Truth is power. This simple phrase was often the topic of discussion for many a theology and philosophy class in seminary. Whether it be Nietzsche or Machiavelli, much of our philosophical studies sought to debunk this secular axiom. Any committed Christian, regardless of denomination, would quickly affirm that authentic faith seeks to be detached from power. Nevertheless, the Christian must also be aware of just how deeply the “truth is power” axiom is presumed in our cultural worldview.
The parish of which I serve, St. Joseph Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, is currently conducting a book study on Jean Vanier’s work, Drawn in the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. Jean Vanier is a personal hero of mine for his ministry to those who have developmental disabilities. Through this ministry, Jean Vanier has authored many books and reflections on what it means to be community in light of his experience of founding L’Arche, ecumenical religious communities for the developmentally disabled. In 2015, Jean Vanier was the recipient of the Templeton Prize for his work with the developmentally disabled. Below is a video of highlight from Jean Vanier’s reception of the Templeton Prize.
Jean Vanier’s core theological anthropology is simple, but powerful: 1.) We are precious in the eyes of God; and, 2.) We discover this truth when someone treats us as someone who is precious. This vision of Christian anthropology also affirms that if we don’t treat others as precious in God’s eyes or experience someone revealing this reality to us, we suffer a deprivation of the love we need the most in life.
At the heart of this theology of “beholding and being beheld” is the title given to John the Apostle by Jesus in the Gospel of John: The beloved disciple. The key to this naming of the beloved disciple is that it is not only the title for John, but is the status of all of us: We are Jesus’ beloved. This reality calls us to vulnerability with Christ and one another, emphasizing more of who we are in God’s eyes instead of what we do or accomplish.
A key biblical support of this understanding of vulnerability with Christ is the answer given by James and John to Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for?” Their answer in John 1:38 is somewhat surprising, “Teacher, where do you live?” Interesting. The first desire of those who encounter Jesus as Lord is not to seek power, ask for special abilities, or desire insight into future events. Instead, the desire is simply to be with Jesus, not get something from him.
On the first night of our book study, the question was raised by the group: Who is the beloved disciple? Knowing where Jean Vanier’s theology ends, I was surprised as I listened to good, grounded parishioners turn this question into speculations about power relationships.
Why wasn’t it Peter, he was made the head of the apostles after all?
I read someplace that it wasn’t John, but Mary Magdaline that was the beloved disciple and the power-hungry male leadership wanted to recast it as John.
I don’t understand why John would be the beloved. He was the youngest of all the apostles. Wouldn’t it have been one of the older of Jesus’ followers?
Does this mean that John was the most powerful of all the apostles?
Listening to these reflections and questions, my thoughts interpreted them all as, “Power statement, power statement, power statement.” It became so clear that the interpretive lens we were approaching this question through was power, “Who has it and who doesn’t?” As I went home, I began to wonder: Has the axiom of “truth is power” become so imbedded in our psyche that it is becoming difficult to think in terms that are not about power?
This question led me to reflect on another axiom I hear quite a bit in science when it comes to natural selection: Only the strong survive. My repugnance toward having Scripture reduced to a modern understanding of power made me wonder, is interpreting evolutionary processes in nature through the interpretive frame of strength and power equally inadequate when trying to understand questions of science? Just as our book club participants instinctively chose power over vulnerability, is there a similar bias in the way scientific data is interpreted that imposes a cultural presumption of power relationships that marginalizes the scientific equivalent of vulnerability?
This is a post that makes me wish I had more formal scientific training. Therefore, I ask our scientists to weigh in to offer a more scientific explanation. From a theological standpoint, my first issue with the axiom of only the strong survive is the word “only.” Only implies an absolute, excluding other possibilities. For example, I have heard scientists say that the human person has poor adaptation skills and that it is our advanced intellect that allows us to adapt through technology. The problem I see with this is that, from a non-scientific perspective,”technology” seems to be such a modern term connected with the Industrial Revolution. Yes, there were advancements in the bronze age, the gold age, iron age, and so forth, and I can affirm that, typically, the genetically strong survive, but to cast this as an absolute seems to play into a “power myth” that is more rooted in utilitarian philosophy than an objective view of creation. Similar to how an atheist and a Christian can gaze into the night sky and behold this experience in profoundly different ways, have we become myopic in how we view the data which points to the presumed axiom that “only the strong survive?”
Whether it be science or faith, the beauty of people like Jean Vanier is that they remind us that life is often an interplay between our perception of the strong and the weak. One of the ways we can look at cultural history is how these cultural presumptions have been morphed into a social ethic of, “the strong must eliminate the weak,” leading to some of the most horrific tragedies in human history. Many have said, both atheist and Christian, that a social ethic of natural selection would be devastating, awakening new forms of Nazism and ethnic cleansing. I whole heartedly agree with this assessment. I also wonder, could this be a challenge to the scientific community to revisit the interpretive frame that is used to understand the data that supports natural selection, seeking a new lens that deals less with absolutes and affirms the role of vulnerability in the natural world? Perhaps there is room for the axiom from Catholic Social Teaching that affirms that the test of any society is how they treat the most marginalized of their people. I eagerly look forward to reading your comments!
What are your thoughts? Am I way off base, given my deficiency in scientific background or could the “absolutist” narrative we have infused into our culture be a myth that needs to be challenged not only culturally, but scientifically? Leave your thoughts and, together, let us walk together in faith, seeking to be vulnerable with the Lord, finding our dignity not in strength, but by humbly beholding one another as precious in God’s eyes, making that intentionally known in those we meet.