Editor’s note: The following address was given at the Collegium Novum of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, on November 7.
During the Liturgy of the Word in the Byzantine Rite, the deacon admonishes the congregation with the chants, “Wisdom! Let us be attentive . . . ” and “Wisdom! Let us stand aright . . . ” The first chant reminds us that wisdom, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, is essential if we are to discern the full truth of things in the world created by the Trinitarian God. The second chant suggests that wisdom, drawing our attention to the full truth of things, empowers us to lead upright lives — lives in accord with the moral laws that, as John Paul II said at Sinai on February 26, 2000, were “written on the human heart as the universal moral law” before they were “written in stone.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines wisdom as “a spiritual gift that enables one to know the purpose and plan of God.” Wisdom, in other words, sheds light on what can seem opaque and dark, random and meaningless. Every period of history needs wise men and women; perhaps this postmodern age has particular need of wise counselors, for throughout Western high culture in our day there is a disturbing tendency to deny that human beings can grasp the truth of anything with any measure of certainty. There is nothing new in this, of course; Pontius Pilate imagined that his question, “Truth? What is truth?” (John 18:38), put an end to the conversation. But so do many of our contemporaries.
At her 2007 inauguration as the 28th president of Harvard University, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust noted that the Latin word Veritas on Harvard’s coat of arms “was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion.” But “we understand it quite differently now,” she continued. For, according to Dr. Faust, in the 21st century there is only the aspiration to truth; truth is not a “possession,” and there are certainly no “unassailable verities.” Those engaged in higher learning and higher education in the 21st century, Dr. Faust concluded, “must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt.” And by “doubt,” we may assume that Dr. Faust did not mean a healthy spirit of inquiry, but rather a stance of systematic skepticism toward the human capacity to know anything as, finally, true, save for some judgments of an a priori character (such as that one plus one will always equal two in the base-ten system). It is only from this stance of systematic skepticism, Dr. Faust and others would argue, that 21st-century men and women can live (as she put it in her inaugural address) with “the humility of always believing that there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.”
It was appropriate that Dr. Faust took as her example of a lost, irrecoverable, and not-to-be-lamented past what she termed the “absolutes of divine revelation.” For in the long view of the history of ideas, Western high culture’s Enlightenment skepticism about the possibility of speaking and thinking intelligibly about “divine revelation” was one of the turning points that eventually led us to today’s crisis of the postmodern mind, in which there may be, at best, “your truth” and “my truth,” but there is nothing recognizable as the truth: truth, plain and simple. This radical epistemological skepticism informs two other characteristics of postmodern high culture: metaphysical nihilism and moral relativism. And that unhappy cocktail — nihilism plus skepticism plus relativism — is not simply a debilitating intoxicant for intellectuals; it is making it very difficult to sustain the institutions of democracy.
For as John Paul II presciently taught in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, there are real dangers encoded in the suggestion that “agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude that correspond to democratic forms of political life.” Why? Because “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can be easily manipulated for reason of power.” Thus, John Paul concluded, the history of the 20th century had shown how “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” Benedict XVI cited the same hard, but also essential, historical lesson in his warnings against the encroachments of a “dictatorship of relativism,” in which coercive state power is used to impose a relativistic morality (itself grounded in metaphysical nihilism and epistemological skepticism) on all of society. The validity of those warnings has been borne out time and again in recent years in the debate over the life issues and the nature of marriage.