Jesus had been brought before Pontius Pilate for trial and in a pivotal scene there is this memorable dialogue:
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” asked Pilate. (Jn 18:37-38)
I have generally interpreted Pilate’s remark about truth to be highly cynical and dismissive, almost as though he said it with a wave of the hand. Further, I have thought it well reflects the cynicism of our own times that so dismisses the notion that there is such a thing truth or that it can be known. While many claim this rejection is liberating, the fact is, without a common consensus on a basic framework of truth to which we must all assent, things reduce to a power struggle where the strongest and loudest win. This does not actually seem very liberating in the end.
Pope Benedict in his new Book, Jesus of Nazareth (vol. 2), ponders the implications Pilate’s question and what it means for us, who, at least culturally struggle with the same question, “What is Truth?” I’d like to give a few excerpts from the Pope’s reflections and add some commentary of my own. As usual, the Pope’s text will be in black, italic bold, and my comments will be plain text red.
The Pope begins by pondering if Pilate’s question is not somewhat understandable given that Jesus indicates his kingdom is rooted in the Truth. But since there are often endless arguments as to what truth is, Pilate, as a politician, asks, “What is truth? As if to say, How can a kingdom be built on something that is so debated? The Pope writes:
[Since] Jesus bases his concept of kingship and kingdom on truth as the fundamental category, then it is entirely understandable that the pragmatic Pilate asks him: “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38).
It is the question that is also asked by modern political theory: Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere…? By relying on truth, does not politics, in view of the impossibility of attaining consensus on truth, make itself a tool of particular traditions that in reality are merely forms of holding on to power?
In the last 50 years or so, the West has struggled greatly under the dissolution of a common moral and religious vision. Though we have long had sectarian differences, the basic Judeo-Christian vision held sway and tended to unite us in the essentials of a moral, and even political vision. That common vision, that grasp of the common truth, to which most assented, has dissolved. But, as the Pope articulates, there are some who celebrate this dissolution, since; some argue that traditional and religious views excluded many from “power” or a place at the table. A united vision was/is to narrow for them. So they not only celebrate the abandonment of truth as a category, but many actually seek to undermine and attack it. This is usually done through an un-nuanced call for diversity and the labeling those who seek to maintain a common vision as hateful, bigoted, narrow-minded, and so forth. Perhaps with this in mind, the Pope goes on to say:
And yet, on the other hand, what happens when truth counts for nothing? What kind of justice is then possible? Must there not be common criteria that guarantee real justice for all—criteria that are independent of the arbitrariness of changing opinions and powerful lobbies?…..
In effect, when there is no common basis from which to act, when there is no commonly accepted truth, no basis on which to reason, what we end up with is a power struggle. In the vacuum of a truth-free zone, what is reasonable does not hold sway. Rather, the one with the most power, money, and influence, the one who can shout the loudest or is most politically connected, wins the day. Truth thus yields to power, and without a common truth, mere power moves to the center.
And yet, it is one thing to assert that a common truth should unite us, but it is another to define what that truth is and should be. The Pope continues:
What, then, is truth? Are we able to recognize it? Can it serve as a criterion for our intellect and will, both in individual choices and in the life of the community?
The classic definition from scholastic philosophy designates truth as “adaequatio intellectus et rei” (conformity between the intellect and reality); Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 21, a. 2c). If a man’s intellect reflects a thing as it is in itself, then he has found truth: but only a small fragment of reality—not truth in its grandeur and integrity.
It seems here we have an appeal to what we have come to call the “Natural Law.” There is an “is-ness” to things, a nature that we must come to perceive and be in conformity with. In a pluralistic culture such as America, Natural Law is likely the essential basis from which we could build consensus. But, sadly, here too, there has been a breakdown in a Natural Law basis as many in our society have come to doubt that reality is intelligible at all.
St. Paul lamented the same thing in his day when he wrote of the Gentile world: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-21).
In rejecting the Natural Law, and that reality itself should be a guide for us, the modern discussion retreats primarily to the mind and the realm of opinion. And, as in Paul’s day, we have a lot of senseless thinking that is highly disassociated from reality.
Paul pointed to the approval of homosexuality in his time as a chief symptom of the problem. Paul called homosexual acts “paraphysin” (contrary to nature). Any simple investigation into the anatomy involved makes it clear that the man is not made for the man, rather the woman is made for the man. But simple natural observation seemed to escape many of the people of his time and he describes their minds as “darkened.”
In our own time, as Natural Law recedes, we also, as a culture, retreat into the mind and lose touch with reality. And sure enough, homosexuality is approved by increasing numbers as the simple truth expressed by nature is replaced by thought and opinion.
The Pope next moves to a more theological answer to the question, “What is truth?”
We come closer to what Jesus meant with another of Saint Thomas’ teachings: “Truth is in God’s intellect properly and firstly (proprie et primo); in human intellect it is present properly and derivatively (proprie quidem et secundario)” (De Verit., q. 1, a. 4c).And in conclusion we arrive at the succinct formula: God is truth itself, the sovereign and first truth (“ipsa summa et prima veritas”); Summa Theologiae I, q. 16, a. 5c). This formula brings us close to what Jesus means when he speaks of the truth, when he says that his purpose in coming into the world was to “bear witness to the truth”.
….. Man becomes true, he becomes himself, when he grows in God’s likeness. Then he attains to his proper nature. God is the reality that gives being and intelligibility. “Bearing witness to the truth” means giving priority to God and to his will over against the interests of the world and its powers. God is the criterion of being…..
Hence, to increasingly know the Lord is to know the truth, and to have that truth set us free (cf John 8:32). For we who believe, truth is not merely a set of facts, but it is found in a personal relationship with God who, through the Holy Spirit, leads us to all the truth (Jn 16:13). Further, to know Jesus is to increasingly know the truth for he said plainly I am the truth (Jn 14:16)
We may also say that bearing witness to the truth means making creation intelligible and its truth accessible…..Let us say plainly: the unredeemed state of the world consists precisely in the failure to understand the meaning of creation, in the failure to recognize truth; as a result, the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world.
This was said above but repeated here for emphasis: to abandon the truth found in Natural Law, and in God for believers, is cede the field to the most powerful. It is not the reasonable who win the day, it is the strongest, richest or most powerful.
What is truth? Pilate was not alone in dismissing this question as unanswerable and irrelevant for his purposes. Today too, in political argument and in discussion of the foundations of law, it is generally experienced as disturbing. Yet if man lives without truth, life passes him by; ultimately he surrenders the field to whoever is the stronger.
A good summary statement.
“Redemption” in the fullest sense can only consist in the truth becoming recognizable. And it becomes recognizable when God becomes recognizable. He becomes recognizable in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history.
The criterion of truth this time in the discussion should seem plain to us. Although, in a pluralistic society we may struggle to easily define truth, coming to some broad consensus is essential for us. The word , “criterion” means, standard, principle or rule. Without some common basis, things reduce to power struggle. We see this increasingly to be the case as the West loses any common basis to discuss matters. What we are increasingly seeing are shrill debates, protests, advocacy journalism and the like. When conversations rooted in reason and commonly held truth can no longer be had, it’s “turn up the volume” time in America. The one with the most money and power wins.