Sometimes, I take a longer route home from class just so that I can walk past the north side of Emerson Hall. Engraved in neat lettering above the brick columns is a quotation from one of David’s Psalms that often lodges itself comfortably in a corner of my head:
WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM
In my mind, I trace the well-worn lines of my walk to and from class; I see the leaves change color, nearly imperceptibly, along Athens Street and around Harvard Yard. Kant and Kafka lie still and heavy in my bag. It is strangely comforting, I think, to be reminded every day of the most basic reason for being, of the unintelligible, incarnate intimacy between divinity and humankind. I imagine David sprawled beneath a blanket of stars. Who was he—who am I—after all, if not recognized?
During my time away from school I realized that if there is anything I have learned at Harvard, it is that truth is inscribed in relationship. Colleges etch the word “truth” on crests and gates and walls, catechisms and course catalogues. But Harvard’s motto—veritas, or truth—is meaningless when it is separated from the quotation written on the façade of Emerson Hall. It is a mistake, I think, to see the search for truth as the pursuit and proclamation of knowledge in itself. There is no such thing. Truth is fundamentally about being, not knowing; it is neither a claim nor an abstraction but an inherently relational reality. I have learned, gradually and painstakingly, that I am compelled to seek what is true only by virtue of the relationship between myself and my God, and that it is that recognition that imbues my life with meaning.
To seek truth, in other words, is to seek to see God in return. In many ways, this is a mirroring process: recognition naturally engenders reflection. “If you look at me,” Héloïse, the daughter of a French countess, tells Marianne, the artist commissioned to paint her wedding portrait in the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, “who do I look at?” To seek truth is to seek to see another face to face, and, as a result, to act truthfully as a natural reflection of what one sees in them. How could I say that I recognized another person if I did not reflect the truth that I saw in them? How could I say that I sought truth if I did not reflect the truth that I see in God?
In E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India, a young British woman, Adela Quested, wrongly accuses an Indian man, Dr. Aziz, of sexually harassing her. During the trial, Adela realizes that Aziz is innocent and withdraws all charges against him, despite intense pressure from her family and friends. Afterwards, Adela receives very little gratitude from Aziz and from his countrymen:
“For her behavior rested on cold justice and honesty; she had felt, while she recanted, no passion of love for those whom she had wronged. Truth is not truth in that exacting land unless there go with it kindness and more kindness and kindness again, unless the Word that was with God also is God. And the girl’s sacrifice—so creditable according to Western notions—was rightly rejected, because, though it came from her heart, it did not include her heart.”
Though Forster’s Adela says what is true, she does not live out truth. Her sense of justice and of honesty is “cold”; she separates the “Word that was with God” from God’s being as a relational entity, and in doing so, she perverts it. It is possible, I think, to warp the truth beyond recognition. Though what is true can never be invalidated, the force of truth depends on who offers it and to whom it is addressed. If truth is divorced from trust—if it is divorced from recognition—on what grounds would anyone believe it?
This illusory separation between truth and relationship has led Christians astray time and time again. It is not a lack of faith that causes a person to abandon a local community riddled with prejudice. It is not a weakness of will or of the intellect that causes a person to turn away from an institution that has abused tens of thousands of children. These are the failures of the Church, institutionally and relationally, and they are rooted in a deep lack of recognition. They are the failures of every person who has sought truth only in words and in arguments, and who has learned to look at other people without ever seeing them.
But it is never too late to see another person face to face. I hope to spend my remaining two years at Harvard—and my entire life—in search of truth. And the truth I can know is a truth incarnate, a truth that, by definition, compels me to act rightly and meaningfully. Sometimes, when I’m reading dense philosophy or walking down the Widener steps, I am tempted—briefly—to forget, to read over my papers and and indulge in the kind of dizzying complacency that is too easy to fall into in a place like this, surrounded by people who think so deeply and speak so eloquently. It would be easier to forget that ideas are not enough.
But what a lonely life that would be! God of Abraham, wrote Blaise Pascal on a scrap of paper that he always carried with him, stitched into the lining of his coat: God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and savants. My God, too, is the God of Jacob and of David and of Peter and of Mary, the God who is rooted in relationship and who intimately recognizes every person I pass on the way to class.
I like to walk by Emerson Hall, so that I won’t forget.
Aliénor Manteau is a junior in Dunster House studying English and Philosophy.