Each year as we gather for the Readings for Holy Week services, I find that one or two verses stay with me for days and weeks after Easter. This year it has been Pilate’s probing question during his interrogation of Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38a)
Indeed, what is truth? It is a question which is as relevant and urgent today as it was two thousand years ago. When called to testify at a trial, one is required to swear or affirm to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Is truth limited, then, to statements that are admissible in a court of law? Hardly. There are many things we know in our lives which cannot be proven true or false by the standards of our justice system.
Neither is truth simply the recitation of facts. To be truthful facts must be accurate; but without context, plain facts can be deeply misleading. As an example, consider the old Cold-War-era joke regarding a foot race between the top U.S. runner and his counterpart from the U.S.S.R. The American won the race. The next day the Soviet newspapers reported that their runner had come in second, and the U.S. runner had finished next to last. The facts are accurate. The manner of stating them is contrived to convey a false understanding of the results of the contest.
When it comes to spiritual truths, there are significant differences from one religion or culture to another. And realistically, there is no objective authority able to make a judgment among them. Unfortunately, much of humankind has never been able to accept the peaceful coexistence of a diversity of religious truths. You can read scriptures written thousands of years ago, then listen to podcasts of some of last week’s sermons, and the messages are the same. “My God is true; yours is false. My God says that he will kill you if you don’t worship him. My God says that I must imprison you or kill you if you do not believe what he says, act the way he requires, worship the way he instructs.” (Note: I am deliberately using the masculine pronoun here because virtually all the gods that are understood to be exclusive and to require violence against “the other” are depicted as male.)
Not all conflicts over truth are religious in nature. One person speaks truth to another, “I am hurt by what you are saying and doing.” The caring person will respond, “I am truly sorry. What can I do to reestablish right relationship with you?” The abuser says, “No, you’re not. I didn’t hurt you. It’s all in your head.”
Too often now we are seeing such abusive behavior not just on a personal, but also on a national level. Ben Carson, head of a federal department charged with helping the poor, recently declared that poverty is largely “a state of mind.” Apparently lack of affordable housing and of employment opportunities paying living wages don’t figure into his evaluation. As Robert Reich, the secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, tweeted in response: “So 15 million American children in poverty just need better attitudes and they’ll have food in their stomachs and roofs over their heads?” Carson is denying the truth of the lives of those he has been appointed to serve.
Then there is the endless torrent of falsehoods pouring from the White House. Many are fabrications so blatantly dishonest and so easy to refute that one does have to question the mental capacity of the originator. On the first full day of the new president’s term in office, press secretary Sean Spicer supported his spurious claim that the crowd at his inauguration had been larger than that for President Obama, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway then asserted that Spicer had offered “alternative facts.” In a more honest and straightforward world, these would simply be called lies.
There is debate now as to whether or not we live in a “post-truth world.” Luiz Brasil writes in The Brock Press, “We live in a world where facts compete with alternatives, where the truth is up for debate, where world leaders are informed by fake news. We live in a world where how you feel matters more than what experts know…. We live in a Post-Truth world, where truth is whatever you want it to be, and it is a very scary place.”
Professor Julian Birkinshaw, of the London Business School, states in Forbes that “We are living in a post-truth world, where alternative facts and fake news compete on an equal footing with peer-reviewed research and formerly-authoritative sources such as the United Kingdom's global news and current affairs service, the BBC.” And in an article published by the Economic Students Society of Australia, Andrew Wong observes, “Society and popular culture portrays honesty as noble and lying as immoral. We claim to hate lying politicians, but at the same time happily vote them into office without hesitation.”
We return then to the original question. What is truth? Does it exist? Does it matter? We seem to live in a topsy-turvy world where subjective religious truths are held out as absolute and non-negotiable, while objective scientific truths such as anthropogenic climate change and the efficacy of vaccinations are disputed or ignored. There is no consensus on what constitutes believable authority. How long can a nation sustain itself in such a fragmented state? For the sake of the generations coming after us, I hope and pray that we soon find our way to some agreement, and that we make the right choices in getting there.