How does truth set me free?

Jesus famously claims “the truth will set you free”.  Well, 2 plus 2 equals 4 is truth, and from what I can tell, it doesn’t exactly set me free.  Maybe Jesus means some secret, almost magical truth about God that somehow liberates me and is only available to a few people?  “Free” sounds awfully good – I’m sure I want it.  How does truth set me free?

“Free” is a tricky word

I spent some time when I was in my late teens and twenties thinking that “free” meant making my own decisions.  No one could tell me what to do.  I had goals I pursued because they were my goals (college, diversion, and sex were the top three).  I had friends who I chose.  Lived where I chose, listened to what I wanted, you get the picture.

But it didn’t take too long (about five years) to figure out I wasn’t free.  The reason I wasn’t free is that the decisions I made had consequences whether I liked them or not, consequences I was not able to avoid or change.  Drugs got me thrown in jail.  Not free.  Sex got me a life-threatening illness that took a couple of months to get over.  Not free.  The diversions I chose twisted my mind toward dishonesty and trying to manipulate friends.  Not free.

I wasn’t free because the consequences of my actions backed me into corners where eventually I had almost no choices.  I could yell all day about how I was living my life my way, but the fact is that things just got narrower and narrower.

Three things are at work here

First, something about humans.  We are interior creatures, designed for relationships.  This statement is pretty easy to defend.  Many people think that solitary confinement as a punishment for crime is harsher even than death.  More people would agree that loneliness — deep, existential loneliness — is as troubling a condition as hunger or disease.  I suspect that no one would say the best way to live life is without friends, without family, without love.  We are built for love.

Our human nature requires relationships the way our physical life requires oxygen.  And the easiest way to explain this is that we are designed to crave relationships, designed that way on purpose by a creator.

Second, something about the universe.  The universe is a place of morals, a place of right and wrong.  This relates to being designed for relationships because almost all the right-and-wrong things are about relationships.  It doesn’t just “seem” this way – it really is this way.  The fact that no one can escape the perception that some things are wrong and other things are right has an explanation.  Right and wrong really do exist and they are not simply something that humans have made up.  I maintain that it is literally impossible for a human to believe and live as if it doesn’t make any difference whether one lies or not, doesn’t make any difference whether one causes pain or not, and so on.

The easiest way to explain this is that the universe involves a moral system as integral to its nature as gravity or electromagnetism.  And the easiest way to explain that is this moral order is designed by a creator.

Third, put the two together.  If I pursue an interior life that is consistent with the moral structure of the universe it draws me nearer to the creator who gives me freedom.  When I decide not to defy laws of gravity or live as if these laws do not exist, then I don’t injure myself in falls or reckless leaps – I am more free when I accommodate gravity than when I defy it.  Or when I am eight years old and decide to follow the rules at school and at home, I get to do more stuff.  And in a similar way, when I follow the moral laws and live my life in helpful/loving relations, then I am rewarded both by the relationships themselves and by the creator who designed me and the universe.  What I get from the relationships and from the creator makes me more free.

To a large extent, I am able to discover the points above on my own.  The points are accessible to reason and experience. But in some cases, these things must be explained to me by the one who created the conditions and who created me to exist within these conditions.  So far, most of the truth I have discussed is in the form of information which, if I accommodate that information, will make me more free.

But not all truth is simply information.

There is even a problem with the kind of truth that is information.  The problem lies with me, not with the information itself.  The problem is that informational truth usually can make me free only to extent that I am aware of it and have the capacity to understand it.  If I am either unaware or lack the capacity to understand, then truth that is information probably will not do me much good.  It almost surely will not set me free.

But there is a twist, a deep divine twist, that carries things beyond “information”  – Truth is ultimately a person

Truth is what forms me, changes my character and my will and my behavior by changing me.  If you have ever loved another person deeply and without reserve, then you know that there is “truth” in that love.  Truth that is not information (which is why we have trouble telling a little child what love is).  You know that your approach to life itself, your approach to yourself and to others, has been altered by this deep love.  This is truth that is different from information and is somehow more central to my existence.

Now Jesus makes this statement in John 14: “I am the way, and the truth, and the light.”  He says he is the truth.  And what a beautiful, even astonishing, synthesis this makes of the three points above.  The creator who designed me and the universe is literally the truth by which I gain freedom.  He offers himself to me as master, as transformer, as one who frees.  If I love him in faith, then truth floods my life.

If I want to be free – not just sort of free, not just more free than some other person, but free at a deep level — I must be in an ordered relation with Jesus.  There is truth that is available only in Jesus and from him.  The truths of the universe and the truths about me are not simply a set of physical laws or even moral precepts.  It is not simply information.  The deep truth is Jesus who subsumes all of reality in himself.

I’m not denying that Jesus gives me information.  Of course he does, since he knows more than I do.  He also gives me commandments, since he is master.  But even beyond these two things, he gives me more, and the “more” that he gives me completes the process of making me free.  This “more” is simultaneously the foundation and the summit of true freedom.

For instance, Jesus gives me peace of mind, and participation in God’s very nature, and the privilege of prayer.  He teaches me to love more fully, not just by precept, but also by the love of God which has been poured into my heart by his Holy Spirit (Romans 5:1ff).  There’s more and I wrote a post about these things here.  At the bottom of everything, Jesus wants to give me himself.   Eph. 3:14-21 (esp. v 19)

These gifts of Jesus constitute truth.  It is truth that lies at the foundation of all there is because Jesus is the upholding principle of the universe.  This truth teaches me and forms me.  It molds me into what a human being ought to be.  Obtaining this truth and using it in my life is called by St. Paul “knowing Christ”.  Here is what he said about this truth as the summit.

I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death,if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.    Philippians 3:8-11

Jesus is available to everybody – after all, we are built to love and it comes naturally to love Jesus-who-is-truth.  Anyone who wills it can know Jesus and thus can know the truth that sets him free.

If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.    John 8:31,32

Got beauty?

I was raised in a Christian fellowship where beauty in the worship was not a primary concern.  In fact, for the most part it was never a concern.  I was very much involved in ministry in that fellowship, and never in 25 years did I hear someone speculate on what could be done to increase beauty in our worship.  So when I became Catholic, I was sort of suspicious of the pursuit of “beauty” in architecture, in vestment, in ritual, in music, in statues and crucifixes, in chalice and ciborium.  It seemed to lend itself to outward show. 

So is it ok to use beauty as a motive?  Is it ok to pursue beauty in worship?  Catholics do, in fact, pursue beauty, so it’s an important question. 

Could this pursuit of beauty be tied into the fact we are in God’s image?  Seems to me, yes, it could.

Don’t get me wrong, the prime thing about being in God’s image must be that we have a moral sense of right and wrong coupled with self-awareness.  We are capable of good and evil and we are personally responsible when we do either.  That’s the main thing about being in God’s image. 

But every competent human being possesses a sense of beauty.  How can the universal presence of a sense of beauty not also be part of our creation in the image of God?  After all, what God has created is perceive by us as utterly beautiful – and no other creature we know of is aware of that, except us.  What’s more, we are able to create beauty ourselves.  In fact, we seem to be driven to do it.  There’s not a culture in history that didn’t incorporate beauty into art and even into everyday objects.  Without beauty, the human spirit withers. 

This is from a woman’s journal in the 19th century American frontier.  She’s talking about the quilts she made for her family.

I made them heavy so my family would be warm.  I made them strong so they would last.  I made them beautiful so my heart would not break.

 You know what she’s talking about, don’t you?  The sustaining power of beauty and what seems to be an interior longing to be ourselves a source of beauty. 

Why do things that are true also (always?) strike us as beautiful?

John Keats wrote famously “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, That is all ye know on earth, And all ye need to know” in his Ode on a Grecian Urn

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare”.  Both of these poetic statements reflect on what seems to be a fact, the fact that when we find something deeply true, we also perceive beauty in it.  

And conversely, when we encounter a thing of profound beauty (Michelangelo’s Pieta – Bach’s Mass in B Minor – the almost imponderable mystery of cell division or DNA folding), isn’t it true that we also perceive we are in the presence of significant truth?  Even if words do not suggest themselves, nevertheless it is a deep intuition that truth accompanies beauty. 

I cannot conclude this dogmatically, yet I am convinced that God can and does use beauty to draw me to his truth.  And he allows me to experience beauty when I learn his truth.  My experience and my intuition are so consistent in this that I cannot think otherwise. 

If this is so, then there is no such thing as “casual” beauty or “mere” beauty.  All beauty has the potential to draw me to truth and thus to God.  And furthermore, since beauty is not an ultimate end, but God is, then beauty has purpose. Its purpose is to draw me God-ward.

I’m starting to think this might just be awfully big stuff… 

There is truth that is not expressible, truth that is perhaps not even propositional.

Someone asks, “What is love?”  Good question.  The millennia teach us the question cannot be adequately answered in words.  But can anyone deny that the physical beauty of a mother holding her child can say as much about what love is as an essay or a dictionary? 

“How can God forgive me?”  Another good question.  I mean, I can’t even imagine God, much less understand how he can relate to me, especially when I am evil.  But can anyone deny that the heartbreaking beauty of Jesus’ parable we call The Prodigal Son helps me know the truth of God’s forgiveness?  Notice I’m not talking about the words of the parable – I am talking about its beauty.  The beauty helps me understand God. 

When I lose myself in a spectacular sunrise that seems almost to take me out of my body, what’s going on?  I have no idea, I really don’t, but I am sure of this: this experience of beauty exceeds mere neural response to physical scale and to color combinations.  I learn something in that experience, something abiding and precious and transcendent.  I learn something that undoubtedly includes God. 

I’m way out of my league here, yet I seem driven to a conclusion.

The Catholic Church is right to pursue beauty in the liturgy and in the physical objects and structures that accompany it.  And I am right to want this beauty to draw me to God.  There are moments of physical beauty in the liturgy that I crave and that somehow help me imitate Jesus in my ordinary daily life.  These moments are of course not sacraments in the full sense, yet they show God’s power to nourish his people with what is physical.

  • The priest in full vestment incensing the altar or the Book of the Gospels, while music plays that only belongs to God.
  • The moment in a Mass of Ordination when the ordinands lie prostrate before the altar.
  • A chalice of particular beauty which holds the Precious Blood.  The chalice adds nothing to the Blood of Christ, nevertheless its beauty can draw me to the Savior.
  • A crucifix over the altar in a great church that practically forces me to my knees.
  • A simple Christian lost in her rosary. 

These things are evangelistic and creaturely in their attempt to do all to the glory of God.  There is a piety entirely appropriate to the moment.  And a wonderfully communal quality to so many of these beauties as we experience them in congregational worship. 

Beauty does not cease with this life.

The description of heaven in Revelation can hardly be taken as a literal reality, which actually may help me make the point that heaven will be a dimension, an existence, of unimaginable beauty.  The words given to John only help us to glimpse that we serve a Father of unparalleled ability.  These are selected verse from chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation.

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband…. having the glory of God.  Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper… The city was pure gold, like clear glass.  The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone… And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb… And the Spirit and the Bride say “Come.”  And let the one who hears say “Come.”  And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.

Beauty and truth cooperate as we reach for God.

So long as beauty is ordered toward God, we may trust its power.

We are promised a life of amazing beauty.