On Christian Otherness

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Beloved Pope Benedict XVI, or “pope emeritus” as he is now, often had words on the topic of “truth.” I have put the word between mischievous rabbit ears, in recollection of our present pontiff, not because I doubt there is such a thing, but because the world doubts it. And even here, I am writing to the world, as commentators often remind me. Or speaking to myself: for I have noticed that I am rather worldly, and catch myself in some worldly posture many times each day.

Instead, sometimes I capitalize the word, as, Truth. This is to be intentionally unworldly, though it does not follow one is effectively so. For Truth does not reside in the handling of words, as wordwrights may so easily assume. We cannot make Truth the way we weave, say, tapestries and carpets, to pad our little worldly cells.

But Truth may suddenly appear through them, often without the maker’s intention. By a chance construction, it might even give him away. Media reporting, for instance, is full of little phrases, unintentionally true. It is hard to avoid this, I should think, in any human language, for they have all been used in attempts to express truth in the past.

What is memorable will float up again, and as we see from reading the Gospels, or the lives of Saints, God has contrived in the Creation that what is mysteriously True will also be memorable. It can be detected in the manner of musical pitch; something “rings true.” It resonates in us, as if we were designed to carry the tune.

It is, to be Platonic about this – and why not, when discussing the transcendentals? – as if we had heard it before, or seen something before, even if perhaps we hadn’t heard or seen. The worldly may dismiss this as a kind of déjà vu, and turn for an explanation to, say, pharmacology. But even the most confirmed worldling will puzzle, when it happens to him.

“Maybe it is possible to do or be good. Maybe there is such a thing as beauty. Maybe truth is something that can be known. Stranger things have happened.”

Here I am trying to recall my own adolescent thinking, before I lost my faith in atheism, and submitted, a broken man, to the possibility that Christ might be, in addition to an intriguing historical figure, the Son of God.

A functioning narcissist, as most adolescents (I was approaching the age of twenty-three), my first response to this thinking was alarm. And after that, a kind of shame: not at my exposure in the Light of Christ, but rather towards my friends and companions. They might subtly ostracize me, the way I had subtly ostracized anyone who spoke in “absolutist,” non-relative language. I might be disowned as a kook, as a religious nut job. The functioning narcissist does not like that.

Benedict XVI at La Scala in 2013
Benedict XVI at La Scala in 2013

Perhaps I could disguise my thoughts, in relativist language, and thereby preserve at least some aura of comfortable untruth, while partaking in the Truth, privately. Such, such were the ways I can remember thinking, as the Truth was closing in on me.

“Hope springs eternal,” in the animal as well as the spiritual mind. But in this very thought, I could see that the Truth was winning. Henceforth, I would have to be the fool, the “born again” whether Protestant or Catholic. For the Truth was chewing through my intellectual calluses, a process that is externally painful, though marked with an interior joy.

A joy that is rather odd, however.

In my generation, raised through the ’sixties, we were told – in the media, in school, by our parents, everywhere – to “seek the truth within.” The fallout from this is obvious today, in a glib, irrational smugness, bequeathed to our children and grandchildren. If the truth is “within” we need not search very far. For even if a man is fat, the truth will be found within a foot of his surface. He has only to burp, and the truth will come out.

The analogy to a musical instrument might be inserted here. A violin will resonate nicely, whether plucked, or by the bow on the strings. But the truth is not “within.” It cannot make music by itself. For that it must be played upon. Something external to the violin must call upon its resources. Locked in its case, it will make no sound, except perhaps an unpleasant prang if something very heavy is dropped on it. After which it still will make no music.

I prefer the violin be cared for, tuned, and played by a master; as by a gentleman I heard recently play a long movement by Bach. “I want that adagio to go on folevah,” said he, in his Japanese accent, wistfully at the end. This struck me as a godly thing to say.

For the purposes of this analogy, perhaps Bach (“the Fifth Gospel,” as my organist aunt used to call his works) has touched the strings, by means of many successive intercessions, which began when God touched Bach. But the mechanism is not so important. It is the music on which we are fixed.

God, in this analogy, is the ultimate composer. We are the fiddle, in His reaching down. His Truth is something far beyond ourselves, yet so near that we can resonate with it.

I mentioned old Ratzinger at the start, because he kept explaining this, usually in analogies less awkward. I’ve been reading Peter Seewald’s last book-length interview with him, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, in my attempt to catch up with the last papacy. No relativist at all, our retired Holy Father was very clear on one crucial point.

We do not embrace the Truth. It is rather the Truth that embraces us. At the present hour, this comes through like music.

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David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.



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