CHRISTIANITY: Is There Life After Truth? by Richard John Neuhaus

Is There Life After Truth? by Richard John Neuhaus

From The Veritas Forum at Yale University, 1996

It’s a great privilege to be here, and the earnestness and sense of expectation that I know marks this gathering, Lux et Veritas at Yale.  Lux et Veritas – “Light and Truth.”  I mean, they really narrowed the subject down, didn’t they?  You know, it’s this passion for specialization in the academy today, you know?  Nobody wants to take on a big question.  So we just got light and truth.

Now, the title for my talk is “Is There Life After Truth?”  I didn’t want to keep you in suspense about this title; I wanted to answer the title question right away and say that, yes, there is life after truth, but it’s not a life that’s really worthy of human beings.

Truth as a Conversation Stopper?

And yet, the extraordinary thing (every time is an extraordinary time marked by much that is unprecedented, but our time is marked by something that I think we can truly say is quite astonishing) is that, at least at certain levels of intellectual discourse and conversation in American life, and particularly in the academy, it has been concluded that we do not need to deal with the question of truth.  That somehow, the question of truth itself is beyond the purview of serious intellectual discourse.  That the only truth, if you must use the word, is that there is no truth, at least, no truth that has any obliging force for anybody other than yourself.

When our Lord stood before Pilate and said, “For this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” (John 18:37), and Pilate’s famous, or infamous, answer, depending on your view – I certainly don’t want to suggest there’s one truth about this that I’d want to impose on you – was, “What is truth?”  You can take that as a cynical answer, as many interpreters do – a kind of jaded, nihilistic response on Pilate’s part.  He was a disillusioned, world-weary man, perhaps, who simply couldn’t be bothered by it, especially when truth within the context of the world he was involved in, with all these crazy Jews, was an impossibly perplexing and conflict-ridden thing.  “Who has time for truth?”   Maybe that’s how he said it.

Today, there are many who ask Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and take it to be the mark of sophistication.  It is assumed that we can’t get into the question of truth and still keep our society and our relationships going, because once you get into the question of truth, you’re going to come into conflict.  Truth is a conversation stopper, it is suggested.

I want to explore with you whether exactly the opposite is not the case – whether, in fact, the only conversation starter, and the only conversation sustainer that is worthy of human beings, is the question of truth.

The Search for Truth

Certainly, that is a proposition supported by a very venerable tradition of reflection on these matters.  It is supported, I would suggest, by the Christian tradition in all of its variety.  To be human is to seek the truth, and the quest for truth is a kind of open-ended adventure.  It really is an excitement, and yes, a kind of delight, into an exploration that is never ended in this life.  It’ll be ended at the time in which, as Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” and “we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”

Until then, this truth is something that more possesses us than we possess it.  It is much more a matter of being possessed by the truth than possessing the truth.  It is a matter of walking along a certain way, the way of the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6).  “Follow me.”

The Christian understanding is that truth is found only in following, in a faithful, trusting following.  It’s a following in which we can’t see where the next step is, where we really do say with Cardinal Newman, “O, lead, kindly light.”  We do not need to see the distant destination, we need to know only the company.  We need to know only the One who travels with us, who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  And wherever the honest quest for truth is going to take you, it’s going to take you to where I am.”

This is not a truth we need fear.  To know this truth is to be wondrously freed.  The same Person said, of course, in John 8, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

This is very countercultural, isn’t it?  It’s very much against the grain of the way people think about truth today.  In our conversation, we bring up the question of truth and say, “Well, this is true,” meaning that in some sense it’s binding on all of us.

“Hey, whoa, hold on there, that’s heavy.  You know, don’t lay this on me, you know.  I wanna be free.”

But we get this weird way of turning it all around in someone saying, “‘You will know the truth, and you will be free,’ and you’re not free until you know the truth.”

We’re not free until we’re bound to be free, until there’s something that has a claim upon us other than ourself, our aspirations, our psychological and intellectual and sexual tics and yearnings and desires for community.  When all of that is somehow brought into a constellation of obedience to something other than ourself, we start to become, to taste, what it means to be free.

It’s really against the grain, that obedience.  Talk about a word that doesn’t have a lot of appeal or cachet today.  It’s a lovely word; it’s from the Latin, oboedire – “to listen attentively, responsively; to be alert to the other”  To be bound to be free: you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

In most of our discourse today, and certainly in most academic settings, talk about truth makes people very uneasy, and especially if the truth turns to religion and questions of moral truth.  “Moral truth?  Surely that’s an oxymoron.”  This is because morality in the minds of many people is simply that on which we turn up the motive dial very high.  A moral issue is a gut issue.  A moral issue is an issue that we feel powerfully about.  So you have your moral truth, and I my moral truth: whatever works for you.

But that there could be a truth about the way human beings are made to be, built-in ends and destinations and directions, and right orderings of the human life, in such a way that some ways of living and some ways of being are true, and others are false – it’s hard to make this case today, especially when people suspect us of coming from a religious commitment.  To speak of moral truth is almost to throw open our jacket and expose the T-shirt that says, “Beware – fanatic!”

An Antifoundationalist View of Truth

We have to try to understand why.  This is a moment in history in which the question not only of moral truth, not only of religious truth, but of truth itself has, in very many circles of powerful culture-forming influence, been very determinedly bracketed off.  What has brought us to this pass?

We can call it antifoundationalism, deconstructionism, postmodernism; it goes by many different names and appears in many different variations.  But it’s certainly in the academy today, and not only in the academy, for the influence of the academy is insinuated throughout society.  As Richard Weaver says, “ideas have consequences,” and also, very bad ideas have consequences.  The idea is insinuated that what we call truth is but social convention, historically contingent, culturally conditioned, or as it’s more commonly said, socially constructed.

As Richard Rorty (one could argue, at least in America, that he is the single most influential philosopher, at least in the academy) says, “It’s constructed all the way down.”  So then, maybe there is no foundation, there’s no layer.  Once you start unpeeling all the things that have shaped your mind and constructed socially what you call truth, and you take off one layer after another – psychological, family influence, all the other stuff – and find there is no foundation anywhere.  There is no basis on which you can say that one thing is “more true” than another.  All you can say is what you prefer.

And this radical antifoundationalism, not only bracketing of the question of truth, but a very systematic and sophisticated demolition job on the concept of truth, leads to (though not necessarily immediately) Hobbes’s war of all against all, and return to barbarity in its most vulgar and extravagant and sensational forms, for some of the nicest people in the world think this way, beginning with Richard Rorty – an eminently nice person.

“What then,” you say to Richard Rorty, “is to prevent anything of which human capacities and ambitions and aspirations are capable?”  You don’t have to go immediately to the Holocaust, but you’d certainly want to ask about that as well.  What is to prevent slavery?  What is to prevent rape?  What is to prevent my simply taking advantage of you in whatever way it would seem to me to be in my interest to do so?

The answer is, “Well, we’re not that kind of people.  We’re not the kind of people who do those kind of things.”  And the tag that is put on this answer is a style of ironic liberalism, that we ironic liberals believe in certain liberal values about how we ought to be decent to one another, but with a profound sense of irony, knowing that none of them are true.  There’s no way of demonstrating that they’re any better, or that they’re superior to anybody else’s values.  But those are the ones that we, and people like us, “prefer.”

And if other people come along and say, “Well, you know, actually, the nice way you guys live is possible because it’s true” – if someone comes along and starts talking about truth that way, says Richard Rorty, or if they come along and start talking about truth in a way that contradicts the way we live, well, we’ll just have to understand that they’re not part of our circle of ironic liberalism.  They’ll just have to be declared crazy and kept somehow safely confined, where they cannot do public damage, cannot cause mischief by raising the question of truth.

There are many religious folk in the world today, some theologians of considerable intelligence, who welcome this (what’s called) postmodernist, deconstructionist, antifoundationist turn.  They say – and there’s some truth to this – “You know, this is really good, because now in the academy, all kinds of things can be discussed.

“Once we’ve decided that the old eighteenth-century secular rationalists – with their narrow, reductionist, stifling, little notions of what constitutes truth on the basis of very scientistic testing of everything by values and by procedures that cannot begin to understand what they, in fact, are dealing with – are no longer in control, and now that we’ve all decided that there is really no truth – there’s simply your truth and my truth and her truth and his truth, and there’s simply the truth of this community and of a body defined by some experience of suffering or victimhood or exclusion or marginalization – so that there are just all these different truths, well, that’s great for us Christians,” some Christian thinkers say.  We can understand why some Christian theologians and thinkers are talking that way, welcoming this kind of antifoundationaism, this kind of rejection of the very notion of truth.  It gives them an opportunity to insert their particular Christian truth.

Christian Responsibility Toward Truth

But I think it is a great mistake.  We Christians have an inescapable obligation to contend that there is truth, and that all truths finally serve the one truth.  There is one truth because there is one God, and one revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  And as much as we may find certain tactical advantages in this world of antifoundationalist, postmodernist chaos, we ought to be extremely careful not to sup with the devil, or else we undermine exactly what it is that we, as Christians, have to propose.

It’s not only for the sake of the Christian gospel, it’s for the sake of our responsibility in our society.  It’s a socially disastrous, community destroying thing to deny that there is a truth that binds us together – Christian and Jew and Muslim and believer and nonbeliever and atheist and secular and black and white and Asian.  To believe that there is a truth,  however elusive, however difficult for us to articulate it, however much we may frequently discern it in manners that are sharply in conflict, and to nonetheless insist that there is a truth to discern and articulate is part of our responsibility as human beings, and as Christians.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life – I’m not simply the way, the truth, and the life for people who happen to believe that I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  It’s not just a truth for Christians.

The very heart of the Christian faith is caught up in what sounds like the very esoteric, strange, academic, philosophical discussions that I was talking about, about postmodernism and antifoundationalism and all of that.

You say, “Well, that’s just all academic buzz.  That’s just the way in which the leisure of the classes is consumed.  That’s just what academics do, because they don’t have anything else to do.”

No, it’s very important to believe that we are part of one world that is brought into being and is directed toward – from eternity to eternity, from alpha to omega – the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

It’s publicly important.  Aristotle said that our public responsibility as citizens – as people who accept some responsibility for our part in the polis, the city of man, the Earthly city – is that we are always to be engaging one another and deliberating the question of how we ought to order our life together.

The “ought” there clearly signals that it’s a moral question.  The fact that we are to be deliberating it as rational, reasonable beings means that there must be something to deliberate; there must be a truth.  There must be a right answer or many right answers in various ways, and different ways of putting the question, and many wrong answers.  But it is not a futile deliberation.

In a world in which people have stopped talking about truth or have despaired of truth or have agreed with those who say that Pontius Pilate’s question was a conversation stopper and not a conversation starter – in such a world there is no way to deliberate the question how we ought to order our life together.  There’s only power and propaganda and grievance and anger and caucuses and anticaucuses and special interest groups and victims and vengeance.  That’s the kind of world we increasingly live in, because we’ve stopped believing, or so many have stopped believing, that there is a truth that we can deliberate together.

At this time in world history, at the end of the twentieth century, the bloodiest and most horrible century in all of human history, we’ve piled up more corpses and loosed more rivers of blood than any century in human history.  Incidentally, it’s also the century that produced the great ideologies that denied the Christian and the classic Aristotelian understanding of truth, and denied our obligation as reasonable persons to engage that truth and to engage one another in our quest to engage that truth more fully.

Christians have a great obligation for God’s world.  This is the world of God’s creating and of God’s redeeming love.  God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.  We have a great obligation to defend the humanum, to defend the unity of humankind at a time when there are so many powerful, destructive, satanic forces posited against it.

This is a time, as we prepare to cross the threshold into the third millennium, to reassert a genuine, a Christian, biblical, humane humanism that can, with the whole of our tradition, in the spirit of Psalm 8, stand in awe and wonder at what is man: What is this humanum?  A little less than the angels.  Why should God have become humanum, to become one of us?  To assert truth in public.  It’s the great task of our generation, to learn how to do it persuasively and winsomely and in a manner that does not violate, but strengthens the bonds of civility.

The American experiment within the humanum has been both blessing and curse in so many different ways, but to the extent it has been blessing (and that it has been in at least a penultimate manner), it is because it was premised on certain truths, as in, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  Not just rhetorical ruffle, that.  That’s a substantive statement.  And the whole of the American experiment, the republican, democratic, self-governing people is premised on the fact that there are truths to be held.

Today, not only in literary criticism or in the backwaters of academic fashion and cachet, but also in our courts and in the public square, anybody who seriously proposed that there are truths to be held (i.e., “We hold these truths – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, endowed by their Creator, nature and nature’s God”) – would not simply be considered as indulging a propensity for flowery language in public.  They’d be laughed or forced out of court.

What’s happening in our society today, to a very great extent, when we talk about the culture wars and the conflicts over the definition of what American society is, is that many people speak with great alarm about the extreme religious right.  What they’re terrified by, for the most part, is due to a moment in American history where things have become so systematic, so cynical and so contemptuous of the common people in this program for the denial of truth in public, that is has triggered a response.  The response will often be populist and raucous and rough and vulgar – that’s the way democracy works.  (The word demos, “the ordinary people,” are often vulgar and raucous and not the way we do things here.)

But we have to decide whether we believe that in some powerful sense, there is a necessity to this that may look reactive.  That whether this may not, in fact, be the portent of a more promising moment in which we might again, in our society (and not least of all in our universities) begin to do what Aristotle says is the human and humanizing political task, mainly, to deliberate how ought we to order our life together.

I tell you what I think about this postmodernist, deconstructionist, antifoundationalist (use what word you will) move; I don’t think it’s for long.  I don’t think it’s for long because finally, the dogma that “there is no truth other than the dogma that there is no truth” is not very interesting.  It’s kind of dumb, really.

It’s internally incoherent.  It cannot provide any interesting answers or proposals or even hypotheses about how we ought to live, what kind of person we ought to be, what’s worthy of aspiring to.  Indeed, it cannot even supply any stories of real evil and of the demonic and of the terrible and the terrorizing in human life.  It’s a vacuous moment in-between things.

Need For a Belief System in Our Century

People need some kind of – call it a belief system, call it a Weltanschauung, a worldview – way of putting things together amid stories, rituals.  Ultimately, Christians know what people are looking for, in all of the floundering about, a belief system, a way of making sense of things.  Augustine said it sixteen-hundred-plus years ago, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

But for many whose hearts do not rest in God, they’ll grab at other belief systems.  You recall G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful line: “The problem with people who don’t believe in God is not that they will end up believing in nothing.  The problem is they’ll end up believing in anything.”

Of course, Chesterton was right.  God knows that our century has borne witness to this.  As distinct from today’s fashion of – let’s just use the word postmodernism for the moment – think of what earlier in the twentieth century were the great belief systems, the great kind of functional religions explanatory systems for making sense of reality.  Think of Marx, Freud, Darwin.

As a youngster and coming to an intellectual age, I have to confess that Marx’s notion of class struggle and the economic being the real epicenter of reality and of world historical-defining change always seemed to me rather preposterous.  It was, to me, as preposterous as Freud’s notion of sexual infant experience being determinant to the development of the person and community.

But at least it was something to believe.  They claimed to have the truth.  These theories were in the current jargon of the day, the hegemonic theories of Western intellectual life at the most elite, the most educated, sectors of cultural influence.

Today Marx is dead, for all practical purposes – though there are still a few in academic departments who have not received the news.  Freud is dead, at least as a major belief system. There are a few psychoanalysts who are motivated by self-interest, rightly understood as Tocqueville would say, “who resist the announcement of the death of Freud.”  But there you are.

And Darwin?  Well, it’s two down and one to go.  Darwin still continues because for many he’s the last redoubt of the indubitable – which is to say that if you really want to hold on to an absolutely rock bottom, empirically verifiable, indisputable fact of sheer matter, then you’ll want to say, as incoherent as it may be to many other people, that matter causes itself.  But if you want to get more sophisticated, you don’t say that matter causes itself, because that assumes some kind of contingent cause-effect relationship.  You simply say, “Matter is.”  You become, in as radical a way as you possibly can, a materialist, all the way down.  Well, then you still have company in Darwin.

Richard Rorty in The New Republic had an essay on some of the critiques that have been raised about Darwinism recently, and he concludes his essay in defense of Darwin with the words, “Whatever may be the truth of these critiques, we must keep faith with Darwin.

I thought, Gee, this is touching.  This is poignant.  I mean, my heart goes out to a devotee of a belief system so besieged, so embattled, yet he holds on, keeping faith with Darwin.  In his better moments he knows that we can’t keep faith with Darwin or anyone else.  Darwin is no foundation.  There is no foundation, and no one’s pointing to one.  There is no faith at all.

There is what has been aptly described in our culture as a mode of debonair nihilism.  It’s a nihilism that doesn’t understand how deadly nihilism is.  It’s a nihilism that dances and makes jokes at the edge of the abyss – and it’s not gallows humor, not black humor, as it used to be called, because they don’t know it is the abyss.  Lionel Trilling, the great literary critic at Columbia University, describes his students to whom, through the great literary works of history, he would introduce the prospect of nothing, the abyss, the heart of darkness.  And he describes his students, the brightest and the best of America, who looked over and said, “Oh, that’s the abyss is it?  Interesting.”

So much for the abyss.  So much for the loss of truth, which is the loss of the capacity to lose ourselves to that at which we wonder, at the capacity to recognize evil.  It’s now debonair nihilism.

What is our historical moment like?  It’s like what Nietzsche rightly described as the Last Man.  The Last Man, you will recall, is the last man to receive the news that God is dead, or he had perhaps heard it but didn’t know that it meant the end of everything.  He still went on talking, chattering about justice and about fairness and about love and about community, and even words like right and wrong.  He went on and on talking this way, programmed to talk that way as he was, without realizing that now that God is dead, all that language is empty.  It is just noise.

Fears About Truth Claims in the Public Square

Well, an extraordinary time.  One thing that we have witnessed, and it’s still happening in different ways, is the collapse of the aggressive confidence of the secular enlightenment of the eighteenth century, understood as a kind of rationalism.  Very few people today believe that.  Very few people today really believe that you can get down by a course of radical skepticism, by a systematic hermeneutic of suspicion, to some kind of truth that is indubitable.

It was René Descartes, a fine Christian, who introduced that train of thinking.  He basically said, “I will not accept anything as true that I can reasonably doubt.”  And others took it farther – David Hume.  And so did many others, in many different ways – try to get down to that lost redoubt of the indubitable, of the undoubtable.

Why did they do that?  For a good and important reason, one we should understand: because they lived in a world in which dogmatic truths and conflict were destroying the world.  They lived in a time that had been scarred and bruised and bloodied by the wars of religion.  In 1996, we are still living the consequences of the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It’s very important for you to understand this: Why is it that so many secular academics and leaders here at Yale University, or any other university in the country, believe that religion does not really have an appropriate role in public, in the public life of the university?  Why do they even fear religion as something divisive and as destructive of the kind of community and excellences that a university ought to pursue?  Because deep within the history of the Western world is the experience of religion being precisely that, as were the wars of religion.

The philosophers and the thinkers, many of them admirable Christians, Protestant and Catholic, very committed, nonetheless believed that it was their task to develop a kind of public discourse that could prescind, or bracket, the question of truth.  This became, over time, not simply a well-intended effort in order to avoid certain kinds of religiously based conflict in the public square, but an effort to advance an aggressively militant secularism, to create what someone has called, “the naked public square.”  It was a public life, a public university, and all public space sanitized of any religion or religiously grounded truth claims, moral or otherwise.  And that’s the world in which we live.

And yet that world is coming to an end, at least at this moment, by ushering in the multicultural, antifoundationalist, postmodernistic fads that we have already talked about.  But we have to believe that in the years ahead, and especially if Christians and Jews and other reasonable people do their job and press for the unity of truth – for the reality of truths which must, of necessity, be one – ultimately, this present moment of chaos, of debonair nihilism, of ironic liberalism, will not be for long.

But we have to demonstrate also that we, as Christians, have understood some of the lessons of the past.  We have understood how Christians claiming to possess the truth can indeed be destructive of public discourse.  Christians who are overwhelmingly confident that they actually possess the truth in the sense of being in control of the truth can become the enemies of civil discourse.  It is not yet clear, by any means, in the Christian community across the board, that Christians have come to understand why it is a matter of religious obligation for us to be not simply tolerant of those with whom we disagree but to eagerly engage them, for that’s the course of love.

People who worry about the role of religion in public life say, “Look, at all those religious fanatics out there – they’re going to have at one another.  There’s going to be blood all over the place.”  We cannot simply brush off that fear, as though it has no historical justification.  We have to make clear that we, today, understand that we do not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God, because we know it is the will of God that we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God.  We must demonstrate that our tolerance, our respect for civility, our respect for discourse around Aristotle’s question, “How ought we to order our life together,” is itself grounded not in a half-held, half-hearted religious conviction, but in religious, specifically Christian, biblical imperatives.

Until that is clear to our secularist friends, their suspicion and their fear of the tonalities of religious truth claims in public will not be allayed – not at all.

Challenge of the Christian Intellectual

These are the great questions of our time, Lux et Veritas.  It’s a grand adventure to be a Christian intellectual.  I was surprised to see, I think it was in Christianity Today, about a Veritas Forum at Harvard, and some undergraduate at Harvard was quoted as saying, “This was the biggest surprise, that you could say you’re a Christian intellectual and not be crazy.”

I thought, Gee, what a strange thing to have to say.  Why, to be a Christian is to be in a grand, noble, intellectual tradition, so much grander, so much more various, so much richer in its diversities than anything that the brightest and best of our academic leaderships today could possibly produce.  I mean, who, just in terms of intellectual excitement, in terms of provocation, in terms of depth of thought, would you rather read on the nature of the subject itself, in search of truths?  Would you rather read Michel Foucault or Augustine?  Would you rather read John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice or Augustine’s City of God?

Not because they’re Christian, but because they’re more interesting – ever so much more interesting.  They’re ever so much more daring to ask the big questions about the why of everything and the what for of everything.  It’s an intellectual tradition of breathtaking audacity.  The company that we are in, sisters and brothers, the company of classic Greece, which has been incorporated into the Christian tradition, of Plato and Aristotle, all of Paul, of Origin, of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Sienna, and Teresa of Ávila, among the moderns – C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Hans Urs von Balthasar – the list goes on and on.

It is the largest, the richest, the grandest evidence of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, which means also reconciling the human intellect to  himself, tending us toward our proper end, ordering us toward the truth, ultimately toward the One who is the way, the truth, and the life.  It is open-ended, and it’ll go on all our lives, and all the lives of our children and our children’s children, until our Lord Jesus returns in glory, and we know, even as we are known, and see no longer through a glass darkly but then face to face.

So, it can be construed that Pilate asked the right question, “What is truth?”  Yeah, that’s the right question.  And it’s not a conversation stopper; it’s a conversation starter.  Now let the conversation begin.

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