Today, more and more people speak as if truth is something they can will for themselves rather than something that is real, independent of ourselves. Then, through various forms of exercise of power, mostly using words and the condemning of words, people try to will it for others too. While the fact remains that truth is, by definition, whatever is real, and no matter how much willing we do, our willpower isn’t going to change it, increasingly today, the truth cannot be spoken when it contradicts a narrative set by the powerful. Where is this idea coming from?
Bishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, philosopher, theologian, author and speaker who leads the “Word on Fire” global media ministry, in a fifty minute talk in September 2020, explained the philosophical underpinnings of this modern attitude. It is rooted in the works of four philosophers, two 19th century Germans, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, and two 20th century Frenchmen, Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. To summarize briefly Bishop Barron’s explanation, Marx said that society exists to perpetuate an abusive economic relationship where those who labor are exploited by those who benefit from their labor. For Marx, what is held to be true is merely a lie propagated by the exploiters to distract and dis-empower those who labor. Nietzsche says that only the human will is important: what is believed to be true is merely part of a herd mentality for weaklings. For Nietzsche, the strong person, the Over-man, is the one who can impose his own will, his own truth, on himself and others. Sartre says that existence precedes and supersedes essence, which includes what we would call truth, and thus instead of being constrained by the truth, a person’s existence functions as a blank slate, on which that person can write their own truth. Foucault says that truth, such as it is, is merely a function of language, exercised as an act of power by those in power, in order to perpetuate their dominance. For all of these, what is important is, as Nietzsche called it, the “will to power”. What we might call truth becomes merely a story, a narrative told by the powerful to impose their will on others.
We see this sort of thinking in practice today. On social media, for instance, the sort of argumentation that increasingly happens is not the sort that you might find in a debate, where one side tries to persuade the other, but overt acts of social power, where each side tries to shout down and silence the other. “Cancelling” is increasingly popular, where in retaliation for contradicting a popular narrative, a person can lose their reputation, their public voice (such as their ability to post to social media), and even their livelihood. It is becoming increasingly irrelevant to consider whether a public statement is actually true or false, or whether there is evidence for or against it: the more important thing now seems to be whether or not it is a thing that can or cannot be said. Those opposed to prevailing narratives now try to create competing counter-narratives, not through evidence or reasoning, but through self-serving and manipulative appeals to any sort of emotion that might sway people to subscribe, and then weaponize these followers to attack and if possible, silence the competition. Will-to-power competes with will-to-power, the truth is obscured, and people who seek truth become confused and disheartened.
What is Jesus’ answer to this? Jesus did not exercise or seek his own power, and he told his disciples not to seek it either:
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:25-28]
Jesus did not merely tell his disciples not to seek power, he showed them how to embrace powerlessness. The night before he died, he washed his disciples’ feet, something the most lowly household slave would normally do for an arriving guest. Then he told his disciples to do the same to each other:
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” [John 13:12-15]
As for Jesus’ will, far from exercising the “will to power”, Jesus embraced an outcome that was completely opposed to his own will for himself. The night before his crucifixion, in the garden of Gethsemane, with great suffering, he surrendered his will to the Father:
When he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” … In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. [Luke 22:41-42,44]
That night, Jesus was arrested and unjustly condemned, and the next day, he was tortured and killed. It seemed that the will of the powerful had triumphed: Jesus had been silenced, and his followers were powerless and scattered.
But a couple of days later, early on a Sunday morning, everything changed. Jesus rose from the dead, not through the will of any person, but through an act of God the Father himself. Truth and reality had the last word. The message that the powerful had wanted to suppress had became irrepressible. Fully alive, Jesus met with his astonished disciples, many times over forty days, teaching them the truth about his Father and himself. They, as the Church, passed this message on to their successors, and they to theirs, to the present day. As Bishop Barron explains in his video, the Church stands athwart the “will to power” agenda, and for that reason, is opposed and rejected. Yet let us never forget that, no matter what the powerful say, or how they exercise their power to suppress the truths they dislike, truth is truth, Jesus is real, and his message is true. Seek him out, listen to him, live what he teaches, and do not be fooled by the narratives of the powerful. They, despite their “will to power”, could not suppress Jesus then. So, too, will they be unable to suppress him today.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay