Because It Is True
A Commencement Sermon
The Seminary of the Southwest
May 8, 2012
Exodus 19: 3-8
Matthew 16: 24-27
Because it is true. On this celebratory occasion, an occasion that is at once an end and beginning, my prayer for you is that in the future, when you are asked why you came to seminary, why you sought ordination, why you were willing to be a priest in a confused and compromised church, or even why you are a Christian, all you will be able to say is, “Because it is true.” That all you can say is, “Because it is true,” may mean you have had a difficult life, that is, a life stripped of what many associate with standards of success. Yet I side with the Psalmist who insists that those who would abide in the Lord’s tent must “speak the truth from their heart.” “Because it is true” is the necessary condition for such speech.
I do not mean to suggest that if your life has been successful, or at least happy, you have failed to speak heartfelt truth. But we live in a time when Christians are tempted to make truth irrelevant for why anyone might consider being a Christian. Faced with the church’s declining membership and status, a cottage industry has developed to entice people to give Christianity a try. These strategies for church growth are designed to work in a manner that makes irrelevant questions of truth. I have no reason to deny that being a Christian may give your life meaning– whatever that may mean or whatever good it may do―may save your marriage, or even get you to work on time, but it is also the case that to speak the truth from the heart may disrupt our presumptions of success.
Of course it is not only Christians who have given up on truth. Voltaire no longer thought he needed God as an explanatory hypothesis. In the same spirit Richard Rorty, one of our most distinguished contemporary philosophers, argued that truth is not a concept needed to sustain the work of philosophy or science. Nietzsche gave this denial of truth classical expression when he observed:
What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to people to be fixed, canonical and binding. Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.
This eloquent denial of truth earned Nietzsche the characterization “nihilist.” But ironically he was anything but a nihilist. At least he was not a nihilist if you acknowledge he was in fact passionately committed to living a life free of self-deception. As he wrote in The Gay Science the “’will to truth’ does not mean ‘I do not want to let myself be deceived’ but—there is no alternative—‘I will not deceive, not even myself’; and with that we stand on moral ground.” Yet Nietzsche knew that to avoid living free of deception must be an ongoing struggle for we so love the lie. Nietzsche is a witness Christians dare not ignore.
Nietzsche was surely right to observe that we do not like to be deceived, but it is also true that we wish others to regard us more highly than we deserve. That is why Pascal observes that we hate the truth and those who would tell us the truth. We desire that others be deceived in our favor, that is, we want to be esteemed by others in a manner that confirms the illusions we harbor to sustain our life projects. That is why, Pascal suggests, few friendships would endure if each friend knew what was said by their friends in their absence. According to Pascal it is a fact that if everyone knew what was said of the them by others there would not be four friends in the world.
From Pascal’s perspective human society is founded on mutual deceit because our loves, and in particular our self-love, requires that we hide from one another and ourselves the truth. We fear wounding one another with the truth because we so desperately want to be loved. We do not wish, therefore, for anyone to tell us the truth and we avoid telling it to others. These habits of deception become rooted in the heart making it impossible for us to speak truthfully from the heart.
I fear you will find Pascal’s account of deceit all too relevant for your calling as a priest. After all you are a human being. You will want to be loved by those you serve. In particular you will be called to be present to your people when their lives are in crisis. Do not be surprised, however, because you have been present at such times those to whom you have been present will find it difficult to love you. Because you are a priest you will be welcomed by people even when they are without protection and have no way to disguise their vulnerability. In the midst of the crisis you will be loved, or at least admired, for your presence and care. But after the crisis is over you will discover the very intimacy established by the crisis between you and those to whom you were present now means they fear what you know of them. You have been allowed to see truthfully who they are which will often mean that they want as much distance from you as they can get.
To sustain a community capable of having the lies that constitute our lives exposed, to sustain the practice of speaking the truth from the heart requires, as our Psalmist suggests, requires the creation of a people who do not slander one another. Rather they are people with a genius for friendship refusing to do evil to their friends. Nor do they reproach their neighbors because they honor all who fear the Lord. They stand by their oath even when it is not to their advantage, and they do not lend money at interest or take bribes against the innocent. The Psalmist seems to suggest these are the necessary conditions for a community of trust because without trust we are incapable of being truthful about ourselves. And if we are incapable of being truthful to ourselves we will eventually discover that we cannot be truthful to one another.
For Christians the truth that makes such trust possible is no abstract truth. The truth that makes possible truthful speech, heartfelt speech, is a person. The “it” in “Because it is true” is a person. Truth for us is not a principle or system, not a structure of correct insights, not a doctrine. The expression of the truth may use any of these means to say what is true, but as Barth rightly insists, “Jesus Christ in the promise of the Spirit as His revelation in the sphere of our time and history is the truth.” Only in the person of Christ are we encountered by the one who can unmask our illusions without utterly destroying us. In Christ we are made intimate with God, making possible a nearness from which we do not flee.
Jesus is the truth that judges and tests all other truths that would seek to be established independent of the love shown to us in Christ. Accordingly any attempt to judge Jesus by a theory of truth not determined by cross and resurrection can only tempt us to think we are the measure of what is true. Jesus is, as Barth maintains, the true witness who does not need to be confirmed or authorized by any other truth. Rather he is the truth from which all other claims of truth are to be judged. “He is the true Witness. He is Himself the truth and its expression. And in His existence and life as such He unmasks every other man.”
Jesus is the heart from which the truth must be spoken. Thus the truth that must be spoken is known only through witness. Because he is the truth we can speak the truth. That speaking the truth takes the form of witness means we are confronted with this truth in a manner that does not allow us to distance ourselves from him. Any attempt to sunder truth from this the true witness, to make truth an idea about the relation between God and man, cannot be the truth. If the truth is thought to be but a symbol, no matter how exalted, it is but a falsehood. The true witness is this man of Gethsemane and Golgotha.
Because the truth is this person, the one who endured Gethsemane and Golgotha, it is a truth that cannot resort to coercion to secure its status. The truth that is Christ, the truth that can only be known by witness, is a truth that must make its way in the world by refusing to use the desperate means of the world to force others to acknowledge what is claimed to be true. There can be nothing desperate about the witness that is Christ because what God has done through the Son cannot be undone. That is why the truth that is Christ is so compelling. It is compelling because those possessed by this truth are filled with joy.
But then what are we to make of our Gospel for today in which we are told that any who would be a follower of Jesus must take up their cross and follow him? What are we to make of Jesus’ claim that those who would save their lives must be willing to lose their lives? I confess I cannot think of any advice more destructive for those called to the priesthood. Such advice cannot help but tempt you to think that your calling is sufficient for you to believe you are making a sacrifice of the self. Such a presumption, unfortunately, is a formula for priests to try to secure their status and power by becoming proficient at playing the game of passive aggressive behavior.
Jesus, however, does not say that to live sacrificially is a good in and of itself. Rather he says that those who lose their life for my sake will find their life. “For my sake” means that we are invited to be a witness to the witness that is Jesus. That witness to be sure may require a sacrifice, but if the sacrifice is to be true it must not point to itself but to Jesus. It is the cross of Christ that is the sacrifice that has ended all sacrifices other than those whose end is Christ. By the grace of God we are invited to share in Christ’s sacrifice, but such a sharing makes possible lives no longer captured by our self-deceptive strategies to secure our own significance. The appropriate description for lives so determined is joy.
Joy is the mark of lives shaped by the truth that is Christ. To be captivated by such a truth, to be as the Psalmist suggests, a heartfelt speaker of the truth, means those so determined will “never be moved.” “To never be moved” is the Psalmist’s way of saying that those whose lives are determined by Christ can be trusted to be who they say they are. “Sincerity” and “integrity” are not sufficient to describe such people. Steadfast I think is closer to the mark. They are who they are by the grace of God.
What a wonderful time to be a Christian. What a wonderful time to serve the Christian people. Odd sentiments if, as I suggested above, the church seems to be in a downward spiral. Yet that this is the case simply means we have nothing to lose by speaking the truth to ourselves, one another, and the world. It is surely the case that the world is dying –quite literally ― for a people capable of speaking the truth from their heart. It is true that truth in our time is obscure and falsehood is well established, but that is no reason for us to despair of truthful speech. After all, God, through his Son, has shown us that to desire the truth requires loving the truth. For without love we cannot know the truth that moves the sun and the stars.
So I end where I began, that is, I pray that when you are asked why you came to seminary; or later when you reflect on why you have given your life in service to the church, that is to say, why you have lived your life as a Christian, the only reason you have left to give ― and it is a sufficient reason ― is, “Because it is true.”