What Would It Mean for the Truth to Arrive in Person?

Until four years ago, we did not adequately value the phrase “in person” and the reality of being in person with each other. The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated that people remain distant and isolated from one another for the sake of physical and social health. For all the damage and heartache that the pandemic caused, and we must never underestimate this suffering, perhaps the major fruit of that otherwise desolate time was that now we value—or should value—in-person interaction and communication. We can, certainly, value technologies that allow us to reach across distances and borders, albeit with minimal bodily sensation, to maintain and cultivate relationships with family, friends, work colleagues, and others. Still, at no point in recent history has “in person,” with the contact, the sensory plenitude that it involves, been so attractive, so much to be valued, and not only valued but also to be regarded as true.

Somehow I doubt that Easter is ever described as a festival of “in person,” or a festival of truth. It should, however, be described as both. Jesus, who proclaims himself as “the truth” (Jn 14:6), arrives, anew, in person to his disciples and then, two millennia later, to us, as the one crucified and risen. He appears, notably, in person, without regard for walls, whether those of a tomb or those of a locked room (John 20:1, 20:19). For fifty days each year, whether we recognize it or not, we celebrate the truth. Not truth in general, because real truth is always specific. We celebrate the arrival of truth in person, the guarantee that God entered into creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and that truth prevailed over falsity and error.

The fact that the truth came in person means that truth is personal. This ought to have broad implications for what it is to know, what it means to know, how it is that one knows, how it is that we know, what is made possible through knowing and how knowing affects what is actual. One must also say something about how truth is a matter of more than knowledge, but also commitment—the truth is a “way” and a “life” (John 14:6).

When some major event occurs, when some new historical moment comes to light, it is often said, “This changes everything.” In the case of Jesus’s arrival as the truth in person, this dictum becomes maximally appropriate. The truth in person: this changes everything.

Or it should. But because we seldom, if ever, think about Jesus as the truth in person, about truth as personal, it would be difficult to convince anyone that “the truth in person” has anything to do with them, let alone that it changes everything.

What would it mean for the truth to arrive in person? Why would this be so important? Why should Christians and other people of goodwill (obviously in slightly different registers) find that it changes everything? What should we attempt to change as a consequence?

Truth’s Receiver

Thomas Aquinas defined truth in such a way that the reception of reality is crucial. Truth is “adaequatio rei et intellectus”: the agreement of a thing and the intellect. In order for truth to occur (because that is what truth does: it occurs; it is an event), the intellect has to agree with something. How does this happen? That thing has to be received. Why? Because that is what human beings are—we are receivers, because of the way we gather information. We sense things before we think about them. We are sensate creatures. We would do well to remember this; so many theologians, including Thomas, spilled far too much ink drawing a sharp distinction between humans and other creatures. Assuredly, we have special dignity. This ought not, however, to obscure the dignity of our fellow creatures. We have language—we are zoon logon echon, as Thomas’s favorite philosopher, Aristotle, put it—but even this links us to the rest of creation, because to have logos means to be discursive, to have to run (curs-) here and there in order to gain some purchase on things. As zoon logon echon, living beings who have discourse, we must traverse space and time—the world—to receive reality and to let truth happen.

If truth arrived in person, it would have to be received.

Thomas also teaches, “quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur”: what is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. This saying looks quite interesting when we place it in direct proximity to the prologue of John’s Gospel. It tells of God’s Logos coming into the world that God had made, being received (or not), making a dwelling, and pouring out the fullness of God’s grace and truth, which is, by some at least, received. The point is that, in order for the fullness of truth to come to light (a key theme in John), it must enter worldly limits and be received per modum recipientis—always with the possibility that receivers’ senses and discursiveness will not respond to the outpouring of grace with positive receptivity.

When truth arrived in Jesus of Nazareth, it involved the key feature of any in-person interaction—that one’s counterpart might not be receptive. This is why, by the way, the return to in-person activities after COVID was so challenging for people who had become unaccustomed to it. Truth is a risk. It is a venture. Both offering and receiving truth involve vulnerability.

Consequently, we can recognize that the wondrous, frustrating thing about truth is its complication. Truth is not immediately luminous—it may be a “transcendental attribute of being,” which means that, in itself, it shines with splendor. The problem is that truth tends not to do so for us. Anyone who tells you that truth is immediately luminous, or obvious, performs a stunning paradox—the one who would hold truth to be radiant obscures it. The chiaroscuro of John’s Gospel, the constant play of dark and light, means to express all this. The fact that God entrusted human receivers with truth, even though anything we do brings with it numerous complications, is astonishing.

Truth is not nearly as simple as intellectual assent to a proof. Instead, truth involves all the difficulties, the ins and outs, of a life. Truth is lived, put into action, led as an ethos; human truth is not really true until it suffuses and infuses a self. Jesus of Nazareth was (during his life and ministry) and is (eternally) the perfect exemplar of this. He proved so attractive to so many because he put the truth into existence, he risked it, he allowed it to permeate his whole being, from his humble birth and quiet life in Nazareth, through the drama of his public ministry to the tumult and suffering of his death—and, of course, the glory of his resurrection.

It is a commonplace in biblical scholarship to observe that the narrative of Jesus’s Resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus abounds in “speaking” verbs: conversing, debating, discussing. Jesus takes the reins in the conversation, interpreting the Scriptures for the disciples so that they could recognize to whom the scriptures refer. Jesus, the truth in person, prepares his disciples to receive the truth through discursive means, as they are traveling. When they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and he disappears from them, the disciples come to notice how their hearts had burned as he spoke to them. Through discursive means, as they were traveling, Jesus found a way to the center of their lives.

Karl Rahner on Jesus as the Truth in Person

Karl Rahner presents an interesting case for studying Jesus as the truth in person. Whatever critics may allege about him, Rahner’s thought is profoundly Christomorphic. Rahner’s theology pivots on the arrival of God’s truth in person as Jesus Christ (the entire event of his life, death, and resurrection) in history as the fulfillment of God’s plan for creation and as the definitive eschatological victory of God’s grace. Rahner is accused by no less than Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) of constructing a “world formula (Weltformel)” that irons out all the complexity and detail of Jesus and his salvific activity. A closer and more capacious reading of Rahner reveals that his thought is thoroughly stamped with these details, at all levels and genres of his writing, from the most “scientific” theological writings to his homilies, prayers, and occasional pastoral pieces, which reflect imaginatively on Jesus’s life on its own, as it affects history, and as it impels Christian life up through the present.

Comparatively few theologians have plumbed with as much depth as Rahner the mutual implication of Jesus’s life as God’s truth in person and the daunting plurality of human (indeed, all created) life, particularly though not exclusively in a modernized, globalized world. It is not incidental, in fact it is central, to Jesus’s Incarnation that he assumes and illuminates the messy details of human life: the drudgeries and the tragedies, the foibles and the massive failures, the pains and the chronic sufferings, the momentary frustrations and the lasting rages, the evanescent ecstasies and the lasting pleasures, the fleeting moments of happiness and the enduring joys, and the slouching toward goodness that, mysteriously, can blossom into eternal beatitude. Church Fathers like John of Damascus praised God for descending into magnitude and quantity—quite abstract terms.

Rahner, who was much more attuned to the concrete, examines the operation of Christ’s grace in the play of children, the sleep of exhausted adults, the silent suffering of elders enduring debilitating illnesses, and the gratitude of a priest privileged to minister to God’s people. As an academic and cultured person, Rahner took interest in the many manifestations of truth—all partial, for sure—available through the proliferating arts and sciences of his time. He referred all of these, in turn, to the truth in person in Jesus Christ. In this way, he followed Bonaventure, who wrote about how all the “arts” (the main areas of university study, along with crafts and trades like blacksmithing), ultimately lead back to theology, the Logos of God. Rahner did not fear the numerous dimensions of truth glinting to light in intellectual and existential pluralism (fear, we all know, was the operative Stimmung of the Catholic Church, both in its official and lay modalities, well into the twentieth century and, unfortunately, in widening sectors of the Church today; Rahner did not share it). Rahner ventured to discover the resonance between such pluralism and the person-ality of Jesus Christ as truth.

For Rahner, the fact that truth manifests itself in person and as personal means two things at least:

  1. Truth is never merely a matter of a proposition about reality held fast in the mind. Instead, truth is a quality of reality beheld at the deepest level of the human person, where our intellectual knowing, the desires of our will, and the operation of our senses converge in a common root. Truth is recognized at the deepest stratum of the human being, which is what the Bible refers to when it talks about our heart. This is why, for Rahner, all consideration of truth always brings us to the question of love.
  2. Truth, like love, is messy. This is so in at least two ways. First, truth’s reception happens through a plurality of gestures, not all of which would seem to match up (we should note the diverse ways that Jesus interacts with different people in the Gospels, for example). Second, given human discursiveness, truth may be adjudicated only through ongoing conversation—many words, iteratively expressed, considered, revised, and not always exactly understood.

Because of this, we can find in Rahner’s many writings on the Sacred Heart of Jesus a profound and sustained reflection on truth. Jesus’s Sacred Heart is the site of all truth. It is an icon of the source of all reality, God the Father. It beats to the rhythm of the Holy Spirit, which animates all love. We can say that for Rahner all truth has a trinitarian shape, though, for us, given the incommensurabilities of our lives’ disparate moments, we detect this shape through traces, vestigia trinitatis, as older traditions have it.

There is no world formula here: Rahner argues that all theology begins with Christology (sometimes he will say that theology starts with anthropology, but he states this based on the claim that God became human in Jesus), and the starting point for all Christology is the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection brings to light something new about Jesus. The resurrection teaches us that the truth arrived in person, fully and irrevocably. This is why Easter is a festival of truth.

Truth Assembles Us

If the truth’s arrival in person, which is attested in the resurrection, involves personal receptivity, with all associated risks, it also entails assembly. The Greek word that we translate as “church,” ekklesia, means an assembly—a group called out (ek-kaleō) to decide how they should live with one another. The truth’s arrival in-person calls into question all prior assemblies, reconfiguring them anew.

Why? Because this person, Jesus of Nazareth, who is himself the truth, disrupts normal expectations for assemblies. He proclaims that the first will be last and the last will be first (Matt 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30—notably, this saying appears in diverse contexts across the Synoptics), and in doing so resets the terms for human assemblies, even for the assembly of God’s whole creation. When people assemble, they tend to place the first, first, and the last, last: the wealthy and powerful, those who enjoy a privileged status in gender, racial, colonial, and, yes, religious hierarchies receive honor and all good things, and whatever is left over is distributed unevenly to whoever follows behind them. Also, human hierarchies include the hierarchization of humans over non-human creation; we are “first” to non-human creation’s “last.” Across his parables and his ministry, Jesus destabilizes the structure of first and last, rewriting its terms by living as if normal arrangements of first and last were not.

Pentecost, which, for Christians, marks the origin of the church (ekklesia, assembly) in the outpouring of Jesus’s Spirit on Mary and the apostles, and then many others besides, emblematizes the implications of truth’s arrival in person for assemblies. The truth of Christ (the truth that is Christ) is testified to through the preaching of the apostles, which is received not by way of a universally true language that says the same thing to all in the exact same words, but instead delivers the same message personally tailored to each people in words that they understand, the language that they call their own: “how does each of us hear them in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8). What follows, “All who believed were together and held all things in common” (Acts 2:44), is more than Luke’s narration of the economic arrangement of the early Jesus movement—though it is probably that, too. It is a scriptural figure for what sort of assembly is recognizable as Christic, what sort of assembly befits the personal truth of Christ: all are together, all things are held in common, because in Christ the victory over division has been won, so God may be all in all. The assembly of the Church is, in addition to being a deeply flawed human institution, an eschatological sign of truth’s full arrival, and, albeit not yet, this side of the eschaton, its full reception.

I often tell my students that the ultimate meaning of truth, its crucial and undergirding aspect, is the dis-closure of reality: the opening of what is really real so that it may be recognized as such. This opening of reality resists the closure that human beings, in our finite un-wisdom, tend to construct. We build walls, we confabulate factions, we construct seating arrangements, we expel some to exalt others, and in pretty much all of this, we get it wrong. Truth’s arrival in person should shake us, should prompt us to follow a unique demand: to listen to the one who says that the last will be first.

Every Word in a Person

Assembly (Lorem Ipsum) is a mural by the visual artist Mary Lum. It is on permanent display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA). It consists of wall-size black-and-white paintings of text interspersed with mirrored panels. Letters are jumbled, offset, spliced, appearing at once as fragments and as vaguely recognizable. For the most part, the letters are taken from “lorem ipsum,” the stock text used to stand in for actual copy during the graphic design process. Lum also sneaks into the mix words taken from the United States of America’s Bill of Rights. The work aims to imagine what it would be like “if every word spoken or emitted in a space hung forever in the air”; it “represent[s] a cross-section.”[1]

Lum aims through her creative deployment of the visual traces of language to impel her mural’s viewers toward a search for meaning and truth. Remarkably, her mural is located in a tunnel, a place through which people pass—walking, running, biking—it is discourse, through which people course.

According to ancient tradition, which Rahner references, Jesus is the Verbum abbreviatum, the abbreviation into one person of everything that God has ever said and will ever say to creation. Every word that God has spoken or emitted into the space of the world hangs forever in Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate, crucified, and risen One, who sits at the Father’s right hand.

Lum’s Assembly, paired with the theological idea of the Verbum abbreviatum, can help us discover what should change, given an encounter with Christ. I have said that everything should change. If all that God has to say to us is concentrated into a person, if this person assembles us, then “in person” is the figure for all that is really real. We should resist the impersonality that characterizes our world and has overtaken our lives—the impersonality of markets, of politics, and of states that have outgrown personal relationships, the degradation of civil society and civic engagement, the schools and hospitals where students and patients are treated like “just a number,” the churches where people come to pray and worship (which is good, though insufficient) but only minimally to engage with each other, the human communities that treat the natural environment with cool disdain, if not overt, calculated destructiveness. We must set our course through the discourse of personality, of in-person communication.

[1] Museum Label for Mary Lum, Assembly (Lorem Ipsum), North Adams, MA, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 2017.

Featured Image: Mary Lum, Assembly (Lorem Ipsum), Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA), photo credit: Grace Clark; source: Mary Lum, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Peter Fritz

Peter Joseph Fritz is professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is author of two books on Karl Rahner and theological aesthetics; co-author (with Matthew Eggemeier) of two books on Catholic social thought and mercy; and co-editor (with Eggemeier and Karen Guth) of Religion, Protest, and Social Upheaval.


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