What is truth?
October 27, 2010
Richard R. Crocker
John 18:37-38 John 14:5-7 1 John 3:18-19 John 8:32
What is truth? It’s a big question to explore, much less answer, in ten minutes, so early in the morning.
But we can make a few observations. The question was posed by Pontius Pilate, to Jesus, during his trial. But note what prompted Pilate’s question. He said it in response to Jesus’ assertion “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Now what kind of truth are we talking about? Because there are different kinds. There are truths that we know by definition. Most of these are mathematical. 2 plus 2 is four, by definition. That is not, I think, the kind of truth that Jesus was talking about, nor is it the kind of truth that most interests us. There are other truths that are discovered by investigation, many of them scientific. Such truths are descriptive and always subject to revision. When Newton discovered the law of gravity, he discovered a “truth”. Gravity as a theory doesn’t interest me much either, though I am very much affected by it. But there is another kind of truth that interests me, and I expect all of us, very much – and it is the truth we discover for ourselves, through experience, and through the testimony of others, Jesus says he came to testify to the truth – not to prove it. Testimony is a way of getting to the truth of a complex situation. In a trial, testimony is given to help us determine the truth, and the truth is usually not simple. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” can be understood as a cynical statement, signifying his conviction that there is no such thing as truth, or perhaps as a sincere statement, signifying his experience that truth is hard to discover. In either case, it is interesting to note that Jesus did not, at his trial, answer the question.
But earlier in the gospel of John (and it is interesting that it is John’s gospel that keeps talking about truth), Jesus did answer that question. But his answer is a statement that prompts many other questions, and provokes much discomfort among many people. I am referring of course to his statement: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me.” Here he says: I AM the truth. What does that mean? How do we who are Christians understand it for ourselves? And how do we expect non-Christians to understand it? About this I will say two things: first, Jesus seems to say that the most important kind of truth is not a concept, but a relationship. And I believe we all know this. To return, for a moment to my friend Karl Marlantes, whom I mentioned last week: his “truth” about the Vietnam war is not achieved by a pronouncement about it, but through a story about it, involving characters, who become known to us, to whom we feel we have a relationship. Only by exploring their testimony do we discover an important and very complex truth. So it is with Jesus. If Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, this is because he is a person who can be known in relationship, not a concept or a dogma demanding intellectual assent. And how do we enter into such a relationship? By embracing his teaching. That is the only way. And the only way to know him, and to know the truth that he is. But is it an exclusive statement? Not if we know his teaching. Is Jesus, by his life and teaching, a person who rejects people? No – well, mostly not. He does have a way of rejecting people who think they are righteous, but never people who know that they are sinful or imperfect. So, by logic, to know Jesus, to live by his teaching, to believe him, is to know that God loves sinners. And that is the only way we come to the God. It’s a paradox. And if you don’t understand paradox, you will never understand this sentence. It’s like the pope. I’m not a Catholic, but some of you are. One of the reasons why I am not is that I reject the doctrine of papal infallibility. But you know what? I might finally convert if the Pope sat on his throne one day and said, ex cathedra: I am the pope, and now I am speaking infallibly, ex cathedra. And What I have to say, infallibly, is that there is no papal infallibility. That would do it for me. That is the sort of paradox I see in the statement of Jesus that so many people find offensive because they do not understand its paradoxical nature.
Finally, in the first letter of John – maybe the same John, maybe not – we’ll never know the truth about that; we do encounter this truth. Listen to it again. "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we come from the truth…” So what constitutes a test for truth? Not talk. Not dogma. But lived, embodied action of love. And when we are able to love, we know that we have discovered the most important truth that there is. That is what I think Jesus meant when he said: “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples: and you will know the truth, and the truth will Make you free.” (John 8:31b-32) Amen.