Is life really all gray?By: Bishop James V. Johnston Jr.
“The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” –G.K. Chesterton
Occasionally one hears of someone’s thinking described as “black and white.” With few exceptions, this is not said as a compliment. To be sure, life is complex, and often we are faced with decisions and situations in which prudential judgments are needed (that is, the discernment of which virtuous action to take in a given circumstance in order to achieve good and avoid evil). However, not always is this obvious. There are many mysteries in life that we do not understand. Prudential judgment requires prayerful reflection and counsel. Also present today is a perception among many that there are no moral absolutes–real truths that one can know. For those who subscribe to this way of thinking, life is ambiguous; not black and white, but essentially gray.
There is a perverse attractiveness to the gray life. If life is without moral absolutes, then one is seemingly liberated from the demands of things like commandments, morality, and religion. One can then embrace all sorts of things; and thereby be considered “open minded,” “tolerant,” and “progressive,” terms today that seem to have great value in secular America.
But the ambiguity of life in the gray zone is riddled with hazards, both for individuals and the common good. By nature, human beings seek and need truth in order to live in freedom and peace. Without things that we can together recognize as true and absolute goods that we have in common, there can be no “common good.” Instead, all of us end up divided into our political camps, each seeking to get our own way, with the most powerful among us dominating the least. It is much like the possible danger encountered when driving in a heavy fog. Without the “black and white” of solid reference points on the highway–the cars in front of us, the lines on the highway–we are in serious risk of collision and injury.
Similarly, the gray life is one without direction or much hope. In the gray zone, we are left to ourselves, to do what we think best; to find our own meaning and purpose. In the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes, this scenario results in us “chasing after the wind.”.
Pope Francis and ‘Lumen fidei’
Significantly, Pope Francis speaks to this issue in his recent (and first) encyclical letter to the whole Church on faith (“Lumen fidei,” “The light of faith”). In chapter two of “Lumen fidei,” which takes its title from Isaiah 7:9, “Unless you believe, you will not understand,” the Holy Father’s letter outlines the essential interdependence of faith, love and truth:
“In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. … Yet at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual, … these are truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good. … In the end, what we are left with is relativism, in which the question of universal truth–and ultimately this means the question of God–is no longer relevant” (25).
In contrast, faith enables a new way of knowing: “Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes” (26). Further, “The truth which faith discloses to us is a truth centered on an encounter with Christ, on the contemplation of his life, and on the awareness of his presence” (30). Because Christ entered into history and can be seen and heard, and because he remains present to reveal truth which faith attains, we can move confidently into a future filled with hope.
Because of this encounter with Christ, who is the Truth, the Church can propose truths. We typically refer to these as dogmas, and while they are mysteries, they are also defined with a good measure of “black and white” language. They are truths that point us to the Truth, who is God, and in turn, help us understand the truth about ourselves as human persons. We recite many of these truths in the Creed. Further, we build our lives on these truths, as they provide sure direction for our lives and define us as Catholic Christians. No, life is not all gray.