I realized this morning that I know very little about Pontius Pilate. I’ve read a few sentences about him in the gospels, but even those focus primarily upon his role in the crucial moments of another’s life. Because of those sentences, I’m able to affirm my belief that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” but I still know next to nothing about the man himself.
Nevertheless, I feel a certain camaraderie with Pilate this morning as his question to Jesus resounds in my mind, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
From my vantage point, I can’t imagine a more timely, consequential, or appropriate question in August 2020 than Pilate’s from two thousand years ago.
Though the age of his question may comfort us that truth has always been elusive, my sense is that our understandings of truth are particularly disparate and fluid in the present age. Here, in this present moment, regardless of whether we articulate it, our almost constant question is “What is truth?”
Given the legal proceedings over which he presided, Pilate was likely accustomed to pursuit of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” from the perspective of eyewitnesses. Legal truth, then as now, was what could be witnessed, described in testimony, and corroborated. In Jesus’ case, Pilate discovered, as we so often do, that a person’s perception is often affected by a person’s perspective.
Consider the consequential questions over which we collectively wrestle. Whether the topic is global warming or mask wearing, experts and authorities from differing political perspectives offer differing counsel. Far from corroborating, they present conflicting and contradictory testimonies. When experts clash, what is truth?
Furthermore, we live in an era in which the very ideas of authority and expertise are consistently challenged and undercut. Deference is giving way to defiance. Societally, it seems we give greater credence to conspiracy theories than to scientific theories. We once allowed scholars to shape our view of truth, but now, when expertise doesn’t matter, “What is truth?”
Similarly, we have a rapidly diminishing sense of media’s trustworthiness and capacity to deliver objective truth. Right now, you’re probably thinking about particular news organizations’ conservative or liberal biases. Certainly, this is not a new development; two hundred years ago, we would have discussed their federalist or states’ rights inclinations. What is new, however, is the unprecedented proliferation of pseudo-news, quasi-news, fake news, and no-effort-to-be-news online “publications,” whose sensational stories are so often quickly shared and spread across social media. If the “news” we read and see is no longer reliable truth, what is truth?
Speaking of seeing, another great impediment to our pursuit of truth is that we’ve learned that we sometimes cannot trust what we have actually witnessed. Where we once trusted the photographic evidence before us (because “the camera doesn’t lie”) we’ve now learned that photographs and videos can be manipulated very cleverly. Social media accounts can be hacked fairly simply. Foreign “trolls” convincingly imitate real people’s online presences. Even when we see it with our very own eyes, it may not be true. So, what is truth?
In her Republican National Convention speech this week, First Lady Melania Trump said, “We all know Donald Trump makes no secrets about how he feels about things. Total honesty is what we, as citizens, deserve from our President. Whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking, and that is because he’s an authentic person who loves this country and its people.” Is truth equal to candor? Is honesty defined as authenticity in revealing our thoughts in our words? What is truth?
A member of a congregation I served and led years ago seemed to embrace a similar understanding of truth. He once said something like this to me: “You’ll find that I’m your best friend around here because I have the courage to say the things that others won’t. I tell the truth even when it hurts.” True to his word, he was both candid and vocal. No one wondered how he felt because he said it–even when it hurt and regardless of who it hurt. At our worst, however, we may use such candor to inflict pain upon another, rationalizing that honesty is always virtuous and claiming, “Truth hurts!” Is truth to be self-serving or weaponized? What is truth?
Even as the First Lady commends his honesty, some media fact checkers call President Trump’s truthfulness into question, claiming that he has uttered over twenty-thousand “false or misleading” statements. We know that “misleading” implies interpretation, and therefore, we likely would differ considerably over whether a statement actually is misleading (again, depending upon our own biases and perspectives).
However, “false” suggests objectivity, factuality, verifiability–all criteria that seem familiar to most of our definitions of truth. From our earliest experiences in school, we’ve generally believed that true and false are antithetical and that one excludes the other. However, a recent addition to our cultural lexicon is “alternative facts,” which probably means claims of fact from alternative sources, yet again depending upon our preferences, assumptions, and various worldviews. When even “facts” collide, what in the world is truth? Is there even such a thing as truth?
In the 2009 movie Couples Retreat, when his wife and friends diminish the severity of his brush with a shark, Dave says repeatedly, “I know my truth. I know my truth.”
Maybe Dave’s answering our question. Maybe our world has become so disjointed, individualistic, and self-interested that truth is simply “my truth.”
I alone am the authority of my truth. I will find the news sources, the experts, and even the alternative facts to verify my truth. I will discount and diminish any voice or claim conflicting with my truth. I will loudly proclaim and defend my truth, regardless of the hurt it might cause another. My truth is the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts.
No wonder Pilate tried to wash his hands and walk away from it all.
For followers of Christ, however, “my truth” is inadequate, insufficient, unholy, and unChristlike. Earlier in the gospel of John, a few chapters before his encounter with Pilate, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and on three occasions thereafter, he refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth.” In contrast to a self-insistent “my truth,” the truth is Spirit-inspired and both proclaims and honors Jesus Christ and his love.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (4:15). A self-involved “my truth” is childish and immature; the truth and all of its expressions are neighbor-loving, mature, and Christlike.
Truth is best found in the effort to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As love rules and guides us, we will be people of honesty, authenticity, and integrity. Our love for God and people will inspire us to generosity and charity, rather than paucity of spirit and petty defensiveness over our little preferences and biases.
In pursuit of love, we just might find that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.