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By Kevin Timpe


Truth, Christmas, and the Eucharist

Why I didn't like the hymns and praise songs we were singing—and why I was missing the point.

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I had just finished my third semester as a philosophy professor at a Christian university. One of the things I tried to do that semester was to meet my new colleagues from other departments. One particular such meeting near the beginning of the semester sticks out in my mind. I was having coffee with a professor from the English department whose work in Milton has some connections to my own research in the philosophy of religion. Partway into our conversation, my colleague made the following perplexing remark: "What I don't understand about you philosophers is that you only care about the truth." I got the feeling, from the tone of his voice, that he intended this statement in a pejorative way, though for the life of me I couldn't figure out how this was supposed to be an insult. I must admit that I would be happy knowing all and only the truth. (Actually, since it is impossible to know a falsehood, the "and only" clause is redundant, but I'm trying to talk less like a philosopher in an effort not to alienate all my colleagues too quickly!) Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to ask him what he meant by this comment, as another colleague came over and the topic of conversation changed.

Fast-forward several months to the second Sunday of Christmas. I'm sitting in church thinking how much I don't like many of the songs that we sing. It seems like my philosophically skewed mind cares too much about the truth-value of the various propositions that I'm asked to articulate in song. For example, a recent chorus included the following refrain: "Brokenness is what God wants from me." Really? I thought God wanted to restore me to wholeness! Or take another recent example. Am I really expected to sing that God is "in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes" during the very season when we celebrate the coming of the Incarnate God in Christ's birth? Surely the season renders the proposition expressed by the hymn false, and why should we corporately sing a falsehood? But maybe, I think, I'm being a little unfair. Is this just another expression of the overweening concern with truth that was driving my colleague's comment?

But as the next hymn starts, I'm reminded of a very important lesson. As we sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful," my eyes are drawn to the altar table. And as we sing "Come and behold Him, born the King of angels / O Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord," I contemplate the fittingness of singing this song in the presence of the soon-to-be-consecrated elements. I realize that I can not only affirm the propositions of this hymn, but that I can live them in my very act of singing. My song can be my adoration of the King made Child, really present in the bread and the wine. But I also realize that what I see before me is the Truth itself, which goes beyond the propositional content of whichever hymn we might sing. For Truth, ultimately, is not propositional, but rather personal and loving. This is a lesson that I've forgotten and need to be reminded of this Christmas morning. Ultimately, Truth is the Incarnate Son—begotten not made, of one being with the Father, who emptied himself and became flesh to redeem a fallen humanity. Truth is the Infant that the magi traveled long months to come and worship. Truth is the God become man, who gave himself for my redemption, and continues to give himself in the Sacraments, that I might become like him. May I too come, adore, and partake of Truth.

Kevin Timpe is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego.

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