Friday, April 6, 2012

What is the Truth?

Good Friday

Quid est veritas? “What is the truth?” The exact intention of Pilate’s rhetorical question in response to Jesus’ confession that he had come to witness to the truth has been subject to debate among scholars, with no firm conclusion. His statement may have been made in jest that the trial was a mockery and that he too was a victim of circumstances beyond his control, or he may have actually intended to reflect on the philosophical position that truth is hard to understand. However, regardless of his exact intention in uttering the statement, his action was to ignore the assertion of Jesus that he was the "witness to truth"

This verse has been widely quoted and alluded to in culture and literature, particularly in that of philosophical nature. While Pilate's question -- whether intended philosophically, jestfully, rhetorically, or born of frustration at the lack of a plain answer -- is by no means the first incident of someone questioning the nature of truth, it has been drawn upon many times as a significant occurrence thereof.

In a recent series of more than twenty interviews conducted at random at a large university in the United States, people were asked if there was such a thing as absolute truth - truth that is true across all times and cultures for all people. All but one respondent answered along these lines:
"Truth is whatever you believe."
"There is no absolute truth."
"If there were such a thing as absolute truth, how could we know what it is?"
"People who believe in absolute truth are dangerous."
The lone exception was an evangelical Christian, who said absolute truth was in Jesus Christ.

I would like to suggest that the same survey conducted elsewhere in the world would have revealed the same result. It’s typical of post-modern society which rejects absolutes and all attempts at defining meaning. As Clive Calver says, in an article 'Thinking Clearly About Truth' in Christianity, we "drift on a tide of uncertainty into a sea of unknowing."

Oddly enough, those who claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth make scores of decisions every day on the basis that they believe some things are true and some are false. We all do. I will not turn on a light without believing in the reality of electricity, or drive a car without believing in the effectiveness of the combustion engine. Mathematicians undertake the most complicated of calculations based on the belief that their theorems and formulaes are sound. No one undergoing brain surgery would want to be operated on by a surgeon who did not believe that some things about the brain were true and some not true. And yet, when it comes to the most important issues of life - What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Does it matter whether I am good or bad, or is there any such thing as goodness and badness? What happens when I die? Will I be called to account before God for my actions and omissions in life? Does God exist anyway? - it is assumed that either we can't know or it doesn't matter. Figuring out something that "works for me" is all that is required. Or I can assume the attitude of Marilyn Monroe who is said to have declared, "I believe in everything - a little bit."

What is the truth? Relativism isn’t a new invention of post-modernism. It existed in antiquity in the ideas of men who questioned the objectivity of truth, men who attempted to rewrite history, men who had ambitions of becoming gods. When one disputes the absoluteness of Truth, then one begins to position oneself as the dispenser and knower of all truths. One such man was the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius who remarked, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” But was Pilate conditioned by the ideology of pluralism and relativism when making this decision, or it merely betrayed a weakness in character?

Though a powerful man in a position of great authority, Pilate has the same fears that all humans have; fear for his job, fear for his life, fear of shame and humiliation, and his test is going to force him to choose between his allegiance to his fears, or his allegiance to the truth. Waiting for him to make his decision is the Son of God who stands in royal calmness watching with grace as Pilate struggles. An accurate sample of the human race, Pilate is a divided man. One side wants to free an innocent man. But the other side doesn’t want to pay the price to do it. What follows is the deepening of the psychological torment Pilate endures as he knowingly gives away his authority to be used to crucify Jesus.

Thus, what we have before us is not just a mean-spirited bureaucrat, or a pluralistic ideologue, he is an all-too-human proxy for modern man. Pilate is torn. It was not that Pilate did not know the answer to his own question. He knew truth that Jesus is innocent. His wife, Claudia, tells him that Jesus is a holy man and should not be punished. Jesus has many supporters, who will be angry if he is harmed. On the other hand, the religious leaders want Jesus to be crucified; if they are not placated, Pilate might have a revolt on his hands. And a revolt would displease Pilate's boss, Tiberius. Pilate could grasp the Truth but compromised it at the end out of political expediency. How often in our lives do we place strategic objectives such as power, money, or even the desire to be popular ahead of truth and doing what is morally correct?

Sadly, we may see a little of Pilate in ourselves. Today, the question of truth is less to do with the philosophical controversies regarding the absoluteness of the truth but rather with the moral question of whether we wish to stand up for the truth and die for it.

Pilate washes his hands, literally, of the affair. But he looks to be a broken man. Deep within, he knows that he cannot escape his part in Jesus' fate. Washing his hands will not bring him peace, will not erase the pain he feels, will not bring him closer to the definition of truth. He feels the emptiness we all feel when we make a decision without relying on the truth, without determining what is right and sticking with it. Like Pilate, we can decide to make a decision that seems to maintain the peace. But if it isn't based on the truth, can it really give us peace in the long run? The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.

So what is the Truth that is revealed by Good Friday? It is not a thing or an idea or a philosophical concept. It is a person. It is Jesus. Good Friday reveals the truth about Jesus. It would be on the cross, Jesus hanging naked and powerless, a picture of mortality and humanity at its worst, that the divinity of Christ will be revealed. Good Friday reveals that the truth of Jesus is not just some nice idea that tickles our curiosity and challenges our intelligence, it is a truth that saves us. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross will be our redemption and our salvation. Good Friday reveals the truth that the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity did not end at Christmas but is completed, accomplished and perfected by his mortal death on the cross. Suffering and death will never look the same again. No one can in all honesty claim that God does not understand their pain or suffering. The answer to human suffering lies upon the cross, God suffers with us, God has chosen to accept death for us. Good Friday reveals the truth about how life is decisive. We can choose to make decisions based on convenience, popularity, or for personal profit but the most important decisions in life, those that really matter, those that ensure eternal life, are the decisions we make in accepting, defending and dying for the truth. Finally, Good Friday reveals the truth about love. Love is not just a strong emotion. Love is a sacrifice and the greatest sacrifice or the greatest love one can express to the other is by giving up one’s life so that the other may live. Good Friday reveals that Christ is God’s love enfleshed.

In Blessed John Paul’s classic encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, he writes that the “Splendour of Truth shines forth in the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man's intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.

So come all of you, old and young. Come, weak and strong. Come! Come! Saints and Sinners and cast your eyes upon the splendour of this truth, the Truth revealed on the cross. Behold! Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung our salvation! Behold Christ, your redeemer and saviour! Behold the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End! Behold He who is the Way, the Truth and the Life! Behold the answer to your pain and suffering! Behold, He who is Love and for the sake of Love died for us!

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