Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Following the Truth Wherever it Leads-- Why?

I am watching the latest Journey Home (EWTN's interview programme with converts to the Catholic Church). This one features Jennifer Fulwiler, a well-known blogger who was once an atheist and (as she explains at the beginning) was never really anything but an atheist, even as a little child.

I am very interested in conversion stories, but only from atheism. Journeys from Protestantism or some other Christian denomination, or from some other religion, are doubtless very valuable, but-- and I can't think of any way of saying this that doesn't seem insulting or dismissive-- only atheism and Catholicism seem to me like coherent worldviews.

What I find interesting is that, at the beginning of the programme, Mrs. Fulwiler describes how her father (who, I surmise, is still an atheist) always encouraged her, and still encourages her, to seek truth wherever it may be found.

I've never really understood this attitude. Why? You may say there is some disinterested, essentially human need for truth. But isn't that just a theory, a theory that can be tested like any other? Or perhaps this drive towards truth is an instinct, or a mere cognitive tendency? If thought is to be truly free why should it be bound even by truth?

I am in danger of being misunderstood, I realize. As a Catholic the truth of my creed is of unutterable importance to me. It is of no value at all unless it is true. I would have next to no interest in it as some kind of metaphor or artistic tradition or set of "values" floating free of transcendent truth.

But before I became a Catholic, I had little interest in truth per se, nor did I see why I should have had. Truth was what killed you in the end. Truth was what bumped into you a thousand times a day whether you cared about it or not. Sure, it was of practical value-- I wanted to know whether a business was a reputable business before I gave it my money, for instance-- but I had no special concern for truth for its own sake. I still don't see why I should have had, given my non-religious worldview at the time.

Apparently Isaiah Berlin once said that there was no guarantee the truth, when it was found, would be interesting. He was right. Especially in the field of philosophy, I found theories interesting because they were striking or elegant or original. I suspected Ultimate Truth would be duller than cat photographs.

It seems to me that only on a theistic view of the world do the values we all hanker after-- truth, beauty, goodness, justice etc.-- necessarily converge in the Divine. Otherwise, they are almost inevitably in conflict, and you take your pick. Why shouldn't I prefer beauty over truth? Or justice over goodness, by refusing to forgive my enemies, say?

The other reason I find myself thinking about this is that I am reading The Strings are False, the (abandoned) autobiography of Louis MacNeice, the poet. I find MacNeice interesting, not only because he wrote some of my very favourite poems, but because he had a non-religious philosophy of life that still managed to respect sacred traditions and mythology, and that refused to bow before any secular idols such as science or politics. In fact, MacNeice tells us that in his undergraduate days he was hostile to both religion and science, which seems quite a feat of independence of mind. (He believed aesthetic values were all that really mattered-- as an undergraduate, not as a mature man.)

What is the moral of this little reflection? None, really. Perhaps I am even revealing my own innate wickedness, or shallowness, or goodness knows what. But there it is-- truth only became something I got to caring about when I began to suspect that reality surpassed the wildest, most romantic of fantasies.

As they say, sue me.

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