Preaching truth today: What does it require?

This story appears in the Preaching Truth feature series. View the full series.

by Carol J. Dempsey

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Editor's note: This is part of a series of columns by the Dominican Sisters Conference that hopes to open Global Sisters Report's readership to a conversation on truth.

Preaching truth is needed now as much as it was in the time of the ancient biblical prophets who had to deal with many of the same political, social, economic and religious challenges that people face today in a 21st-century world. The prophets' culture was chaotic, war-torn, poverty-stricken, empire-building and power-seeking, with unchecked greed and violence. Their culture was no different from many cultures today, despite tremendous advancement in interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, leadership training, knowledge of history, and the deep awareness that all of life is interconnected, graced and intrinsically good. Now more than ever is the time to preach truth in a way that is profoundly and uncompromisingly prophetic.

Preaching truth today, however, is no easy task, especially when people's words are often misconstrued, misinterpreted or disregarded altogether when a message shakes a listener out of his or her comfort zone. Yet preaching truth cannot be side-stepped, and it cannot be something done when the moment is convenient and the climate is right. So what does preaching truth prophetically require?

First and foremost, preaching truth prophetically requires that one have a deep relationship with the Sacred Presence, the One who is alive in the midst of all creation. This relationship needs to be a heart-centered one just as it was for the ancient biblical people and the prophets.

Participating in sacred rituals and carving out time to pray, meditate and be still are all helpful, but they are just not enough. We need to be in love with the One who loved us first and who continues to love us into deeper life. This love, this human-divine exchange of hearts that leads to union, is an ongoing transformative love that will draw us into an ongoing communion with all life. This love will be the source of the energy and courage needed to preach a truth that will take us to places we'd rather not go, to people we'd rather not encounter, to experiences we'd rather not share in — and for some people, this love will lead to the cross.

Only when we are in love will we be able to recognize that the "bruised reed" of which Isaiah speaks is not only the victim of injustice but also the perpetrator of injustice, whose life is as ensnared by violence as the one who suffers it (Isaiah 42:3). Preaching truth from a heart afire with love will send forth a word capable of piercing a hardened heart and a calloused mind. Even if the one hearing truth is not transformed or a situation is not changed, seeds will have been sown, hope will remain alive. Prophets are called to be faithful, not successful, and so are those who preach truth today.

Second, preaching truth today requires that one be profoundly self-reflective. What are we preaching? Our own prejudices or viewpoints that flow from cherished but out-of-touch understandings of cosmos, church, world, the human condition and the natural world?

Is the truth that we preach rooted in teachings and beliefs that were once considered foundational, but which now leave the spirit cold and unmoved? They may entertain the mind but fail to warm the heart and address the pressing need for justice, compassion and equality in all areas of life, both human and non-human.

Is the truth we preach today born from inside comfortable "ivory tower" institutions and from institutional mindsets, or is it born from the bowels of the Earth and the dregs of suffering? To preach truth today requires deep self-knowledge, profound humility, and the capacity to be open to learn from the "other" who may be so different from ourselves but who has a perspective that needs to be integrated into the conversation. Preaching truth today requires hospitality of mind and heart.

Lastly, preaching truth today requires disciplined and persistent study along with the integration of knowledge gained into our daily lives. Besides being deeply engaged in and informed by the signs of our times, we also need to read broadly, deeply and critically — to cut our wisdom teeth again on topics such as politics, economics, gender, race, interreligious dialogue, atheism, agnosticism and everything that concerns the well-being of our planet and all its communities of life. Knowledge is power, and if we are to speak truth to power, then a deep well of facts, ideas, and vision need to complement our life experiences.           

The prophet Micah reminds us of what we have been asked to do: "act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). If our preaching truth does not begin with a humble walk with God and end with us working compassionately for justice, then our preaching will be nothing more than edifying words and deeds, and not the truth the world so desperately needs to hear.

[Sr. Carol J. Dempsey of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey, is professor of biblical studies at the University of Portland, Oregon. She earned her doctorate in biblical studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she studied both Old and New Testament and biblical languages. She was a research fellow at Yale University from 1986-1989 and is the author of eight books, and edited three books in the Liturgical Press' Wisdom Bible Commentary Series.]