By: Christopher West
In his theology of the body, John Paul II insisted that the body has a “language.” The body “speaks.” This is not a controversial idea. Everyone can readily recognize the concept of “body language.” What is controversial about John Paul’s teaching, however, is that the body can speak the truth, or it can speak lies.
Is There Truth?
A great many Americans are suffering from a deadly disease and they don’t even know it. It’s rampant in our schools and universities. The majority of people living in your neighborhood probably are infected. And a good number of people in your local parish most likely have it too. It’s called “truthophobia.” Why are so many people afraid of “the truth”? Somehow we have the idea that the truth is against us, that it’s out to get us. So, the most typical response? Deny it.
“There is no truth,” many say. But, in response, one feels compelled to ask, “Is that true?” Many will retort, “Well, if truth exists, you can’t know it.” Again, it begs the question, “How do you know?” “Well, you can’t be sure,” they’ll say. “Are you sure?” Truth is one of those things from which you can run, but you can’t hide. In our attempts to deny truth, we find ourselves cornered into admitting that it exists. At a minimum we find ourselves longing, perhaps unwittingly, for some truth on which to stand, even if that truth is that “there is no truth.” If it’s true that there is no truth then it’s not true that there is no truth. In other words, there is truth.
Truth & Freedom
Why do so many people chafe at the thought of truth, especially that the body is answerable to truth? For example, we’ve all heard people respond to Church teaching on sex or abortion by angrily exclaiming, “It’s my body and I can do whatever I want with it.” Such people are convinced that the very idea of “truth” compromises human freedom. But, is that true? Christ taught that “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). As John Paul II demonstrated in various ways and on various occasions, you can’t have one without the other. They stand or fall together.
Truth without freedom leads to tyranny. Conversion by the sword is meaningless and disrespectful. This is obvious to us today. What is not so obvious, however, is that freedom without truth also leads to tyranny. How so?
If there is no truth, no objective standard to which we are all accountable, then all that exists is a power struggle between opposing opinions. Objective reality does not settle disputes; power does. Might makes right. Those with the most money, media influence, or military muscle will impose their self-serving view of the world on the weak. “In this way,” as John Paul II wrote, “democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism” ( Evangelium Vitae 20). How, then, do we reconcile freedom and truth? John Paul II fought valiantly for religious freedom understood as the right of every human being to be free in his or her search for truth. There is no place for a tyranny of truth. For truth to have meaning in a person’s life it can never be imposed, only freely sought and embraced as it is found.
The Splendor of Truth
At the same time, John Paul II devoted his entire life to proposing (never imposing) what he called “the splendor of the truth” to the whole world. When the truth is upheld in all its splendor, it doesn’t need to be imposed on anyone. Men and women of good will are drawn to the splendor of truth when they see it, especially when they have been systematically deprived of it. We’re attracted to truth because we are created for it, like bees are attracted to flowers. Truth liberates because it enables us to be who we really are as persons. Truth, when discovered, is like a homecoming. It’s like reaching solid earth when you have been lost at sea. Truth, then, is nothing to fear, for truth is Christ, and Christ is perfect love, and perfect love casts out all fear — including, and especially, “truthophobia.”