METANOIA

Why dost thou prate of God?
Whatever thou sayest of Him is
untrue.
Meister Eckhart

The further one travels, the less one knows.
Lao Tzu

In religious literature the word ‘truth’ is used indiscriminately in at least three distinct and very different senses. Thus, it is sometimes treated as a synonym for ‘fact’ as when it is affirmed that God is Truth meaning that He is the primordial Reality. But this is clearly not the meaning of the word in such a phrase as ‘worshipping God in spirit and in truth.’ Here, it is obvious, ‘truth’ signifies direct apprehension of spiritual Fact, as opposed to second-hand knowledge about Reality, formulated in sentences and accepted on authority or because an argument from previously granted postulates was logically convincing. And finally there is the more ordinary meaning of the word, as in such a sentence as, ‘This statement is the truth’ where we mean to assert that the verbal symbols of which the statement is composed correspond to the facts to which it refers. When Eckhart writes that ‘whatever thou sayest of God is untrue,’ he is not affirming that all theological statements are false. In so far as there can be any correspondence between human symbols and divine Fact, some theological statements are as true as it is possible for us to make them. Himself a theologian, Eckhart would certainly have admitted this. But besides being a theologian, Eckhart was a mystic. And being a mystic, he understood very vividly what the modern semanticist is so busily (and, also, so unsuccessfully) trying to drum into contemporary minds namely, that words are not the same as things and that a knowledge of words about facts is in no sense equivalent to a direct and immediate apprehension of the facts themselves. What Eckvhart actually asserts is this: whatever one may say about God can never in any circumstances be the ‘truth’ in the first two meanings of that much abused and ambiguous word. By implication St. Thomas Aquinas was saying exactly the same thing when, after his experience of infused contemplation, he refused to go on with his theological work, declaring that everything he had written up to that time was as mere straw compared with the immediate knowledge, which had been vouchsafed to him. Two hundred years earlier, in Bagdad, the great Mohammedan theologian, Al-Ghazzali, had similarly turned from the consideration of truths about God to the contemplation and direct apprehension of Truth-the-Fact, from the purely intellectual discipline of the philosophers to the moral and spiritual discipline of the Sufis.

The moral of all this is obvious. Whenever we hear or read about ‘truth,’ we should always pause long enough to ask ourselves in which of the three senses listed above the word is, at the moment, being used. By taking this simple precaution (and to take it is a genuinely virtuous act of intellectual honesty) we shall save ourselves a great deal of disturbing and quite unnecessary mental confusion.

The subject matter of the Perennial Philosophy is the nature of eternal, spiritual Reality; but the language in which it must be formulated was developed for the purpose of dealing with phenomena in time. That is why, in all these formulations, we find an element of paradox. The nature of Truth-the-Fact cannot be described by means of verbal symbols that do not adequately correspond to it. At best it can be hinted at in terms of non sequiturs and contradictions.

The history of all the religions is similar in one important respect; some of their adherents are enlightened and delivered, because they have chosen to react appropriately to the words which the founders have let fall; others achieve a partial salvation by reacting with partial appropriateness; yet others harm themselves and their fellows by reacting with a total inappropriateness either ignoring the words altogether or, more often, taking them too seriously and treating them as though they were identical with the Fact to which they refer.

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy.