A problem with language is, words can be defined in so many ways. A table can be a tiny and fragile thing upon which we can barely fit a tea setting, or a massive wooden slab surrounded by a dozen of Arthur’s knights.
Abstract words–such as honor, love, courage, truth, dignity, or beauty–each of us may understand differently. And those of us intrigued or perplexed by a certain word might spend a lifetime considering the options and still not feel quite convinced by our definition.
Think about “beauty.” Some dresses are beautiful, as are some of the people who wear them. Sometimes my daughter pitches a beautiful slider. I can call a day beautiful just because the sun is shining, even if I wish it would rain.
So when we read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and find John Keats contending that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’– that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” we might applaud in agreement or recoil with skepticism.
I find those lines not only valid and profound, I believe they are words to live by, largely because they require us to reconsider our definition or definitions of “truth” and “beauty.” They demand that if we hope to understand, we need to go deeper than surface impressions and consider what moves us to a heartfelt, perhaps transcendent appreciation. They demand that I see my daughter’s slider as an expression of who she is, the time and effort she has devoted and all she has learned in order to master the pitch, what that says about her and–going deeper still–about the miracle of life. If I venture even deeper, I might glimpse a clue about eternity.. And along the way I will discover that true beauty includes a downbeat, an element of sorrow or pain as well as a joyful upbeat, because life is brief, evil is true, and so is weakness.
Not every experience of something truly beautiful will send us on a deep inward and transcendent journey. But everything beautiful in the sense Keats uses the word holds the potential to lead us all the way, if we are brave, dedicated and wise enough to take the journey.
In John 18:33–38, while being interrogated by Pilate, “Jesus answered, ‘For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’
“Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’”
Maybe if Jesus could’ve delivered a zinger that would reach Pilate where he lived, he would’ve responded. But most likely no such zinger is within the province of language.
Imagine Jesus answering, as didJohn Keats about 1800 years later: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.”
So Pilate asks, ‘What is Beauty?’
Suppose Jesus answers, “Love.”
Then Pilate counters, “And just what is love?” Which leads Jesus back to Truth, beginning an endless loop.
Or, to the original question, “What is truth?” Jesus might’ve answered, as according to John 14:6 he did to his disciple Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”
To such a claim, Pilate could’ve reasonably argued that Jesus had begged the question. At least, the answer appears incomplete, as Jesus implied when, as portrayed in John 8:31-32, “Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed him, ‘If you continue in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.'” Here he has revealed that knowledge of the truth requires the actions of perseverance, discipline, and application of a fund of principles.
Probably since the concept of truth entered language, folks have argued it’s meaning. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a summary of 20th century approaches. If you’re up for a challenge, give it a read.
Of the philosophers I’ve consulted on the topic, Soren Kierkegaard offers revelations that most appeal to my admittedly highly subjective mind.
What you’ll find below I have clipped from a philosophy website and adapted slightly for clarity.
Kierkegaard distinguishes between objective and subjective truth. Considered objectively, truth merely seeks correspondence with an independent reality. The statement “cats often meow” is objective truth. Considered subjectively, however, truth seeks achievement of the right attitude, an appropriate relation between object and knower. Thus, for example, although Christianity is objectively merely one of many available religions in the world, it subjectively demands our complete devotion.
For Kierkegaard, it is clearly subjective truth that counts. How we believe matters much more than what we believe, since the “passionate inwardness” of subjective adherence is the only way to deal with our anxiety.
Anxiety, or dread, a condition central to Kierkegaard’s world view, is the appropriate reaction by seekers of truth to accepting that they must make the journey entirely on their own, relying on nobody or no set of dogma. Passionate attachment to a falsehood, Kierkegaard suggested, is preferable to detached conviction of an objective truth or common belief. This could translate, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you’re sincere.” But Kierkegaard’s standards for sincerity are exceedingly high.
Among Kierkegaard’s standards of sincerity are those pointed out in John 8:31-32, where Jesus advises seekers of truth to practice discipline, perseverance and the application of the principles he teaches. Such application requires uncommon humility and honesty, and deep courage. Because the subjective infected with selfish motives gives us only rationales, justifications and other b.s.
But to the degree we are humble, honest, and courageous, subjective truth is truer, because it doesn’t restrict us to the constraints of sensory perception or the limited spheres of logic and reason.
What’s more, the passion subjective truth engenders can deliver us from anxiety and dread.
Dread, a primary subject of Kierkegaard’s spiritual and psychological writing, results from recognizing our condition of abject solitude in an unfathomably enormous and complex cosmos. But dread is not so much a hazard as a potential guide. If we respond to dread correctly, it can lead us toward enlightenment. So, we should consider dread as akin to holy fear, the proper response to something far greater than we can possibly overcome or even comprehend. From this perspective, the well-ordered mind will recognize that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10
Noting that subjective truth engenders passion rather than detached conviction, which is the most objective truth can arouse, helps us understand the admonition given by Christ in John’s Revelation: “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:14-16
Another of Kierkegaard’s themes can also apply to the question: what is truth? He appears to consider the truth and the good as synonyms. Often he refers to God simply as “the good”. Rather than approaching God as a super-person, as preachers and other believers typically do, he gives God a name or title that best describes his character. By implication, we see God as the source from which all we can rightfully consider good arises.
Robert Pirsig takes a similar stance in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He argues that all creation is held together by something he terms Quality, which comes to light through our subjective appraisals of what is true and what is beautiful.
Now, the point of all this speculation about beauty and truth, at least as it relates to those of us who attempt to create, is to arrive at a method by which we can make our work beautiful and therefore true; true and therefore beautiful.
Since beauty and truth are measures of quality; and since quality can be a synonym for the good, and the good is an expression of God; and since we believers are convinced that God is love, then love should be the path to the creation of truth and beauty.
So, what is love?
Some time ago, during one of those periods when I have been obsessed with the goal of learning more about love, I came across M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, in which he gave a definition I found plenty enlightening. He argued that love is not a feeling but is rather a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another’s spiritual growth. More simply: love is willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of another.
From Peck’s angle, love is an act of will that may or may not connect to a particular emotion.
C. S. Lewis wrote about “the four loves”: eros or romantic love; storge or affection such as family members may exhibit for each other; philia or a strong friendship bond; and agape or unconditional love, as God exemplifies and would have us apply toward others.
As Lewis points out, all the loves except agape can readily be abused, poisoned by the desire for self-aggrandizement. What appears to be one of those loves may actually be no more than pure selfishness in disguise. We pick our friends for how they can serve us, our lovers for the lust they may satisfy. Love for our parents or kids might depend upon what their accomplishments and status do for our image.
William Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” exposes the authentic and the counterfeit:
“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”
So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:
“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”
Though I deeply respect and admire the insights of Mr. Peck and Mr. Lewis, I can’t accept as a complete answer either “love” as willingness to sacrifice regardless of feeling or “love” as a catch phrase for a number of different emotions.
From my admittedly subjective angle, love is a unity, though it may express itself in different variations, and the willingness to sacrifice based upon motive not engaged with emotion can’t be counted as love.
In First Corinthians, St. Paul asserts that: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Simply, whatever I do without love is meaningless. I could sacrifice in order to bring about the salvation of the whole world, but the action wouldn’t be worth doing.
I won’t speculate whether St. Paul meant that actions taken without love will backfire or that, even though they might help others, they won’t draw us any closer to God or heaven. His meaning may be far beyond my comprehension.
But I will speculate about the application of love, whatever it is, wherever it comes from, to our work as artists. Suppose we get blessed with the opportunity to see an exhibit of Van Gogh originals, or to hear fine musicians play “Ode to Joy”. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will notice that the creator of the painting or symphony has applied something more than great skill, that the artist’s love has entered into the creation and remains there as long as the work exists.
When I read Dostoyevski or Dickens I often glimpse through the words the love that inspired the author to write those particular words. And we encounter love not only in the greatest masters. I recently finished the Harry Potter books and found in them an abundance of love.
So, my advice is, if we intend to create anything beautiful, by which I also mean anything true, we had best apply ourselves to the acquisition and practice of love.
Otherwise, if I attend the best writing programs and learn all the poetic skills, I will offer only noise. If I devote myself to craft and produce dozens of novels that entertain millions of readers, I have given nothing of value in exchange for the fortune I may acquire.
I had a remarkable friend, Sylvia Curtis, the mother of Eric Curtis, whom you could meet in Reading Brother Lawrence. One day I as I entered Sylvia’s apartment she greeted me with a scowl and demanded, “What’s the purpose of life?”
I said, “Uh . . .”
She said, “To know love and to serve God.”
Please note that “to know love” comes first.
Thanks for reading, Ken