Wednesday, 17 May 2017

5th Sunday of Easter Year A 2017

Whilst Jesus may have the audacity to arrogate Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, today most likely, we consider Him to be one of many possible ways, a definitely positive perspective and certainly a fine moral example. There is no likelihood of verifying His absolute claim because epistemology or the "how" of knowing is bogged down in the morass of paradigms, models and hypotheses. It is about how you look at it. Thus, if Gustave Flaubert, a 19th century French novelist, were to be consulted, Jesus would have come to the conclusion that His central message is all about perspective and not about truth. Since the "advent" of perspectivism, "objective" truth has lost not only its metaphysical footing but also its hold on us. Instead of it being captivating, truth is now ransomed by our point of view. In short, truth is not what it is but what we think it is. What this boils down to is that reality has become our whims and meaning no more than our compulsions.

It is too bad that jesting Pilate did not wait to hear the answer to the question: "Quid est veritas?". The answer is that Truth is knowable not because it is an objective thing but because it is personal. Slightly more than a decade ago, a speech given at a German university nearly set the world on fire. Amid the acrid smoke of being slighted, what was missed was an attempt to bring to fore the whole idea that truth is knowable because it is reasonable. Truth and reason are related, but truth is not hard science in the sense that it is cold hard facts. Instead, truth is personal.[1] When Jesus professed His famous Via, Veritas and Vita, He was staking a claim that He and Truth are synonymous. He is Truth and Truth is He.


If the Logos is rationality, it stands to reason that the truth should be reasonable too.[2] In other words, anyone who is searching for the truth will encounter Jesus Christ even if the searcher himself does not know it. And, anyone who searches for Jesus will ultimately arrive at truth because Jesus does not stand behind the truth as if the truth were separate from Him. But, guess what? In the interest of peaceful co-existence, and in light of religious pluralism, such an absolute claim should never be uttered. Shame on me for being so arrogant. Perhaps, this explains a hesitant half-hearted embrace of the Church's mission to evangelise.[3]

But, if the Church is to be faithful to her identity, then her mission to evangelise, that is, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, has not changed. Not even in the face of myriad competing religious claims. Despite the challenges of a pluralistic environment, the assumption remains that the world still hungers for the truth.[4] There is an innate congruency between evangelisation and reception--a natural complementarity because the world which bears the imprint of truth cannot but be responsive to it.

But, we dare not hear "truth" for itself for the consequence is more than we are ready to bear. Two words here might help clarify this paralysing fear--contingency and canonisation. They are relational because contingency which is fluid only makes sense in connexion with canonisation which is fixity. These polarities must be held in tension. But, buffeted by the compelling winds of diversity, we are afraid to anchor ourselves for that would come across as dangerous fundamentalism--a flaw, which according to a trumped politician, belongs to the basket of deplorables. Instead, cocooned by an enforced notion that religion should be privatised because what one believes is one's private business, we are encouraged to embrace contingency and ambiguity when we enter the public arena. Here, in this social space, in this liberal agora of equal preferences, no one should make any absolute claim except obey the absolute decree that no one should make an absolute claim. In other words, we celebrate contingency because it allows for ambiguity and complexity. Life is more grey than black or white. In other words, there is no truth for that would be to canonise a position thereby excluding a large grey area of life from any consideration, especially from moral reasoning. A good example of life's contingency is found in the movie "Silence", Martin Scorsese's take on the issue of apostasy which suggested that the denial of Christ may in the context of persecution become an expression of Christian charity. Precisely, in an ambiguous and contingent world, who are we to judge? Nothing is right or wrong because it all depends on how one looks at it.

The reluctance to absolutise the assertion that Jesus is THE way, THE truth and THE life is further exhibited in this argument: "All religions are the same anyway. It does not matter which religion you embrace for all you need is to be a decent person and that is enough". With this, we are absolved, on the one hand, from absolutising Jesus as the Saviour of the world and on the other hand, we are washed clean of any responsibility to evangelise.

Yet, experience will bear us out otherwise. Have you ever heard of someone who says, "I am 97% pregnant”? One is either pregnant or not. A simple experience such as this bears witness to the incontrovertible fact that there is such a thing as "absolute" or "objective" truth. Truth is knowable even though we live in a pluralistic world. And we need not resort to some form of relativism so as not to offend others.

If that be the case, then how can we present a convincing argument that Jesus Christ is not only the Saviour of Christians but He is the Saviour of the world? The answer is found in the correlation between knowledge and its coherence in action. The witness of the early Christians rang loudly not because they shouted the loudest. Instead, the credibility of their faith rested on the strength of their witnessing. The Japanese martyrs of Silence will attest to that.

In a less hostile environment, the lack of welcome is frequently cited as cause for church defection. People leave a parish because the parish is inhospitable to the strangers in our midst. The alternative is not to be found in the suggestion of being a happy-clappy superficially smiling parish. The point is, in an age of instant media coverage, the medium is indeed the message. The failure of evangelisation is a strong indictment of the credibility of the messengers rather than the refutation of the content. The truth whom Jesus is, has been vitiated by the incoherence of our actions. In short, Christian grace has not made a difference in the conduct of our lives. Yes, it is true that there is sin involved but a Christian is always called to a higher standard. It does not, in any way, make us superior. Au contraire, it is painfully demanding but let us never forget that witness and martyrdom are one and the same word. The higher requirement is specified by the principle that we are in the world but we are not of the world. Hence, no greater love a man has than to lay down his life for his friends. Thus, it is no accident that Tertullian described that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.

If the world has not warmed up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that is not because all religions are the same. Rather, the muted stance we have taken with regard to evangelisation is symptomatic of the poverty of our action. The message may have been received intellectually but it has not been embraced wilfully. We believe but we are simply not living it to the full. We are in the world but more often than not, we are shamefully of the world.


[1] It sounds subjective to speak of it as “personal” and not “objective” but if one were to consider John’s prologue, it makes sense. Through Him all things were made. “Objective” truth is premised on the 2nd “Person” of the Trinity.
[2] In a sceptical world, reason and faith are mutually exclusive. In fact, the assumption that creation has a logos is founded on the encounter between faith and reason, between fides et ratio. Furthermore, the technological advancements gained through science stands on this fruitful encounter. In summary, it cannot be that God who is logos or reason would command that which is unreasonable. Thus, the persuasiveness of Truth must be tied to reason rather than to force. It cannot be coerced. It can only persuade. That was the gist of the speech given in that university. Jurgen Habermas would consider that one has to be persuaded the unforced force of the better argument.
[3] We suffer a metaphysical and epistemological double-whammy here. First, the content of faith makes an absolute claim on us and this makes us uncomfortable so much so that we have been trying to blunt it through “contextualisation”. Relativism is a form of contextualisation. Secondly, we are not entirely sure that what we know is really true. Thus, our act of believing is lukewarm and indecisive. Suicide bombers and their ilk are fearsome because both content of their belief and the act of believing are in agreement. Likewise, the martyrs of the faith are challenging because of this synchronisation between the noun (content) and the verb (believing).
[4] The world is actually longing for its Saviour. The banishment of the Saviour of the world has only seen the expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Extended Universe. All these superhero movies are latent symptoms of a universal hunger for Jesus Christ and the salvation only He can bring.