MythBusters, an entertaining Discovery Channel series that puts science and popular myths to the test, is a family favorite at our house. In one episode, host Adam Savage wears a t-shirt that states, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”
I appreciate the pithy sentiment, but the humorous premise points to a more serious question: Is truth essential to an understanding of reality and human freedom?
How this question might be answered depends upon one’s understanding of truth, the gift of human freedom, and the Church’s moral teachings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a definition of truth: “God is the source of all truth” (2465).
Pope Saint John Paul II’s Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) addressed “certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions” that serve to “deny” or “distort” traditional moral doctrine and the permanence of truth as a reality of human experience. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote:
At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to ‘exhort consciences’ and to ‘propose values’, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices. (VS 4)
The Church is called to bear witness to the truth of “original man.” JP II’s “adequate anthropology” answers the tendency of philosophy toward reductionism, that is “naturalistic,” and evolutionary. JP II answers this philosophy with an anthropology “which tries to understand and interpret man in what is essentially human.” Philosophical presuppositions without ‘adequate anthropology’ are a substituted reality.
August Comte’s Atheist Humanism
“Historical man” reveals attempts to substitute God, and, or an alternative to reality, by adopting ideologies that deny human nature as created and willed by God; often with tragic consequences for individuals and societies. The intellectual neutering of the patrimony of humanity is an attack on the dignity of the human person, and human freedom.
The American modern progressive culture seems presently inclined toward a philosophical framework that attempts to answer many socio-political challenges with a proposed neutrality or ‘value-free’ ethic. However, these responses are not neutral; nor are their values inconsequential. Often these proposed alternatives to truth find their beginnings in neo-atheistic positivism and moral relativism.
August Comte, the father of sociology and the founder of positivism, promoted a “religion of Humanity.” Comte believed that a’religion of Humanity would direct persons to behave according to social rules as law, without need of divine moral authority. He refuted man’s true created nature, advocating the supremacy of human authority. Comte’s religion of Humanity denies God, and presents a somewhat deterministic view of human beings. He was often referred to, ironically, as a “high priest” of his positivist “faith.”
Comte, however, is not purely atheistic, but in the words of Henri De Lubac, SJ, he is rather, a “confirmed antitheist,” and proposes that God should be excluded and replaced (167).
“Unlike the ‘atheistic humanism’ of Comte, Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche, the new humanism of John Paul II takes full account of the human capacity for transcendence, morally and intellectually. Moreover, John Paul’s new humanism understands that the God of the Bible came into human history as a liberator. To take man seriously is to take the question of God seriously; and to take the question of God seriously is to enter into the depths of the mystery of human freedom.” (George Weigel, in an interview titled A Pope’s Legacy).
Pope Francis also spoke to the fullness of human freedom and truth in The Church of Mercy.
The apostle Paul ended one passage of his letter to the Romans with these words: ‘you are no longer under law, but under grace’ (Rom 6:14). And this is our life: walking under grace because the Lord has loved us, saved us, has forgiven us. The Lord has done all things, and this is grace, God’s grace. We are on our way under the grace of God who came down to us in Jesus Christ who saved us.
The Power of Truth
The Catholic-Christian perspective on human freedom challenges the faithful to go beyond the limits of law and philosophy. We are called to respond to a social and cultural ethos steeped in antitheist humanism. In the encounter of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God transforms a person not by political or ideological pressure (the beliefs of men), but by truth. It is the life of God that animates Christian liberty. Christian humanism, on the contrary, integrates and orders the personal and communal, and the individual and societal reality of human existence. Even when human imperfection arises in the Christian, there is always the promise of God—that, by His love and mercy, we can ‘put on the new self.’
Ephesians 4:20-24 affirms the Christian identity.
That is not how you learned Christ, assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus, that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.
De Lubac, in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, writes that Comte and his proponents of a ‘Religion of Humanity’ deny God’s authority. Here is the sleight of hand: “Henceforth man was to bow no more before God; nothing higher than his own understanding was to solicit the free adherence of his faith; but he was to submit the depths of his being, the part by which he was most himself, to other men, and in matters that depend solely upon man.” (247)
De Lubac also notes, “The positivist formula…illustrated that too-often neglected truth that charity without justice inevitably turns into oppression and ruins the human character it ought to ennoble.” (263)
It is possible for altruistic ideas to find their end in cruelty when the dignity of the human person is reduced to cosmic coincidence.
An Encounter with Mystery
When a Catholic speaks of human freedom it is from the experience of relationship with the person of Jesus Christ—from the harmony of a heart and mind surrendered to, and seeking God. Jesus Christ reveals the truth about man to himself. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6).
The encounter with God is not an ideological or political narrative; these are encounters with man’s ideas, not mystery. The encounter of God is a love story written in the language of eternity, and understood in the translation of sacramental grace. Our lives are woven of the truth that pervades God’s creation, and we are given some sense of the majesty and mystery of our being.
G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy,
The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say “if you please” to the housemaid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness. (23)
The Desire for Truth
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks to man’s desire for truth.
Man tends by nature toward the truth. He is obliged to honor and bear witness to it: ‘It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons…are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of the truth.’ (2467)
Altruistic and affective notions of love and justice naturally arise in the human passions and influence the socio-political and psychological spheres of life; but it is the will that must direct the effort toward the true good. The Catholic faith is not just a prohibition against sin or human nature itself. Rather, Catholic doctrine serves to give us the fullness and truth about human freedom “written in the heart and the minds of God’s people” (Heb. 10:16).
God’s relationship to us is transcendent, and deeply personal. He is the one to whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” The sacramental grace that informs Catholic life challenges individuals to live, not merely for philosophical and temporal satisfaction, but for the beatific vision of Heaven, and a vision of humanity that answers the meaning of our existence (our reality) in relationship to God and others.
The Church bears witness to truth in its teaching on marriage. Dr. John Bergsma stated, at a panel discussion held at Franciscan University of Steubenville in advance of the Synod on the Family, that the Pharisees “sought through religious and legal reasoning to avoid the demands of the law,” especially with regard to divorce. Jesus addresses the Pharisaical belief about marriage at the time, in Matthew 19. He challenged the intellectual malfeasance that was used to hide a hardened heart toward a spouse, under the guise of legal compliance. Jesus, however, moves hearts to contrition, mercy and reconciliation reminding them of God’s plan for marriage by recalling the truth of God’s plan.
Catholics have ample and rich opportunity to reflect on the importance of family life and marriage to the Church, to the world—and as an ordered and harmonious expression of a communion of persons. Pope Francis has cautioned the faithful of the ideological colonization of the family.
A world that proclaims human authority as supreme promotes an individualistic liberty, counterfeit freedoms, and pseudo-rights; with grave consequence to the familial, communal and social structure. Ironically, the individual liberty proper to the dignity of the human person (the truest sense of individualism), is lost in the profession of ideological dogma that severs the creature from Creator, and body from soul, whether its underpinnings are the collectivism of a Marxist rationale, Comte, or the nihilism of Frederick Nietzsche.
Bearing Witness to Truth
De Lubac sums up the positivist antagonist behavior toward the Christian spirit.
They pay homage to Catholicism; but, in varying degrees and often without being clearly aware of it, their purpose is to rid it more effectually of the Christian spirit…and the faith that used to be a living adherence to the Mystery of Christ then came to be no more than attachment to a social program, itself twisted and diverted from its purpose. (266)
It seems that in today’s modern pronouncements of progress, the culture grows contemptuous for the public expression of faith, denying the reality of man’s search for meaning, and the deep questions that pervade human existence.
In the revelation of Jesus Christ as a person, as encounter, we discover our ‘being.’ The treasure of the Catholic faith is that it stands as a lighthouse to guide travelers amid the turbulence of the waters churned up by the storms of varied sentimental and temporal philosophies about the nature of man. The moral teaching of the Church provides a vision of humanity that embodies authentic human freedom.
As Saint Pope John Paul II affirmed in so much of his written gifts to the Church, the fullness of knowing the truth is “peculiar to the faith“. The Catholic faith is not a myth to be busted. It reflects truth and reality: There is no substitute for the the infinite love of God; and we ought not to reject it.
 De Lubac, Henri. The Drama of Atheist Humanism. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995. Print.