That it is possible to know the truth is great relief to the believer. It was Jesus who said “The Truth shall set you free,” and we dearly want to be free. How good it is to know that God is not hiding or holding back the truth of his Gospel. But what remains is how we can know the truth. There are some who are looking in all the wrong ways, and others who think they will find it when they need to, and still some who have given up hope and stopped looking. In Cardinal John Henry Newman’s sermon, “Inward Witness to the Truth of the Gospel,” we learn how to know the truth and why some find it and others don’t.
Today, knowing is the work of one’s mind. But in the Bible, and in cultures before and besides our own, knowing is an activity of one’s whole body and soul. In Genesis 4:1, we read that “Adam knew Eve” in a description of the most intimate act of love between spouses. In “knowing” each other, Adam and Eve “become one flesh.” Knowing is personal, communal, and transformative.
We should not be surprised then when we come across the verses that inspire Newman’s sermon: “I have more understanding than my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation; I understand more than the aged, for I keep Thy commandments” (Psalm 119:99-100). According to Newman, the Psalmist is not boasting over his teachers, but rather praising the God who lets us know Him more deeply than facts and figures. It is as if the Psalmist is saying that his teachers introduced him to truth, but more importantly;
“…they set me in the way to gain a knowledge of religious truth in another and higher manner. They not only taught me, but trained me; they were careful that I should not only know my duty, but do it. They obliged me to obey; they obliged me to begin a religions course of life, which (praised be God!) I have ever pursued; and this obedience to His commandments has brought me to a clearer knowledge of His truth…” Newman writes.
The Psalmist is rejoicing in his discovery that he can know truth in a more powerful way than studying theology or listening to wise teachers share their wisdom. He says that one knows the truth by the act of living it; more precisely, by the act of obeying the commandments of God. For what are the commandments of God if they are not prescriptions of how to live in reality, that is how to be fully human?
What is so powerful about this fact is that one need not be a theologian to witness to the truth of the Gospel. Blessed Newman says that though it is a good thing for us to accept the authority of wise teachers, “the most unlearned Christian may have a very real and substantial argument, an intimate token, of the truth of the Gospel, quite independent of the authority of his parents and teachers;…”
Newman explains, “…by trying we make proof; by doing, we come to know.” But how does doing cause this authoritative knowing? He says there are several ways, the first being the character and state of mind of someone who approaches Scripture:
“Consider the Bible tells us to be meek, humble, single-hearted, and teachable. Now, it is plain that humility and teachableness are qualities of mind necessary for arriving at the truth in any subject, and in religious matters as well as others. By obeying Scripture, then, in practising humility and teachableness, it is evident we are at least in the way to arrive at the knowledge of God. On the other hand, impatient, proud, self-confident, obstinate men, are generally wrong in the opinions they form of persons and things. Prejudice and self-conceit blind the eyes and mislead the judgment, whatever be the subject inquired into.”
This is obvious, Blessed Newman says, from our experience with others. How many young people, for example, end up in the wrong crowd and make poor decisions? How many of us fail to learn from our mistakes because we fail to see that we are responsible for them? Newman says when he sees a “person hasty and violent, harsh and high-minded, careless of what others feel, and disdainful of what they think” trying to seek religious truth, “I am sure beforehand he cannot go right—he will not be led into all the truth—it is contrary to the nature of things and the experience of the world, that he should find what he is seeking.” It is the fear of the Lord that gives one the patience to wait, to listen, and to see; and without these characteristics, one will not apprehend the truth.
One’s approach to truth has to be honest and open. This approach opens the door. But walking through that door in acts of obedience serves to transform one in such a way as to increase the clarity with which one sees and the certainty with which one believes. Next week, we will listen to Newman explain this experience. For now, we ask ourselves if we are open. How do we approach knowledge? Are we the kind of people who listen carefully and intently? Do we seek to know the truth, even if it is uncomfortable?