FeaturedMichael De SapioSenior Contributorstruth

In Search of Truth, Meaning, and Joy ~ The Imaginative Conservative

The idea of joy is to me inseparable from the idea of culture. Joy in truth gives rise to culture—human accomplishment and creativity in all its wealth and richness—and culture in turn gives us joy again, the impetus to go on living. A self-dedication to culture in its fullest sense, and to discovering truth and sharing it with others, is to me the essence of the Good Life.

Human beings can live without many things, but we cannot live without meaning and truth. A completely senseless existence would be unendurable. We are not so constituted that we can merely fulfill biological functions, eating and sleeping and securing our bare survival. Nor can we content ourselves to be merely functionaries on an assembly line, earning our daily bread and no more.

Man cannot live on bread alone. Nor can we live only on facts, statistics, and information. We must have truth, meaning, hope, joy.

The question is: where do we get our meaning? What is our source for truth, hope, joy, and the other intangibles?

The very presence of such questions within the soul is the negation of complacence and self-sufficiency, which are signs of being spiritually dead. As long as one has within oneself a feeling of inadequacy and incompleteness, a longing for truth and beauty, a questing spirit that asks not merely “why” but “wherefore” (i.e., what is the ultimate purpose), then the soul is on the right path.

Bodies of Knowledge

As thinking human beings who are formed by culture and education, we find around us different bodies of thought and achievement. There is a body of phenomenal knowledge (which we can call in a general sense science), a body of artistic expression, a body of philosophical reflection, and a body of religious teaching and belief. This vast complex of knowledge and achievement is something we are born into and which we did not create. It stands above us; sometimes it can be a bit overbearing or intimidating. But it stands as a challenge and inspiration to us.

This world of thought, culture, and the spirit is indeed broad and vast, and no one individual—even a highly learned and cultured one—can know or absorb it all. Therefore, when confronting the deepest questions of life and ultimate meaning, the best course is to keep an open mind and refrain from making hasty conclusions. We must maintain awe and humility at the grandness both of nature and of human creation and inspiration, which can be portals to higher truths. This can be characterized as the attitude of docility (from Latin docere, to teach)—an acknowledgement that the truth is out there and an openness to receiving it.

This unfortunately is not the attitude of many of us human beings in the quest for truth. We think we have all the answers figured out merely because we have read one or a few books. We form hasty conclusions based on what turn out to be prejudiced misreading or willful misunderstandings of history or the beliefs of others. We fail to go deeply into every side of a question and make superficial judgments. This can happen on any side of an issue.

Truth, unfortunately, is not simply handed to us on a golden platter. The quest for truth demands time and serious thinking, and time is lacking—this is simply a practical reality.

Yet for those who seek it, inspiration is available through to a roll call of philosophers, theologians, and writers of every kind who have pondered great questions and left us a testament of their answers in their work. Readers of my essays will know the set of thinkers that have particularly affected or influenced me and whom I like to cite. Of course, philosophers and other thinkers do not agree on all points—far from it. The world of thought is like a Great Debate or Great Conversation. But by carefully choosing and discerning, we can arrive at what I like to consider the Good Tradition and follow it.

Above all, we must understand that truth is transmitted through tradition and through the mediums of language, history, and culture. To say this is not to render truth relative, but rather to acknowledge that truth is known through these human intermediaries. Here is one example of the principle that things in life come to us through mediation.

What is Real?

So, what among this vast collection of knowledge is reliable, what is real?

In particular, are the spiritual world and religious belief real, or merely a lovely or useful or interesting fiction? Is religion (not to speak yet of particular religions) merely poetry and not fact, or both poetry and fact?

The philosopher Miguel de Unamuno speaks of “imaginative intuitions that give us the spiritual world.” Are these imaginative intuitions mere fantasy, or do they point to something objectively true?

A case in point. We accept art as a beautiful expression of the human spirit. And beliefs about God, the soul, and the afterlife are often embodied in great artworks. Yet millions of people the world over admire these artworks without accepting the literal truth of the ideas expressed in them, although they may respect those belief systems in a general sense. They are ideas of compelling interest which have shaped human society and civilization, but we are not obligated to accept them as literally true.

One thinks here of “cultural Catholics,” “secular Jews,” and similar categories of people, those who have affection for the historical-cultural trappings of their religious heritage but don’t or can’t bring themselves to take it seriously as an account of how things really are.

There is a chance that great religious beliefs and philosophical ideas become like bric-a-brac sitting on a mantel—something to be enjoyed with critical and academic detachment. Yet by their nature, the deepest questions are in fact questions of the deepest personal and existential import. We are not dealing with a mere “lifestyle choice” here. The questions of religion and philosophy are literally matters of life and death.

Many of us are already committed believers, members of the church; we have ended up there because of ancestry or baptism (a good example of how truth is conveyed through tradition, a theme we will touch upon later). And still, we seek to know more, to convince ourselves of the truth of our beliefs in an intellectual sense. We want further backing for our beliefs, to strengthen our own conviction also in the event that we will need to bear witness to those outside the fold, perhaps infecting them with our own joy and converting them from outsiders to insiders.

Here let me pause to observe that in the search for answers to the deepest questions, there is nothing at all wrong with advocacy, or trying to find reasons and evidence for the beliefs that one already holds by faith. From a strictly scientific viewpoint this is the wrong way to go about things—one must instead follow the evidence wherever it leads. But from an existential viewpoint, it is only right and fitting, because we are human beings desperate to find meaning and sense in the world. This search can never be “impartial.” We cannot conduct our quest into the deepest truths as if we are not ourselves existing human beings.

Here is Unamuno again: “This concrete man, this man of flesh and bone, is at once the subject and the supreme object of all philosophy.” Man is both the subject and the object of knowledge. We are the ones under the microscope, and we are also the experts looking into the microscope—a paradox indeed. Unamuno says in another place that much of philosophy is simply the philosopher trying to convince himself. And how could it be otherwise? We desperately want there to be meaning and coherence in the universe. We want to be embraced by a loving God and to live eternally. Any rational evidence we can find for such truths will be embraced. Such a search can never be dispassionate.

The positivistic mentality has imbued in many the assumption that only that which is rationally or scientifically demonstrable is true or real. Yet some of the greatest thinkers have questioned this assumption. They have asserted that such things as tradition, imagination, and intuition can also be sources of truth.

We imaginative conservatives believe that reason is not the only thing that is real, that imagination and intuition can also reveal reality, and that the mythopoetic vision underlying the religious worldview is also a portal to truth. But it is all too common for us to assume that these beliefs and principles are blazingly obvious and that anyone with half a brain would agree with us. In fact, all these beliefs and principles need to be patiently argued and defended, through the gift of reason, which never stops working; otherwise, we are not doing a thorough job.

We need to think long and hard about the deepest questions, to find the logic and coherence between faith and reason that we believe and hope in the core of our being to be there. We also need to take opposing views seriously.

Here we touch on the eternal relationship and creative tension between reason and feeling, logic and faith, science and imagination. And in this eternal dialectic, reason must be given its due.

The Fact of Personhood

One rational, empirical area that can be our starting point on this journey is the fact of human personhood.

What is a human being? Blaise Pascal said (speaking not in his own voice but in the persona of a helpless skeptic), “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” We are lost in a puzzling void, it would seem, with few clues as to the meaning or purpose of things.

And yet elsewhere Pascal says “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is still a thinking reed.” The ability to engage in rational reflection dignifies man. Although physically small in the cosmic scale of things, man is the greatest thing in creation because he alone thinks, understands, loves.

Personhood, consciousness, individuality, the fact that we are unique beings endowed with reason, will, and desire, is irreducible fact. And this leads us to reflect where this phenomenon of personhood comes from.

Perhaps only the existence of a personal God can explain why personhood has arisen in the universe, why the cosmos does not consist solely of insensate matter.

But “God,” after all, is only a word, a word that exists in various forms in many languages. I think that if we define clearly what we mean by God, we will see that God exists.

In this regard, a clarification made by Bishop Robert Barron has been very helpful to me: God is not an object in the world; he is rather the condition for everything that is. God is not a thing that needs to be proven, but a reality that needs only to be grasped and understood.

God is the ground of all being and all value. The ground of justice, the ground of beauty, the ground of morality (the standard of right and wrong). God is the source of personhood, of consciousness, of reason.

Personalist thinkers and those sometimes characterized as Christian existentialist thinkers have done a good deal to help us understand the value and richness of personhood, of what it means to be a person. I will just mention Dietrich von Hildebrand, Gabriel Marcel, and Pope John Paul the Great, among many others.

And the opposing view? There are many bad things about the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, but for me the most pernicious is his seeming denial of the value of the individual person. In the Nietzschean worldview, a human being is only a cell in a vast cosmic body ruled by a powerful, irrational Will. The terrible evils to which this doctrine has led are, in a sense, beside the main point that it doesn’t happen to be true. An abstract cosmic will is, to me, a spurious concept. The person is the base reality and the most valuable thing there is.

We can thus say with Luigi Giussani:

“Man, this is the only beauty in the world; because the stars would not be beautiful if eyes did not see them, and flowers would not be beautiful if no gaze were to fall upon them, and woman would not be beautiful if the heart did not love her.”

And Unamuno:

“There is nothing truly real save that which feels, suffers, pities, loves, and desires, save consciousness; there is nothing substantial but consciousness. And we need God in order to save consciousness.… Love is a contradiction if there is no God.”

I alighted above on a distinction. Oftentimes we argue against particular philosophies of belief systems because of their pernicious effects. You could call this the pragmatistic argument; and if we believe with William James that truth shows itself in its effects, then this argument can be powerful on its own terms. But even better would be for us to show why a belief or proposition is intrinsically, rationally untrue. And in the case of this doctrine of the cosmos as an impersonal, senseless expression of will I think we are on firm ground. The existence of personhood exists to disprove it.

Another way to God through the reality of personhood is through the human experience of inadequacy, weakness, and helplessness. We sense that there is a power in the universe greater than us, as we can see even in the power (at times overwhelming) of nature. That there is something greater than us is obvious from the fact that we are not in control of much of what happens to us.

But what is this thing that is greater than us? Is it nature merely? Is nature self-subsistent? Surely not, because there has to be a base Personhood behind this whole show of nature and the vast cosmos; otherwise, all is mindless nothingness.

The Origin of “Person”

Here is an amazing thing: the concept “person” comes from the doctrine of the Christian Trinity, not the other way around. The historians of thought tell us that there was no concept of “person” as such before the early Church Fathers appropriated the Greek word for a mask used in theatrical productions to refer to the three instantiations of divinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A great example of how truths are historically articulated (we will consider later how they are articulated through language).

And this theological articulation was rooted in personal experience—the experience of the early Christian disciples of a real human being whose presence changed their lives. The church’s first theologians and mystics, St. John and St. Paul, laid the groundwork for doctrinal definitions of faith, but it was born in a personal experience and encounter with Jesus (Paul, it is true, indirectly through a blinding vision).

Going back to the Old Testament, Psalm 139 is a magnificent testimony of human personhood in its relation to God. Even within that extraordinary book of prayers and sacred poetry, it is astonishing and unlike anything else in scripture. It is a text and a prayer which I return to again and again.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

You discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down,

And are acquainted with all my ways….

For you formed my inward parts,

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am wondrously made.”

Our Truth in Writing  

Because truth is mediated in all sorts of ways, it stands to reason that we may possibly find truths within works of art and imagination, in traditions and myths and beliefs. One of the mistakes of modern thought has been its tendency to see abstract knowledge as the only truth there is. But even on a level of reasonable common sense, why should this be? Why should there not be multiple sources of truth?

We can thus say that imagination, intuition, tradition, and creation are real and legitimate sources of truth.

Few would disagree that religious scripture is one of mankind’s most powerful testaments. Just like works of religious art, millions of people admire the Holy Bible as a great work of literature and a storehouse of imagery and ideas that have shaped human civilization for millennia. But is it something more—a repository of truth by which we can live?

This is another important question to ponder, because religion does not consist only of abstract speculations about God and the soul such as we have been considering up until now. There have been occurrences on the level of history that have been believed to bear witness to higher reality, and these have been recorded in scripture and passed along by tradition in the community of the church.

If these writings indeed bear witness to reality, then we are not in the darkness described by Pascal’s moody skeptic; there are portals to a higher light, right at our disposal.

The Gospels recount human encounters with the extraordinary human being Jesus of Nazareth. What is remarkable is Jesus’ interaction with people, including the people whose infirmities he healed, on a deeply personal level. Ordinary people met a person who was a prophet and more than a prophet, were touched by his presence and invited to respond to it.

It is evident to a reader of the Gospels that the figure being chronicled cannot have been invented by human artifice. In the first place, novelistic fiction had not yet been invented in the ancient Judeo-Greco-Roman world. And the observations and details in the Gospels are too specific to be mere literary flourishes. Jesus is a figure too original to be a literary invention, and there would have been no advantage in the Judaic milieu to invent a character such as this who so challenged expectations of a secular Messiah.

Subsequent events in the early church—with disciples putting their lives on the line and paying the ultimate price for their belief in Jesus—testify to the reality of the story. Scholars tell us that, within the realm of ancient literature, the Gospels belong to the genre of literary biography. The Gospels recount real events, scenes, and encounters, with sayings of Jesus recalled by eyewitnesses and artfully arranged into a literary narrative. They are a place where personhood, fact, faith, and reason come together in an amazing record of real occurrences that opened up a portal to the supernatural, to that which unaided reason could never have deduced.

What we have in these Gospels is a testimony of a window of time, a brief shining moment in which God walked among men.

To take one moment out of a countless number: who can forget the father of the possessed boy who said to Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief!” What creative writer could have conceived the psychological depth of penetration revealed in this paradoxical quote?

Because scripture addresses itself to personhood, it is therefore in a sense more “real” than abstract philosophizing. Our relationship to a historical reality as communicated in scripture and tradition takes us out of our confinement to present day and puts us in contact with a deeper and richer form of personhood.

Truth Mediated by Culture, Tradition

Another implication of the fact that we get truth “in writing” is that truth is conveyed through the mechanics of language and style (a factor which also ties in with personhood, naturally). When I was about 12 years old, my father brought home a wonderful discovery: a set of audio tapes of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, a work he had not read. Excitedly, he played the tapes for us, telling us about Lewis’s “brilliant” analysis, with regard to his argument about our sense of morality revealing the existence of higher truth.

Was my father reacting to the truths themselves, or Lewis’s way of articulating them, a way distinctive to him and which no one else could have done in precisely the same way? Can we separate the two factors at all?

Our ability to conceive of and express truths at all is dependent on how generations of thinkers and writers have articulated them, and our learning from them. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and thus truth is mediated through tradition, history, and language.

Take the three terms that I have affixed as the title of this essay: truth, meaning, joy. They all have a wealth of associations and meanings. But they don’t all come from the same cultural sources. “Joy” is a biblical term, “truth” is philosophical and biblical, and “meaning” (as in the “search for meaning”) is redolent of existential thought. (Not atheistic existentialism, please note: existentialism—understood as a philosophical emphasis, not an ideological banner—was Christian long before it was appropriated by atheists.)

The point is that we receive truth through an interconnected web of historical, verbal, and cultural associations. Eternal truth is mediated through the human and temporal.

Every word, every concept, every idea has a history. The common concepts and assumptions we work with were oftentimes formulated by some philosopher long ago. Millions of people entertain Nietzschean modes of thought who have never heard of Nietzsche.

I believe that a lot of intellectual discord is due to people not knowing the history behind the ideas and concepts we use, or the many sides of an issue as it has been dealt with by varied thinkers over time. This is, once again, a symptom of not entering seriously into matters of truth and meaning—an unexamined life, lived according to hand-me-down assumptions and thought clichés.

Yet, as we mentioned, not everyone has the time or energy to think constantly about philosophic topics. And that is why we have revered authorities on the ultimate questions.

What is an authority? Taken etymologically, it is a kind of author. We all rely on authorities. Intellectual authorities are those who have thought out great questions in the past and posed reasonable answers. Their knowledge and accomplishment command respect. We don’t have to think everything out for ourselves. The question is, what authority do we listen to?

Brother Reason and Sister Faith

Given that reason goes hand in hand with intuition, tradition, faith, and hope, I suggest that those thinkers who hold this broad and liberal view are those that we should follow.

Unamuno says that the beginning of believing in God is hoping that there may be a God. Faith and hope are there from the very beginning, pushing reason on to its many heights.

There is an intellectual journey from philosophy to faith. Roughly speaking, philosophy poses the question, theology provides the answer. Meanwhile, philosophy may also provide the rational grounds for accepting the answer theology gives.

One of the questions that bothered me during my college years was: Why do we need philosophy at all? (A particularly burning question for someone struggling through Philosophy 101.) If faith and theology give us the answers, why bother with philosophy? Why pretend that we are searching for answers if the answers have been given? Why have departments of philosophy at religious colleges? Why read the great pagan philosophers, or modern skeptical thinkers?

We need both philosophy and theology in part because they represent two different dimensions of thought, two different stages on the quest for knowledge.

The philosophical impulse begins with wonder and curiosity at the world and universe around us. This is a necessary first step for the entire journey of knowledge and wisdom. One might say that philosophy is preliminary to theology (a reality reflected in seminary training, in which priests-to-be take philosophy coursework before proceeding to theology).

And one of the things that philosophy can teach us is that culture, traditions, and imagery (Unamuno’s “imaginative intuitions which give us the spiritual world”) are a valid source of truth and can be accepted and embraced as such. So, we make the commitment to faith and to the church. Then theology begins. We reason and seek understanding of the faith propositions which we have accepted in our hearts and minds.

While philosophy is the search for truth, theology teaches us that God (the ultimate truth) has sought us out. As it turns out, we are not alone in a starry void; we are in a warm, well-furnished room, full of meaning and giving constant stimulus to exploration.

Where there is reason, calm, consciousness, personhood, poise, beauty, then there is meaning, there is hope, there is God.

So let us seekers after truth do our homework—avoiding superficiality, shallow ideologies and slogans. Let us conduct the great search with all our heart and soul. Let us engage, not in argument by assertion, but in argument that takes into account historical causes, culture, and tradition. Let us be alive to the plurality of meanings, truths, and experiences. One single point does not decide an issue. Human thought and experience, the testimony of civilization throughout the ages, are vast.

One particular consideration that comes to mind is that a philosophy has to take into account both the tragic and the joyful aspects of life. Both are equally real; the one does not cancel the other out. In particular, a philosophy or belief system is going to have to help us imbue suffering with meaning. The great tradition that I am speaking of does this.

Let us know this tradition and hold it fast; it is bigger than any of us. This is a tradition that spills outside the boundaries of the church, colors outside the lines of the specific Judeo-Christian revelation. This great tradition includes, just to name a few thinkers: Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus, Boethius, Saints Augustine and Thomas, Maimonides, Descartes, Pascal. And then on to the panoply of modern thinkers, many of them excellent, some not so much, but our discernment will allow us to pick out the great ones (and I have mentioned a few of them here). Learn their language, learn about the times in which they lived, learn what they really thought (not just what is reported about them in capsule summaries, which can be misleading), and from that learn to formulate your own thought intelligently.

Also keep in mind that the fallen nature of the world means that we must stumble through a world of unmeaning to find meaning. One must lose one’s life in order to find it. It may not be easy; but we have luminaries to light our path.

Go beyond provincialism, prejudice, and narrow ideology—join in the great search led by the great thinkers.

Joy out of Truth

“[T]he tree of ‘meaning,’ which, to say the least, is closely related to the shrub of ‘joy,’ is identical with the tree of life itself.”

—Joseph Ratzinger, “Faith as Trust and Joy: Evangelium”

Joy is the by-product of wisdom and truth. When one knows the truth, one takes joy in it. And this changes everything, first in the individual soul and radiating out to humanity as a whole.

The idea of joy is to me inseparable from the idea of culture. Joy in truth gives rise to culture—human accomplishment and creativity in all its wealth and richness—and culture in turn gives us joy again, the impetus to go on living. A self-dedication to culture in its fullest sense, and to discovering truth and sharing it with others, is to me the essence of the Good Life.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is “Ephemeral Joy” by Charles Edward Perugini, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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