The British philosopher Gillian Rose spent her brief life arguing against a basic presumption of modern life, one that goes something like this: now that almost everyone can be heard, and now that we realize how profoundly we disagree about the most important aspects and values in life, let’s simply admit that any truth that really matters will forever elude humanity. Let’s simply agree to disagree.
Gillian Rose found two problems with that approach. When people stop talking to each other because they’ve “agreed to disagree” they typically don’t embrace toleration, they simply slide into the sort of totalitarian thinking characteristic of those who feel that they have nothing to learn from others.
There was a greater danger, even a greater sin, in such an approach. A sin against hope, against the belief that we were created for the true, the beautiful, the good. However complicated human life has become, we must never turn away from the future, from the belief that more truth, more goodness, more beauty is yet to be found, and that all of these things ultimately find their unity in the mystery that we call God.
Gillian Rose was a Hegelian philosopher—not many of those these days. She thought truth emerged through the encounter of opposites.
She was also a secular Jew, and in her memoir, Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life, she tells this story about the death of her grandfather, a Jew who had seen him family decimated by the Holocaust. She writes:
As my grandfather lay dying, he lapsed into High German, a language which, like all German products but German automobiles in particular, had been banned from my grandparents’ house and presence since the war. Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much German in him? As with most Polish Jews, Yiddish seemed his lingua franca. Polish Yiddish is, of course, a combination of Middle German with some Hebrew, written in Hebrew characters. How did my grandfather acquire such perfect High German? As he lay there plucking at his heart, the forbidden words poured out of his mouth. I was the only close mourner who could understand what he was trying in his agitation to convey (57-58).
On his death bed, Rose’s grandfather took up the language that his family members would have heard shouting them into gas chambers, a language that, after the war, no longer crossed his lips. Could there be a tongue more rightfully scorned, and hated by him, than German?
But it was also the language of his schooling. He would have spoken it with his school fellows in years bright with the promise of learning, of a better tomorrow, of culture and civilization spreading across the earth like warms rays of sunrise. It was the language of Goethe and Schiller, of Bach and Beethoven, a tongue in which the Enlightenment schooled Europe. One could say that, on his deathbed, Rose’s grandfather went back to “the other,” the other ever so rightly shunned as oppressor, as malign foe. This was the language of the school fellows who had clambered for his extinction, or whose German had fallen silent in acquiescence. Was this simply the delirium of a dying man, or the expression of a radical truth of what it means to be human? We were made for dialogue, created to encounter the one who is other, even when we seem to have every reason to forego the exchange.
Naturally, we presume these words of scripture are addressed to us: “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me” (Ez 33: 7). We simply assume that we are the ones who have the correct answer and that our task is to inform our mistaken adversary of his error. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother” (Mt 18: 15). But isn’t it possible, isn’t it worth considering, that we might be the ones who should listen rather than correct?
Fine, you say. We should be open minded, but truth can have no truck with error. We cannot make peace with what we know to be wrong. Of course not. Truth, however partial, is never to be abandoned, and no compromise can be made with sin. But we cannot presume that we alone have been given the grace to recognize unalloyed truth, that we alone detect the scent of sin.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that angels, as beings of superior intellect, intuitively and fully, grasped any truth given to them, but we are not angelic intellects. We are human. We find our way to the truth through dialogue, through encounter. The word “catholic” means universal. How sad, that some Catholics think it designates their understanding of the truth spreading across the globe, when the word ought to remind us that being catholic is always more of a call than a claim.
Gillian Rose was quite right. We abandon hope itself when we stop pursuing truth as a God-given destiny. Agreeing to disagree can be a subtle retreat into sterile isolation. And we must ask ourselves if we shun dialogue because the other is irretrievably lost, or because we cannot admit our own lack of confidence in the truth we profess.
Gillian Rose died at age forty-eight, after a two year struggle with ovarian cancer. She was baptized on her death-bed, but before the trumpets of triumphalism blow, I should point out that she was baptized by George Carey, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, into the Church of England. I must confess—I genuinely confess—that I sometimes find the Anglican communion nothing short of muddled, but I think Rose saw it as a winding, narrow path, one easily overlooked or abandoned in a world full of strident voices, each insisting that we veer in the only correct direction.
Terrance W. Klein