Knowing God – And How to Think About Him

I’ve enjoyed discovering this blog in the past year. It’s called Beauty for Truth’s Sake and includes frequent reflection on the surprising delights of thinking truthfully instead of being driven by the appetites for power or pleasure.

When you read something like this, you know the writer thinks into things more than we normally do:

Mathematics, in its own way (and you won’t hear this said too often!), is a picture of love.

This was in an article on analogy and how we can, since the incarnation, think about God. Take a look – add it to your blog list.

Individual Freedom

Isaiah Berlin argued in his Inaugural Lecture on liberty in 1958 that human freedom takes two particular forms when the individual moves toward the self: self-abnegation, and self-realization.

Self-abnegation has historically taken the form of the monastic, the ascetic.  Many interpret asceticism as a form of escapism from the corruptions of the world, or rather, from the “desires of the flesh.”  Berlin points out that rather than escaping “from,” the ascetic seeks to gain control “over” laws manageable by the self.

I am free only to the degree to which my person is ‘fettered’ by nothing that obeys forces over which I have no control;

Self-abnegation seeks freedom by means of gaining control over external forces, or laws, and internal forces such as desires.  The self aims for autonomy—that is, self-governance.

For if the essence of men is that they are autonomous beings – authors of values, of ends in themselves, the ultimate authority of which consists precisely in the fact that they are willed freely – then nothing is worse than to treat them as if they were not autonomous, but natural objects, played on by causal influences, creatures at the mercy of external stimuli, whose choices can be manipulated by their rulers, whether by threats of force or offers of rewards.  To treat men in this way is to treat them as if they were not self-determined.

Berlin proceeds to the concluding point that

if, as Kant held, all values are made so by the free acts of men, and called values only so far as they are this, there is no value higher than the individual.

Now, how does this correlate to the classroom, or rather, to classroom management?  How ought teachers to cultivate virtue in their students if they endorse the idea that “there is no value higher than the individual”?  What does that classroom look like?

Gunton on Freedom

In The One, the Three, and the Many the late Colin E. Gunton works through the lectures of Sir Isaiah Berlin on the title Two Concepts of Liberty . Berlin arrives at a point that defines human beings not as individuals, but as social beings.  All humanity is related.  This concept reminds me of a statement made by Wendell Berry when he writes, “All things are connected; the context of everything is everything else.” in The Way of Ignorance.

Berlin arrives at this conclusion after outlining the two concepts of negative freedom and positive freedom.  Negative freedom seeks liberation from the many.

I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity.

Positive freedom seeks liberation to one’s self free of external constraints.  This concept of freedom “derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master.”  The one reaches for dominion over the many–leading finally to despotism.

Gunton notes that Berlin displays how positive freedom ultimately “transmorgifies” into negative freedom.  The movement toward one’s self is a movement from all others.

Next, Berlin suggests that the concept of freedom is intrinsically tied to human nature.  Nothing more than what constitutes the nature of human being can be sacrificed without at the same moment letting go of freedom.  If the negative concept of freedom is a constant shedding of “interferences,” then the minimal, Berlin replies (paraphrasing Gunton), is

That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature.

Gunton continues by pointing out Berlin’s understanding that “freedom from interference . . . derives from the fact that there is a plurality of goods, not some single purpose in life that can be rationalistically discovered and imposed.”  (I need more context to determine what this means.  I know that the use of the word “fact” departs from what Gunton would argue, but perhaps not Berlin.)

At this point Gunton writes that Berlin has arrived at a place where “no finally satisfactory individualist account of freedom” exists.  Man is a social being.  This becomes Berlin’s weakness according to Gunton.

Is freedom no more than my not being prevented from doing what I want?  It is here that arises the irresistible desire for some ontological account of freedom, for an account tied to what I am and not simply what I want.”  -Gunton

For Gunton this unveiled the gap filled only by a right understanding of the Trinity.  Only a Trinitarian conception of being (of the person) gives adequate space to the individual (the one) without collapsing the one into the many.

Gunton notes that “freedom is both something exercised and something received.”  Freedom is reciprocal.  Gunton argued for a relational element intrinsic to the nature of freedom, not in a self’s progression toward isolation, but in the individual’s movement toward communion.

It remains in general true that the modern individualistic concept of freedom tends to separate the person from other people, rather than simply distinguishing them from each other in relation.  That is to say, it is essentially and irremediably non-relational.  -Gunton

Now the question that led me back to a review of Gunton came from reading a statement by Wendell Berry in Standing By Words. He stated that form “enforces freedom,” that form and freedom are not antithetical concepts, that the argument for form was not an argument against freedom.  So how does form, limits, law “enforce” freedom?

On a metaphysical level Gunton argued that freedom is relational.  Inherent in what it means to be human is to be free–free to be human.  Any pursuit that directs one to be more or even less than human rejects the limits of human beingness and makes one a slave.  Pride enslaves one to the self, and to be less than human is to be a slave to sin and death.  I get this, but what about on, what we can call, a practical level?

Regardless of what I believe and what I do (take the classroom as an example), I must evaluate my intent.  I must not endorse any act, behavior, or practice that “frees” me from others, that isolates me because it is what I want.  Rather, I must act in such a way that “frees” me toward others, that permits me to fully be what I am — a person-in-relation.

Out of relation springs new possibilities.  The freedom in relation is the freedom toward the possible, the unknown.  New realities take form in the free relations of living beings.

Submission to form does not draw the question, “What does this benefit me?”  Such questions are blinded toward true freedom.  Rather, I am gifted the space to partake in something greater, or simply other, than myself.  As such, my soul is enlarged.  It is not, “What do I get out of it?” but, “What I receive as being a part of it.”

Honoring form grants true freedom — the freedom to be.

The Leap of Faith

The leap of faith is a leap into consciousness – a leap into what we already know, not a blind leap into the irrational.

The materialist (the aesthetic, as Kierkegaard used the term) is a sadly unconscious person.

The ethical person becomes conscious by his engagement in the finite and its realities, but, like finitude, his consciousness is limited.

Only when the humble acknowledgement that there are things of which we know but that we cannot grasp, only the acceptance of these realities, only this “leap of faith” makes it possible for us to be fully (though certainly not infinitely) conscious.

Until we take this leap we are denying what is most distinctly ourselves, what makes self-awareness possible, what rightly places us in the cosmos, and what enables sound judgment.

Until by faith we leap into ourselves we are incapable of wisdom, justice, freedom, or real love.

This is why great art is always deeply mystical and why in it we are always conscious of a wound.

We know that we and things have meaning.

We know that we are conscious.

We know that something orders all things and we know we ought to be sensitive and sensible to the Image of glory.

We know we are missing something. We express that knowledge in our pursuits, each of which demonstrates a lack.

We need to see all things as temple and to see all acts as liturgy and eucharist. Then we can leap, by faith, not into the unknown, but into the necessary and the transcendent.

Waves of Joy

I wish I had seen this before Easter (Pascha as most of the non-Germanic people’s call it), but this marvel of a video shows waves of joy in a way few things can.

H/T to Father Stephen, where you can read a translation. Here’s a clue: the refrain means “Christ is risen and brings joy.”

The Anxiety of Truth

{Editor’s Note: Quiddity has a new author! Beginning with the following post, CiRCE journeyman and Magnet School English Teacher, David Wright, will make regular contributions to Quiddity, enriching our conversation. You’ll see why I asked him to join us in the next minute:}

The Anxiety of Truth

David M. Wright

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

– Emily Dickinson

I spent most of the third week of February at the CiRCE Institute. Our time together consisted of rigorous contemplation, discussion, and reflection. The experience was immensely enriching, and, I must admit, somewhat unsettling. Throughout the week, I became metacognitively aware that I was in a state of mental, psychic, and emotional unrest. Why did I feel this way? Why was I slightly nervous at dinner when each twelve-hour day was finished?

My conclusion and thesis for this essay:  truth (aletheia) can be unsettling. Ok. So that might sound a little trite, like saying “the sky is blue.” But in fact, the nature of truth is paradoxical and multi-layered. Similarly, upon reflection, we know the sky really isn’t blue. The phrase belies its depth.

The central paradox with aletheia is that it is at once simple, yet also universal, indelible, ineffable, and eternal. Maybe then, I felt unsettled during the week because truth is simply too radiant and too superb for my feeble, darkened apprehension. It is “too bright for our infirm delight.” Here, the insecurity stems from the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived. As one who continually desires to understand, I sometimes ask, Why me? I am too imperfect. Bearing the torch for truth is a task too large for my capabilities.

Yet, as Aristotle says, “All men by nature desire to know.” Our nature, then, demands that we quest, so we might as well honor her, take up the knapsack of books, and continue to walk this rather frightening road. Or simply, as Socrates might suggest, take up the knapsack of ideas, the realm where the true philosopher lives. Deeply ambivalent about the written word, he believed books offer pale reflections of the truth.[1] But in either case, the point here: adhere and seek.

And then of course there is the fact that we wrestled for hours with truthful ideas. The ideas are grandiose, full, and expansive. They, in many ways, transport. In short, tangle with them and it can feel like you’re wearing a parachute in a hurricane—feet on the ground no more. Here are some of the ideas we discussed: Propriety. The cultivation of human faculties. Attentive perception. Conceptualization. Re-presenting nature back to God. Rightly ordering the soul. Language. Reason. Will. The self. Freedom. Education as the seat of the soul—to name a few gusts from the eye.

Since this essay is a reflection on truth, I shall briefly present some of the uses and perceptions of aletheia in history.

In the Homeric texts, the term aletheia appears primarily in verbs of expression. This concerns the authenticity of what is said between people. Additionally, the Homeric notion of aletheia involves giving a full, complete, and accurate account. For example, in the Iliad Book 10, the Trojan Dolon attempts to sneak into the Achaean camp and is caught by Odysseus and Diomedes. Odysseus calls him to account, “Come, tell me the truth now, point by point.”[2] Similarly, we see this in the nineteenth book of the Odyssey, “Shall lay the clear truth naked to your view.”[3] Again, in the fourteenth book of the Iliad, “What, thou has vow’d; that with all / truth thou wilt bestow on me.”[4] As is evident, the primary context for aletheia appears in that of stories and speeches. The essential notion that I wish to emphasize here is that in Homer truth involves fullness in communication, an inclusion of all realities that pertain to accurately conveying the truth. In short, it is a candid verbal account which leaves nothing out.

Continuing with a look at the Pre-Socratic understanding, Thucydides’ idea of truth encompasses the accurate connection of language to the world. This means matching words to reality, logos to kosmos. Additionally, for Thucidydides, aletheia contains a strong connotation of visual imagery, or unconcealedness. We see here that truth involves a right correspondence and also visual metaphors.

Viewed as such, truth has everything to do with words matching nature, words representing objects faithfully. And what is fundamental to this representation? What ensures that this correspondence results in truth? The essence of truthful correspondence is propriety—which means to know a thing and to treat it according to its nature. The purpose of propriety is to honor the nature of a thing.[5] It is the suitability of the name to the named. “Propriety is a matter of imitation… To imitate rightly I must know (see or perceive) the nature of the thing I wish to imitate.”[6]

Of course this construct of truth expands concentrically through nature from the center point of perfect, pure Truth: the Logos, the Word; the Archetype of propriety; the unity and fullness of all things; the perfect concord of matter and spirit; the divine expression of the Father. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). As well: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Plato’s perspective on aletheia is expressed most vividly in his Theaetetus dialogue.[7] Here Socrates concludes that knowledge is true belief that has been given an account of. In other words, truth involves two fundamental components: belief and support. Hence, one must truly believe the proposition by holding to a belief that adheres to one’s conscience and reason, and then possess good support, justification, and logic for that belief. Additionally of course, throughout many of his dialogues, Plato viewed truth as that which belonged to the timeless and immaterial realm.

Aristotl, in his Metaphysics, arrived at a similar definition of truth to that of Thucydides. His oft-quoted definition: “To say of something which is that it is not, or to say of something which is not that it is, is false. However, to say of something which is that it is, or of something which is not that it is not, is true.”

Again, we see that truth involves what we say corresponding to the facts of reality. I appreciate the Philosopher Mom’s way of saying this, “Aristotle’s account of truth… is that reality imprints itself on the human mind, revealing intelligible truths. Because his mind corresponds directly to reality, man is capable of knowing its essence.[8]

So, the classical idea of truth contains three aspects. One, words must correspond to nature, but nature has priority over language and culture. Two, truth is a unity between language and nature, while falsehood is a discrepancy between them. And three, words and language are signs that symbolize truth. Therefore, they must suitably and appropriately represent the truth. In addition, because words are signs, they are subordinate to the objects of nature which they symbolize.

The Medieval understanding of truth (veritas) derived primarily from St. Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas and retains this perspective: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus—“truth is the adequation of the intellect to the thing.” A continuity in perception of truth existed between the classical world and the Middle Ages, in large part from Aquinas’s incorporation of Aristotle. Unfortunately, this continuity was radically altered with the Enlightenment and Kant. But for the medievals, truth involved not only the adequation of the intellect to the thing, but a rightness or rectitude (rectitudo) that something is as it ought to be, that it does that for which it was made.[9]

For the purposes of this essay, we shall hop over the “Enlightenment”—which in regard to truth and several other regressions may be more accurately termed the Dark Ages—and land at Kierkegaard. For truth is his starting point. “Can the truth be learned?” is the opening line of his Philosophical Fragments. After working through Plato’s Meno, Kierkegaard reflects on Socrates’ notion of inner truth and recollection: a person cannot seek what he knows, but also cannot seek what he does not know because he wouldn’t know what he is supposed to seek.[10] Consequently, for Socrates, learning and seeking are actually recollecting. And the teacher guides this process. “Thus the ignorant person needs to be reminded in order, by himself, to call to mind what he knows. The truth is not introduced into him, but was in him.”[11] This is an appropriate beginning for Kierkegaard in his Fragments, but far from the end. He builds upon this to the Christian experience of acquiring truth through grace.

Kierkegaard constructs this in complex, precise fashion, but I will relay it simply. For Socrates, the teacher leads the student to realize his own ignorance (untruth) and to then discover the truth or light which is in him. The teacher is the occasion, but the student must discover his own untruth himself. For Kierkegaard, the teacher is actually God, who acts as the occasion and prompts the learner to realize that he is untruth, and that he is untruth through his own fault (sin); and then God gives him the truth.[12] Kierkegaard puts it this way, “…a new presupposition: the consciousness of sin, and a new decision: the moment; and a new teacher: the god in time.”[13]

Finally, even though Pilate and the post-moderns are fond of asking, “What is truth?”—we see that it is quite easy to define:  asserting what is when it is, and asserting what is not when it is not. However, determining whether a statement is true or false can be the hard part. And to this question, there are generally three kinds of answers: one, some statements are self-evidently true, such as “The whole is greater than the part”[14]; two, some statements are true because they can be tested by experience and observations; and three, some statements, while neither self-evidently true nor empirically verifiable, are probably true based on reason, authority, or consensus, etc. So, defining truth is easy, knowing whether a statement is true or false is harder, and pursuing the truth is the most difficult.[15] This brings us back, full circle, to the anxiety of truth.

In conclusion, the aforementioned provide fruitful landing pads for a reflection on truth. And at the center of all things we find the Trinity, for God is Truth. The contact point is the Logos, Truth made flesh, guided by the Holy Spirit “…when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). From Socrates and Kierkegaard, the understanding of fallen humans as untruth resonates with Emily Dickinson’s poem and my anxiety with truth. Yes, I believe that the truth shall make us free (John 8:32), but I also suspect that the anxiety lies therein. We don’t always wish to be free; the prison of the flesh is what we are used to. (The title of Doris Lessing’s book The Prisons We Choose to Live Inside comes to mind here.) As untruth, our contact with Truth will inevitably contain some strain. And that contact will encompasses a process. After all, we remain in a degree of untruth in this life even while we are aware of it, and even while we pursue and acquire the truth. According to Kierkegaard, God reveals our untruth to us then gives us the truth. Yes, the revelation of our untruth is a radical point in our lives—“the Truth’s superb surprise”—but our acquisition of the truth happens by a process of sanctification through grace and by the perilous pursuit of truth, working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), for, as Dickinson ends her poem, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—”

[1] Erich Segal, The Dialogues of Plato. (New York: Bantam, 1986) xiv-xv.

[2] Homer, The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. (London: Penguin, 1990) 289.

[3] Chapman, George. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Translated by George Chapman. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1903) 484.

[4] Ibid, 172.

[5] Poignantly expressed by Buck Holler in an e-mail 2/23/10.

[6] Buck Holler, same e-mail 2/23/10.

[7] Dialogue translated by Benjamin Jowett.

[8] “Nietzsche vs. Aristotle: What is Truth?” June 28, 2007.


[10] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments. Ed. And Trans. by Howard V. Hong and Enda H. Hong. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985) 10.

[11] Ibid, 10.

[12] Ibid, 15.

[13] Ibid. 111.

[14] Mortimer J. Adler, Great Ideas from the Great Books. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1961) 4.

[15] Ibid, 5.

What do you know?

For some time I have been saying that all teaching and all knowledge begins with the senses. Now I don’t know why I ever said that because I realize I don’t and never really did believe it.

I think I simply didn’t realize what I was saying.

This notion is probably rationally absurd and certainly not Biblical.

For one thing, the Bible makes it clear that we know God’s law from the day we are born. That is why when I teach Aesop’s Fables (and I never tell the moral), I never hear anybody make an immoral application. Children get the morals more rapidly than adults do, and that point in itself bears great reflection.

There are things we know “by necessity.” But there are other things we know even before necessity presents itself. We know them by nature, in the sense that they are woven into our nature. We know, for example, that different things are similar and that similar things are different. We know that events occur in sequence.

We also know things that cannot be defended by words or even necessarily put into words, things that may not even be comprehensible, and yet things that precede all knowledge. We know that we are souls, for example. We just might not know what souls are. We also know there is a God, though we cannot know what God is.

This being so, it is dangerous to try to build a philosophical argument to defend the existence of these things, not because we seek to be irrational, but because two errors follow from the attempt:

  1. We misdefine the thing we are talking about
  2. We reduce the thing we are talking about to what we can understand.

As a result, a third error follows, namely that if someone doesn’t want to believe in what we are talking about, they can 1. point to our inadequate idea and disregard that and 2. attack our argument and think that doing so shows that the thing we are talking about does not exist.

If I were debating a “new atheist” or a french man, when they snickered at me, smirking, “ah, so you believe in god, do you?” I would answer, “Probably not. What do you mean?” If they could attach meaning to the word, I would know that whatever meaning they have attached would not refer to the true God, so I would say, “No, I don’t believe in that God either.”