I wandered out of Penn’s graduation ceremony among the crowd of black robes, hungry and a bit dazed, still thinking about Cory Booker’s dramatic speech. I felt underwhelmed and disappointed in Penn’s decision to ask a politician to speak. Why? Not because of Booker’s message, which I thought was good; Booker argued for a commitment to action on the individual level, a piece of common wisdom that is too uncommonly voiced. But because of his shadowy motives, his quickness to compare himself to Gandhi, the certainty this speech would win him some votes in a future national election, and the hypocrisy of his words, for why would a person who believed that the most good rises from small, direct action run for Senator?
I liked the spirit of Booker’s speech; I just didn’t like its form. This problem prevented me from appreciating what was admirable in the speech. Was I being overly critical? Or was I correct to question the credibility of a man whose every phrase wreaked of political buzzwords and nods to focus groups? (“Did I mention, I’m a vegan.”)
This uncertainty led me to a question that has theological import as well: How do we know the best way to receive wisdom? I turned to Augustine’s Confessions, in which he reflects on his conversion to Christianity.
Before his revelation, Augustine turned to numerous alternate sources for truth: the Manicheans, the Platonists, even astronomers. But he concludes that all of these paths were faulty, for there is no truth to be found within the world. All truth comes from God. It is manifest in the world because the world is created by God. But Augustine argues it would be a mistake to search for truth anywhere in the world, for that would render a person unable to distinguish truth from falsehood. Truth must be sought at its source, in God.
How are we to know the nature of God? We must recognize God—and the truth—within ourselves and the world. Augustine remembers God’s pronouncement, “I am that I am,”1 and deems it true “as things are heard in the heart, and there was no room for doubt.”2 At this moment in the Confessions, Augustine does not mark the significance of what he has written. Instead of searching for validation from any worldly source, he recognizes the truth as God’s creation; “I should have more readily doubted that I am alive than that the Truth exists -- the Truth which is ‘clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’.”3 He elaborates on this method of discovery in a later chapter, declaring “For we are not that Light that enlightens every man, but we are enlightened by [God], so that we who were formerly in darkness may now be alight in thee.”4 Mankind’s understanding of the truth does not come from anything inherent in mankind, but is mankind’s remembrance of God as Father.
I find Augustine’s understanding of truth to be evident in itself, for what can be called truth, other than the truth? The truth is not dependent on any context, nor is it contained within any work. We can only say that a statement contains the truth. This is a simple statement, yet contradicts the way we are taught to evaluate evidence. In fact, we only require “evidence” because we have incomplete knowledge of the world around us. But for the truths of human nature, of how to be a good person, we should not require the ratification of a certified saint or philosopher; these truths are accessible to us all.
Upon this reflection, I have to admit I was wrong to disregard Cory Booker’s message simply because I did not like certain things about Booker himself. The truth can come to us in any form, and it would be foolhardy to discount it. Not only can we find guidance from imperfect sources; we must. And however much I disliked the political tinge of Booker’s speech, its content was so much more useful than the umpteenth how-to-find-success sermon. It is easier to be destructive than constructive; in future encounters with imperfect messengers, I will try to be more receptive to the things I can gain from attending to them, without losing my critical disposition.
1. Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. Confessions, trans. Robert Outler. 1955. PDF e-book. 205.
2. Ibid 206.
3. Ibid 206.
4. Ibid 284.
Nicole Flibbert is a recent Penn grad starting a Masters degree in Counseling. She enjoys reading, classical music, and walks in the woods.