An Essay on “the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth”
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | October 4, 2018
Hi friends, one of my favorite books is The Divine Comedy. It’s a poem about a lost pilgrim named Dante who is rescued from perdition and travels through the realms of the afterlife as he understood them: hell, purgatory, and heaven. The third section of the poem is called Paradise, and it’s about Dante’s journeying through the spheres of the heavens, meeting saints and learning to drink more and more deeply of God’s blessing.
Near the end of the poem (Canto XXVIII), Dante emerges into the ninth sphere of heaven, the primum mobile, which in his worldview represents the very edge of the created universe. Outside of this particular sphere, there is nothing but the dwelling of the Triune God and the countless souls enjoying God for all eternity. Needless to say, it’s a particularly mind-blowing moment of an already mind-blowing poem.
At this point in the journey, way out there at the very edge of creation, Dante has a vision: a single, blindingly bright point of light, and around it spin all these shining rings at various speeds. What Dante comes to understand about his vision is this: God is the shining point of light at the center, and all around God are the many, many layers of creation—earth and us critters, the moon, stars, angels, the whole shebang.
This is a comforting image. God, our creator and redeemer and sustainer, is the shining center of complete unity, stillness, and peace at the heart of everything. In Dante’s vision, creation moves around God. The angels, who are more perfect than we, move at fiery speeds with musical regularity. For us on earth, however, our orbit is fitful, frequently torturous, and prone to haphazard change.
Yet the Word God speaks, the Word through whom all things were made, is that bright Truth at the center, the gravity which anchors our many flights of being and allows us to belong to part of a coherent, intricate whole.
One of the ways to describe Christian prayer is to say that when we pray, we are sharing in Dante’s vision: we are being centered, seeing clearly that I am not the center of the universe because God is. In fact, I am not even the center of my own life because God is. It’s as though when we pray, we are being attended by an angelic orthopedist setting a spiritual break, re-centering our souls dislocated bones.
Sometimes, when we have to make a difficult decision, we do something similar. We ponder, we take time, we occasionally agonize, hoping that the anxiety and fog will part and we’ll catch a glimpse of where the center is. Ah, yes, I see now. This is the path of faithful action or inaction.
Imagining God as the center of all that is helps us to navigate the world. Because God is a fixed point of stillness, we have a kind of reference point, a north star on the horizon. We can discern important questions, judge truth from falsehood, recognize when we are in need of repentance and seeking forgiveness. This is not to say that we ever fully understand the decisions before us, let alone God, but it is to believe in something solid and unchanging by which we can attempt to make faithful judgments about the world. We do this through prayer and worship, study, and participating in a community of faith.
Another poet I like uses a similar image to describe God, suggesting that God is “the still point of the turning world.” What I have begun to notice is that, when the world whirls too chaotically, the still point becomes difficult to discern. And when that happens, we start looking for substitutes, for anything that has the appearance of God’s fixity and stillness, anything that we can grab hold of and say, “This much I know to be true; I’ll stand here and judge accordingly.”
This desire for a still point in a turning world is a way of banishing the terror of the unknown. It’s made acute when we know we are in the presence of someone who must be lying, perhaps someone who has lied to us in the past. Family members with certain mental illnesses, situations with loved ones in the midst of addiction, even something as simple as two siblings trying to explain which of them is responsible for the cat’s being covered in blue Kool-Aid. The presence of deliberate untruth decenters us: without a clear vision of the still point against which we make judgements about ourselves and the world around us, by what are we to discern the way forward?
When I lie, I build a world of which I am the architect, in which I am the primary author of history. If it is a world and a history of my own invention, then it is a world of which I am the center, not God. This world will inevitably collapse because the task of a human being is not to create and sustain an entire world. In the Rite I confession at Morning Prayer, we confess that “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (BCP, pg 41). It’s an apt phrase for our decentered lives.
In our public life as a country, as we watch the hearing and investigation around Judge Kavanaugh’s potential Supreme Court appointment unfold, we cannot help but feel that someone is lying about something. Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony is incompatible with Dr. Ford’s and vise versa. Whether deliberately or not, someone is preventing the whole truth. When we watch clips of one or the other’s testimony, we are thrust into a room of which it would seem God is not the center. We’ve entered the devices and desires of a human heart.
Human beings were not made for such an environment. Thus, as we watch, and as the turning of the world inside the senate hearing threatens to jettison us into the void, we begin to search for a still point of any kind. Without knowing it, we begin to settle for the security of a world built around a subtle lie.
The subtlest of lies is when a partial truth is treated as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For example, did you ever notice that the serpent isn’t lying when it says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4). When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they don’t die; their eyes are opened; and they do become like God in that they now distinguish between what is good and what is not. The serpent isn’t lying; it’s just not telling the whole truth and nothing but.
Seen in this light, it’s ironic that a witness should swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth “so help me God.” It is ironic because the simple fact of our not being God precludes us from telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are finite creatures, and thus any truth we tell cannot be the whole of it. We do not have the capacity to create and sustain the world; how could we then tell the whole truth? We are broken creatures, and thus any truth we tell cannot be ‘nothing but’ the truth.
Each of us has been born into and grown up in a broken history in which best intentions go awry, where an accidental tone of voice can lace a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ with unintended sarcasm or condescension. It is impossible for us to communicate ‘nothing but the truth’ because the truths communicated to us are rarely clear, whole, and purely motivated. In a history like this, the admission of being unable to remember details of an event over thirty years old should be expected, yet it renders us untrustworthy. In a history like this, the admission of having drunk too much as a young man is not surprising, yet it renders us wicked and incapable of having changed.
My point is that if none of us lives the whole truth and nothing but the truth, how can we expect to testify otherwise? And if this is true, how can we observers expect more from witnesses than we ourselves would be able to provide?
This is not to say that we should therefore assume that Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh are both equally telling the truth. But it does allow some room for grace. Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh have both testified in a world-history whose brokenness is not their sole responsibility. They have each inherited a world in which men all too often assault women and get away with it, a world in which the voices of men are valued more than the voices of women. They have each also inherited a world in which people lie and obfuscate under oath, even people with significant public responsibility. This is a world in which, at best, any truth a person tells is partial and contains a sliver of falsehood, and yet nevertheless we expect the whole truth and nothing but.
By now, I’ve watched, listened to, or read almost all of Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony and responses to questions, and I’ve watched, listened to, or read almost all of Dr. Ford’s testimony and responses to questions. Like many of you, I have drawn conclusions, and like many of you, I have drawn them from wrestling with two mutually exclusive stories.
But what I crave is certainty, and this I do not have. I have had moments close to certainty, but if I am honest, when I heap the burden of my desire for the Truth on the conclusions I have drawn, the weight is too much. This is not to say that, at the end of time, I will discover that my conclusions have been wrong, or that you will discover your own to have been. It is simply to acknowledge that here and now, they are finite. The truth we build from partial, imperfect truths will inevitably be partial and imperfect. It cannot bear the full responsibility of being the still point of a turning world. Only God can do that.
It is worth noting that Dante does not start off with his vision of God as the pure brightness at the core of everything; his journey through creation ends there. When his journey begins, he is lost in a dark wood and beset by temptations of every kind. He has no still point of reference amidst the shadows that haunt and threaten to devour him. His journey is long, and on it he is confronted by his own sinfulness before seeing clearly the Still Point of the turning world. His journey is one of repentance followed by blessing.
The Christian life is one of discerning the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the Truth Who is God alone. This takes a lifetime of repentance and receiving God’s blessing. At the end of all things, when we’re gathered together before the throne, the devices and desires of our own hearts will be cracked open and revealed as hollow, and together we’ll finally see ourselves and each other and the vicissitudes of history clearly in the light of God’s stillness. On that day, we’ll know for sure the answer to the drama we’re seeing unfold in the arena of American politics.
Between now and then, however, be wary that your confidence in Judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence is not the serpent’s voice tempting you to treat a partial truth as the whole truth and nothing but. Dr. Ford’s testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s are mutually exclusive in regard to Judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, but it does not follow that one of them is simply willfully and knowingly lying and that the other is a lone beacon of virtue. Human lives are messier than that because the history into which we are born and in which we tell our stories is messier than that. For example, Judge Kavanaugh himself does not deny that Dr. Ford was assaulted. Surely if the man accused can afford his accuser at least that much good faith, we can do the same for all parties involved.
One last thing needs saying before I bring this partial, imperfect truth to a close. On Tuesday of this week, President Trump held a rally in Mississippi in which he mocked Dr. Ford’s testimony. This is abjectly sinful behavior and what one should expect from a tyrant, not an American President. Even if we were to suspend all belief in the veracity of Dr. Ford’s specific allegations (a thought experiment which should discomfort us), the unmistakable message to the victims of sexual assault who nevertheless hear their own stories being told by her is this: “Don’t speak up. The abuse will only continue verbally and in public.” Thankfully, the bipartisan criticism of President Trump’s actions suggests other leaders are aware of this.
In the vocabulary I have been laying out here, President Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford demonstrates the degree to which it is possible for us as human beings to follow the devices and desires of our own hearts. Yet President Trump himself is not simply inventing whole cloth a world of which he alone is the center. Like each of us, he lives and acts in a broken history. What I mean is this: not only did he mock Dr. Ford’s testimony, but he was cheered for doing so. Had we not already been willing to cheer, he would not have been able to mock.
It is too easy simply to say, “Well that’s the Mississippi crowd’s problem!” Again, that’s turning a partial truth into the whole truth and nothing but. Rather, it seems a thicker truth would be to say that each of us is culpable for the environment in which we as the United States find ourselves. I mean American Christians; I cannot claim to speak for anyone else. We too quickly settle for a partial truth rather than the whole because God does not simply show up in a senate hearing room and tell us what is what. This is deeply uncomfortable for Christian people because our natural disposition is to order ourselves around that shimmering, immutable center which is God alone. Yet being willing to sit still in the midst of anxieties like our current climate is precisely the path towards the Truth. Remember Dante’s vision: drawing near to the still point of God’s clarity means first passing through the whirling anxieties of creation, including the dark woods and tempests of our own sins and subtle lies. The only way to the light is through the dark.
All that is rather mystical, but scripture provides us a plainer example. Remember Jesus’ trial before Pilate: Pontius Pilate cannot bear to linger with the discomfort of his own question, “What is truth?” and so he proceeds directly to crucifying the very Still Point of the turning world which he so desperately seeks (John 18:38). Pilate, too, was part of a broken history not entirely of his own making. Political pressures and hierarchy, a cheering crowd, the doubts of his own heart, his utter perplexity about the strange testimony of Jesus. It’s a familiar environment for us.
Our leaders will make a decision about Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment. It may be a good decision, or it may be a bad one—and we may not know which for a long time. As you draw your own finite conclusions about this, remember that the hammer and nails of Golgotha will always be there for us to pick up, as they were for Pilate. If we would avoid crucifying the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth, we must arrive even at our partial, specific judgments, judgments like whether Judge Kavanaugh should be appointed to the Supreme Court, by passing first through the dark wood of our own ignorance. There we will find a way to the still point of the turning world.
Thank you for reading, and God’s Peace,