All these observations share the fact of approaching our subject with an anthropological emphasis. This implies that the relationship between truth and witness is inevitably intertwined with the subject of freedom. Following the etymological root, in both Latin and Greek, of the term 'witness' we are led to see the relational and 'memorial' character that is implicit in this communicative modality. A witness, in fact, is he who is in the place of a 'third', placing in communication those who would otherwise remain extraneous to each other. Here we are faced with a communicative modality whose vehicle is represented by the freedom of the subject who exposes himself in a relationship, referring to and channelling objectively a person other than himself. Hence one understands why Judeo-Christian revelation is inevitably linked to the witness-providing characteristic of truth. We will now follow, albeit in a rhapsodic fashion, the modality by which the Christian faith has perceived witness to truth over time so as to see how it also illuminates our contemporary anthropological condition.
Already in the Old Testament we find the famous statement in the Decalogue: 'Neither shall you bear false witness' [Dt 5:20; Ex 20:16]. 'Communicating the truth' constitutes one of the fundamental commandments that permeates the writings of the Old Testament. Man is himself, states Scripture, only when he bears witness to the truth. He who tells falsehood is threatened by the curse of God [Ex 23:1; Dt 19:16ss]. God, in fact, is 'the Truthful One to the utmost' and man cannot but be called to the veracity of witness. In the New Testament the lexicon of witness (martys and its derivatives) is used a hundred and ninety eight times. What strikes one most of all is the presence of the term in the writings of John: the Gospel, the Letters and the Apocalypse are determined from beginning to end by the category of witness, and to such an extent that it appears to be almost synonymous with the very word 'revelation'. John the Baptist, [Jn 1:29-34] and the 'disciple that Jesus loved' [Jn 19:35] but above all the works of Jesus [Jn 10:25], the Father [Jn 5:36s] and the Holy Spirit [Jn 16:13s], bear witness. Jesus himself 'came to bear witness to the truth' [Jn 18:37]; he is, as the Apocalypse says, 'the faithful witness' [Ap 1:5].
Hence one understands why, from the Patristic epoch until the great Scholastic age, the witness, the martyr in particular, took on a capital importance for the life of the Church and for theological thought. Origen observed: 'whoever bears witness to the truth, both in words and in facts or by acting in any way in favour of truth, can call himself rightfully a witness. But the name witness (martyres) in its specific meaning, the community of faithful, struck by the force of will of those who struggled for truth or virtue unto death, has had the habit confining to those who have borne witness to the mystery of the true religion through the spilling of their blood'. All of this in the awareness, as St. Augustine said, that 'it is not the punishment that makes the martyr but the cause'. It is communicated truth that makes a man a witness and a martyr. For this reason, Confessio et intellectus fidei in a certain sense belonged to each other from the emergence of the Christian experience onwards. The act of witness, like confession and martyrdom, was not held to be exterior to revealed truth but essential to it. In the Fathers of the Church, in particular, one can observe that there is no intelligence of the Christian mysteries that is separate from the dimension of witness to the faith. We here find a certain analogy with the circularity that was present in the same period between theology and holiness. As von Balthasar observed, a saint was not considered as a reality external to theological intelligence but rather as a condition for its practice and its special expression. In the same way, the dimension of martyrdom was seen as a modality by which the truth of God is communicated from believer to believer, from freedom to freedom. It was no accident that some great theologians of the first centuries were also martyrs (Justine, Cyprian) and the cult of martyrs always occupied an important position in theological thinking (Origen, Basil).
During the second millennium, as with the circularity between theology and holiness, the relationship confessio et intellectus fidei also by degrees lost its density with the tendency towards divergence between the true and the good, between truth and freedom, that was brought about, on the one hand, by an intellectualistic reduction of truth, and, on the other, by the increasing subjectivisation of the spiritual experience that would characterise Western modernity. A symptom of this can be found in the fact that modern apologetics would tend to entrust to philosophical argument the 'defence of the faith' whereas the witness of saints and martyrdom would be considered solely by 'spirituality'. It is true that textbook apologetics has martyrdom amongst its 'topics' yet not as communication of the truth but as a 'moral miracle' of a coherence unto death with professed faith. Martyrdom, together with miracles and other signs, are seen as signa externa in relation to believed truth and not as a communicative form of truth itself.
It is no accident that in Romanticism as well we can find the exaltation of the martyr (for example in Michael Reinhold Lenz). However, not because of the truth communicated but because of its heroicness and greatness (which makes it, for that matter, similar to the tones of paganising titanism of Prometheus by Goethe). In this sense, the martyr is seen more in terms of his heroic self-reference than in terms of being the communicator of truth, Paradoxically, but in essential terms consistently with a certain Romantic exaltation of the martyr, there was also the development of an aversion to a witness usque ad effusionem sanguinis specifically because of his claim to tell the truth. Criticism of martyrdom as attestation of truth found its apex and also contempt in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which is condemned the foolishness of wanting to demonstrate the truth through 'blood'. It is specifically this that appears to Nietzsche to be the element that is most opposed to the communication of truth: 'blood is the worst witness to truth'. The father of contemporary nihilism effects his criticism by introducing a kind of deconstruction of the claim of the martyr, whose action is said to be explicable more with reference to the cultural and social influences to which the individual belongs than to the truth itself that he wishes to communicate. Here is undoubtedly to be found one of the roots of the reiterated invitation of post-modern thought to abandon truth itself, as a pre-condition to be able to exercise freedom in an authentic way in the pacific form of tolerance. Every statement of absolute truth would appear to be incompatible with the modern idea of freedom.
It is in front of this apparently irresolvable conflict between truth and freedom, which is present in our contemporary cultural codes, that witness finds its most favourable terrain to be rediscovered as a modality for the communication of truth. Indeed, the mere forgoing of truth in favour of a self-referential freedom has already tragically shown itself to be a harbinger of the 'abolition of man' himself (C.S. Lewis) in favour of new mass-creating powers, perhaps exercised in the name of 'science'. Man, in reality, cannot forgo the desire for truth without in the final analysis also forgoing his own freedom as well. Indeed, as John Paul II observed, 'the desire for truth belongs to the very nature of man'. For that matter, a merely intellectualistic and abstract truth, in front of which the freedom of man should only bow, would not be able to awake in man desire for it. Authentic truth, in opposite fashion, can only be desirable however much it may require the deepest conversion: 'the truth will make you free' [Jn 8:32]. The form of salvific truth, therefore, cannot be that of cogent demonstration but that of a 'servant' [Phil 2:7], of witness, which is offered in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, exposing itself to the freedom of man - Christ, in fact, is truth in person (De Lubac) who gives himself in the encounter with us. In this perspective, witness emerges as a specific modality by which the unconditional truth of God is communicated in history to the located freedom of man, requiring it and exalting it. Benedict XVI has observed in evocative fashion: 'witness is the means by which the truth of love of God reaches man in history, inviting him to freely welcome this radical novelty. In witness God exposes Himself, so to speak, to the risk of human freedom'.
For that matter it is freedom itself, in its indestructible structure of 'self-movement' and 'self-opening' (Balathasar), which raises an unconditional request that only the truth of God can meet, thereby making freedom itself exit from the narrow alternative of narcissistic self-reference and alienating estrangement. Man, indeed, in every act of his freedom is called to open himself to the absolute and transcendent Foundation. In this way, we discover how every authentic act of human freedom is an act of witness to the Absolute. Here it is also possible to rediscover the meaning of the classic definition of truth as adaequatio rei et intellectus,exiting from the mesh of its conceptualistic interpretation and recognising that truth has the characteristic of being an encounter between man and reality. As the then Cardinal Ratzinger observed in evocative fashion: 'to perceive the truth is a phenomenon that makes man conform to being. It is 'coming together in one' of the self and the world, it is agreement and consonance, it is being-given and being-purified'.
A Relationship of Communion
In this perspective one can understand all of the contemporary relevance of the category of fitness to the truth in relation to the event of Jesus Christ. He shows himself to us because of his singular relationship with Abbà - the Father in the potency of the Holy Spirit - as the truth [Jn 14:6] which bears witness to itself in the world. Jesus is he who, when seen, makes seen also the Father [Jn 14:9]. He is the 'one sent by the Father' to do His will, to which he adheres in an unconditional way. Jesus sees himself to such an extent as being from the Father and for the Father as to be His transparent witness in the world. In this way, Jesus expresses a freedom that is fully complete even in pain and death because he adheres dramatically to the will of the Father. 'It is not my will but your will' [Mt…:42]. In the light of the witness of Jesus - being from the Father and being for the Father - the lie of sin is also unmasked: the conceiving of oneself by oneself and for oneself, which closes man up in the solitary abyss of evil, where every otherness is not known. To the man who encounters Christ, instead, the salvific truth is offered that is able to free man from every self-closure, opening up his existence to the freedom of the children of God.
The truth borne witness to by the crucified and resurrected flesh of the Son of God is none other than the Trinitarian love in which every person is himself, specifically because he for the Other, the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father in their shared Spirit [Jn 17]. In fact, as von Balthasar observed in evocative fashion: 'outside the truth of the love between the Father and the Son there is no truth'. Indeed, it possesses in itself the principle of 'uniting in difference'. The revealed truth has in itself the form of a relationship of communion.
Witness understood in these terms emerges as the offering that the living truth of God makes of itself to every man in his concrete situation: it reveals the 'contemporariness' between given truth and the freedom of man. If Christ were only a historical figure, a bearer of certain moral values on which to base oneself, then he would remain limited irremediably to the past, confirming the horrible ditch, which Lessing spoke about, between contingent historical truths and necessary universal truths. Witness, instead, shows itself as a human place in which truth continues to live in history, offering itself intact in all its novelty to men of all times. The truth of God emerges thus because it can continually self-mediate itself in history through the 'witness of the Church', the body of Christ, which has its centre in the mystery of the Eucharist, the supreme sacrament of its contemporariness. Specifically in the Eucharist, in fact, from which 'the Church is always reborn anew', believing freedom every day finds its authentic form. Jesus Christ remains present in history objectively in the sacrament of the Eucharist and existentially in each member of the Church, through its action of witness. For this reason, a Christian is called to expose himself inside the circumstances in which the mysterious design of God wants to place him. Indeed, specifically in the light of the sacramental horizon of Christian revelation, he knows how to see every circumstance as a circumstance of witness.
Exposing Oneself to the Other
Within the approach of witness as communication of truth that offers itself, defenceless, to the freedom of every interlocutor, undoubtedly significant new roads are opened up today, at a time when the phenomena of globalisation, interculturality and the hybridisation of cultures and civilisations are rapidly redesigning the maps of our co-existence. A merely conceptual communication of truth inevitably runs the risk of not encountering the real man in his complexity. Witness, instead, although it does not remove anything from the rigour of critical thought and dogmatic formulation as regards revealed truth, emerges as a communicative event and thus implies the human phenomenon of encounter in its non-eliminable unpredictability. The witness to truth is not the communicator of his own opinion. He knows that the truth that has been given to him has already embraced every possible 'other', in so much as it is included in the embrace of the Son of God who died on the cross, forgiving murderers and traitors.
For this reason, he who has encountered Christ and has been made a witness by him opens himself to the other, knowing that he communicates a truth that has already involved every other and also every possible future. In this sense, Christian witness does not fear encounter with anyone - it can understand and assess everything as a situation of witness. This is the reason why a 'Christian martyr', beginning with Christ himself, can give his life loving as well that recipient who closes himself violently to the witness of truth. Here apparently every communicative process would seem to be interrupted irremediably. With the rejection of witness and with the physical elimination of the witness, the mission would appear to have failed. In reality, a martyr involves in his act the persecutor, who would like to reject that offer of truth. Paradoxically, precisely in the act of rejection of witness, an act received freely by the martyr himself in the forgiveness that is offered, the unconditional character of the truth of God is demonstrated. Martyrs, we read in Fides et Ratio 'are the most authentic witnesses to the truth about existence. The martyrs know that they have found the truth about life in the encounter with Jesus Christ, and nothing and no one could ever take this certainty from them' [n. 32]. Thus witness is not only an external proof of revealed truth but also a form of its communication. In the authentic witness, so to speak, takes place again the news brought by Christ: ' As the Father has sent me, even so I send you' [Jn 20:21].
In contrary fashion, it must be said with emphasis, the suicide bomber, who is erroneously called a martyr, 'cannot be a true witness because he positively decides to act without reference to the suffering of his victim, thereby revealing a radical contempt for his person in the constitutive shrine of his freedom'. His action remains obtusely self-referential and necessarily extrinsic to every truth, thereby supporting inexorably the objection raised by Nietzsche.
To conclude, I would like to recall two events of our time which it seems to me are especially eloquent. One may think of the witness of the Franciscan St. Maximilian Kolbe borne in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, where he died by literally taking the place of another man who had been condemned to death because of a reprisal. Here we are faced with witness in which there shines forth the event itself of Christ who died 'in our place' in order to communicate the greatest love, that which knows how to love unto the end. Lastly, we may think of the witness nearer to our times of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria who were massacred by some exponents of Islamic fundamentalism. In particular, in the page from the diary of the Prior, Christian de Chergé, where he expresses his forgiveness 'beforehand' for his slaughterers, in the hope of meeting them again in the light of the only Father, there shines forth something that is absolute and in which the truth of God continues to show itself to us as being contemporary and to offer itself to our freedom.
These episodes, like many others that are well known and less well known of our time, are not examples of heroism that are steeped in Romanticism. There are a disturbing expression of how the truth of God knows how to bear witness to itself in time, unceasingly, through saints and martyrs. Indeed, 'only through men touched by God, can God return to men'.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal