Disparate parts or harmonious whole?
If we had to identify a characteristic typical of western culture, it’s a tendency towards the rationalization of things. That’s not to say that such a tendency isn’t also true of other cultures: all of us have an in-built curiosity, wanting to get down to the nuts and bolts of things. Yet western culture puts a particular premium on getting to the truth of things. In the west, we can have a special difficulty in accepting something as true if we don’t fully understand it, if we cannot dominate every single aspect and facet of a problem. We doubt the problems we cannot dominate, and reduce to simple parts those we think we do. A typical case in point is love, the meaning of which is often reduced to mere sensation or sexuality, without looking at the whole.
As a reaction to the western tendency of wanting (or pretending) to grasp the absolute truth, some philosophers would doubt that we can even know anything at all, or that there is even such a thing as reality. Therefore, they would say that what we call truth is relative and dependent upon what I think it is. This outlook of theirs is rather pessimistic. If we wanted to use our heads and not our fancies, we should remember, as Chesterton reminds us, to use plain old common sense. Positions that deny reality are, let’s say, quite distant from reality and quite far from common sense. That isn’t to say, however, that these philosophies that deny reality don’t help us think. They remind us that our pretense to grasping the absolute truth about absolutely everything is perhaps too optimistic, and itself quite far from reality. We have our limits, and need to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground.
Perhaps a solution could lie some way in between, something like that proposed by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. There are simpler truths (like logical or mathematical truths) which we can grasp quite firmly, while there are others that simply escape us. Not that we cannot understand these truths as true. Yet we come to understand their truth through attractions and desires. The head reflects upon what passes through the heart. Such phenomena are just too rich to be fully grasped, to be taken hold of, to allow themselves to be submitted to our ego (which tends to reduce what it can grasp to a thing it can use). These phenomena just keep on giving, some inexhaustibly. Can love, for example, ever be fully grasped? It can’t. That doesn’t mean it’s dislocated from the truth. We feel the truth of love in our bones before we even begin thinking about it. Authentic love fills and fulfills truth. The truth of love exceeds what we can take hold of, or use. Or understand. In this way, love and truth are exactly like a person: a person, like love and truth, cannot be reduced to its parts, fully understood, or taken hold of and used as a means, rather than an end.
That’s why we can say, at the same time and without contradiction, that love is both a mystery which cannot be fully grasped, and the most eminently understandable truth. The solution to our dilemma is, perhaps, this: love is the eminent truth, precisely because it cannot be grasped. As St. Augustine says, “the only way to truth is by love” (Contra Faustum, 32, 18).
We are told in Luke’s gospel that the fundamental law, or truth, is the following: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “love your neighbour as yourself”. It is fundamentally true, then, that we cannot separate the love of God from the love of neighbour. Serving the poor and the broken, the widow, the orphan and the stranger in their human and material need, is adoration of God. At the same time, the adoration of God in prayer and the beauty of the liturgy is service of the poor and the broken, the widow and the stranger in their spiritual need, through our prayer and intercession. Let us notice that truth and love always pass through persons: our neighbours and, ultimately, God in the person of Jesus Christ, truth and love made flesh.
Love and truth are not mutually exclusive parts vying with one another for attention, but one mysterious whole. As a consequence, so are doctrine and practice, service of the poor and liturgical service. Focusing exclusively on one or the other is reductive, and does no service to love or truth. Borrowing a principle in the form given to it by Pope Francis, “the whole is greater than the part” (Evangelii Gaudium, §234). Whatever side you come down on in intra-ecclesial “politics” (for want of a better word) this could, perhaps, serve as a common starting point for discussion in the Church today.