Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What is truth?

To love only to seek - on condition of never finding - to want only disquietude, that is to hate truth.
  - Jacques Maritain

αληθεια Before Pilate, Jesus said

". . . For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice."
Pilate said to him, "What is truth?"
  - John 18:37b,38 [RSV]
Pilate's question seems unmistakably cynical, a clear implication that, to Pilate, there is no such thing as truth, or that it cannot be attained.

It strikes me that this same disparity of viewpoints toward truth exists today, and explains much of the widening polarity in our culture. Both in politics and in the Church, the liberal or progressive thinker doesn't believe that the truth can be known with any degree of certitude. Thus, abortion may be lamentable, but not an absolute evil. Our definition for marriage or for family can be fluid, and can change as our understanding enters into broader horizons. Religions are all basically the same; none should be disparaged, and none should be especially esteemed above others. The conservative insistence upon unchanging values appears rigid and stubborn, probably rooted in fear, bigotry, and ignorance. The conservative's claim to know the truth seems arrogant and elitist. After all, no one can really know anything with any absolute certainty, so there can be no such thing as unchanging truth or immutable values.

At the other end, conservative thinkers often try to reason with their liberal friends, using the rigorous rules of logic, dialectic, deduction, induction, Scriptural exegesis, etc. But the arguments fall onto deaf ears, or onto ears that don't recognize such language. It's frustrating, like trying to nail Jello to the wall.

And so, we have an impasse, an ever-widening breach. Now, I don't know how one would go about bridging this gap, or if that is even possible, or desirable. But it occurs to me that the exchange between Jesus and Pilate may mirror the confrontation in our own culture, and so may shed some light upon what's really at stake here.

In many passages besides the one already cited, Jesus speaks of truth and seems to put great emphasis upon it. He says, for example, that ". . . you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  (John 8:32)  In the early Church, the apostles likewise take up this mantle and speak quite forcefully for truth and against erroneous doctrines.

In perhaps the most telling passage, Jesus identifies Himself as Truth personified when He says, ". . . I am the way, the truth, and the life. . ."  (John 14:6)  Taking this utterance at face value, one would have to conclude that to seek and embrace the truth is to seek and embrace Jesus; to deny or avoid the truth is to deny or avoid Jesus. (Of course, someone who denies truth would probably not take this or any other Scripture at face value anyway [sigh]).

Well, maybe it all just comes down to whom you believe is the more laudable role model: the open-minded Pilate, or the narrow and rigid Jesus.

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