Truth, Beauty and The Wisdom Pyramid. Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Take a look at St. Paul’s passage to the Romans in today’s Second Reading:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 2:1-2)

What is he getting at? How can this passage be applied to today? What is an UNtransformed mind? What is the process for a “transformed mind?

In 1993, St. Pope John Paul II published the encyclical, On the Splendor of the Truth (In Latin, Veritatis Splendor). Veritatis Splendor begins by asserting that there are indeed absolute truths. These truths are accessible to all persons. Contrary to the philosophy of moral relativism, the encyclical says that moral law is universal across people in varying cultures, and is in fact rooted in the human condition.

25 years later, Moral Theologian Dr. Matthew Tsakanikas (Head of the Theology Department, Christendom College) reflected on this encyclical. He wrote,

God’s love for us indicates a second main point, that “God only wants our good, God wants our happiness.” That naturally leads to the question, “What is our true happiness?” Quoting Saint Augustine, Dr. Tsakanikas says “Happiness is joy in the truth.” True happiness, he explains can be found in healthy relationships, relationships of love and friendship with God and others. “This desire for truth and goodness is what leads us to recognize that the moral life is about loving others, and not using [them].”

This cannot be done without recognizing that there are immutable truths. This recognition can only be accomplished with reason, logic, and coherent, clear thinking.

Today - that’s a problem.

Brett McCracken is a Pastor/Elder in Santa Ana, California at his local church, Southlands. He is an author and senior editor for The Gospel Coalition He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Huffington Post,, The Princeton Theological Review, and Christianity Today. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches, and conferences. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA (M.A. in Cinema & Media Studies). Brett is currently pursuing a master’s in theology at Talbot School of Theology.

A few years ago, Brett recently wrote an article about the idea of truth. He begins with a discussion about epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. The term is derived from the Greek epistēmē (“knowledge”) and logos (“reason”). It involves such questions as:

How do we know things?

How do we distinguish between true beliefs and delusions?

How can we determine the difference between facts and fiction?

What can be trusted?

What is truth? Is there such a thing?

In his article, Five Facts of Our Epistemological Crisis, Brett McCracken writes that “We are facing a crisis of epistemology in today’s world.” He points to five aspects of this crisis:

  1. We live in a “post-truth” era. Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
  2. We live in an era of “Alternative Facts.” Brett mentions that this has a lot to do with the nature of technology. We curate our own experiences. We surround ourselves with only the ideas and “facts” that we desire. If you have “alternative” facts, that’s fine! I just don’t have to listen to you.”
  3. Fake News. This involves a deep distrust of the media which has been around for numerous years. Gallup research has shown that Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media has been on a downward trend for more than a decade now, reaching an all time low last year. What accounts for this distrust of formerly trusted news?
  4. Info-tainment. For several decades, news has been morphing into a mutation of news and entertainment. Unfortunately, it leads to a trivialization of the news. The financial need for ratings and clicks creates a demand for a constant stream of engaging, entertaining content.
  5. Unreflective Pace of Life. There is more to process than ever but less time to do so. We simply don’t take the time to sit with our thoughts, to reflect, to ponder.

Is there an antidote to this? McCracken propose a “Wisdom Pyramid.” The idea is loosely based on the “food pyramid.” What we intellectually “feed” our minds, and what tools we use to do so, has a lot to do on how we perceive reality and truth. What I first like about it is that it’s based on Sacred Scripture. The second aspect I like is that it is reasonable. The third aspect is that Brett is not talking about data, information, or facts. He is talking about wisdom! What sources can we consult in order to (1) transform our minds so as to (2) attain that wisdom?

  1. Level I - The Bible. Sacred Scripture is the foundation. “Our daily bread” provides the “carbohydrates of wisdom.” It is not just a book. It is God speaking to us in human language. Proverbs 9:10 states that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Reading about God in the Bible is key.
  2. Level II - The Church. In Catholic-land this would include the three pillars of truth: Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and The Magisterium (The Pope in union with the bishops). This comes from the Vatican II on Divine Revelation or how God reveals Himself to us. (Dei Verbum). This is lived out in the local, physical church (like in a parish for example).
  3. Level III - Nature and Beauty. Nature does not lie. It’s raining or it’s not… no matter what you think. Brett refers to an L.A. Times headline: “We may live in a post-truth era, but nature does not.” Nature is a reliable and nourishing source of wisdom. God speaks to us through nature, through general revelation (e.g. Psalm 19, Romans 1:20). This is a HUGE issue when it comes to such hot topics as the nature of man and woman, marriage and families, human sexuality. This leads to the importance of beauty. Why does a walk in the woods, seeing majestic mountains or walking along the shore seem to spiritually, physically and emotionally reenergize us so much? It is perhaps that they are echos of the Garden of Eden?
  4. Level IV - Books. Remember them? Read them. Books help us to be patient. They take longer to digest than instant technology. This also provides us time to process and wrestle with ideas. By the way, some rather smart tech people read books. Bill Gates reads 50 books a year. Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.
  5. Level V - The Internet. McCracken doesn’t quite consider The World Wide Web as the dreaded “fats and oils” of our intellect. There are plenty of good things about it. Don’t browse. Be intentional about using it. Set a specific time limit when you will be on, and when you will sign off of, the internet. A steady diet of fats and oils is not a good thing. A steady diet of the internet is not good for our intellectual diet.
  6. Level VI - Social Media. The high fructose corn syrup of the intellect. You can throw in bingeing on too much caffeine and alcohol as well. As the old food pyramid said, USE SPARINGLY! As McCracken writes, “Part of the crisis of epistemology we are facing in this post-truth, alternative facts, fake news world stems from the fact that social media appeals to - and occupies - the basest level in our wisdom pyramid. Yet, for many of us, it is precisely where we spend most of our time. That does not lead to intellectual health and certainly not to wisdom! Learn to live without social media. Like cookies or potato chips or alcohol, it’s OK in small doses but not healthy as a staple in your diet.

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