Monday, April 26, 2010

The Personhood of Truth

In the aftermath of the tragic plane crash that killed Poland's president along with 96 other people, many of them high-ranking political officials, the president's identical twin brother has decided to run for election:

Polish opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced Monday that he would run in June's snap election to become president in succession to his identical twin who was killed in an air crash in Russia.

The controversial former prime minister had kept Poles guessing about his plans since the April 10 disaster that killed president Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other senior Polish political and military figures.

"Poland is our common, great responsibility. It demands that we overcome personal suffering to take action despite a personal tragedy," Kaczynski said in a statement on the website of his Law and Justice (PiS) party.

I haven't written much about this tragedy for the simple but unfortunate reason that like many Americans, I lack enough knowledge about the political realities of foreign countries to comment intelligently about them. I didn't know, for instance, that Lech Kaczynski was considered a pro-life leader until after his death, even though in 2006 he and his twin brother opposed changing the status quo of Poland's present laws in favor of an all-out ban on abortion. I don't know about the political climate of Poland from which arose some of the protests over the decision to bury Lech Kaczynski at Wawel Cathedral.

What I can say is that in some ways this whole matter is a tragedy, and soon it will be a history--that is, it will become part of the history of Poland, a nation that has had more than its share of tragedies. What it could never be, though, is fiction--at least, not outside of a certain fiction market in which tragic plane crashes and identical twin brothers is part of the ordinary fare.

The little adage "Truth is stranger than fiction," is tossed around so much that it has almost become a cliche in its own right--and it brings to mind an even older quote, to the effect that there is nothing new under the sun. Taken together, these things point to something rather interesting: truth is older than humanity, and stranger than all of man's inventions.

There is a tendency in the modern age to think quite the opposite. There is a tendency to think that "truth" means what can be empirically proven to have some physical existence, and that anything which can't be reduced to its physical components must not actually be true. Even though there are plenty of moderns who will voice exactly that, there are few willing to take this hideous notion to its terminal points--for if truth equals empiricism, then tragedies and histories, poetry and art, emotion, reflection, memory, and all such things are not really an experience of what is true, but only a pleasant sort of fiction which each person decides upon for himself, based on a few random biochemical reactions entirely out of any person's control.

Oh, sure, science is capable of smiling at the evidence of history, of saying, "Yes, certainly, a great battle took place here, for we still observe the scarring of the land and the bits and pieces left of the implements of doom." But the reasons for the battle, the heroism and nobility of some and the cowardice and treachery of others, fades into an indistinct fog, capable of endless variations of interpretation, as human inventiveness unconsciously strives to become stranger than truth. In the end, scholars of history, or of literature, or of a million other things that don't mean much when observed under a microscope, are left saying, "Well, that might be true for you, but it isn't true for me," in areas ranging from theology to applied economics (in proof of which, see only the recent financial crises).

With this kind of attitude, not even the facts of history are all that safe. Conspiracy theories are already swirling around the story of the plane crash in Poland; ideas about what the effects of the tragedy will be for the nation are voiced; and in the endless streams of chatter the very facts may end up obscured, give or take a few hundred years' progression in time.

So what is true? What is truth?

Pontius Pilate asked that question, too. And, indeed, it seems to me that the only way for the whole notion of Truth to make any sense at all is to see it not as some abstract and beautiful ideal or quaint and old-fashioned notion, but as a Person.

A Person, who knows each of us and loves us beyond our imaginings. A Person, who records not only the fall of the sparrow but the final moments of a plane-full of terrified people, and of the elderly person slowly wearing out his or her days, and of each of us, young or old, who has shared for even the tiniest of moments in this thing called human life. A Person who has seen everything, from the dawn of time--yes, before recorded history--to the end of the world. A Person who not only understands fully the laws of science, but who authored those laws.

To seek the Truth is to seek to grasp, for one brief moment, one tiny glimpse of the smallest corner of the mind of God. Compared to the great vastness and depth and strength of Truth, it is no wonder that mere human fictions are enormously tame and predictable, and that a real tragedy however big or small eclipses the best efforts of the most creative tellers of tales.

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