Mystery of Truth

The phrase, mystery of truth, is found in the last line of a recent article by David Brooks, one of my favorite commentators on the life and times of our world.  While I don’t always find myself in agreement with Brooks, I find him to be a trenchant observer of human nature and behavior.  He writes clearly and with tremendous insight.  Often he frames things in a way that gives us a new, clear way to think about a problem and come up with plausible solutions.  I think about him as an intellectual helpmate.         

His recent article is entitled, “The Benedict Option.”  The article was replete with an image of St. Benedict, a picture I immediately recognized and to which I was drawn.  I know a fair amount about this founding father of Benedictine monasticism.  Benedict was an Italian Catholic living in sixth century post-Roman Empire Europe.  When I was in school, this was referred to as the “Dark Ages.”  Although this is not a very useful description today, it does convey the times were different than the “good ole days” of the Roman Empire at its zenith.  Seeing Benedict’s life in this period helps explain why he withdrew and began to live the Christian life in common with other folks.  From this the monastic movement, as we know it, was birthed and continues to this day.         

So whatever Brooks was up to implicated St. Benedict.  Half way through the article Brooks references a new book by Rod Dreher which carries the title, The Benedict Option, which Brook calls the most important book of the decade---high praise indeed.  As it turns out, Dreher despairs of our times and culture in America and calls for folks, like St. Benedict, to opt out so they can live faithfully.  Brooks argues for another response.         

Brooks offers an interesting dual way of looking at our world.  His first line reveals these two options: “Faith seems to come in two personalities, the purist and the ironist.”  Quickly, I knew where he was going.  Brooks gives us a clear sense of both options.  He tells us, “Purists believe that everything in the world is part of a harmonious whole.  All questions point ultimately to a single answer.  If we orient our lives toward this pure ideal, and get everybody else to, we will move gradually toward perfection.”  In effect, this is the Benedict option.         

Brooks describes the other option, the ironist, in these words.  “The ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one…For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs.  There is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living.”  This option probably makes sense to many of us, because that is likely the way we are dealing with our times and culture.         

Brooks develops his own version of this ironist option.  As usual, he puts it forth with a clarity and creativity, we are able to think about it and make up our own mind.  Brooks says, “The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism.  It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal.”  I like his descriptor, Orthodox Pluralism.  A pluralist perspective notes the diversity of our culture and tries to come to terms with it, rather than dismiss it.  I find that attractive, but certainly not easy.         

I know enough Christian history to know both options---purist and ironist---has been tried.  My own Quaker tradition historically has been the ironist.  The Amish are good examples of the purist---enacting the Benedict Option without becoming monks.  They simply withdrew and farmed or were carpenters making furniture!  One could argue they are na├»ve.  And of course, the purist could say the other option if foolhardy!         

To put the options very simply, the purist basically gives up on the world.  The ironist opts to stay in the world, but to work to transform it.  It would be easy to dismiss the ironist as idealistic.  Brooks counters this charge.  He notes, “it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path.”  I agree with him; it is difficult, but not impossible.  I would argue it is to align ourselves with a way of love that ultimately can lead to peacemaking.  Not easy, but possible.  In my lifetime?  Probably not.        

I like the method Brooks outlines.  He says this transforming work is “to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.”  Friendship is a form of love---probably the most frequent form of love.  I suggest we see the call is to learn to love.  Make friends.  To make friends is to make peace.         

I like the way Brooks ends his article.  To involve ourselves in this loving peace work, we will need to “humbly accept the mystery of truth.”  For sure, it is a work of humility.  How can you be arrogant enough to know for sure you can bring peace?  Just as importantly, it means accepting the “mystery of truth.”  This is something a purist cannot do.  Oddly, this is a bet on who God is and how God works.  I do believe God deals in truth, but it is a truth that can be mysterious.  I need to be careful about being sure I know this truth.

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