The Importance of Love of Truth and Truth in Living in a virtuously moral life, which is the life of excellence.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
3 December 2016
I recently wrote about the problem of moral relativism, some of its tendencies, influences, and the dangers it poses to contemporary society. This essay will further explore some of the ramifications of relativism, with an emphasis on the importance of living a virtuous and morally upright life, often referred to as a “morality of happiness approach,” in order to attain ultimate and lasting happiness.
In the previous essay, I noted how one aspect found in those who embrace relativism is a propensity to project the wishes and desires of their individual ego onto God. This is often manifested by shaping God into a kind of permissive, “Divine Grandfather of Love,” who is himself a relativist; that is, this kind of fabricated god is unconcerned with particular objective moral truths or norms, especially those that pertain to the realm of human sexuality. This subjectively constructed god is therefore detached to a significant degree from what is morally true.
Such an erroneous view of God is a serious problem on a number of levels. First, if God is detached from morality to some degree, then it cannot be said that God is Absolute Truth and Justice. Such a dissociation in God with regard to what constitutes truth introduces a fracture into the very essence of God and destroys the truth of the total perfection and oneness of the being of God. Ontologically, God would no longer be Absolute Perfection, since he would contain inherently an element of moral imperfection. This translates into an imperfect God whose substance/essence cannot be said to be entirely commensurate with what is really true. An imperfect God is no God at all, but rather a distorted, flawed man-made idea.
Relativism at its core can be defined as the rejection of objective truths which are external to man’s intellect and will. Man is, then, self-installed as the supreme “lawmaker.” In this context, reference to the Divine Law Giver (God) is rejected and man views himself as an Absolute; man becomes his own measure and the measure of all things. One need not wonder how dangerous this kind of a philosophy can be; we need only look at the radical autonomy of man-made “rights” such as legalized abortion, assisted suicide, and the recent June 26, 2015, Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges ruling which redefined marriage to mean nothing more than a state-sanctioned social arrangement between two people.
Other errors surface with relativism’s ego-projected “god of moral detachment.” One such is that God becomes more impersonal than personal, more uncaring than immanently present and loving, which leads to the deist’s version of God: a distant Creator who fashioned the world as a mechanized, self-subsisting system which spins away through the eons on its own. This kind of god is uninterested in man personally, and therefore unconcerned with man’s moral activities.
Truth as Necessary for The Person’s Authentic Development
But lets set some of the other possible negative ramifications of the relativist’s “ego-project God” aside for a moment, and ask this question: “How concerned with the truth should I be?” In other words, how important is it to resist relativism, to live as an anti-relativist, so to speak? Perhaps the better question is to ask how important it is for the human person to live in harmony with what is really true?
Another angle on this question is to ask whether it is possible to be truly and permanently happy if one lives in opposition to what is true? If one lives in a way that is contrary to what is really true, then one is living in a way that is out-of-sync with reality, which does not end in human fulfillment but rather the lack of it. On the other hand, to live in concert with the truth is to live in conformity with reality and the Eternal Law of God; it is to live in a way that is properly ordered according to God’s loving plan of salvation, to exist in a way that blends correctly with created reality and God’s divine intention of goodness for the human person. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the first paragraph of Caritas in Veritate:
Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love—caritas—is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. It is a force that has its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth. Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:32). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6).
An Example from Gravity
Again, how important is it to adhere to what is real and true? For example, suppose I decide to disregard the law of gravity. If I do so, I am in fact rejecting what is real. I’m choosing to live in a fantasy world. In rejecting the law of gravity, I might be led to view it as something arbitrary, something manufactured for no other purpose than to place burdensome limits on my freedom of movement. However, we know the law of gravity is not in any way arbitrary. Modern physics tells us the universe itself formed as it did due to the very precise amount of gravitational attraction which is present between bodies of matter. In absence of this gravitational constant, we would have no stars or terrestrial planets as we have them now; life on Earth would be an impossibility.
The law of gravity is not an arbitrary rule which can simply be dismissed. If I choose to ignore it and step off the roof of a building, I will suffer the consequences regardless of my personal belief about it. If I decide I can make up my own rules about gravity, then I am thinking in a way that is incommensurate with created reality as the Creator has designed and constructed it. Such thinking is a disordered way of thinking. It is a step away from the way things are. Everyone would be in agreement that this way of thinking and living is insane. The sane man’s mind is in conformity with what is real and true; the insane man’s mind is not.
That gravity exists is an objective truth of the physical universe. Gravity is not something man produced from his intellect and will, but is something which is produced externally from man by the Creator. Nevertheless, man must abide by the law of gravity if he wishes to live fruitfully and healthily. Man can never relativize it away and say, “The law of gravity does not apply to me.”
So, applying this analogy to the moral law, why is it that man thinks he can decide for himself what is morally true without reference to God? Why would man think that living contrary to the moral law is a beneficial or sane way to live? Is living as if gravity does not exist beneficial? Nope. Neither is living in a way contrary to the natural moral law. It is worth noting that while these two laws find their origin externally to man, they are both laws which man can recognize and participate in with his intellect and will—although they are laws of a different order: gravity is of the physical order; the natural law is of the moral order.
The point is this: perfect and lasting happiness is attained only in God, for this temporal life, with its pleasures and pain, will soon end. If one passes from this life in rejection of God and the natural moral law, our divine Father will honor that choice, which means one will have to live out eternity apart from God whose life and love is the source of all perfection, goodness, and beauty.
The fullness of human living is found in living in harmony with God’s loving plan in all things, which of course includes the order of human sexuality and the entire moral law. It is true that people can, of course, break the natural moral law; it is false, however, that its breaking is without consequence. If we intentionally and knowingly reject God’s plan of truth for human sexuality, such as we find in committing the sin of fornication, for example, or rejecting the natural moral law in other serious ways, then we are rejecting God himself. This is, plain and simple, a rejection of permanent happiness.
Some people view God as a dictator who imposes particular elements of the moral law arbitrarily. That is, the moral law is not something truly beneficial but rather burdensome and unnecessarily restrictive. The idea is that it limits human freedom, places undue boundaries on pleasure, and that one is truly free only when one can do whatever he wishes. Of course, no one thinks the moral prohibition against murder, for example, is arbitrary or freedom limiting. Everyone recognizes that murder is a bad thing, it gravely harms people and societies and families.
But why, then, do some people not recognize rejection of the moral law in areas of human sexuality as a bad thing? Of course, there is a difference in moral gravity between murder and, say, fornication or adultery, but each is nevertheless intrinsically evil. They are disordered (bad) human acts in themselves. Each entails bad consequences.
Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life” (Veritatis Splendor 72).
So, why is murder viewed as evil but breaking the moral law with regard to human sexuality is often not? It boils down to sin and its effects. Human nature is wounded due to sin and therefore we experience a tendency to sin called concupiscence, as well as intellectual ignorance and weakness of will (for more on this, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s treatment on the fall of man and original sin). As sinners, we engage in voluntary, bad human acts (as St. Thomas described sin), which is by definition sin and an intentional deprivation of what is truly good. People engage in fornication or adultery in order to experience the physical pleasure of sex. However, in doing so they are exchanging a finite and fleeting apparent good (physical pleasure) for the infinite and lasting happiness of a true and authentic good (following God’s plan for human sexuality, in which sexual union of a man and a woman is reserved for the context of marriage only).
One might here ask: “Why is fornication between consenting adults a problem for God?” (Note that this question is another way of saying, “I can do whatever I want”). The logical answer is because it is evil. And it is not merely a “problem” for God. Recall that the moral law is not arbitrary. It is rational, reasonable, logical; following it is to the benefit of the human person and society collectively. Fornication is opposed to the dignity of the human person; it leads to the objectification of the other because it lacks the commitment and complete, permanent self-gift required of the conjugal act which is fulfilled in marriage; it is not spiritually or temporally beneficial; it endangers the lives of children who may be generated through the sexual act; it often spreads physical disorders such as sexually transmitted diseases; its negative consequences frequently place financial burdens on society.
Another Example: Lying
Let’s look briefly at another example of the natural moral law whose primary precepts are identical with the Ten Commandments. “The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others” (CCC 2464).
Everyone acknowledges to some extent the importance of being a truthful person; this is so because the natural moral law, which is recognizable by reason, is infused into the human person by God. So, human persons universally recognize the precepts of the natural law, a law written on their hearts (cf. Rom 2:15), although not always with the same clarity. For example, everyone knows it is evil to murder but not everyone recognizes it is evil to abort a child. Further, the human person ontologically is created in God’s image and likeness and therefore truth and goodness permeate a person’s entire being. Truth and goodness are inherent to the person, rooted in his organic body/soul unity. We therefore recognize that being truthful is the natural thing to do, it’s the real and human way to be and to live. Jesus Christ, whose Person is fully human and fully divine, is Truth Itself (cf. Jn 14:6) and is therefore the perfect example of authentic and truthful human living.
One problem with lying, as with all sin, is we introduce a disruption into the core of our being, notes Roch Kereszty, by giving our sinful will power over the judgment of our conscience and intellect (Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, 331-335). A division or estrangement occurs within us because we are not living up to our ontological standards of truth, justice, and charity. We’re not living in a way that is true to who we are and what we are created to be. We have abused our freedom in a behaviorally damaging way. If we persist in this, we self-determine our being negatively and become a liar. We are now a vicious (vice-filled) person who will reliably distort the truth or lie or deceive others on a consistent basis. This, of course, is not conducive to true freedom and happiness.
The argument is this: living a virtuous life directed by the grace of God and toward God as its end is the excellent life that leads to unending happiness. Opposing the natural moral law, living as a relativist of some sort, is a force of destruction opposed to human nature and human flourishing. For example, to lie is to directly oppose a life of virtuous excellence, which harms not only the individual person but society at large:
By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray. (CCC 2485)
Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships. (CCC 2486)
The Life of Excellence
The chief precept of the natural moral law is that one must always do the good and avoid evil. While there are many other examples of the natural moral law we could cite, it should be clear that a life of human flourishing and happiness is found in directing our lives according to what is really true, and living in harmony with created reality and God’s loving plan of goodness. A virtuous life lived in authentic goodness and in avoidance of evil is a happy life. The most beneficial way to live is in alignment with God’s truth because, after all, God is Truth Itself. That really says it all.
Unending happiness is found in God alone. The proper approach to morality, then, is what we call a “morality of happiness approach.” This approach is based on the fundamental truth that the happy life is a life of virtue in harmony with God’s plan. This kind of life is a life of true character and excellence; it is a life of authentic human freedom because, aided by God’s grace, one is no longer enslaved by the snares of sin and disordered thinking and living, but instead is joyously and spiritually set free by a life in union with God the Father and his Son, through the Holy Spirit.
There’s good reason to live as an “anti-relativist,” as a person who lives by what is true and is in love with the truth. For loving the truth is loving God. Living by a morality of happiness approach is the best way to live because, in doing so, your human story is not only written well and with excellence, but has the best possible ending!
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Photo Credit: Deacon Frederick Bartels. All rights reserved.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.