The Truth Cannot Be Captured By Talking Points

The Truth Cannot Be Captured By Talking Points May 26, 2016

We live in a day and age where people tend to follow headlines over complex analysis, skipping the explanation which serves as the foundation for their talking point. A simple summary is enough to produce a factoid which must be believed. Paradox is criticized by the nice, simple pre-packaged answer made for easy consumption. In debates, truth is overturned by the pat solution as the mob follows the most simplistic rhetoric over the reality which they can’t understand.

This disease of the modern mind finds itself influencing and corrupting the way many deal with theological truths.  Even there, a nice, simple, pat answer is wanted, and when found, it is used to argue against anything which would disrupt the certainty which follows that simplicity. We can see this happen in the way many people treat the Catechism. It has a nice, simple presentation, which all too often is seen as a presentation of the fullness of the Catholic faith; anything which is not contained in it can be summarily dismissed. The paragraphs which are meant to help encourage people to explore the depth of the faith becomes instead the talking points which are seen as its limit.

This should help us understand the kind of criticism often given to Pope Francis. We are told he is confusing people. Why? Because he doesn’t give simple talking points. Instead, he shows the depth of thought necessary for us to properly engage the concerns of the present age.  He isn’t giving a simple catechetical answer to memorize, not because he thinks there is no use in such answers, but because he expects them to be understood as the foundation for the more in depth analysis needed for serious engagement with the world and the problems which face us today. His critics want talking points match their own pat answers; when he doesn’t give them, they complain, and in and through their complaints, they are the ones who show themselves not only to be confused but working to confuse others as they deny the truth depth of an adult faith.

It was not always like this.  Traditionally, people expected the reverse. They knew the truth would overwhelm us if we tried to grasp it with our minds. Yes, there have always been people who were satisfied with nice, simple answers, but this was because they didn’t have the means nor the time to ponder anything else. But even they understood, unlike today, that what they had was but a bare outline of the truth, and that others could, and did, explore things in more detail. They knew the truth was not found in the most simplistic of presentations but rather, was wide in its depth, full of complex paradoxes which would make even the most gifted of intellects feel awestruck contemplating it. The wonder of the truth is lost when it is whittled down to idle talking points which limit the truth itself to what our intellects can comprehend.

Thus, when we look at a time which is often seen as a golden age of faith, the medieval world, the engagement with truth differed from what we have grown accustomed to in modernity. Medieval people were willing to live in and with a variety of paradoxes which we would deem as contradictions; they allowed for and believed in a variety of speculations at the same time, allowing each to have room in their mind, realizing nonetheless they could not all be true. That which was possible was allowed, even if it seemed absurd and unlikely, while that which was most fitting, they found was best to believe in until countered by better evidence. This meant they could see a world created by God, following the Book of Genesis, and yet read it in a non-literal fashion so that philosophers and scientists could supplement Genesis with ideas which we would believe contradicted the letter of the text. Medieval civilization had no problem with this because their worldview, their framework at looking at Genesis as well as philosophy and theology was far more poetic, allowing for poetic diction to rule instead of the strict literal view which limits the text to the most simplistic of interpretations.

And so we can find great philosophers being poets writing their own versions of the creation story which then allowed for and developed a far wider creation than was described in Genesis, and allowed for and placed a range of creatures which were popularly believed to exist. For example, in his influential Cosmographia, the twelfth century philosopher-poet Bernard Silvestris presented a vision of the world, starting with its creation, which many a modern would think was outright pagan. And yet he was a major Christian thinker, who was willing to take mix philosophy and theology to produce his work. In it, he provides a glimpse of the kinds of beings which he believed existed, and we find, among them, all kinds of marvelous creatures of legend:

The first rank of spirits I call the guardians, those intermediary the interpreters, and the lowest the renegade angels. Consider now those earthly beings who inhabit the world. Wherever earth is most delightful, rejoicing in green hill, flowery mountainside, and river, or clothed in woodland greenery, there Silvans, Pans, and Nerei, who know only innocence, draw out the term of their long life. Their bodies are of elemental purity: yet these too succumb at last, in the season of their dissolution.[1]

Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Picture byJoseph Noel Paton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
While we might think twice about belief in the class of being known as faeries today, which is what the “long lived” of Silvestris could and would be seen by many a medieval person, belief in and discussion about them was more than common, but almost a given, throughout much of Europe until recent times. There was a wide variety of them, with all kinds of names and descriptions given to them. They were found all over the world, taking shape and form in part from where they emerge: water creatures coming out of water, fiery creatures out of fire, and the like. Some were diminutive, and though this was the way they would become normally presented, not all kinds were thought to be such, indeed, if we look at the class of beings, we will see trolls were believed to be among the faery beings and they were giants in all things but intellect.

Who and what such beings were was never certain, especially because there were several different kinds of them. Many stories were told which suggested answers to these questions. Speculation run rampant and each new speculation was able to be told through the establishment of a new story and a new tradition about them. We find, for example, some stories say such creatures were the children of Lilith, Adam’s first wife and equal, and they were without sin because Adam knew Lilith before the fall. Others say Lilith was demonic, and so her children were tainted and worse than the children of Eve. Other stories suggested such creatures were children of Eve, who was ashamed of having so many children with Adam, she tried to hide some from God, and as a result, God hid them from Eve and made them the “hidden folk” whose civilizations were always at the outskirts of the ordinary commonwealth.

As we can see, many legends made the faery folk kin to humanity. They were viewed as being somewhat different, made such by the intervention of God, and these differences  could be discerned in order to know which races were being engaged.  For example, some looked like ordinary humans except they had tails which they often tried to hide, and these tended to be a kind which often found themselves intermingling with and humanity. Sometimes a beautiful maiden turned out to be from the faery folk, bringing various charms to their families, while at other times, it was believed some of the folk were more aggressive and hostile, where they would abduct a man or woman that they wanted to marry.[2] The close relationship believed to exist between humanity and the faery allowed not only inter-marriage, but children to be produced.

Of course, not all were so similar to humanity, and this led many to believe that these faery species were not kin to humanity at all, but other intelligent species created by God, with a nature and destiny of their own. Except when human and faery had reasons to work together, it was best for each to live as independent from each other as possible.

The dangerous, sometimes malevolent side of faeries, led to other speculations. Some suggested these creatures were not originally created to be material beings at all, but were spiritual beings, angels, which were transformed by God. Either they were said to be angels which did not stand with God and yet did not follow Satan in his rebellion, or they were the least of the fallen angels. In either case, their physical form was seen as a punishment for not following God. The earth, with their physical form, therefore became as it were a kind of limbo for such spiritual beings; because their essence is more spiritual than physical, this explained the magical enchantments often seen connected with such beings.

Finally, we also find some suggested that such faeries were actually none other than representatives of the realm of the dead who somehow found a way to return to earth and to interact with its inhabitants once again. While not as popular an explanation, it still had many adherents, especially when the possible relationship between witches and faeries were considered. Witches, with their dark arts, were believed to interact with the dead, and the faeries might be the product of their magic.

Picture of Huldre per Daniel Holm. ('Svenska folksägner', Herman Hofberg (1882)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Picture of Huldre per Daniel Holm. (‘Svenska folksägner’, Herman Hofberg (1882)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was not just their origin which was questioned and brought about speculations; their eschatological fate brought was also questioned and brought about many possible answers. Many believed the faery races would perish, either to be damned at the end of the world, because they were fallen beings, or to perish like animals. Some, nonetheless, held some hope that God had a plan for them, known to God alone, and we should not prejudge their end. This produced various legends in which those who presumed the perdition of the faery folk were given signs by which they were proven wrong. We find, for example, in Norway a folk tradition which talked about a farmer who received from God indication that they, too, could and would be saved in ways known to God.

In the stories surrounding him, the farmer is engaged to be married with a woman from a nearby village. One day, as he was journeying between villages to visit his fiancé, full of excitement, he was walking by a path which took him past a mound under which various Huldra lived.[3]  In his hand, as was common, he held a nice, old walking stick. He heard, coming from underneath them, signs of joy and mirth, of great celebration as Huldra were partying with great merriment.

The farmer spoke to them in the mound saying, “I don’t know why you are so happy. In the end, you won’t share with and enjoy the glory of God.”

He heard shouts coming back at him, “Yes, we will!”

“No, you won’t! I can tell you, just like my stick won’t be found with leaves and flowers blooming on it in when I wake up in the morning, so, too you won’t find yourselves sharing in God’s salvation!”

The merriment which had attracted his attention stopped. The faery folk had taken what the farmer said to heart. Now, he started to hear all kinds of crying and woes coming from within the mound. His words clearly left a cruel mark upon them. But did he care? No! He soon forgot them as he continued on his journey, his thoughts focused on his fiancé.

He spent a few hours with his beloved, before going to an inn and sleeping there for the night. The next morning, as it was time for him to go back home, he went to pick up his stick, and to surprise, he saw on it all kinds leaves and wondrous flowers, full of beauty and majesty had grown overnight.

Suddenly he remembered what he had said the other day, and so, as he walked back to his home, and he passed by the mound, the crying and moaning which had begun the other day could still be heard. “You can stop crying,” he shouted. “You too can share in the glory of God. Overnight, my stick had the most lovely of flowers blossom on it.”

The crying stopped, and the joy and dancing and mirth which he originally heard began again. The farmer returned home, having learned not to play judge and guess what God would do with others.

The point of the story was clear, and it shows why it became a popular story to tell. We too readily think we can make judgment calls about God’s creation, what is in it, and the eschatological fate of all things. We want to have a nice, simple and easy answer for everything, so we can easily put it in its proper place, but in reality, that is not in our power, nor is it intended to be in our power. We must humbly accept that what God does for us is what we know.  What God does for others is up to God, not us. God is the judge, we are not. God is the one who establishes the eschaton, not us. We must not judge, we must not presume – the only thing we can know is God is at work in and with us.

This, of course, is a key which faery lore in general helped establish in medieval times. While there was a tendency towards cosmological simplification, faery lore broke free from it, and showed how frail our cosmologies tended to be. And for medieval people, it was fine. There was room for a large variety of speculative answers which contradicted each other, and people could choose which they thought seemed best. But whatever choice was made, there was room for other, different answers. The system itself was not meant to be exhaustive, and it was best to let people form their own opinions so long as they did not confuse their opinions for outright facts and force more authority upon the opinion than need be.  Faery lore kept us, in a way, humble.  But when we started clearing our worldview of all such marvels, we also begun to make it a dead system which limited our ability to perceive and experience the richness of truth. We don’t have to believe in faeries to know that our system, our cosmological world view, and the systems we build upon it, is shallow and barren; but certainly the existence of such an unknown entity with diversity of explanations kept us open for the wonder which is the truth.

This is why it is best to be reminded about times past, and how and why faery lore served a useful function. It is not that we should believe in faeries today, but rather, we should see how they served a need, a need to realize the limits of systematic constructs created by the human mind. We will never be able to classify everything in a nice, simple system. Nor should we try do. Today, aliens sometimes have a similar folk value to them; people can believe or not believe in aliens, believe or not believe in aliens being fallen or unfallen, believe or not believe aliens can be saved. But we don’t even need to bring them up. We can look to the earth and see how evolution should tell us the kinship we have with the rest of creation, and open possibilities once denied (such as the salvation of animals). We might not know the answers, but that is fine. We don’t need to. All we need to do is let God be God and do what we can with what God has revealed to us. Anything else, and we might be like the farmer, finding God will contradict us in his own loving way – if, that is, he doesn’t have to get more forceful about it as he did with Job. [4]

We must understand our lack and accept it. Yes, much has been revealed to us – but in relation to the infinite nature of God, and vast creation which God was able to produce, what we know pales in comparison what we do not. We must be humble and accept what God has revealed of himself. We can and should use it, to be sure, to explore the world, even to speculate, but we must always understand the limits of human conventions and the constructed truths which we produce. We can never capture the secrets of God, especially in the nice and pat answers which we try to make and demand others to believe. We know in part, not in full, and so our systems will always be faulty. The hidden truth of God will smash such systems down every time they try to take the place of the absolute.

This is what true tradition tells us. This is what we need to keep in mind today.  We don’t know it all. There is more to the world than what we see or think we know.  All the odd things people believe in – even if we think they are unlikely, and indeed, silly, still serve a purpose. They remind us not to be so sure of ourselves. And that is truly is what the world needs reminded today, when such certainty is based upon extremely poor ground.


[1]  Bernard Silvestris,, Cosmographia. trans. Winthrop Wetherbee (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 108. We can find other writers giving lists which also influenced the medieval mind, such as the list we find in Martianus Capella: “Pans, Fauns, Fones, Satyrs, Silvani, Nymphs, Fatui and Fatuae or Fantuae or even Fanae…” Martianus Capella, Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts. Volume II: The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. trans. William Harris Stahl, Richard Johnson and E.L. Burge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977),54-5.

[2] Sometimes when a man found out his wife was from the faery folk, because of some tell-tale sign like having a tail, they would do what they can to normalize her appearance, such as having the tail cut off.

[3] Huldra were a common, very human like, faery, which often was involved with faery-human crossbreeding. They were among those who could disguise themselves as human, and would only be found out by the existence of their tail.

[4] “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’” (Job 38:1-2 RSV).

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