On Telling the Truth

Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.

Penelope Fitzgerald – Human Voices

It is difficult to think of a contemporary institution one might trust to tell the truth above all. Reading Fitzgerald’s description of the wartime BBC in Human Voices I can’t help but internally roll my eyes a little. I am a creature of my own time, skeptical and critical, and one need not be a full-fledged cynic to harbor serious doubts about the truthfulness of most public discourse. Fitzgerald clearly loves her fictional BBC, “a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn’t too sure where next week’s money was coming from” and makes a case for its integrity. But, she is no sentimentalist, and her BBC’s commitment to the truth isn’t some simpleminded idealism. One of the more dramatic scenes in the novel involves the DPP (Director of Programme Planning) surreptitiously “pulling the plugs” on a live broadcast of an escaped French general who delivers a message of despair and encourages the British public to surrender in the face of the oncoming Nazis. The result is ten minutes of silence on the airwaves. Clearly, telling the truth is no simple matter.

Among the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final writings from prison was an unfinished essay fragment on “What does it mean to tell the truth?” (it’s included in volume 16 of the English edition of his works, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945). Bonhoeffer was undergoing regular interrogations by the Gestapo at the time and so his concern with what it meant to tell the truth was an immediate, existential one. In a letter from prison he sums up the fragment: “telling the truth … means, to my mind, to say how something is in reality, i.e., respect for secrecy, for trust, for concealment.” Again, this isn’t truth-telling as a naive or quasi-robotic categorical imperative, but a consideration of what the truth looks like in a “life that is fully alive” – one that takes the “given world” into consideration.

For Bonhoeffer, the given world is one created by God. But, this divine foundation does not provide an escape hatch onto some higher, less ambiguous plane for the person seeking to tell the truth: “The truthfulness of our words that we owe to God must take on concrete form in the world. Our word should be truthful not in principle but concretely. A truthfulness that is not concrete is not truthful at all before God.” To tell the truth requires an assessment of the relationships one is engaged in, the position one holds, and the responsibilities one has: “the more diverse the life circumstances of people are, the more responsibility they have and the more difficult it is ‘to tell the truth.'” In Bonhoeffer’s view, a failure to pay attention to one’s context or position results in cynicism and ultimately in falsehood.

Continue reading “On Telling the Truth”

Love, Defined

Love—as understood by the gospel in contrast to all philosophy—is not a method for dealing with people. Instead, it is the reality of being drawn and drawing others into an event, namely, into God’s community with the world, which has already been accomplished in Jesus Christ. “Love” does not exist as an abstract attribute of God but only in God’s actual loving of human beings and the world. Again, “love” does not exist as a human attribute but only as a real belonging-together and being-together of people with other human beings and with the world, based on God’s love that is extended to me and to them. Just as God’s love entered the world, thereby submitting to the misunderstanding and ambiguity that characterize everything worldly, so also Christian love does not exist anywhere but in the worldly, in the infinite variety of concrete worldly action, and subject to misunderstanding and condemnation. Every attempt to portray a Christianity of “pure” love purged of worldly “impurities” is a false purism and perfectionism that scorns God’s becoming human and falls prey to the fate of all ideologies. God was not too pure to enter the world. The purity of love, therefore, will not consist in keeping itself apart from the world, but will prove itself precisely in its worldly form.

A favorite quote from Bonhoeffer, Ethics

There is no worthless life before God

There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable. Because God is the Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer of life, even the poorest life before God becomes a valuable life. … Where, other than in God, should the measure for the ultimate worth of a life lie? In the subjective affirmation of life? If so, then many a genius would be surpassed by an idiot. In the judgment of the community? If so, then it would soon be evident that judgment about socially valuable or worthless life would be abandoned to the need of the moment and therefore to arbitrary action, and that now this group and now that group of people would fall victim to extermination. The distinction between valuable and worthless life sooner or later destroys life itself.

Bonhoeffer in Ethics. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately. The idea of what grounds the value of a person, of a life, is in the air more and more as different technological and cultural developments push the question forward. Reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, earlier this year, and learning about the frontiers of genetic science and the hopes attached to it by some in the field, was sobering (I’m thinking especially of the idea of editing genomes i.e. in a fetus, to eliminate or encourage particular traits). It feels like we haven’t learned the most fundamental lesson from the disasters of early and mid-twentieth century eugenics. Some of the possible paths for gene therapy/editing being explored make it seem as though early twentieth century eugenics was a flawed project because the criteria and methods were abhorrent. The slogan seems to be: 21st century gene therapy, just don’t be a Nazi about it! But, the criteria or the methods used to eliminate “worthless” aspects of humanity and pursue “progress” aren’t the fundamental problem. It’s the whole project. The early twentieth century proponents of eugenics thought they were acting for the improvement of humanity. The lesson that needs to be learned (but we seem unable to grasp with all our technological power) is that a human being cannot and should not be making a judgment of the worth of another person’s humanity (and I don’t see how the prospect of editing genomes avoids the need for such a judgment). It’s a question beyond our capacity to answer and failure to realize this limit will result, as Bonhoeffer says, in destruction.

The more the church holds to its central message, the more effective it is. Its suffering is infinitely more dangerous to the spirit of destruction than the political power that it may still retain.

Bonhoeffer, Ethics