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What is Truth?

An early Christian bishop and martyr was offered the choice of escaping a fairly horrific death if he would deny Jesus Christ. He replied, “I have served him all my life and received nothing but good from his hand. How then can I deny my master?” I used to consider this a pigheaded and foolish response—what was required of the bishop but a few words?

The bishop, of course, was right. We are called to live in such a manner that all we do, all we say, and all we think is of one piece. Hence Christ’s injunction that if the eye is full of light, so will the soul be, and vice versa. I see now why John’s Gospel so frequently refers to Jesus as “the Word become flesh”: the divinity lies in a life that was lived utterly consistently. Hence his reply to Pilate’s question, “What is Truth?” with the words, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man cometh to the Father but by me.” In the end, God can only be apprehended by choosing to live the Divine: the Kingdom of heaven here on Earth, now.

Readers will gather that the Testimony of Integrity is looming ever larger in my own spiritual journey. So many of the other traditional testimonies are caught up in it: the Testimony of Honesty; of Simplicity; of Plain Speaking; of Speaking Truth to Power; even the Peace Testimony: “The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it.” What I say and what I do, how I live my life, respond to others and interact with the wide world, all need to be consistent with each other.

Since writing these words more than seven years ago, I have been challenged by the link between wholeness and holiness. To be whole is not to be undamaged: I have discovered that wholeness is forged out of deep pain, grief, and loss. Wholeness is created, and the metaphors of the forge and the potter are accurate descriptions of the process. Both the clay and the ore in their natural state must be destroyed, then worked and reworked until sufficiently pure for the smith or potter to be able to use the material to create something entirely new. I find it illuminating that purity in this context also means consistency: neither potter nor smith can work a material that still has impurities, or is inconsistent.

To be whole is to become the entire creature one was born to be: with all the soul and all the heart and all the mind and all the body. It’s also to become something entirely different or new, even though that which is created may always have been implicit as a potential in the original being. C. G. Jung once said, “I would rather be whole than good.” I like this way of presenting the question of human existence. I find that at this level, holy living is not a matter of right and wrong, good or bad, but of simple necessity: the necessity of obedience, or willingness to cooperate if obedience is too much to manage.

Obedience here becomes the ultimate test of faith, because all the evidence is of a cruel and faithless God who has abandoned and actively injured a loving servant or friend, who sincerely seeks to do rightly. To choose to keep trusting in a good God, and that goodness will finally arise from terrible wrong, where every fiber of one’s being and every ounce of common sense cries out at the injustice and the pain and the evil is unbelievably hard.

It is hard because the grief and the pain are so great; it is hard because there are no prompts, no helps, and one can only do this as a conscious act of will; and it is hard because it turns all that we know about God and morality upside down—why should God be rewarded by this gift of faith when God has openly abrogated our trust? How can we condone evil by not resisting it? Yet this is the mystery of the Divine Life entering the material world and human life: the reversal of all previous standards and knowledge and ways of being, the overcoming of evil and the creation of new Life by choosing to lay down life and self and righteous expectations.

Doris Lessing wrote a whole series of science fiction novels that wrestled with this concept of “living under the Necessity” or “according to the Need,” and I love them dearly, rereading them regularly. Through imagination she is able to illuminate a problem that is not amenable to rational logic. Plato recorded Socrates’ attempts to wrestle with the difference between the Divine and the Good, concluding that the Good took precedence over the pantheon of Greek gods as the test for identifying moral living. But the real Divine, which exceeds all human constructs and understandings of God and Good, overturns all human moral referents and demands a blind acceptance and trust in its own right. The way of God, of living Truth turns out to be utterly foreign to our human nature and to our human understanding. God’s Good requires acceptance of the unbearable, the breaking up of orderly lives and good living, using those very forces of evil we thought we were called to war against, to create something unthinkably new and different: the Kingdom of heaven here on Earth, Emmanuel—God with us.

I like Jung’s description of the human task: “We have all been born to answer a specific question. The answer to that question is our life.” To commit ourselves completely and honestly to becoming our Self is to live truthfully and in so doing to live within the will of God, to become, in the words of James Nayler, one with the Universe and that “spirit which … delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature which is contrary to itself.”

This is holy ground, and you must take off your shoes to stand upon it.

Marion Sullivan is an Australian Friend who has been studying at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pa.

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