Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Bad Infinity, Good Infinity, and the Truth

June 27, 2024


A few years ago, Roger Scruton, the British philosopher and cultural commentator, made the following observation: “Young people today are very reluctant to assume that anything is certain, and this reluctance is revealed in their language. In any matter where there might be disagreement, they will put a question mark at the end of the sentence.”1 Obviously, Scruton’s statement is a sweeping generalization. Not all young people are in the habit of speaking so tentatively. But Scruton had picked up on an important, and concerning, trend in our culture: There are many young people who seem unable, or unwilling, to state anything that is potentially debatable with any degree of certainty or conviction. And this tendency is not limited to some of the younger people in our society. These days, many people, young and old and in between, are reluctant to make any sort of statement that might sound in any way like they are asserting a “truth.” This tentativeness is one of the many ways in which postmodernism, with its claim that there is no such thing as truth but only competing “narratives” vying for social, cultural, and political power, has had a corrosive effect on our culture. If there is no such thing as truth, then rational discussion and debate, and even thought itself, become essentially pointless. What is the object of thought if not the truth? And what is one of the major goals of communication if not to convey some form of truth and to share in a mutual search for the truth?

At first, the claim that there are no truths can seem liberating—now I can say or do or be anything I want, without having to conform my life or my behavior to any objective truth that is “out there.” I don’t have to make the effort required to pursue the truth because there is no truth to be found. I can avoid the effort required to discuss or debate the truth with other people. I can also avoid the potential conflict and discomfort engendered by disagreeing with other people about the “truth.” And I can do all this simply by adopting the laissez-faire attitude of “You do your truth, and I’ll do mine,” which typically gets shortened to some version of “You do you, and I’ll do me,” thereby avoiding even a passing and superficial reference to the “truth.”

Sooner or later (hopefully sooner), one realizes that the rejection of truth is disorienting in the extreme.

Escaping from the constraints and limitations imposed on us by the existence of objective truth initially appears to open up to us a world of infinite possibilities, but this new realm of a seemingly infinite freedom turns out to involve what Hans Urs von Balthasar has called a “bad infinity.”2 Sooner or later (hopefully sooner), one realizes that the rejection of truth is disorienting in the extreme. In the absence of any objective truth, life is chaotic. Without truth, there is no structure, no stability, no solidity, no certainty, no direction, no purpose, no meaning to life. Without truth, we face an infinity of choices, but we have nothing to guide us in making those choices. Without truth, the choices we make don’t matter anyway. Without truth, nothing matters, including ourselves and our lives. Without truth, we find ourselves suspended over the void, over an infinite abyss of nothingness. Then comes the terrifying realization—there’s nothing holding us up.

Fortunately, thankfully, providentially, there is something holding us up. Better said, there is Someone holding us up. The truth is, there is such a thing as truth, and ultimate truth is a person. Three persons, actually. And we’re not suspended over an infinite abyss of nothingness; we’re all floating on the surface of the infinite ocean of divine love. This is a good infinity—the best there ever was or ever could be, in fact. We’re all invited to take a deep dive into that infinite ocean of love, that infinite abyss of truth in which we are all intended to “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). That’s what we’re here for.

In his profound trilogy on beauty, goodness, and truth,3 Balthasar spends a considerable amount of time discussing truth as aletheia: truth as revelation, disclosure, unveiling, unconcealment. In this sense, truth is the revelation of being, the disclosure of reality as it actually is, of life as it actually is. But as Balthasar points out, truth is also emeth: fidelity, constancy, reliability. Truth, as emeth, is “something we can rely on, something to which we can hand ourselves over.”4  As emeth, truth abolishes the “bad infinity” we experience in our deliberate repudiation of truth and instead opens us up to the “good infinity” of truth itself:  

Truth as emeth does two things. On the one hand, it is conclusive, in the sense that it puts an end to uncertainty and endless seeking, to conjecture and suspicion, so that this condition of ever-shifting vacillation can give way to the clearly formed, solid evidence of things that are unveiled as they actually are. On the other hand, this closure of uncertainty and its bad infinity is the un-closing and unsealing of a true infinity of fruitful possibilities and situations.5

Truth lends structure, order, stability, solidity, and certainty to life. Rather than stripping away our freedom, as is feared by those who reject the possibility of truth, truth actually opens the door to a participation in the infinite freedom of God and thus to an ever-deepening grasp of infinite truth. Again, Balthasar:

Truth never imprisons or constricts the knower. No, truth is always an opening, not just to itself and in itself, but to further truth. It dis-covers being and thus the rich coherence of being. It opens up the prospect of hitherto unknown territory. It contains within itself a movement toward further truth.6

People who avoid stating anything with certainty often think that doing so is proof of their “open-mindedness,” but as Scruton points out in his discussion of people who tend to conclude every statement with a question mark, this tendency is actually an indicator of “no-mindedness.”7 Better to be “open-minded” than “no-minded,” and what it really means to be “open-minded” is to be open to the truth, wherever the truth may lead one. And where does truth ultimately lead us? To the One who is Truth (John 14:6).

1 Roger Scruton, Against the Tide, 133.
2 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic. Vol. I, Truth of the World, 39.
3 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord (vols. I-VII); Theo-Drama (vols. I-V); Theo-Logic (vols. I-III).
4 Balthasar, Truth of the World, 38-39.
5 Balthasar, Truth of the World, 39.
6 Balthasar, Truth of the World, 39.
7 Scruton, 134.