Sense and Nonsense: The Ultimate Truth About Human Life

The pervasive relativism in our culture would understand the phrase “the ultimate truth about human life” to be either unknown, unknowable, or merely an expression of “personal choice” ungrounded in anything but our will and therefore not expressive of one truth. The phrase itself is found in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio (#2).

At Eastertide, “the ultimate truth about human life” is in fact a great phrase to ponder. The “ultimate truth” implies that there are other important truths about human life, but only one ultimate truth. This knowledge is a “truth,” not just an opinion. It is an affirmation that explains what human life is about. This truth includes each individual human life that has ever existed from conception—no matter in what kind of condition of prosperity or agony this actual life has lived.

Other kinds of life besides human life exist—divine, animal, plant. Human life is the only bodily life that includes in its individual being spirit or reason, animal sensation and movement, along with certain vegetative qualities—our hair, for instance.

The “ultimate truth about human life” will be true whether someone accepts and lives according to its intelligibility or not. What we are remains operative even if we do not know or deny what we are. We cannot escape what we are, nor should we want to. Our lives consist in being what we are (we have no choice here), then in reflexively knowing what we are, what is the truth, and finally in living according to the truth of what we are.

One of the characteristics we necessarily possess, following our reason and made possible because of it, is that we have the power of choice. This freedom or liberty means essentially that we are challenged to accept, not make, the ultimate truth of what we are. We know that we can and do refuse to acknowledge what we are. Such a refusal is called “pride,” which means, basically, the preferring of our own definition of ourselves to the truth of what we are. Every sin partakes of pride at some level, though the worst sin is pure pride. Pride is characteristic of intellectuals, politicians, and other influential individuals who have some claim of intellectual sophistication. But even the most ignorant and undisciplined can manifest it.

However, we should not forget that the essential drama of human life takes place in every soul—poor, rich, male, female, this race or nationality or that, this faith or that. Terrible sins can be committed by the poor, usually against each other, as well as by anyone else of whatever economic or social category. Thus, the ultimate truth about human life does not deny or ignore the actual human condition, but it does include, not of its own making, a remedy for sin. Human sins are not solely confined within the human condition. This is why we cannot, strictly speaking, forgive ourselves. The paradigmatic sin in Genesis included, as do all sins, an implicit rejection of the divine command not just to be what we are, but to be what God has willed us to be—greater than ourselves.

Freedom means that human life is serious business. Truth means that human life has its own knowable order. The great adventure of human life—and its great risk—is to know and live this truth from within our own soul because we see the truth and accept its demands as our own good, as what is best for us.

The ultimate truth of human life is that we are made by God for God—but by a God who cannot give us His life unless we choose it. In this sense, each of us is the maker of his own destiny. The truth is that we are given more than we are. We cannot any more be “human” unless we are also “superhuman.” That is, human life as we know it, its truth, is that we are created for something more than what we could expect on the basis of examining our status in being alone.

While remaining fully human—this is the importance of the resurrection of the body—we are to be given a kind of life that is proper to God. That is, we are to be able—each of us—to see God “face-to-face,” to use St. Paul’s happy expression.

This is the ultimate truth of human life. We can accept it or reject it. There is no datur tertium. We cannot change what we are, nor should we want to, since no alternative to this ultimate truth is anything but a lessening of our personal dignity, anything but a refusal to be what we are given to be.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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