La Vérité (1870), By Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
La Vérité (1870), By Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Is it better to follow the teachings and traditions of your faith; or to attempt to verify the truth?

The problem with the truth is you may not like what you find.

Truth is Divine

Religion is very concerned with the truth. Truth is an essence of God. The Medieval Christian truth was that we had to devote ourselves to salvation and a true life in the hereafter. The absolute truth was in what God said, and that, both directly and indirectly, was given in the Bible.

But the Bible could be a little light on specifics. From the beginning, details of how to live and die as Christians-no-longer-Jews-or-Gentiles needed to be filled in, and they examined the evidence from scripture to construct a whole and consistent system of belief. Where critical gaps remained, there were arguments and violence, not least because people’s eternal salvation was at risk. One argument was about whether Jesus was God or human. A lot of details depended upon the right answer. Disagreements became massacres, but eventually the ascendant Church settled more-or-less on a single vision which was The Truth, because now the Church singly represented God, and God spoke through the Church.

It was a beautiful system and it mostly satisfied everyone, but where it didn’t – on issue of God’s presence, the route to salvation, the nature of Jesus, etc., people argued, and still do. It’s possible they’re all wrong.

For most people it didn’t matter. Truth was delivered to them at Mass. They didn’t read Latin and couldn’t access a Bible if they could. Ignorance was bliss.

For sixteenth century Europeans, “truth” lay in the past. They saw the ruins and treasures of great civilizations, and knew they were the poor descendants of the once-great Roman empire, and they read in the Bible about how the ancients lived for hundreds of years and walked and talked with God and angels.

It was true much had been lost. Europe was still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire, and for enlightenment and wisdom, people explored the past. Indeed, the re-introduction of Greek Neoplatonism in the 15th century—just before Faust—profoundly influenced the humanist revision of Western philosophy which led to that back-looking attitude being replaced by the idea of material progress. Old truths were made new again.

While nature was not particularly significant to higher minds of the times, it was a way of knowing God. The study of the stars was particularly interesting, and necessary for the setting of Holy Days. Many early astronomers were monks, and their explorations were part of their devotion.

Not long before the time of Faust, more and more people were becoming both literate and skilled, ultimately forming an educated and wealthy merchant class, and a skilled working class. Trade and technology improved and the power of the Church declined.

Unfortunately, new discoveries showed that the Church knew nothing about God’s Universe, and that we were not the centre of it. Neither did the venerable ancients know everything. They had made mistakes. Where they could escape the reach of the Church, people spoke more freely. As the old truth was shaken, a turn to new truth was already underway.

Truth on Earth, Not as it is in Heaven

Truth is Objective, Coherent and Unchanging

The printing press brought knowledge to the rising classes. The Bible became available for the first time, affordable and in people’s own language. Studying the Bible led the rising classes to question their priests because there was a lot in the Church that wasn’t in the Bible. There was a return to the use of the Bible alone and to “original” or pure Christianity. Through the time of Faust, different Protestant faiths split out of Catholicism and each presented their truth as independent statements of faith, also known as creeds or dogmata.

In the day-to-day material world, as the study and exploration of the natural world expanded through the seventeenth century, and as technology’s requirements grew, practical and reliable methods were established for determining “truth” which became the “scientific method.”

The scientific method is a set of agreed-on rules about how to get at “truth” and build upon it collectively. This new methodology, limited to, and based in the cold calculations of cause and effect, proved to be enormously useful and powerful. One could create a better world without God. In fact, excluding Him from the calculations was the key. Matter was the new reality. Sola materia. Society was changing and magic was out, particularly so in the Protestant fields of Germany and England. They didn’t eliminate Him in religion, but in practice. The Industrial Revolution followed.

Eliminating the uncontrollable influence of the spirit world meant everything was reliably predictable and could ultimately be understood. Truth could be determined and proved. Everything had an explanation —guaranteed.

There is no equivalent method for discovering and proving the truth about spiritual matters. Whatever we perceive as spiritual truth is subject to our personal experience, perspective, and traditions.

Truth is Divine/Truth is Power

Spiritual truth (presumably) leads to a better understanding or experience of God and material truth leads to power. Ironically, in trying to understand God, we gained power and lost God. This isn’t what the scholar monks hoped for, but the danger was apparent, as in Faust.

Faust was willing to take power wherever he found it. We, as a society, are also willing, and while we may no longer dismiss the risks as he did, we are committed to progress as a solution to the very problems of progress. Although we are still utterly incapable of Utopia, we finally have the power to make life Hell on Earth.

The truth of materialism is hard to bear: life is meaningless. Existence is cold and hard. Mind is a phenomenon of the physical body, and spirit is only something it invented to represent the external world (though see and Our individual lives are utterly insignificant in a limitless Universe. Soon our remnant sense of self worth will be diminished further as our machines supplant and surpass us. We can all be improved on. Reality sucks, but we can make it more comfortable with technology.

Recalling Faust, we wonder if we are being led by a Mephistophelean intent that deflects us from God, and from the hope of ever finding Truth and Perfection; or of even finding our way back home. If this is not the way to find God, it is the way to usurp Him and take His power. We would have God in chains.

But the truth of materialism isn’t at all bleak. While we haven’t found God in the form of two eyes staring back at us from amid a host of angels, we have found a Universe so vast in all its dimensions alone as to be incomprehensible, and that is also a characteristic of God.

Faust chose power, but the devil can’t see it go to good purpose. He provides diversions instead. Goethe’s Faust overcomes his flaws to a degree because he was the brave new man of the Nineteenth century with an vision of progress, but earlier Fausts had no such opportunity because there was no such vision. They were still looking to the past, and the Übermensch (Overman/Superman) hadn’t been conceived. Too-early Faust (the ur-Übermensch) wanted to be one, but was unable, whereupon he made his pact with Mephistopheles.