Letters to Peregrinus #37 - On First Truth

The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1603) by Caravaggio (1571-1610)[1]
Dear Peregrinus (2 PM):

We have begun a daily reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (written in Ephesus in 54 or 55 CE) – sections of which constitute the first Reading each day at our Masses starting yesterday, Monday, and continuing through to Wednesday of next week (not including Sunday). What caught my attention this time, as I refreshed my knowledge about who the Galatians were, is that they were likely a colony of Celts[2]:

The Galatians to whom the letter is addressed were Paul’s converts, most likely among the descendants of Celts who had invaded western and central Asia Minor in the third century B.C. and had settled in the territory around Ancyra (modern Ankara, Turkey). Paul had passed through this area on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:6) and again on his third (Acts 18:23).[3]

I was intrigued[4] to learn that the “angriest” of the Letters of St. Paul was directed at my ancestors! The situation he faced was this. Jews associated with a sub-culture of Judaism (possibly from the rigorist Essene sect[5]) had begun to convince them – the Galatians – that Paul was not to be trusted.[6] Paul’s “blistering”[7] reply, and defense of the Gospel, proves to us, at the very least, that the truth of the Gospel really mattered to him.

But, Peregrinus, it is Paul’s anger that caught my attention – his anger and its connection to truth. What is this “truth of the Gospel” that mattered so much to him? Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

I have been a Teacher just about my entire Jesuit life (just finished my 45th year in this way of life). And what I know for sure is that I have never become angry when a student, or whole classes-full of them, have thought wrongly, or muddled the truth, or failed to get it right a content of knowledge. When I had recognized how wrong they had gotten things (e.g.[8], they all got wrong the same question on a test), I never got angry. Rather, I felt puzzled that my teaching of the content lacked skill, that it had failed to activate the insight that they needed. I had a riddle[9] to solve, which for a Teacher, is just the kind of challenge that most catalyzes his or her central zeal. A riddle like this pleases a Teacher, because learning the art of teaching is a source of highest satisfaction for one born to this mastery.

There is no doubt that the Galatians had muddled the truth of the Gospel (see footnote 5), when they, for some reason, allowed “interlopers”[10] to compromise the content of the Gospel that Paul earlier had so carefully communicated, and demonstrated, to them. And there is no doubt that St. Paul is one of the greatest Teachers the world has experienced. So my question is: Why is Paul so angry in this Letter?

The answer to this question concerns an insight into the nature of “truth”, into what I call the first meaning of “truth” or “first truth.”

Consider, first, that the word “truth” is a variant of the noun “troth”[11] (appearing c. 1200) that means “a quality of being true to a person … a disposition to speak and to act truly or without deceit.” It is significant how we these days associate “truth” (and to devastating result) solely with knowledge (as in “Tell the truth!”), rather than first and foremost with a quality of personal commitment we establish with a person or persons – a commitment to be “true, faithful, virtuous” to and because of a person or persons. Truth is about relationship, not about mere knowledge. For example, people lie (and people do this all the time)[12] not because they like to hide information from others, but because there exists no relationship with those others – a mutual commitment to the good of each other – inside of which people feel set free to be transparent.

Years ago I was introduced into the profound thoughts of Fr. Bernard Lonergan, SJ (1904-1984).[13] It was in his Method in Theology (1972) that he explained the discrete “moments” through which a person passes on his or her way to believing anything.[14] It was the first “moment” that was particularly significant to me, mainly because I saw how completely I had overlooked it!

Lonergan taught me that the first “moment” in my coming to believe[15] a content of knowledge is the giving over of my trust to the one communicating it to me. “Such is the first step. It is taken, not by the person who believes, but by the person [in] whom he or she believes.”[16] In other words, it is the trustworthiness I find in my Teacher that enables me to begin to learn from him or her. This believability of the Teacher – some complex perception we have of his or her good character and competence – is a first cause of my willingness to accept that what he or she is teaching me is going to be the truth.

So now, let me return to what I said a few paragraphs earlier concerning the “first truth.”

The first meaning of truth is a kind of relationship inside of which a person has his or her foundation. If the kind of relationship that I have with a person is “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17) -  in the kind of friendship that Jesus Christ Himself was – then I have a way of being, of trusting, of openness, of confidence that makes any real learning possible.[17] St. Paul’s consistent use of the prepositional phrases “through him” and “in him” indicate how he places relationship with Christ first, before any true knowledge of God becomes possible.

17 He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. 21 Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; 22 in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. [18]

What I am getting at, Peregrinus, is this. Just as the first “moment” in the process of my coming to believe anything is the believability of my Teacher (a conviction in the domain of relationship), so then the first “moment” in my encounter with Truth – in its first meaning - happens when I know that I am believed in, and trusted; when I know that I am loved by a friend who is for me,[19] and most importantly when I am loved by the Friend.

Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. 10 In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.[20]

So you see the significance of this? If one has his or her life “without love” – without real, genuine friendship - with Christ in the Spirit, but also with at least one other human being – he or she will not know, will never be able to sort out what is worth knowing and what is drivel.[21]

17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.[22]

Real friendship, with genuinely good persons (divine and human), is the first meaning of Truth. Friendship conditions the kind of questions we ask, the kind of understanding we seek and value, and the truth for which we are willing to lay down our life.[23] This is why Jesus’ command to love others as He has loved us is so comprehensively important. It is the necessary condition for knowing God at all – the most important truth!

11 “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.[24]

Truth’s first meaning is an affair of the heart, not of the intellect; it is the discovery of a friendship.

Paul was angry with the Galatians because they failed to believe in him – the broke “troth” … which means that they could no longer believe him. They were persuaded by the “interlopers” to question the utmost trustworthiness of this apostle of Jesus Christ. St. Paul was trusted by the risen Christ to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles not because he deserved the Gospel, but because the risen Christ became his Friend – the Friend. It was St. Paul, not these “interlopers,” who had opened through his friendship with the Galatians all the knowledge (content) worth knowing, and for which “truth” St. Paul accepted the loss of everything “except the supreme worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8). Notice in the following text from 1 Timothy 1:12-13 how all of these matters are so beautifully interwoven:

 12 I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry. 13 I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.[25]

The “truth of the Gospel” that the “interlopers” attacked was the Galatians belief in St. Paul, their first and best Teacher, in him who had opened to them the way of friendship with Christ. Paul knew that the whole edifice of divine truth would crumble if the “interlopers” among the Galatian Christians could successfully destroy their belief in the friendship of St. Paul towards them, and what motivated it. This is why his anger is so clear, so “hot”, and his words so “blistering.” I say, “You let them have it, Paul!”

Peregrinus, thank you for loving and believing in me. Our long friendship, through thick and thin, is one of the most significant “windows onto the sacred” that I know.

Write to me your thoughts, letting me know what is mattering to you in these autumn days of October. Promise?

Love from me, your old friend on the pilgrim’s road,

Rick, SJ


[1] See remarks at: http://www.caravaggio.org/the-incredulity-of-saint-thomas.jsp - “The focus is on Saint Thomas's right hand, firmly guided by Christ's, as the stolid doubter carefully prods the wound with his index finger. Tellingly, the hands of the other two apostles are concealed, although their curiosity is undisguised and scarcely less restrained than Thomas's. All three apostles are portrayed as rustic materialists without imagination or tact. They do not question Christ's identity but are fascinated by his wound as a tangible phenomenon, physical evidence of His existence as a man in their corporeal world, although no longer of it. Christ, who is understanding, indulgent rather than reproachful, is without a halo or any other sign of His divinity.”

[2] https://www.ancient.eu/celt/ - “The migration of various Celtic tribes in order to flee wars – they were famously attacked in Gaul by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BCE and by the Germanic tribes - and find new prospects meant that eventually the territory occupied by them ranged from Galicia (the Iberian peninsula) to Romania. Many Celtic tribes spread eastwards, for example, traversing Macedonia in 280 BCE and crossing the Hellespont in 278 BCE into Asia Minor. The Galatians, as they were now called, colonized areas of central Asia Minor which brought them into direct conflict with both the Hellenistic kingdoms and Rome.”

[3] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Introduction to Galatians.

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “intrigue” – “To excite the curiosity or interest of; to interest so as to puzzle or fascinate.”

[5] See James C. VanderKam, “Essenes,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 315 – “ESSENES es´een [Ἐσσαῖος Essaios, Ἐσσηνός Essēnos]. The Essenes, a Jewish group attested in the last two centuries BCE and the 1st cent. CE, are mentioned by several ancient authors, with Philo and Josephus offering the earliest extensive accounts of them. The community of the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been a small branch of the larger Essene movement.”

[6] From the “Introduction” to this Letter in the New American Bible Revised Edition – “These interlopers insisted on the necessity of following certain precepts of the Mosaic law along with faith in Christ. They were undermining Paul’s authority also, asserting that he had not been trained by Jesus himself, that his gospel did not agree with that of the original and true apostles in Jerusalem, that he had kept from his converts in Galatia the necessity of accepting circumcision and other key obligations of the Jewish law, in order more easily to win them to Christ, and that his gospel was thus not the full and authentic one held by “those of repute” in Jerusalem (Gal 2:2).”

[7] “Blistering” is such an expressive participle, suggestive of a flame thrower sending of stream of flame against a painted wall, causing the paint to blister.

[8] An adverbial phrase from the Latin exempli gratia meaning “for the sake of an example; for example; for instance”.

[9] The Oxford English Dictionary notes that this Germanic-sourced – Old English (= Anglo-Saxon) noun “riddle” means: “A question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning, frequently used as a game or pastime; an enigma; a conundrum.”

[10] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “interloper” (c 1590 CE) defines its original meaning as: “An unauthorized trader; one who trespasses on the rights or privileges of any trade monopoly; †a ship engaged in unauthorized trading (obsolete).” But then by the next century its meaning was extended to this: “One who, esp. for his own profit, thrusts himself into any position or affair, which others consider as pertaining solely to themselves.”

[11] See the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary at both “truth” and “troth”. “Troth” is pronounced trah-th.

[12] I do not mean here to sound cynical about people. Rather, in my very long experience of being with people, and regularly at more than superficial levels of the self, I have noticed how often people lie. And I recognize that the long and careful work on my relationship with them in the Lord is what is absolutely required for them, eventually, to feel free to be out in the open. I am not arguing this point in relation to pathological liars. I am rather trying to get at an uncomfortable truth that most people lie about both small things but also about substantial things in their lives. But I also insist that most people feel the affliction of the lies that they live - they feel trapped and afraid in them – but they have not been able to establish friendships they trust inside of which they can be transparent. An important study about all of this is Scott Peck’s The People of the Lie: the Hope for Healing Human Evil, 2nd edition, 1998.

[13] See, for example https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-voices/20th-century-ignatian-voices/bernard-lonergan-sj - “Bernard Lonergan, SJ (1904-1984), was a philosopher-theologian and an economist. The Canadian Jesuit is regarded by many as one of the greatest philosophical and theological minds of the 20th century, following the Thomist tradition. Lonergan is best known for Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957) and Method in Theology (1972). In Insight he worked out what he called a Generalized Empirical Method. In Method in Theology Lonergan demonstrated how this Generalized Empirical Method clarified the structure and process of work in theology.”

[14] Lonergan’s wider point in his chapter on “The Human Good” is that we need to grasp that nearly all of the knowledge we possess, we possess by having believed those communicating it to us. Think, for example, our assumption that textbooks given us to master in our school years were communicating their subject matter truthfully. Think how quickly we assume the truth of something if it is preceded by the remark: “As Einstein once explained….” It never occurs to most of us to doubt the trustworthiness of such a genius.

[15] Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan) (p. 42). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition. In Chapter 2, “The Human Good”, section 5 on “Beliefs”. “To appropriate one’s social, cultural, religious heritage is largely a matter of belief. There is, of course, much that one finds out for oneself, that one knows simply in virtue of one’s own inner and outer experience, one’s own insights, one’s own judgments of fact and of value. But such immanently generated knowledge is but a small fraction of what any civilized man considers himself to know. His immediate experience is filled out by an enormous context constituted by reports of the experience of other men at other places and times. His understanding rests not only on his own but also on the experience of others, and its development owes little indeed to his personal originality, much to his repeating in himself the acts of understanding first made by others, and most of all to presuppositions that he has taken for granted because they commonly are assumed and, in any case, he has neither the time nor the inclination nor perhaps the ability to investigate for himself.”

[16] Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan) (p. 45). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition. In Chapter 2, “The Human Good”, section 5 on “Beliefs”.

[17] How clear it was to me that if I failed as a Teacher to convince my students that I was for them, that I loved them and believed in them, then students would “come to class” as they were required to do … but they would never learn anything that mattered to them, that would stick, let alone experience knowledge that set them free (the meaning of “liberal” – “freeing” – education).

[18] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Eph 2:17–22.

[19] What I mean by “for” me in this context is not “for” me as someone might give me a car to use – “This car is for you to use.” What I mean is that this person is “for” my life in the sense that he or she believes in me, wants my life, wants me to exist, and who fights inside our friendship for my life, and even especially when I myself am failing to fight for it, to be true to its high purposes in God.

[20] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Jn 4:8–10.

[21] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “drivel”. Its original meaning (c 1325) was “spittle flowing from the mouth; dribblings of saliva.” But by the 19th century, it came to mean: “idiotic utterance; silly nonsense; twaddle.” I mean this latter meaning, based on the conviction that people waste so much of their heart’s interest and their intellect’s powers on “knowing things” that do not matter at all. The most famous, and destructive, kind of this “twaddle” is gossip, or that which Plato railed against – meddling.

[22] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Eph 3:17–19.

[23] Only a zealot or the comprehensively narcissistic person will lay down his or her life for a content of knowledge, for an ideology. God spare us from such dreadful people! The “truth” for which a person lays down his or her life is for a friendship – willing to give one’s life, if necessary, for that “first truth.”

[24] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 15:11–13.

[25] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Ti 1:12–13.

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