Truth and Dialogue
Your ways make known to me, O Lord,
teach me your paths.
Jesus before He endured the cross for our sakes was called rabbi, teacher. Those He sent were told “Go, teach,” and maturity in the Christian way has always been achieved through teaching. Teaching the ignorant has always been considered one of the corporal works of mercy. “Teach” is an Old English word that translates the Greek verb deiknēimi, to show, point out by words, and that is what a teacher does.
We come into this world needing to be taught, needing to be shown the end and the way, because amidst the mystery of every life, that complexity and half-vision which sometimes delights and sometimes terrifies, while there are pointers and intimations, the clear answer as to why we are here and where we are going is wanting. Which is why God gave the law and inspired the prophets, then in the fullness of time sent Jesus the Messiah to teach. He sat down and taught them, thus begins the divine teaching called the Sermon on the Mount. And the crowd were astonished for He taught them as one who had authority.
The Church always explains but it has never entered into dialogue about its teachings. Dialogue has a troubled history, occurring as it does in situations in which the answer is unknown, sought, but not yet known. There was a side of Plato’s thought that encouraged the belief that truth could be known, and that was the Platonism of the Christian Fathers that formed the philosophic foundation for the making of the Christian mind during the first five centuries. Plato’s philosophy had another side, represented by the beautiful and thought-provoking dialogues that ultimately produced the skepticism of the Academy against which Augustine wrote Contra Academicos in 397. For the dialogues often end with a question or by presenting more than one possible conclusion, and as represented by the late Academy the method was productive of nothing more than doubt and finally skepticism.
Fast forward to 1800, and to the thought of George Wilhelm Frederick Hegel, who in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History proposed the dialectical view of history in which one situation calls forth an opposing situation, resolution to be found somewhere in between or beyond, that resolution forming the basis for a further progress. In the process of reducing reality to power, Hegelianism makes truth impossible, for it will always be succeeded by the next synthesis, time, in the words of the New England poet James Russell Lowell, written in 1845 at the height of the Hegelian storm, always making ancient good uncouth. In the twenty-first century “dialogue” has been second only to “change” in its usefulness as the wrecking ball swung relentlessly against revealed truth; indeed to dialogue is to presuppose the possibility of change, while truth revealed by God and moral precepts enjoined by Him, although these may be explained, expanded into new situations, and given new apologetic relevance, can never be changed.
Dialogue with “the world” is never productive of any good or any truth.
It was for this reason that Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness, addressed only these words to Satan: “Get thee behind me,” get out of my way, otherwise only quoting to the Devil the words of Scripture (Matthew 4:1–10). This is why the apostles warned against having conversation with those who brought a different Gospel. This is why Satan is always anxious to enter into dialogue, and his opening sentence is always patterned on his question to Eve in Genesis, “Did God really say?”
Dialogue regarding divinely revealed truth, not conversation about the meaning of a poem or consideration of the prudence of an investment, but dialogue, dialogue in modern meaning, is still and always the door Satan seeks in his attempt to corrupt faith, because dialogue presupposes the possibility that the subject of the dialogue is uncertain or open which it in fact is not. The Gospel, the Good News, is the proclamation of a herald inviting submission to truth revealed by God rather than an offering to potential buyers. Peter and Paul were seeking converts to the truth not customers for a product that pleased.
The history of the Church in the twenty-first century offers nothing new. Paul’s advice to Timothy that the day would come when those with itching ears would seek out teachers who pleased was descriptive before it was prophetic, for even then the apostolic mission was challenged on the ground by those who thought the Christian freedom meant licentiousness and considered creation the work of an evil deity (II Timothy 4:3). When Paul wrote Timothy there was no Bible, but the truth of the Christ’s teaching, as Irenaeus would say a century later, lived in the heart of the Church and would not be deceived. As it was in Eden, as it was in the wilderness, with regard to divinely revealed truth dialogue courts deception. The habit of belief is divinely inspired assent to truth. The truths of politics and economics may profitably be pursued through dialogue and argument but the truth that clarifies the mystery and the meaning of our lives and confirms the actions that bring us along the way to God lie beyond the capacities of the dialogical method and can be known only through love-borne assent to Christ the truth and the way.