What is truth?

The Reign Of Christ – 2012

John 18:38 What is truth?


Marian Free

 In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier who leads us into all truth. Amen.

I imagine that when most of us think about truth, we think about the truth, about firm facts and figures that remain constant over time. We believe that if we look hard enough we will discover some universal consistency, some shared knowledge or beliefs that are true for all people and in all situations. I’m not a philosopher, but I have learnt over time that it is not as easy as that.

So what is truth? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that the question of truth has been debated for thousands of years. It states that truth is not only one of the central topics of philosophy, but also the largest. In fact the article claims that a “huge variety of issues in philosophy relate to truth” making truth a central platform of that discipline. Within philosophy itself there are a number of ways of looking at truth. For example, one way of determining truth is to determine whether or not a statement corresponds to a fact. The statement: “James walks” can be easily verified by the observation of James walking. Another way of looking at truth is to determine whether or not a set of beliefs is coherent. A set of beliefs which says that cows are four legged, milk producing mammals with different coloured hides that sometimes have three legs is not coherent and therefore not true. Cows cannot three legs and at the same time have four legs.

The Catholic Encyclopedia is no more helpful in its definition of truth. In fact  it could be argued that it is less helpful because it relates truth to God and God is a quantity that cannot be tied down. This site uses terms like ontological truth and logical truth and speaks of truth as being in the mind of God -as if the mind of God were something we could mine for facts about the world and about existence.

Another site, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – at least in its Google tag – uses John 18:38 from today’s gospel as evidence that the question of truth has been around for at least 2,000 years. The biblical reference proves to be a distraction because on inspection the site is just as difficult for the uninitiated as the former two. I leave it to the philosophers among you to explore the matter further. The point is that truth is not so easily described and prescribed as we might sometimes like to imagine – which makes John 18:38 particularly interesting.

Depending on where I am coming from at the time, I see Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”, as either cynical or poignant – cynical, because history tells us that Pilate was a cruel and insecure ruler or poignant because seen sympathetically, it is an expression of confusion and a desire to see and therefore respond more clearly to the situation before him. His question comes on the heels of Jesus’ self description – “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

We too might ask Pilate’s question – what is truth? In this complex and confusing world, sometimes it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, to know when we are protecting our own self interests and when we are establishing laws that protect the safety of all.

In John’s Gospel, “αλήθεια” – “truth” is used 29 times, significantly more than it is used in any other gospel. From the first chapter in which Jesus is described as full of “grace and truth”, through chapter 8 in which Jesus says, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” to the well known, “I am the way, the truth and the light”, truth is a consistent theme. Truth, according to the author of the gospel, relates to Jesus’ unity with God which allows him to be or to reveal what is true. Further it is the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit which enables Jesus to promise that the Holy Spirit will lead believers in to the truth. Through the Trinity, Jesus’ claims, those who believe in him will know the truth and this knowledge will set apart those who belong to him from those who do not.

Having had a brief look at the way in which the philosophers define truth, it is interesting to consider the way in which it is used by the author of John’s gospel. Here the expression is used in a very particular way. “Truth” in the fourth gospel refers to right judgement – knowing truth from falsehood, distinguishing good from evil, being able, as God is, to make right judgements. When we understand this, it becomes easier to understand Pilate’s question.

Pilate’s dilemma was just this. He has been asked to make a judgement based, it would appear, on very little evidence and despite his reputation he seems to be loathe to become involved in something that is not strictly his provenance – a question of religious law. As a way to avoid decision-making, he first of all tries to hand the decision back to those who brought Jesus to him. When that fails, he gives Jesus the responsibility to acquit or condemn himself. Perhaps, if Jesus will say that he is a King, Pilate will be relieved of making a decision because the course in front of him would be clear – he could put him to death for treason.

It is curious that even though Pilate has the authority to rule and the authority to judge, he wants to abdicate that responsibility in this instance. Even though history records that he is a vicious, uncompromising man, John depicts him as indecisive and at least a little bit concerned to do the right thing. In the end though, Pilate fails. He is unable to make the decision. The fact that he does not know the truth (ie that he cannot make right judgements) is exposed for all to see. Pilate was unable to make the distinction between right and wrong, he was not able to make the right choice between the angry crowd and the innocent man. Though he had authority over the people before him and as the person with authority was in a position to judge, in this instance at least he could not make the decision. in the final analysis, he could not make the choice to do what was right.

What is truth? Pilate’s question resonates throughout history and history records that by and large humanity is very poor at making the right judgements. In the end only God can truly distinguish between good and evil. As Christians, as those who claim to hear Jesus’ voice, we have the potential to be united with Jesus and have been promised the gift of the Holy Spirit who will lead us into all truth. There are no easy answers to Pilate’s question. In the end truth, right judgement belongs to God. If we seek the truth, we need to submerge our egos and deflate our arrogance. The more we confront our selfishness and self interest, the more we will be able to become one with Christ and the more easily will we be guided by the Holy Spirit. The best that we can do is to give ourselves over to God and do the best we can.


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