Zealous for Truth

by David J. Goa

Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf. – St. Isaac the Syrian (1)

The age of relativism is also the age of zealousness. They go hand in hand, codependent twins in service to the same human passion, symptoms of a shared dis-ease. Both are responses to the longing of the human heart. Relativism and zealousness are distinct ways of misunderstanding our deep desire for a firm truth. Both are misunderstandings in the strict sense for they fail to discern aright what stands under the desire we have for that which is true. In both we see this human desire turned into an appetite. Whatever we come to look at and care about is then forced into conformity with the idea, image, or ritual that we have erected as absolute. We begin to hang all our hopes and dreams on the truth of our chosen framework, our precious absolutes (including the relativists’ precious absolute that there is nothing of ultimate value). Our longing is captured by an absolute of our own making. It follows, almost without saying, that once we hang all our hopes and dreams on something that we claim as absolute, it is a short step to hanging all our fears on it as well. In this moment the holy longing of the human heart and mind that lies behind the search for absolutes becomes polluted. Zealousness for the truth frames how we see and understand and reshapes our response to the fragility of the life of the world.

It is this passion, this disease, that St. Isaac says we are freed from when we learn what truth is really like. But we are only open to learn what truth is like when our understanding of truth itself is transformed.

For the relativist this transformation requires the letting go of the deep disappointment in the discovery that no abstract value, no matter how ultimate it may appear, holds in all times and all places. The spiritual source of relativism is often if not always a result of the loss of faith in the god of the philosophers and it leads directly to cynicism. “If my absolute is not claimed by all, including god, then the search for absolutes is itself nothing but human foolishness.”

The zealous, often religious men and women, have yet to walk through the valley of shattered absolutes. They erect elaborate temples of truth, statement-by-statement, fact-by-fact, temples that have turrets strategically located, each well armed and poised to fire at a moment’s notice. Both the relativist and the zealous are spiritual adolescents at best, and in our fragile world, where the news media often shape the public discourse, they have bonded with each other to divert attention away from serious encounter with “what truth is really like.”

An Appetite for Enemies:

Recently I have listened to various people talk about Islam. Some are noted scholars. Others are journalists and others simply thoughtful men and women in the grip of fear. I have come to know some of these people. These women and men identify themselves, usually with vigor, with either the right or the left in both religious and political circles. They identify a discreet set of cultural diseases with our present age and I share at least a portion of their concern. Where I part company with both the right and the left – conservatives and liberals – and with their growing fraternities is when they prescribe antidotes to our cultural diseases based on their relativism or zealousness for the truth.

The antidotes of both are the offerings of law, surgery and war, the three last resorts brought forward when all else fails and our absolutes appear to be threatened.

It is tragic, to my mind, that the antidotes offered by both sets of true believers frighten so many otherwise sensible people into drawing back from even admitting that there are diseases within our society that need our healing touch.

It is this condition that has left us with the endless dialectical stand-off between conservatives (zealous for the truth) and liberals (zealous for relativism). Rather than seeking to heal the ills of society and culture, the zealous and the relativitists have, over the last fifty years, masterfully figured out how to use up all the social, cultural and political oxygen as they square off over and over again to wrongly divide “the word of truth.” Both contribute with equal passion to the emotional landscape that traps the human spirit somewhere between indignation, despair and cynicism.

This is not a conservative problem. It is not a liberal problem. It is a joint creation of the right and the left, of relativists and absolutists, the spiritually codependent twins of our age.

Triangulation and the Fraternity of Enemies: Let me illustrate with my recent gleanings from public and private commentaries on Islam and arguments about its current geopolitical situation.

A number of pundits who are zealous for the truth have begun to revive a thesis that we may understand the difference between Islam and Christianity simply by comparing the founding figures of the two faiths: Jesus Christ and Mohammad.

Each time I hear this starting point suggested by a person who stands on religious ground, I am taken aback. Neither a thoughtful Christian nor Muslim would stumble into this way of treating or defining Jesus Christ or Mohammad. Rather, this is a typical secular historian’s trick that reduces complexity and purpose to frame conclusions. It is what we have come to expect from journalists seeking easy copy and snappy headlines; from those who have spent too much time with the Jesus Seminar or with Bishop Sponge, Tom Harper or Marcus Borge.

From the perspective of the Christian tradition this is a false start for it begins neither at the heart of human nature or in the presence of God’s love. What the zealous commentators then proceed to do is paint a picture of the founding period of Islam through the military actions of the prophet Mohammad based on a set of historical facts. This reduction of Islam to a militant religion with an appetite for conversions by the sword runs like a set of threads through the European literature of the last seven hundred years. Its thesis and argument and its marshaling of facts and truths is claimed by a curious set of fellow travelers. Some of them are zealous for Christian truth. Some are deeply committed relativists. Enemies need enemies and thrive on each other’s presence. They claim, of course, to stand on different ground but this claim is simply a way of hiding from each other their relationship as codependent spiritual twins.

This picture of both the prophet and Islam was painted in pretty much the same way by the acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. At the time, two decades ago, I pointed out in a forum how this remarkable writer, virulent secular thinker and refugee from Islam, was drawing on the standard tropes of medieval hate literature originating in the Western Church as a result of threats from both the outside and the inside: one side the expansion of Islam, on the other the collapse of the old order in the Roman Catholic Church in the face of the Reformation.

Rushdie’s depiction of the prophet led the Ayatollah Khomeini – on February 14th, 1989 – to issue a fatwa placing a death sentence on the author and publisher for blasphemy against Islam. This caught the attention of the West, and the international writers’ association PEN came to support Rushdie and argue that freedom of expression is a modern absolute, the denial of which is far more dangerous than the effects of hate literature. (The sentence was revoked under the Khatami regime in Iran in the late 1990s.)

Rushdie is not alone. Over a number of years I have conducted a research and documentation project in the Muslim communities of Canada. I have become friends with many who are devoted Muslims, with some who have moved away from the disciplines of their faith, and with others who are refugees from their childhood faith. Among the latter there are a few women with fine secular educations whom I have come to appreciate very much. They have led the protests at the outrageous treatment of women within countries where one form or another of Shariah law has been implemented. These women, seized by the horrors of brutality in the name of Shariah, also speak of Islam and its origins using the same tropes of medieval Latin hate literature found in Rushdie and the relativists and absolutists who have recently caught my ear.

The irony is that some of those who claim conservative Christian ground, and are zealous for the truth when it comes to Islam, have little sympathy either for Rusdie’s secularism or for feminists of any kind. Common enemies make strange bedfellows, and when we realize that they are bedfellows it may be useful to think again about how they frame their common ground.

For many, medieval hate literature is remote and perhaps unknown, and its similarity to the way Rushdie, PEN and the women’s movement understand Islam may have escaped most of those who have heard the contemporary commentators either from the right or the left. But for anyone who has even in a limited way been exposed to the international news in the last four years, there is a voice and perspective on Islam that we can all recognize as part of a tradition of the rhetoric of fear, of those who are “contentious for truth.”

In virtually all the broadcast videos of Osama Bin Laden, the militant extremist believed to be a major financier of international terrorism and head of the al-Qaeda network, and in the writings of his teacher and mentor, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian literary critic, novelist and poet who was executed by Egypt in 1966, we hear and read a call to young Muslims cast in terms of military adventure and death dealing. They present the same argument about Islam that I hear from those who are contentious for the truth on both the religious and secular side of public discussion. It is Rushdie’s argument. It is the argument of the most deeply hurt feminist Muslims. It is striking and chilling. Both Qutb and Bin Laden reduce Islam to a militant religion that closes the circle of faithfulness, requiring that believers give their life in the process of destroying those identified as the infidel.

Why is the description of Islam given by Qutb and Bin Laden the same as that of scholars and journalists whom I have recently heard, while Muslims in general never reduce their faith to militant terms? What leads them, as well as Rushdie and some of those who critique Shariah, to the same body of images and ideas on the origin of Islam? Why this common narrative?

In Bin Laden’s case, you must take up arms to be faithful. It is as simple as that. In the narrative of those on the virulent right and left, including Christians, Islam is also reduced by arguing that its foundations, its essential nature, demand that the faithful engage in both conquest and destruction.

We may learn by reflecting on who our companions are in supporting particular positions we come to hold dear. A curious tradition of rhetoric stretches from medieval hate literature down to our own day. Militant Islamist movements claim this tradition. They have taken the infection into their body and seek to turn it into a virtue. This rhetorical landscape was central to Rushdie’s novel and to the fear that led the writers in PEN to respond as they did. It is central to the fine women I have known who have been shaken to their roots by the horrific treatment of women found in countries that have adopted some form of Shariah law. Osama Bin Laden comes a little closer to winning his war for the definition of Islam each time others voice his position and give young Muslim men – and increasingly women – something to die for amidst the complexities of our fragile world. When the religious right and secular left engage in such reductionism of the faith of Islam, they contribute to Bin Laden’s cause.

Zealousness as Spiritual Adolescence:

Each of these perspectives is driven by zealousness for truth. In each of them truth has become coterminous with a selected set of facts, real or imagined. The result is the profound disease that St. Isaac the Syrian seeks to help us see.

For St. Isaac, zeal for truth is itself a symptom of a spiritual disease. Or, perhaps, it is a condition that tends to develop at a certain stage in the spiritual life and is itself simply a marker of that stage. It is the spiritual equivalent of adolescence where the young try out all sorts of ideas and actions with the conviction that no one else has ever had these thoughts or feelings and they are exploring them for the first time. How can it be that no one else has ever seen just how important and ultimate these thoughts and feelings are?

Adolescence is not a disease, of course, although some parents may be inclined to treat it that way. Rather it is part of the process of maturation. Similarly, when a spiritual father or mother sees the “zealousness for truth” spoken of by St. Isaac, they recognize a stage in the spiritual development of the person. But just as with adolescence, if the condition persists, spiritual growth is arrested. One is stuck in the adolescent stage of the spiritual life.

I began by suggesting that our age is an age of relativism and absolutism. At least within some quarters of our public life, we have elevated relativism to a public dogma. Osama Bin Laden sees this as clearly as do many on the religious right. They share a religious vision, a way of seeing. A danger among some religious people is that they fixate on the cultural problem of relativism. When this happens their fear leads them to reduce complex issues and themes to what they have come to understand in their zeal. If this persists they also become captives of that stage of the spiritual life that Saint Isaac identifies with the zealousness for truth.

But St. Isaac points to another possibility when one has come to “taste the truth.” Contention fades away, he tells us. Why? He is pointing to one of the distinctive features of Christian Orthodoxy. Better than most wings of the Christian tradition, Orthodoxy has understood that the concern for truth and the question of truth are not anchored or bounded either by philosophical concepts or principles or by historical fact. Fact is not truth nor is truth merely fact. Truth is far beyond the reach of fact. That either philosophical ideas or historical facts are cast in the language of the Christian teaching does not make them any more a matter of truth. You can dress them up all you like, but they remain exposed for what they are, simulacrums for truth. They all indicate that one has not “tasted of truth.”

The Orthodox teaching shaped by Isaac the Syrian and other Church Fathers and Mothers is that we must “taste of truth” and be healed of our appetites for philosophical truth and historical fact, our predilection for getting our teeth into the truth and holding on, for competing in pitting truth against presumed truth. We need to be healed also of the historian’s habit of elevating facts to truth. We want the comfort of our truth statements, of our elevated theologically clothed philosophical doctrines. And we want them because we are addicted to the spiritual adrenalin we feel at the sudden rush of winning, at least in our own minds and hearts, the argument for truth. We want to be defender of the faith, the kind of person who knows he is right and takes pride in staking a claim to what is true no matter what the cost. It is not surprising that this attitude is growing in our day. The age of relativism deepens our inclination to be zealous for the truth and, tragically, it does this for some of the best and brightest among us as well, and dangerously so.

We are called to better. We are called to better precisely because in Him who is “the truth and the life” we are freed from the habit of taking refuge in abstract notions of truth. If we taste of truth at every Eucharist we know better. If we taste of truth every time we, like the disciples, find ourselves in Emmaus breaking bread with someone we didn’t know we knew, we know better. We know better every time our hearts are moved with compassion.

No wonder St. Isaac says that when we learn what truth really is we will cease being zealous for truth, cease responding as if it were our place to defend and protect truth. If the history of religions teaches us anything, and I think it teaches us much, it teaches us that one of the most serious religious diseases is zealousness. It was a deep concern to Jesus as he walked the valley of the Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. And he finally healed us of its bondage when he spoke from the throne of the cross to those who were contentious for truth, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Dr. David Goa directs the Chester Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta campus in Camrose, Canada. He is a former curator of the fine arts museum in Edmonton.


1. Kephalaia IV.77; The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Sebastian Brock, (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press Convent of the Incarnation, 1997), p15.