In “Burnt Norton,” the first poem in T. S. Eliot’s celebrated Four Quartets, the renowned poet writes, “…human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Eliot seems to have been thinking specifically of the deep-seated reluctance to face the end to which humanity is always moving. But his assertion is equally true as a generality. Facing reality is not something we’re good at.
As if to illustrate Eliot’s point, a very different kind of poet, contemporary singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, has written: “I don’t want reality. Actually, reality stinks. How about we just pretend…? I don’t wanna know what I know to be true. What I need you to do, tell me another lie.”
The philosopher Dallas Willard has written, “We can never understand human affairs at any level without taking [denial] into account.” He calls denial a “great world-historical force” and goes on to say the human will is incapable of sustaining itself for any length of time while knowingly resisting the truth, and so “it must deny and evade and delude itself.”
As Ne-Yo says, “How about we just pretend?”
Why deny the truth? Because truth is often uncomfortable. It demands change; insists upon it. It often alienates us from others. “Truth,” as Georges Bernanos wrote, “is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.” Sometimes long afterward.
Nevertheless, giving comfort priority over truth is costly. C.S. Lewis was right: “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”
I’ve watched couples close their eyes to reality, even as their marriage shipwrecked on the unmovable rock of truth. I’ve talked to people with just hours left to live, who refused to face the possibility that they might die. I have seen apologists for both theism and atheism use logic like a weapon, a sword, which they’ve inevitably buried in the heart of truth.
This is particularly troublesome when the person wielding the sword is a Christian. Biblical faith places the highest value on truth. The Psalmist says to God, “You desire truth in the innermost being.” Jesus taught his followers that the truth would set them free.
In an odd turn of phrase, the Apostle John cautioned against those who claim knowledge of God but do not “do the truth.” The Apostle Paul warned that even among Christian leaders some would “arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” This is seen as the worst kind of betrayal – the betrayal of truth. The “godless and wicked” are identified as those who suppress the truth. The person excluded from the joy of the age to come is precisely the one “who loves and practices falsehood.”
God requires us to be real. He knows there is no other way for us to be with him. He will be with us in trouble. He will be with us in hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger. He will be with us in life and in death. But he will not be with us in denial. It’s one place even God will not go. But if we will stand in the truth, even the truth that our confidence in God is shaky, he will stand with us.
The Christian must remain open to truth, even when it’s not a truth he wants to hear. He must never ignore facts to serve his own opinion, or distort an opponent’s arguments simply to win a debate – even if the debate is over the existence of God. He may win the debate, but he will not win the debater, and he may damage his own soul in the process.
The follower of Jesus must not let his desires dictate his thinking, “especially,” as Willard says, “the desire to prove we are right.” He or she must guard against the temptation to make the facts fit the interpretation, rather than the other way around. The idea that a person can love and honor Jesus without loving and honoring truth is utterly false. Jesus, after all, said, “I am … the truth.”
First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/7/15