Thursday, September 12, 2013

Of people and things

Can't we just be friends?

Thought Criminal had this long post to which I appended an almost as long comment.  The comment doesn't mean much outside the context of the post, so I'll leave it all there and incorporate it here by reference, as the lawyers say.

But after I wrote it I found this, and it has some bearing on my thinking (either God is moving in mysterious ways again, or the universe is subject to waves of coincidence.  I report, you decide):

Once again breaking with traditional Vatican protocol, Pope Francis on Wednesday (Sept. 11) penned a long letter to the Italian liberal daily La Repubblica to affirm that an “open dialogue free of prejudices” between Christians and atheists is “necessary and precious.”

Francis’ front-page letter was a response to two open letters published in previous months by Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and an avowed atheist.

The pope’s letter is especially notable for its open and honest assessment of the spiritual state of nonbelievers. And for an institution that long claimed sole jurisdiction on matters of salvation, Francis seems to open the door to the idea that notions of sin, conscience and forgiveness are not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church.
That, however, is just the context.  This is the interesting part:

In the letter, the Argentine pope also addresses one of the themes of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who had often condemned “relativism” — the incapacity of modern societies and men to recognize any “absolute truth,” such as God — as one of the evils of our time.

For Francis, there is no such thing as an “absolute truth” if that means a truth that can stand by itself “without any relationship.”

“Truth, according to the Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship.”
Aye, there it is:  "Truth is a relationship."

In my comment at Thought Criminal, I questioned why critics of Dr. Eban Alexander's report of his near-death experience while in a coma were so adamant that what Dr. Alexander reported couldn't possibly be true.  Of course the obvious answer is:  if they accept it, then their world-view has to change.  But why is that?  I love my wife, and that challenges no one's place in the world.  I get angry, sad, glad, mournful, wistful, etc., all based on my perception of the world or even my relationship with other persons (and as I get older I get worse at relationships with other people.  Mea culpa, my good friends, mea maxim culpa).   None of those emotional states are considered challenging to society at large unless they lead me to arm myself and shoot up a school or something.  How, then, is Dr. Alexander's claim about what he experienced so challenging to people like Sam Harris and Oliver Sacks?

It's because truth is a relationship.  It isn't a thing that exists in the world and can be discovered (literally un-covered, revealed by removing that hides it); it is a relationship.  And the report of Dr. Alexander about his experience in his coma, is part of that relationship.

TC is right:  Dr. Alexander alone is the expert on what happened to him, just as I alone am the expert on my love for my wife.  Even my wife may think I'm bonkers (she does, but then she's been married to me for decades), but I alone know if it is true or not that I love her.  And how do I know?  Do you remember as an adolescent wondering what "true love" is?  It's still the fodder of magazines and teen reads.  And what is it?  It's entirely subjective, isn't it?  I was stupid enough in my youth to challenge my friend's relationship with the woman who is now his wife.  They've been married about a month longer than my wife and I have.  At the time, I simply couldn't see why he loved her, or even that he did.  They both long ago forgave me my arrogance, but I still carry it as a sin I can't quite forgive myself.  Not as a hair shirt, but a reminder my experiences are not the substance of the universe, and there are some things quite real in human life which I can never know except by acceptance.

Oh, and the fact I'm quite capable of being the most egregious ass possible, so I have to watch myself.

But how do I know I love my wife?  I'm as sure of it as I am sure I've experienced the presence of God in my life.  Which is where the claim turns perilous, isn't it?  The former is socially acceptable, if a bit uninteresting ultimately.  The latter is a challenge, especially to an atheist; it is a challenge because truth is a relationship.

I like the rest of what is reported about the Pope's letter, even as I might have disagreements over one point or another if I had the entire text.  But this idea of truth as a relationship, not as a thing; that is an idea I want to spend more time contemplating; and maybe writing more about.


  1. Not only is science and those that claim to pronounce on science, now unassailable in the press, but I would add economics to the protected class of discourse. To suggest a living wage based on religious principles (a position of MLK, the Catholic Church, and other religious groups)in the face of Economics 101, is to have pretty much the same reaction and discussion as that above of a religious experience in the face of science. "The Laws of Economics" are unassaible in the mainstream press, both as to their basis and conclusions (and I most definitely include business reporting in my definition of the press). Even more so, anyone that has taken Econ 101 is considered an expert in such matters, a level of authority we don't give to those who have eked through Physics 101. Of course this isn't surprising given economics is about money and basic economics focuses on the accumulation and retention of money. "The Market" has a much greater cultural hold on modern society then Christianity at this point.

  2. Not only is science and those that claim to pronounce on science, now unassailable in the press, but I would add economics to the protected class of discourse.

    Ah, yes, the "dismal science."

    And you're right, of course.