What Is Truth?Posted: November 22, 2015
What Is Truth?
SLIDE 3: PILATE: “WHAT IS TRUTH?”
35 Pilate asked Jesus, “Your people and your high priests have asked me to execute you. What did you do?”
36 “My kingdom,” answered Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight to free me. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”
37 Then Pilate said, “So, are you a king or not?”
Jesus answered, “You tell me. I have preached so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, hears my voice.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. Everyone who seeks the truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the crowd gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘this king of the Jews’?”
40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!”
The author of the Gospel of John includes this conversation between Pilate the Roman Governor of Judea and Jesus. We cannot know whether or not this narrative took place. In fact we can guess that the author of John imagined this story, because he wanted to address a spiritual/philosophical issue of the classical Greco-Roman world.
SLIDE 4: SKEPTICISM
About two-hundred years before Jesus Greek Philosophy had reached an impasse in the philosophers known as the skeptics. The Skeptics taught that we should refrain from making claims of truth, because everything must be doubted. Our senses can be easily fooled and so our observation is uncertain, and our reason far from establishing any absolute truth is subject to our personal desires. In other words we can never be certain that our arguments are based upon reason or rationalization.
SLIDE 5: LIKE A MODERN POLITICIAN: “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO FOR YOU?
And so Pilate reflecting the philosophical impasse of the Greco/Roman world derisively retorts, “What is truth?” And then like a modern politician Pilate turned to the crowd and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the crowd according to John screamed, “Give us Barabbas!”
SLIDE 6: I CANNOT DOUBT THAT I AM DOUBTING
The Greco/Roman culture remained trapped in the skeptical world view, until St. Augustine, about four-hundred years after Jesus, made a critical break through, when he said, “All things must be doubted, but I cannot doubt that I am doubting.” He was essentially making a similar truth claim to Descartes’, “I think therefore I am,” that helped to pave the way for science and the enlightenment.
SLIDE 7: SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM A GOOD THING
And allow me to give credit where credit is due. Scientific Skepticism has been good for challenging us to question our assumptions and our methods, and it has led to new discoveries in science, medicine, even mathematics, philosophy and theology.
SLIDE 8: NEW FORM OF SKEPTICISM — RELATIVISM
Recently, however, our culture has found a new form of skepticism in the form of relativism – everything is relative. Allow me to share of story from when I was teaching Philosophy for Joliet Junior College on an adjunct basis.
SLIDE 9: ARE THERE ANY STANDARDS OF BEHAVIOR THAT SHOULD BE TRUE FOR ALL PEOPLE?
I was teaching Introduction to Philosophy in a night class on a satellite campus. The class contained both older adults and recent High School graduates. The book we were using had a nice unit on ethics, and I started lecturing about ethics by noting the number one question in ethics in America is: “Are there any standards of behavior that should be true for all people?” The older students in the class were very clear, yes there are standards of behavior that should be true for all people. The students who had attended parochial schools were also clear, there are some standards of behavior that should be true for all people. But graduates of the public high schools began to object: “Wait a minute,” they objected, “everything is relative.”
SLIDE 10: RELATIVE TO WHAT?
So as a good teacher I asked them, “Relative to what?”
At first they were not sure, and then they began to answer, “Well relative to what you believe, or how you were raised!”
SLIDE 11: IF JOHN WAYNE GACY BELIEVES IT IS OK TO MURDER 33 YOUG MEN, DOES THAT MEAN IT IS OK?
So I pushed a little further. I said, “Does that mean if John Wayne Gacy (a serial killer in Illinois) believes that it is O.K. to rape and murder thirty-three young men, and bury them in the crawl space of his home, then it is O.K?”
Well I figured, with such an extreme example, these young people might rethink their position. But instead I got answers like, “I don’t know,” and “Well I guess so.” The intellectual hold of relativism was so profound that many of these young people found themselves unable to make a judgement about behavior even in an extreme case like John Wayne Gacy. My reaction was, “Well maybe we’ve gone too far in denying the possibility of knowing the truth.”
SLIDE 12: YOU WILL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE
As Jesus said, “For you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” If we deny the possibility of knowing the truth, because we are so in thrall to relativism, then perhaps we have condemned ourselves to the bondage of falsehoods.
SLIDE 13: NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE OR WHERE YOU ARE ON LIFE’S JOURNEY YOU ARE WELCOME HERE – IS THAT REALTIVE?
So let’s ask the question why does any of this have any importance at all for us? After all at United Church we say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. There is nothing you have to believe, no doctrinal statement you must affirm in order to belong here.” That sounds pretty relative!
SLIDE 14: DO JUSTICE, LOVE KINDNESS WALK HUMBLY
While we are subjective about theology, about making statements about God or Jesus. For as I like to say, “Whenever we try to talk about God or Jesus, we say far more about ourselves, than we ever say about God or Jesus.” We still hold as an important faith affirmation our desire to follow in the way of Jesus. Now in all humility we allow that we can have honest disagreements about what exactly following in the way of Jesus means, but at the very least we point to the prophet Micah who said: “And what does the Lord require? But to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”
SLIDE 15: IF YOU THINK ALL THOSE OTHER PEOPLE ARE SO DIFFERENT, TAKE LOOK IN THE MIRROR
At United Church we tend to make behavioral affirmations, behavioral covenants, like “praying with and for one another,” and “respecting the right of individual belief and conscience of each person,” rather than intellectual statements of belief. Now some people will object that kind of a community of faith is awfully loose. Some people think we are so loose we’re in danger of falling out. And as our Moderator likes to say, “It can be a pain in the ‘you know what’ to hold together a community like that.” But the reason why we are here is because most other churches don’t have room for people who are as different as most of us! And lest you think it is all those other people at United Church who are so different, take a good look in the mirror.
SLIDE 16: POLITICIANS HAVE A CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED RIGHT TO LIE
Now there is another practical reason I want to lift up Pilate’s scorn for the truth. As Bill Tucker says, politicians have a constitutionally protected right to lie. And the season of the politicians is now upon us. Of course we have things like Fact Checker.Com, or the Political Pinocchios that attempt to check out and judge the veracity of the statements made by politicians. The ratings vary from True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False and Liar, Liar Pants Are on Fire.
SLIDE 17: PROPAGANDA HAS BEEN CULTIVATED FOR AT LEAST A CENTURY
But then we have to ask, who checks up on the truth checkers? Does the media outlet have an agenda? And how true is half true? The art of the political lie has been cultivated for propaganda purposes for over a century and never more aggressively than when politicians talk about War. For instance, in May of 1915 the British Passenger Liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat. The British used the sinking of the passenger ship as part of their propaganda against Germany, never disclosing to the British public that in addition to passengers the Lusitania was carry tons of munitions.
SLIDE 18: SEEK TRUTH
Sometimes lies consist of outright falsehoods, and other times the lie consists in the information that was omitted. There was something about weapons of mass destruction during the invasion of Iraq. But then Pilate would ask, “What is truth?” Truth is essential in a democracy, and as citizens we cannot, must not tolerate less than the truth from our leaders. We must actively seek the truth, for only if we insist upon knowing the whole truth, and not just that sliver of the truth with which we happen to agree, will we be able to discern God’s movements in our midst. Part of the gift of our Pilgrim ancestors on this Thanksgiving Sunday was the gift of democracy as practiced in that cradle of democracy the congregational meeting. Let us give thanks for our Pilgrim Heritage by knowing the truth, for the truth will set us free.