The emergence of technology for altering photos and videos raises questions about how we can be sure of what is real and true.
As malevolent actors manipulate content to shape public perception through misdirection and disinformation, the public is faced with questions, such as “Is truth really that hard to find?” and “How do we maintain a moral center in these days?”
Jesus spoke of “truth” many times.
In John’s gospel in particular (John 8:31-32), Jesus is heard saying to those who believed in him, “… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
In the Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word from which “truth” is translated is “aletheia” – literally, the “absence of walls.”
So, what does Jesus mean about knowing the “truth” that sets free? What does this place – where walls are absent and unconcealed – look like, and where the very essence of being alive and human is not hidden? Is there such a place?
Consider the antecedent to Jesus’ statement, which qualifies what “knowing the truth” entails: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.”
The truth that Jesus speaks about is not accumulation of more knowledge or information.
The truth he speaks about is redemptive, saving truth rooted in obedience to the concrete ethical demands of his teachings and instructions.
In submitting ourselves to the practice and appropriation of his ethical demands through obedience, our lives are thrust into the possibility of entering the presence and reign of God on earth and in that, and through that, we are made free.
And wherever God is present, truth – “aletheia” – inhabits and indwells. The gospel proclaims that in Jesus, “The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
The constitutive and innate condition of what is true is its corresponding behavior.
Truth, to be truth, requires the validation of concrete, demonstrable and corporeal commitments to what is good, beautiful and true.
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:43-45).
The gospels are full of Jesus’ teachings focused on the conduct and public witness of his disciples.
One need only to study the Sermon on the Mount to be reminded that the authentic follower of Jesus is recognized not by what they say, but what they do.
Another imagery Jesus uses to emphasize the non-negotiable requirement of faithful behavior as quintessential to what is true is the warning he offered to his disciples as contained in the Sermon on the Mount.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?
“So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).
I hazard to say these eternal teachings of Jesus on the inseparable link between truth and corresponding behavior has made it through the civilizations across the years.
Geoffrey Chaucer, famed author of “The Canterbury Tales,” a 14th century collection of 24 stories written over a period of 13 years, coined the phrase, “Handsome is as handsome does” in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” which is to say that good deeds are more important than good looks.
A version of this adage was later popularized by the blockbuster movie, “Forrest Gump.”
The main character was asked several times in the movie if he was stupid. Forrest always responded by way of what his mother taught him when he was young, “Mama says stupid is as stupid does,” appealing to the questioner not to judge him by his appearance, but by his actions.
Some of the salient characteristics of truth are its constancy, verifiability and its universality.
While there are still many magicians out there who are quite adept at diverting us from the truth through sleight of hand and sleight of mind, it is, without question, possible to stay centered even in a time of moral casuistry and capriciousness.
For example, a tectonic political event in America – and because of its global prominence, perhaps the world – is now defining the inner spirit of our time.
The historic impeachment hearing – that concluded in late December with President Trump becoming only the third U.S. president to be impeached – was more than just a display of an epic partisan struggle for contested power.
The centrifugal social and political force that the impeachment hearing generated in our society threw all of us into a profound reckoning of our fundamental understanding of truth and a foundational moral re-inventory of our notions of right and wrong.
So, if nothing else, and if you are still in doubt whether there is truth out there that can be apprehended, plan to rise one morning to greet the sunrise.
Observe and discern where the sun breaks into dawn. The constancy, verifiability and universality of truth will present itself. The sun always rises in the East, no matter what the magicians say otherwise.
Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings.