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Parrhesia: The biblical art of fearless speech

Rubens, Jesus and Pharisees

Wikipedia Commons

Daniel Esparza - published on 12/19/23

Parrhesia is about “saying it all” without reservation. In more ways than one, the word encompasses the notion of fearless and uninhibited candid speech.
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Unlike other Greek terms commonly used in liturgy, parrhesia is not necessarily a term most Christians are familiar with. And still, it occupies an important place in Scripture, and thus in the spiritual lives of believers. As is often the case, the word is composed of another two: pan (meaning all, as in Pantocrator, the one who has authority over everything), and rhēsis (meaning speech). That is, parrhesia is about “saying it all” without reservation. In more ways than one, the word encompasses the notion of fearless and uninhibited candid speech. Early philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates, and Diogenes are seen as the embodiment of parrhesia.

Socrates (considered by many as the founding father of Western philosophy) exemplified parrhesia in his relentless pursuit of truth through open dialogue. He fearlessly confronted societal norms and authority, speaking candidly to expose ignorance and challenge conventional wisdom. His methodical, philosophical use of parrhesia presupposes that genuine knowledge emerges through the unfiltered exchange of ideas – even if it means challenging some of the prevailing beliefs of the time.

In Christian theology (and in Scripture) parrhesia takes on additional layers of meaning. While preserving this Socratic component of unreserved speech, Pauline letters encourage believers to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). If Socratic parrhesia allows for the discovery of truth in dialogue, unreserved loving conversation brings together the transformative power of fearless love and intimate communication.

In more ways than one, this is what the Word of God does: an unreserved, infinite, fearless donation of itself. Christ himself, the embodiment of truth, used parrhesia in challenging the religious authorities of his time, exemplifying the alignment of forthright speech with higher moral and spiritual principles.

Philosophical and theological traditions have always explored the relationship between truth-telling and spiritual transformation, examining how sincere speech plays a role in the development of the self. Indeed, parrhesia becomes a tool for self-examination and confession, paving the way for a deeper connection with ourselves, others, and the wholly Other – namely, God. The act of speaking truth, even when uncomfortable, becomes both a form of spiritual purification and an avenue for divine revelation.

Thinking of Jesus’ unreserved speech, not only when confronting the Pharisees, but also with his friends and family, serves as a reminder that genuine dialogue, rooted in authenticity and courage, is not only a philosophical pursuit of truth but also a transformative act with clear spiritual implications.

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