Understanding Truth Relationally

From Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, § 31-32:

…there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being-the one who seeks the truth-is also the one who lives by belief.

In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.

It should be stressed that the truths sought in this interpersonal relationship are not primarily empirical or philosophical. Rather, what is sought is the truth of the person—what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within. Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security. At the same time, however, knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them.

2 responses to “Understanding Truth Relationally”

  1. John Paul II’s interesting observation on truth and belief glosses over an important qualifier – verifiability. Yes, I’d take a scientist’s word for it – I would _trust_ him – that water has a density of 1 gram per milliliter (one cubic centimeter). The interpersonal exchange JP talks about would not occur in this case, or at least be severely lessened because the knowledge the scientist is passing onto me, that I choose to believe based on just his word, is verifiable. Both the scientist and myself are well aware that I could go out, make the measurements myself, and determine if, in fact, water has a mass of 1 g/mL. Any attempt to disseminate false knowledge of this sort could and would be quickly found out, and the liar’s reputation would be severely damaged; all would now doubt his past, present and future claims. Lying becomes a highly unattractive option, which is why this is a different case: I am not so much trusting the person as I am trusting the person’s self-interest, trusting that he or she values being regarded as honest. I am also (usually) trusting not just this one person, but a whole community of scientists, that some of whom (I hope) have gone to the trouble of verifying this person’s claim, and would raise the hue and cry if any false teachings were identified. And that’s just the difference – false scientific knowledge is (usually) identifiable.

    This is contrasted to when we try to exchange ‘knowledge’ of a spiritual or supernatural nature (or even just hearsay). A friend of mine tells me of a spiritual healing experience he had; I choose to believe him. I can’t verify his claim, so I entrust myself to his wisdom, to his sincerity, to the love I hold for him. Here we have made that exchange that J-P talks about, the intimate and enduring relationship of trust. (In actuality, I chose not to believe him, his claim was just too outrageous, and the rationale was inconsistent).

    In reality, I think it is faith-related statements that the pope is really talking about, the sort of truths and beliefs he is most interested in legitimizing. I am not so cynical to suggest that this quote, this observation is just an attempt to equate spiritual, or specifically, church-disseminated knowledge with the scientific sort of knowledge that is so venerated in secular society, but I do strongly suspect that that goal is more than just in the back of his mind. Giving that sort of knowledge a bare legitimacy by reducing spiritual and scientific knowledge to the same plane, by giving them that same humble relational exchange he speaks of is an attempt to force the re-evaluation of how scientific knowledge supposedly differs from spiritual or authoritative knowledge.

    Of course, that’s not altogether unworthwhile. The intellectual arrogance of the scientific community should be apparent to anyone, and a bit of reflection might do us all a lot of good.

    I think, though, and this is taking the topic in a different direction, that people of religion in general are too willing to take each other’s word for it when it comes to matters and events of a spiritual nature. I gave the example earlier of my friend and his healing experience; suffice to say, I was the only one in the group who remained skeptical of his claim. It’s not that my friend is a habitual liar, or is prone to wild statements. Rather, I thought it much more likely that the effect was psychological in nature. My friend does include a belief in spiritual healing as part of his faith, he wants to be able to say ‘God healed me in this miraculous fashion’. he seeks this not for vindication, but for edification, he wants to see his faith at work, wants it very badly. So also with people who claim to see angels, or those with visions. We all have dreams, but little is remembered of them; our mind is too willing to adapt its (vague) memory to what we want it to, especially if this is happening subconsciously.

    Another friend of mine comes from a strongly charismatic background. He strongly believes (and of course, cannot prove, such is the nature of the argument) that at least some of the observed ‘acts of the Holy Spirit’ are put-on. Not to say that the people portraying these false acts are playing a role, they genuinely believe that what they experienced was real. My friend spoke instead of the intense, if sub-surface, pressure to participate in the charismatic tradition. We might claim that we would never look down on anyone who is not moved by the spirit, but in reality, everyone wants to be a part of what’s going on. Demonstrating ‘evidence of faith’ and a ‘spiritual gift’ wins the praise of your fellow believers. I want to be praised for my faith, we all do, and so we feel compelled to participate. Of course, it can be hard (some would say impossible) to distinguish our own desires from that of the Spirit.

    Ok, I think I’m done now. Thank-you!

  2. Bored at work Travis? Your IP gave you away. ;)

    While I don’t agree with JPII on everything he says (I think he stretches things a bit too far in the last paragraph), I think he is correct in that we live by belief.

    Your analogy of verifiability only goes so far: most scientific knowledge requires years of study, honing of the appropriate technological and methodological skills, and induction into a tradition of beliefs about the topic. When a scientist tells me that there is a subatomic particle called a quark, I must simply believe (or disbelieve) him or her. I cannot look at the evidence the subatomic physicist examines and conclude anything useful whatsoever. While this is a drastically complex example, I think most knowledge more closely approximates this than that which we are actually able to test ourselves (such as your density example).

    In this, it appears to me that the scientific community is predominantly an authority structure dispensing beliefs about the world. I can’t see how scientific progress could ever have happened if this wasn’t the case.

WordPress Default is proudly powered by WordPress

Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).