrinsically linked to REALITY. Not reality as we wish it to be, or as we construct or manipulate it, but as it truly is, independent of man’s intellect and will. Truth then requires from the human person attitudes of humility and courage. Humility, so as to accept what is true and conform ourselves to it; courage to give witness, by our lives and choices, to what is true, for the good of others and ourselves.

“Let us say plainly: the unredeemed state of the world consists precisely in the failure to understand the meaning of creation, in the failure to recognize truth; as a result, the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world.” [iii]

“That is why we must have the courage to dare to say: Yes, man must seek the truth; he is capable of truth. … truth also points out to us those constant values which have made mankind great. That is why the humility to recognize the truth and to accept it as a standard has to be relearned and practiced again.

“The truth comes to rule, not through violence, but rather through its own power; this is the central theme of John’s Gospel: When brought before Pilate, Jesus professes that he himself is The Truth and the witness to the truth. He does not defend the truth with legions but rather makes it visible through his Passion and thereby also implements it.” [iv]

Ideas Have Consequences

We come now full circle back to where we started above. Young people, if they have not become overly jaded due to a loss of innocence, intuitively want their lives to have meaning, to have purpose … they want to be SOMEBODY of value. Yet at the same time they are surrounded by a culture that in many ways, direct or subtle, keeps telling them that life has no meaning, no purpose except what they themselves give it, and they feel inadequate to the task. They want SOMETHING or SOMEONE they can trust, that they can stake their future lives on. If we don’t help them find this ultimate meaning in their lives they will have to settle for hedonistic materialism, something that is eventually unsatisfying. Only in Jesus will they find the fulfillment of all their longings; intellectual and spiritual.

Here we can link FAITH and REASON for our students. As was just mentioned above one of the most memorable exchanges in the Passion Narrative comes between Pilate and Jesus. Jesus, asked to explain his actions, states that “The reason I was born, the reason why I came into the world, is to testify to the truth. Anyone committed to the truth hears my voice.” Pilate then asks that age old question “What is Truth?” (Jn 18:37-38).

Only John the Evangelist recounts this dialogue. John, then living in Ephesus, was writing to a predominantly Greek audience and as such he wanted to speak to them on levels they could understand; namely reason and philosophy. In Greek the word LOGOS means “Word” or “Reason” (where we get the word LOGIC), hence John begins his Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God!” (Jn 1:1)

This use of the word LOGOS is particularly deliberate because Heraclitus, a philosopher who lived in Ephesus in the fifth century B.C., was the first to use the word LOGOS to designate the ordering pattern that is discernable in the changing nature of the world. Though he failed to explain this ordering pattern correctly the concept of an ordering pattern, a fundamental logic in the cosmos, was the basis of reflection for generations of philosophers after him.

Pilate’s question, therefore, would have resonated deeply with the people of Ephesus, the first to hear John’s Gospel. The Ephesians would have recognized immediately the connection John was trying to make between the LOGOS of Heraclitus and the LOGOS that is Jesus. To understand LOGOS was to understand the TRUTH of things. The “logic” of the cosmos, of reality, is Jesus himself, God Incarnate!

Indeed, TRUTH is a recurring theme in John’s Gospel: the “testimony” of John the Baptist (1:8ff), the dialogue in the Temple (8:43ff), the declaration in the Upper Room that “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6) and finally the Evangelists own testimony that what he recorded was “true” (21:24) are among a few of the instances where John uses the word “truth.”

In fact, John records Jesus going so far as to say that REALITY is the final judge. If we reject Jesus we reject the Truth, and in the end the Truth Spoken (Reality) will have the final say. [v] In John 12:48 Jesus proclaims:

“Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words already has his judge, namely, the word I have spoken—it is that which will condemn him on the last day.”

By leading our students through this progression of ideas we can help them see that the rational acceptance of Universal Truth goes hand in hand with acceptance of Truth Incarnate, Jesus Christ. They will have found something, SOMEONE, they can trust their lives with. Lessened will be the temptation to see belief in Christ as a flight into fantasy or a leap of faith, but rather the opposite, namely that to accept Christ is to accept reality and that to deny Christ is to deny Ultimate Reality; a denial that defines irrationality.


[i] Pope Benedict XVI; Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection; Ignatius, 2011; p.191

[ii] ibid. p.192.

[iii] Ibid. p.193

[iv] Pope Benedict XVI & Peter Seewald; Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times; Ignatius, 2010, p51

[v] It is good to recall that in the act of creating God “spoke” the Universe, Reality,  into being. “God said, let there be …”

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences by Dennis Buonafede. Check back next Wednesday for another article.

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