Truth is a funny thing to think about, isn’t it? The idea that something can be True forever? Something about the concept of Forever is disquieting, or majestic, or both. Contemplating the idea of an infinity is like standing at the foot of a mountain and looking up–or like standing at the top and looking down.
It’s a mathematical truism that infinity comes in different sizes. This can seem silly or unnecessarily complicated but really…didn’t we already know that? After all, it’s true for time; there are different lengths of eternity which we navigate from day to day.
And yet, despite this, we don’t think about eternity much in the modern day. Eternity, and eternal Truths, seem to have gone out of vogue. Everything is rapidly changing; politics, fashion, the environment, society, math, biology, technology. We harnessed coal and steam and changed the face of the world, but coal and steam did not last forever. We created nations and kingdoms and armies, but those don’t endure. The borders are constantly redrawn. We thought we understood biology–of humans, and of animals–but often enough to be alarming, what we thought we knew about medicine in 2010 turns out to be exactly the opposite.
And, of course, there’s no room for eternity in daily life. When you spend 16 hours awake and 8 of them working, that only leaves 8 hours for everything else; 2 hours to see family and friends, 2 hours to eat, 1 hour to take care of yourself, 1 hour to exercise…that leaves 2 hours for everything else.
The “onward march of progress” has included, among other things, the slow and inexorable hunt and extermination of infinities. Some eternities remain–mostly in pseudo-religious contexts, things that were once sacred and spiritual which have now been secularized. Ceremonies. Holiday celebrations. Communal gatherings. Other eternities survive in the recesses of personal life. Lovers’ trysts. Family gatherings. Deep conversations that start at 2 in the morning and seem to last forever.
The age of eternal truths has ended as well. At the risk of sounding dramatic, postmodern thought has killed Truth. This is not necessarily a bad thing: many empires were founded upon Truth, and the collars of many prisoners were shackled at its altar. But it remains that there are few True things we can attest to.
In the past one might have said “Well, I know very little about the world, but I know I am a Man, and that tells me what I must do!” We’ve since explored more fully what we assume “A Man” to be, and found it not to our liking. As a matter of fact, many of us kill ourselves trying to fit into that definition. So we reject it as Truth and accept it as a guideline–something to steer by, occasionally. But we take no Truth to replace it. We have overthrown the definition which imprisons us, without bothering to find out what it is we should use in its place.
I don’t mean this to sound like an indictment of feminism. Far from it; the feminist movement has been immensely enriching to the lives of all people (yes, including men). But feminism and critical identity theory and postmodern thought have done their work with the enthusiasm of termites, undermining the structures which oppress the population, and leaving very little accessible to us. What remains is a kind of desolation. What values can we embrace, when we know that the ones we grew up with are problematic? How can we anchor ourselves in the world when the words and ways we interact with it are linked so closely to old violence?
There must (I hope) come a response. The purpose of religious ritual is to put us in touch with Eternity: to remind us of our place in the cosmos, and allow us to take part and take pride in the World. The purpose of Truth is to equip us to understand falsehood; as Chesterton said:
“It is ludicrous to suppose that the more sceptical we are the more we see good in everything. It is clear that the more we are certain what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.”
I think that we have really, as a culture, still not fully recovered from postmodernism. It passed over us like a fever; in its wake it left a great many systems cleaner and clearer, and we are closer to good health…but we’re still shaken and scatterbrained in its wake.
G.K. Chesterton writes his book Heretics on this subject. Gilbert is a journalist, a splendid and punchy writer of editorials, and Heretics is, in short, an editorial review of the 20th-century’s Western social and intellectual traditions. Chesterton finds his Truth–his Eternity–in his Christian faith, something we seem to be moving away from, as a species. I ask then, of the West; with what Truth are we to replace it? Skepticism has torn down many dogmas and pointed out that many powerful men have used them to deceive and beguile us. But in the process they pulled down Truth and Eternity with them, and now we have to start over in figuring out where to go, as individuals, and as a species.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, when everything is meaningless, there’s no bad place to start finding meaning. Find eternity in art. In cleaning or building. In coloring. In conversation. Find Truth in laughter, in good company, in helping your friends. Find meaning in everything; especially in the things that mean something to you.