What Is Truth?

On the day after his arrest, Jesus was interrogated by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine.  Jesus had been accused of declaring himself a king, and Pilate was amused.  Here stood a poor Jewish man from a rural district in an outback of the Empire, someone without an education, wealth, or even a following, who somehow annoyed the local authorities for reasons that didn’t really interest him.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate sarcastically asked.

“Why do you want to know?” Jesus responded.  “Are you curious yourself, or did others tell you this about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate retorted.  “Your own people gave you to me for punishment.  What have you done?”

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus cryptically answered.  “If my kingdom was of this world, my followers would have fought to protect me.  But, as it is, my kingdom doesn’t belong here.”

Pilate stifled a laugh.  “So then you are a king.”

“You said it; I didn’t,” Jesus replied.  “I came into this world to bear witness to the truth, and everyone on the side of truth listens to my voice.”

A cynical veteran of Roman politics and bureaucratic in-fighting, a man tired of arrogant Judeans who claimed to be special while they owed their ass to Caesar, Pilate could no longer stand the nonsense.  “Truth,” he snorted.  “What is the truth?”

Pilate wasn’t stupid, and his cynicism was well-earned.  No word may be more abused in any language than the word “truth.”  How do we know what is true?  Our senses?  Common sense?  Tradition?  Scientific research?  Jesus is portrayed as presenting a truth that is magically understood by people, even though he died alone on a cross, largely abandoned by people who, at his death, failed to see the truth in him.

We are presented everyday with illusions and false truths we accept as facts.  I can remember seeing mirages on trips to the American Southwest.  Passing through the Arizona desert, a shimmering lake appeared in the distance, that we knew from prior warnings wasn’t real.  Was eyesight reliable for determining the truth?  Not in the slightest.

Before entering the Iraq War, Americans were told that Iraqis possessed weapons of mass destruction.  Secretary of State Colin Powell presented detailed pictures of manufacturing sites and delivery systems to the United Nations, broadcast on national television, as the justification for our proposed aggression.  Was any of it true?  No.  But Americans believed it.  The U.S. Senate resolved to go to war by a vote of 77 to 23.

Does medical science know why particular people get sick during flu season, while others do not?  Not really.  They can make statistical predictions, but they can’t explain why Aunt Sally was fine and you were laid up in bed.  Do physicists know how the universe is constructed and holds together?  Not really.  They can’t even explain the workings of gravity.  Can psychiatrists determine the cause of serial killers or schizophrenia?  Not at all.  All we know is that they don’t fit in with the rest of us.

What is truth?  Who decides what is true?  Is Christianity truer than Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism or Scientology?  Nobody knows for sure.  There is only faith, which is another word for personal opinion.  We each have our own beliefs, and, if we’re honest, there isn’t a way to verify one belief over another.  The truth is that when Pilate asked his question he was simply telling the truth.

One of the downsides to being human is that we’re unable to ascertain the truth with any degree of certainty.  The universe is infinitely large and infinitely small.  We float in the middle somewhere, out of our depth in every direction, making guesses and surmising what seems to be true, but with no way to determine for sure.  What we think is true today may well be proven false tomorrow.  It has happened many times before and will unquestionably happen again.

It’s hard to give up on certainty.  We are raised to believe that certitude is possible, and held within our grasp in a wide variety of ways.  But it simply isn’t true.  None of us knows if we’ll survive the night or the ride to work in the morning, let alone the source of the universe or what happens after we die.  We can have hope, but we can’t know.

The best we can do is view the effects of what we believe.  What are the consequences of the ideas we hold to be true?  Do they lead to a life of contentment and peace?  Do they help us successfully negotiate the world?  Do they increase the happiness of those around us?  Strange as it sounds, the truth cannot be discovered ahead of time.  It can only be known in hindsight.

The truth about Jesus could not be known by anyone at the time, in real time.  It could only be known looking back.  And that’s the way it is with everything.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: