Searching for truth

Editor's note: This week, Global Sisters Report is presenting a series of three columns by the Dominican Sisters Conference that we hope will open our readership to a conversation on truth.

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In the early days of television there was a game show called "To Tell the Truth." In the game, three people claimed to be a certain person, and the panel questioned them to find out which one was telling the truth. Unfortunately in our current political climate, the search for truth is no longer a game. With frightening regularity we often wonder if public figures are manipulating, misrepresenting and exaggerating the truth, or just lying outright. Some public statement is put forward and the fact checkers are not far behind. On social media, gross and unsubstantiated characterizations are regular fare. In such a climate, how can anyone discern what is true? Is there even such a thing at all?

The recent bruising and bitter election cycle has revealed and deepened fissures in our society. Families were nervous about the conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table. People feel "edgy" and distressed in their ordinary, everyday lives. People are afraid of engagement because their feelings run so deep they might lose control.

In this public morass, is there a contribution to be made by Dominican sisters who claim that their grounding principle is veritas (truth)? We might take a lesson from our Dominican brother Thomas Aquinas and his ideas on the discipline of study. It includes the concept of disputatio. It may include these characteristics:

We can't engage unless we listen.

Perhaps the other person has an insight to offer that's worth considering.

It might cause us to re-think our own position or, God forbid, even change our mind. We can't listen if our intention is to demonstrate to the other person how misguided they are.

We should avoid demonizing persons with whom we disagree.

In our religious history, "heretics" were not bad people; they should be credited with a sincere desire to grapple with a serious question, even though their conclusions may have been unacceptable. That's why we need to repent of burning them at the stake. We shouldn't burn anyone today in the court of public opinion. Demeaning someone fails to acknowledge that they may be struggling as we are. If we wish to be credited with having a "right heart," we have to extend the favor.

We might try to ask better questions, probing questions, refraining from sweeping generalizations that lack nuance and specificity.

For example, is it fair to say that those who wish to see some limitations on access to firearms "want to take everyone's guns away?"

Is it fair to say that being "anti-abortion" is the same as being "pro-life?"

Do the ways Republicans and Democrats characterize each other help us in any way to deal with the big questions?  

Do the founding documents of our country suggest that we are to be a "Christian" nation?           

Above all, listen to the Gospel.

Consider the Sermon on the Mount. After laying down some bracing teaching, which requires serious and practical attention, Jesus offers this: Consider the lilies of the field; consider the birds of the air. That is, after all your effort, remember that God's providence holds everything together. Thomas Aquinas, in reviewing the work he had done, commented: "All I have written is straw." He might agree with a contemporary remark: "Take a breath." For all his effort and careful study, Thomas had the humility to realize that he had barely begun to know God.

That said, while trusting in God's providence, we are not meant to be "apocalyptic" believers, hunkering down waiting for the act of God. We are disciples, members of the risen body of Christ, participating with God in the creation of a just world. Everything counts. Everything we do matters. Every gesture of mercy, every compassionate act, every word of truth all contribute to the fund of goodness needed in the world. In her day, Catherine of Siena was not hesitant about her witness — neither intimidated by the "powers that be," nor fearful of censure. She held fast to Christ and said "I have put my hope in God; I do not fear what anyone can do to me."

 Paul counsels the Philippians:

God is working in you both to desire and to work for God's good purpose.
Do everything without grumbling and arguing
so that you may be blameless and innocent,
children of God without fault
in the midst of a crooked and corrupt generation.
Shine forth in the world like stars.
Hold fast to the word of life.

The truth for which we yearn is not a thing, or an idea, or a position, but a person — a person who engages us for the life of the world. Let's be witnesses to this truth, honest and respectful in our searching, with the careful consideration of Thomas and the courage of Catherine. Let's take a breath, and do whatever we can.

[Elaine Jahrsdoerfer is a member of the Amityville Dominican Sisters. She holds a master's degree in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame. She has been a pastoral liturgist in parishes for 35 years, served a term in congregational leadership and presently is the liturgist for her congregation.]

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