Veritas vos liberabit. The truth shall set you free. We were reminded in a recent sermon of how many universities display this as a motto. The phrase is also carved in stone at the Original Headquarters Building of the Central Intelligence Agency. Clearly, at some point, this notion of truth and the liberation and justice it brings about was of great significance. Sadly, as our preacher noted, the phrase has become a platitude elevating the idea that we find salvation by our own intellectual bootstraps, or through the acquisition of more and more information. Ironically, our academies have largely rejected the notion of truth, reducing it to nothing more than a subjective notion of the individual’s personal experience of reality. Worse, morality now finds little grounding in any truth outside of what suits one’s comfort or well-being. What’s true is what works for me and makes life more comfortable for me. This notion of truth is used to justify an enormous amount of atrocious behavior. On such an understanding, the “freedom” derived from truth is about what comfort, pleasure, and power I gain in the realm of the material world.
Strangely, the original quote comes from the mouth of one who scorned earthly power, rejected a life of self-satisfying comfort, and castigated many for their abuse of worldly knowledge. Jesus’ notion of truth was always in relation to God the Father and his Kingdom. For him, truth is not a mere accumulation of knowledge or a way to acquire health and wealth. Rather, truth is born of an attentive adherence to God’s Kingdom and an obedient willingness to give one’s whole self to that Kingdom’s cause. Truth is gained by repentance, a turning from what is wise in one’s own eyes and turning to the mission of God being carried out in his Son, Jesus Christ. Veritas vos liberabit. The famous quote should be read in context: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Truth will be revealed to those who are first faithful and obedient. And that truth will be liberating, because to abide in Christ is to have the chains of my own selfishness broken and to see my dependence on the Living Word, the One who created me and sustains me. The very concept is counter-cultural in a world that values self-autonomy and self-actualization over surrender. It is not difficult to understand why the saying has undergone such a profound change in meaning.
Surrender? Obedience? Self-denial? Dependence on someone greater than I? These notions upend our understanding of progress, don’t they? Unfortunately, this understanding goes a long way back. Two thousand years ago, Saint Paul encountered similar ego-inflating ideas when preaching the Gospel to Jews and Greeks. With an air of entitlement, the Jews demanded signs. The Greeks knew too much about philosophy to accept a silly message about a King who dies on a cross. Paul’s response? “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Paul’s words relate to Christ’s own call to obedience. Abiding by the words and living by the commands of another does seem like foolishness to the world. The message of the cross seems foolish to scholars and philosophers. The way of the cross seems an impediment to the self’s progress. This message cuts through the fabric of all self-centered views of wisdom and truth and calls those who would follow it to total faith and obedience. Faithful assent is first given, and true wisdom follows. Christ crucified is the only icon of true wisdom.
Richard Hooker, a wise and learned Anglican theologian of the 16th century, knew that genuine wisdom came only from truth revealed by God and acquired by faith:
“We are not therefore ashamed of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ because miscreants in scorn have upbraided us, that the highest point of our wisdom is believe. That which is true and neither can be discerned by sense, nor concluded by mere natural principles, must have principles of revealed truth whereupon to build itself, and an habit of faith in us wherewith principles of that kind are apprehended. The mysteries of our religion are above the reach of our understanding, above discourse of man’s reason, above all that any creature can comprehend.”
Perhaps this understanding of wisdom will always be mocked in a world where man’s self-governed reason is enthroned. But Christ, God’s Eternal World, will always be available, offering himself to those who would humbly accept truth. One cannot learn this truth in a university, or logically argue his way to making sense of it. One can only surrender his worldly notions of wisdom and throw himself faithfully into the arms of Christ. In so doing, one is promised to find the only truth that truly sets free. Veritas vos liberabit.