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Fragile Truth

Well, I just returned from a wonderful week away and am spending a good chunk of today slowly wading through a very clogged in-box! One of the more humourous discoveries I have made thus far in my wading is this cartoon sent by a friend last week.

As is so often the case, it is funny because it is true…

On a somewhat related note, despite my best intentions to read nothing remotely work-related on my holiday, I did crack open Czech priest/writer Tomáš Halík’s Patience with God during my time away. Halík does have the two extremes alluded to in the comic above in view, but this book is less an expression of annoyance at these two poles than a desire to move beyond them.

Among the things I have been intrigued by in this book, is Halík’s interest in what he calls the “Zacchaeuses” of the world—those who are interested in Jesus, but from a distance. Halík uses this category to describe the many people who are genuinely attracted to Jesus or spirituality or discipleship or whatever other term might be preferred, but who, for a variety of reasons, find it difficult to get close. They are morally and spiritually sensitive people who just can’t seem to fit with “religious” people or institutions but who are also repelled by the strident atheism at the other end of the spectrum. It is to these people that Halík feels called:

In my pastoral work as a priest, but also in all my other fields of activity—my books and articles, university teaching, and the media—my aim has always been neither “converting the converted,” nor caring for the orderly sheep of the flock, nor even engaging in never-ending polemics and disputes with opponents. I don’t think my chief vocation ought to be “mission” in the classical sense, if by that one means winning over as many people as possible to one’s own church flock or political persuasion. I feel that my chief purpose is to be an understanding neighbor for those who find it impossible to join the exultant crowds beneath the unfurled flags of whatever color, for those who keep their distance.

I’ve read many books on the pastoral vocation, mission, calling, etc, but I’m not sure I’ve ever come across as good an articulation of how I understand my role as a pastor as that one. Perhaps it is because, like the “Zacchaeuses” Halík speaks of, I, too, am wary of the exultant crowds…

Halík goes on:

People often construe the distance that Zacchaeuses maintain as an expression of their “superiority,” but I don’t think they are right—things aren’t that simple. In my experience, it is more the result of shyness. In some cases, the reason for their aversion to crowds, particularly ones with slogans and banners, is that they suspect that the truth is too fragile to be chanted on the street.

I really like that line: “they suspect that truth is too fragile to be chanted on the street.” For me, the word fragile does not here denote a sense of tenuousness or lack of strength/solidity or anything like that; rather, it gets at the idea that truth is not a possession that we can lay hold of or use to manipulate others to do/think what we want them to do/think. Truth is “fragile” in the sense that it resists our attempts at commodifying it or using it as a weapon against our enemies. Truth must be treated with care.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amen. I’d forgotten about Halik’s book; I hope to read it before too long. His words there remind me of Charles Williams’ on those who “traffic in great ideas.” He was speaking of Kierkegaard’s interpreters, but I think the phrase applies to all of us who too often reduce ideas and truth to tools to puff ourselves up or weapons to bring others down. I’m certainly guilty of that.

    November 16, 2010
  2. Ken #

    In Peter Berger’s analysis, when a Christian is confronted with evidence there is no God they do one of three things: capitulate (atheists), retrench (fundamentalists) or compromise (liberals and evangelicals.) Of course, every compromise involves capitulation and retrenchment, and perhaps no one completely avoids compromise.

    Why someone who compromises is annoyed by atheists and fundamentalists is not really answered by that analysis. I suspect the answer is found in our genes. Of course, that is the suspicion of an atheist.

    Re: “they suspect that truth is too fragile to be chanted on the street.”

    That is the suspicion of a compromiser, at least of a humble one. Or of a humble atheist.

    November 17, 2010
    • I think that every worldview changes, however minimally, over time. I suspect that there are very few people who can just pick a worldview in their teens or twenties and just go into maintain mode for the rest of their lives. Perhaps for some this is the case, but for the majority I think there is some kind of updating/worldview maintenance required throughout life. I think this is to be expected if we are living beings in continuous relationship with God, world, and others. Healthy worldviews mature, just like healthy people do (and the inverse is obviously true as well).

      At various times and in response to various pressures and experiences, any one of the three responses you mention might be operative. I’d like to think there are more positive ways of framing the process of holding/maintaining/modifying/changing worldviews than the ones from Berger. The impression I get from the language of “capitulation,” “compromise,” and “retrenchment” is that a kind of bleak nihilism is the default reality that we all must deal with, however inadequately. Maybe I’m importing unwarranted assumptions onto Berger’s categories.

      November 17, 2010
  3. This post reminds me of a talk I heard from PZ Myers at a conference for Secular Humanism about a month ago. His talk was part of a debate between “Confrontationalists” and “Accomodationalists” (a popular debate among atheists).

    If you’re interested, here’s the link:

    (PZ starts his 18 min. talk at the 30 min. mark)

    November 17, 2010
    • Thanks for the link, Jerry.

      Based on the part I watched, I’m curious what about this post reminded you of the Myers talk. To me, it seems that the conversation at this conference had less to do with the pursuit of truth or the nature of truth than with how to deal with the unfortunate majority of people who aren’t bright or courageous enough to embrace the truth that secular humanists have already apprehended.

      November 17, 2010
  4. mdaele #

    I hate to go all WWJD on ya here but…
    What puts Jesus on the cross (it seems to me) is not some careful handling of the ‘fragile truth’ – of his identity, mission or purpose. What puts Jesus on the cross is precisely his willingness to walk ‘truth’ out into the street. He dismisses the adulterous woman destined for stoning, he hangs out with a Samaritan woman, drunks, swindlers, and prostitutes. He breaks social conventions and religious prescriptions. Whatever ‘truth’ He knows is nothing if not lived out into the street. Granted this is likely not the same kind of shouting that Halik is addressing but it is a type of shouting none the less.
    If Halik is interested in honoring a type of restrained approach to making claims about the contents of ‘truth’, he is also dangerously close to turning a sort of abstinence into virtue. The abstinence I am talking about here is a sort of inaction toward injustice. Abstinence can be justified because any significant action might actually be the kind of shouting in the streets that might damage the fragility of truth that the restrainers might pretend to honor. But is this really all that virtuous a pursuit?
    Fundamentalism (of all stripes) is loathsome because it has no accounting other than its own to itself. But apathy is just as loathsome – just as vile – just as arrogant.
    Truth may very well be fragile but if it actually exists it better not be impotent!

    November 17, 2010
    • I don’t think Halík is advocating a reticence to live truth out in the street. I think the emphasis in the quotes above—at least as I interpret them—is on the “chanting” component, not the “in the streets.” We are all familiar enough with people at both ends of the theist/atheist spectrum who substitute volume and obstinacy for genuine dialogue about/commitment to truth, people who seize upon a false certainty and use it to attack those who disagree with them. I think these are the people Halík has in view and the extremes he wishes to offer an alternative to.

      I think your cautions are well taken, though. It’s one thing to use Zacchaeus as a symbol for the curious in the post-Christian smorgasbord of options (whether in the Czech Republic or anywhere else); it’s another to excuse or somehow valorize inactivity and lack of commitment. Zacchaeus came down from his tree, after all, and he righted his wrongs. Salvation doesn’t come to apathy’s home.

      November 17, 2010
      • mdaele #

        Absolutely, for me the trouble lies in how short a step it is from refusing to be boisterous ‘in the streets’ because of a perceived superior intellectual position or honest curiosity to being handcuffed by the fragility of a truth that seems to dangerous to settle on.
        its too bad he says that truth is fragile – i would be more comfortable with saying that certainty is fragile…

        November 17, 2010
      • Yes, the word “fragile” is certainly fraught with potential problems. My initial reaction to associating it with truth wasn’t entirely positive either, but I think on the most charitable interpretation it can signify something meaningful about living simultaneously with conviction and courage and open hands and open minds.

        November 17, 2010
  5. It does seem that the Lemmings of the world keep too many sincere,thoughtful people away. We want to think and reason and not follow the hype.

    Very good post!

    November 17, 2010
  6. Ian Lawson #

    I need to read Halik’s book. It is too easy for the exultant masses to drown out the questions of the Zacchaeuses within the crowd. I wonder how many thoughtful Zacchaeuses we have lost by our strident declaration of the truth. The short excerpt you offer is provocative. Church leaders must resist the temptation to bask in the applause of the crowd. We are duty bound to seek out those in our midst who keep their distance and learn to benefit from their questions. Thanks for introducing me to Halik. By the way, banners and slogans are offensive to the cause of Christ.

    November 18, 2010
    • We are duty bound to seek out those in our midst who keep their distance and learn to benefit from their questions.

      I think you’ve hit on a really important point here, Ian. Often we are willing to seek out those who keep their distance and “put up” with their questions in the hopes that we will “win” them for Christ. There are some good things about this approach, but you’ve very helpfully pointed out that we must go further than that and recognize that those of us already “in” have much to learn as well.

      The Zacchaeuses among us are not simply doubters to conquer, but fellow pilgrims who bring conscience, consistency, and honesty to our journey as well.

      November 19, 2010

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