I often draw a connection between the attitude of some of the more notoriously un-Christ-like fundamentalist Christians and that of militant atheists. In these two groups who seem to be such polar opposites, I think we can rightly identify a similar attitude toward truth and thus toward each other.
For both, the truth is something they have discovered and planted their own flag in. Because of a fierce possessiveness toward Truth, as they see it, they are not able to recognize it in any other group. Because of an over-confidence in themselves, their understanding of truth becomes crystallized in their minds and they are unable to continue learning more or going beyond their own understanding.
For both, Truth becomes no more than an idol of their own making – one to which they insist others do homage.
This is not the attitude toward truth that we see in the lives of the Saints. Even these great men and women who have found themselves so close to Truth Himself, never became overconfident or prideful about the truth they experienced. Rather, their humility toward truth (and others) is one of their greatest virtues. Here is a great quote from St. Augustine that a Dominican Brother at my parish clued me in on:
Seeing Thy truth is neither mine nor his nor another’s; but belongs to us all whom Thou callest publicly to partake of it, warning us terribly, not to account it private to ourselves, lest we be deprived of it. For whosoever challenges that as proper to himself, which Though propoundest to all to enjoy, and would have that his own which belongs to all, is driven from what is in common to his own;that is, from truth, to a lie. For he that speaketh a lie, speaketh it of his own. (The Confessions of St. Augustine Book XII 34.)
The saints always recognized the truth as something bigger than themselves, given by God to all. Their idea of the truth never crystallized in their minds or was something they presumed to possess a monopoly on. Rather, truth was always understood to be infinitely greater and more mysterious than they could ever imagine. Far from possessing it or discovering it, they were the ones possessed and discovered.
One the values of making this distinction between attitudes toward truth, is that the saintly examples clue us in to the attitude not only beneficial for our own souls but for those we come in contact with.
When we rightly see truth as something bigger, better, and beyond our imaginings, we become like the disciples who have first met Jesus. We run back with joy in our eyes to invite others to come hear this man who speaks like no one we have ever heard before. We don’t hang back and grumble like the scribes and pharisees, convinced and possessive of our own truth and unwilling to grow. If truth is bigger than and outside of ourselves, suddenly we are no longer enemies or even opponents in the search for truth. Rather, we are all children of the truth and thus we can invite each other into greater fullness of truth without competition.
With humility toward truth and our neighbor, we are able to affirm truth and goodness when we see it in others and use this to call both of us on to a greater fullness of truth. Recall the passage in the Book of Acts where Paul encounters the Greeks, whose culture was definitely a mixed bag as truth is concerned:
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’;  (Acts 17:22-28)
Paul, a man definitely not lacking intensity and fervor, was humbly able to see the seeds of truth that already existed in the Greek culture. Rather than calling them to something opposite from their culture, he expounded on the seeds of truth and called the Greeks to pursue these to their fullness.
It is simply human nature to pursue truth, often in all the wrong places, but nevertheless. Far from attempting to extinguish or discourage the search for truth, we must affirm it in others we encounter and invite them to consider the claims of Christianity in light of this search. John Paul II writes:
“Men and women are on a journey of discovery which is humanly unstoppable – a search for the truth and a search for a person to whom they might entrust themselves. Christian faith comes to meet them, offering the concrete possibility of reaching the goal which they seek. (Encyclical: On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason, September 14, 1998 Pope John Paul II)
Every person is longing for Jesus Christ, for His Church, for His truth. We need to pick up on these longings and show people that in Christ they are not abandoning the glimpses of beauty, truth, and goodness they have already encountered. Whether they know it or not, people have experienced glimpses of the divine in culture, art, education, family, literature, movies, and other areas of life. We must show them that in Christianity they have the possibility of “reaching the goal which they seek”: Christ, the source of all Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.
We are not calling people to a foreign, alien land. We are inviting prodigal sons and daughters – like ourselves – to come home.
Let’s make sure they feel at home when they decide to visit, shall we?