A stranger approaches you and asks, “Do you have the correct time?” You politely tell him the correct time. The stranger thanks you and leaves.
This is a simple transaction which we have all experienced. At the same time, it is rich in implication. Three points are of particular significance and worth developing. The first is that the question is important. The stranger may need to meet someone or make an appointment at a particular time. The correct time is important to him or her for practical reasons. Secondly, the correct time is specific. It stands alone amidst innumerable times that are not correct. No one ever asks for the “incorrect time.” Incorrect times, though innumerable and easy to come by, have no practical utility. They do not reorient anyone to his or her time-connection to the world. Lastly, the correct time is discoverable, requiring some kind of search, though one that is usually very brief. The person who does not know the correct time must take steps to discover it. The person is, therefore, a seeker.
This simple exchange between you and the stranger is without controversy. Thus, it becomes a reliable stepping stone to something that has the same character, but can be intensely controversial. The search for the correct time has much in common with the search for truth. Understanding the uncontroversial nature of asking for the right time may diffuse some of the controversy surrounding the quest for truth. The truth is important. No one wants to live in error.
As Saint Augustine remarked, “I have met many men who have been deceived, but no one who wanted to be deceived.” The truth is specific and distinguishable against a vast sea of untruths. But it is as valuable as it is comparatively rare. One must make some effort to seek the truth in order to find it. The truth, indeed, is discoverable.
When Blaise Pascal said, “I would not have sought thee had I not already known thee,” he was indicating that in a certain sense, just as we know there is a correct time, we also know instinctively that there is truth.
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Saint John Paul II develops the notion that “the Gospel is meant to permeate all cultures and give them life from within, so that they may express the full truth about the human person and about human life.”
One may approach a stranger in order to find out what time it is. One may read the Gospel in order to discover something far more significant, the truth about who he or she is and the truth about life. There one will discover that man is created to know and to love, and that the meaning of life is measured in how well one directs these two operations to God and to one’s neighbor.
It is also possible to discover the truth of the human being and of life through careful philosophical reasoning. Truth is essentially a conformity between mind and reality. Since there is a “reality” and since the mind is made to know, truth can be discovered apart from divine assistance.
And yet, the reality of truth and its availability to all people continues to be controversial. What is the truth of humanity, the truth of the unborn, the truth of marriage, the truth of human sexuality, the truth of life? Skepticism abounds; truth lies in wait.
In 1933, the Bavarian minister of education made the following statement before an assemblage of university professors: “From this day on, you will no longer have to examine whether something is true or not, but exclusively whether or not it corresponds to the Nazi ideology.” Herr Schemm was making things easy for his comrades by sparing them the inconvenience of having to search for truth and the trouble of examining something to determine whether or not it is true. What he was really doing was concealing truth under a blanket of ideological claptrap. Truth is real, not a political contrivance. The impulse to seek truth begins, not in a meeting room, but within our being.
“O Truth, Truth,” cried Augustine, in his Confessions, “how inwardly did the marrow of my soul pant for you” (O veritas, veritas, quam intime etiam tum medullae animi mei suspirabant tibi).
Because truth is discoverable, democracy is possible. Because tyranny is possible, truth is imperative. There is a natural kinship between time and truth. We should commence our search for the latter with at least as much confidence as we have in our search for the former.
Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.