“Truth. What is truth?”
While there are plenty of speculative interpretations attached to Pilate’s remarks, we can’t really know what the Roman governor’s intentions were as he responded to Jesus’ declaration that that those listening to His (Jesus’) words belonged to the Truth.
As Jesus’ trial continues, Pilate turns from Jesus, suggests to the crowd that Jesus is innocent of wrongdoing, but succumbs to the demands of the mob; Pilate discards his initial judgement, and sends Jesus to crucifixion.
What is truth, indeed.
We now find ourselves in what is being called the ‘Post-Truth World’, a term first coined by author Ralph Keyes in 2004 as he described the growing trend that discounted the value of facts in favor of exaggeration, misdirection, and outright lying in human discourse.
In a political setting, this post-truth era is distinguished by campaigns where arguments are driven solely by emotion and talking points are disconnected from policy and fact.
Outside of politics, sales staff promise what can’t be delivered, college students pad resumes with unearned academic credits, reporters misrepresent messages by cherry-picking phrases, and on and on…
But the fact that truth-stretching, ‘truthiness’, and outright lying is practiced by so many of us doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that to many of us, real truth simply doesn’t matter.
So what is truth?
‘Truth’ is something more than facts. While facts are observable events and measurements, ‘truth’ is what happens when we add interpretations and reasoning based on our personal experiences. Facts can describe the ‘what’ and perhaps ‘how’ behind the things we observe. Truth involves personal beliefs and our judgement behind the ‘why’. As Catholic Christians, we believe that there does exist a common, objective truth, the Truth as revealed through the Old and New Testament and displayed in practice through Jesus’ life.
The Church teaches that the Truth works hand-in-hand with a well-formed conscience that guides our interactions with those around us.
What confronts us in this post-truth world, where what we call truth exhibits a complete disconnect between belief and reality, is the same danger the Church warns when it teaches that real truths are not subjective – not every expression can be accepted as ‘true’ simply because someone declares it so.
Does Worldly Truth Matter?
Why should I be concerned as a Catholic citizen if friends, co-workers, and leaders continue further down a road in which what is said and written becomes nothing more than opinion-fueled fiction? Do we get a free pass by proclaiming allegiance to the Truth while accepting that our expressions of day-to-day worldly truth can preclude honesty?
Truth is that truth, in all its forms, does matter for at least two reasons.
First – God is big on truth.
Yes, God is slow to anger; but there are some things that really tick Him off. And if Proverbs 6:16-19 has any avenue to the behaviors that earn His wrath, we are in a heap of trouble (especially after this past year). It isn’t a stretch to see that in a ‘post-truth’ world, where messages are driven mostly by self-serving emotion, we put ourselves at risk of violating at least a few of the seven major abominations – those things that God detests (self-serving ‘truth-less’ oriented abominations italicized):
- Acting with pride
- Taking innocent life
- A heart with wicked intent
- Mischievous behavior
- Being easily swayed towards evil
- Sowing discord
Second – if no ‘common denominators’ of truth exists between communities, that is, if every subgroup of society makes up its own truth, how can there be any hope of communities working together for common goals? If there are no absolute ‘truths’ shared among all people, how can anyone agree on solving problems, assuming they could even agree on identifying the problems that need solving?
Knowing ‘Truth’ isn’t Enough
Pilate’s behavior is telling. Whether or not he was being rhetorical by asking ‘what is truth?’, he hints at not being able to at least recognize, if not hold fast to the truth as presented in Jesus’ words. As a result, even though he may have sensed an unpopular truth of innocence, Pilate hesitates, and in the end, accepts the ‘truth’ of guilt that was proclaimed by a screaming mob. Therein lies the key – knowing the Truth is one thing, letting the Truth guide one’s actions is another.
We observe artifacts of the physical world and consume facts. Our sense of truth adds our interpretation of conditions to which a well-formed conscience responds. That conscience rewards or disturbs depending on our action (or inaction). We may see a homeless person on the street – Truth pulls us to take action to help solve a problem. We observe media that degrades the gift of human sexuality – Truth calls us to change the channel or discard the website. We observe behavior-fueled by anger and violence. Truth calls us seek out the causes of misunderstanding.
When we ignore the Truth before us, or worse, drive our actions by made-up truths, we deny our conscience a clear view of the world in which we live. Our conscience, which John Henry Newman called the ‘voice of God’, becomes muted, muffled by other voices concerned with something other than the moral good. Without that sense of real truth, our conscience loses its dignity, its real value. And with no well-formed conscience, our actions fall prey to the day-to-day whims of self-interest.
What is the Catholic Christian’s response to this post-truth environment?
As we move forward in this hyper-connected world, a world where anonymity allows us to be way too free with our thoughts and words, it is good that we build a structure that guides our interactions with others as we search for the worldly truths that help us solve worldly problems. Let’s call it a plan to use the Truth to help us better grasp the truths of other peoples’ lives.
Using Proverbs as a model, our search for truth must build on honesty – we can’t just make things up. The search for truth has no wicked intent. We look for truth with humility (we do not know everything), and aren’t skewing our interpretations to sow mischief and discord. Disagree with others, sure. But such disagreements have value only when we see the constructive importance in helping others understand a perspective to which which they (or we) may not have been exposed — and only when we show respect for all ‘others’ God has placed on this earth.
These guidelines must direct our interpretation of observable facts, provide a litmus test of how we scrutinize the words of others, and set the tone for how we form our own expressions through any form of media.
And finally, even if when we apply all the good faith (pardon the pun) effort to properly interpret what is going on around us, we are called to act in accordance with what our well-formed conscience calls us to do. Having a strong sense of the Truth, knowing right from wrong, means little if, in the end, we allow our actions to be guided by self-interest and the groupthink of mobs.
That’s what Pilate did.