“Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.”
We are either attracted or repelled by statements like this. When we are attracted to the quiet wisdom or the blunt direction given by such statements, we often reduce the value of it by incorporating it into some ad campaign or slapping it on a bumper sticker. The words are made to identify with us, instead of our conscious effort to identify ourselves with the words. Therefore, the concept of world peace becomes a statement “Imagine World Peace,” which becomes a stock phrase with no real meaning or activity behind it, which soon becomes a pun (“Imagine Whirled Peas”), and then is quietly swept off the table of public discourse, along with the possible reality and wisdom behind it.
When we are repelled by these statements, we argue about their rigidness, their inflexibility, the impossibility of a last word on anything. Instead of reducing the statement, we now expand it, stretch it beyond the parameters of its wisdom, until we satisfactorily render it meaningless, as just another statement in the grand noise of the world (Screwtape would be so proud). Every statement requires some amount of intellectual rumination, but it is almost as if we want to chew without getting the benefit of the nutrients. I recently read an unfavorable review of Paul Ricoeur’s Evil: A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology, in which the reviewer lamented, in the title of his review “What good is wisdom if you can’t communicate it?” In other words, do we get to the point of making things so obtuse as to render the meaning of something negligible to the human experience, spiritual, emotional, physical, or psychological?
I think MacDonald’s axiom falls into the latter category. I picture MacDonald like a misplaced Tibetan monk, wandering the highlands of foggy Scotland, with a trail of novices following behind him. One novice runs up to him and asks “Who tells the truth, and who lies?” To which MacDonald replies “Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.” Now, the novice wrinkles his brow, runs the thought through his mind, processes it, questions it, and tries to see the logic behind it. After a few minutes, he opens his mouth again and says, “But…” MacDonald calmly raises his finger to his lips and smiles at the novice, and turns toward the highlands again.
MacDonald recognizes the two steps the novice missed, steps which our culture increasingly tries to detour around: the path from mind to heart, and from there the path from heart to silence. The novice did not allow MacDonald’s words to seep into his heart; he was merely satisfied with an intellectual joust. But statements like this demand not an intellectual dismantling, but reflection in our innermost being, which brings us ultimately into that Silence in which all find their peace.
I fully realize that I have not even really touched on the meaning of MacDonald’s proverb, except in the most general sense. The irony is noted. So I’ll sign off: it’s time to stop talking, and to reflect…