“What are the common objects of love that define us as Americans?” President Biden asked in his inaugural address.
He went on to list several and concludes by naming truth.
Then he observed, “Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit … and each of us has a duty and responsibility … to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
After years of dealing with the Trump administration branding critical reports as “fake news” and offering “alternative facts” to defend its claims, President Biden is surely right to call us to defend truth.
In order to do so, we have to ask, with Pilate, “What is truth?”
Skepticism about what is true grows in a number of soils.
As the pandemic has shown us, experts can change their minds over time. Is wearing a mask essential to stopping the spread of COVID-19? Early on, it was not seen to be. Now we are being told to wear even more effective masks. Which is the truth?
Skepticism grows in the soil of a misunderstanding of the social construction of reality, which is popularly understood to mean that truth is whatever one’s group wants it to be.
Matt Crawford, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, calls this “a psychedelic view of reality,” which he says, “is best not indulged around a table saw.”
More sophisticated forms of skepticism grow in the soil of a postmodernism that takes its bearings from Nietzsche. According to this view, truth is whatever the powerful say it is.
“What is truth?” remains a live question.
More troubling than the question, however, is Jesus’s lack of response. He simply stands there silently. Should we to conclude from the silence that there is no such thing as truth?
I have no idea what Jesus might have intended by his silence, but I suppose that it invites us to reconsider what truth is.
We have often treated truth as a possession, but what if truth is a not a possession? What if we construe truth as a quest?
Truth is, from this perspective, something we have to dig for, strive for, struggle with – whether it is truth in medicine, physics, law, history, ethics or theology. It is what we can learn from scientists’ efforts to understand COVID-19 where they discover more as they go along.
The process of discovery was learned over a career in the labs by Michael Polanyi, a chemist turned philosopher of science. From his experiences, he learned that reality (here we can substitute truth) is that which promises to reveal itself to us in infinitely new ways.
It thus takes time and effort to discover the truth about something – and then new evidence may still come to light and force us to revise our ideas.
Assuming the human species survives another 1,000 years, people may look back at our medicine and think we were as misguided as those who believed illness was caused by an imbalance in humors.
“What a bunch of rubes,” they might say. “How on earth could they have believed in viruses?”
Does that mean our ideas about viruses are false? No.
To say truth is a quest is not to say that what we know (about viruses or anything else) is false. Instead, it is to realize that what we think we know is incomplete.
The parable of the four blind men and the elephant comes to mind. One man touches the ear and tries to describe it. Another touches the trunk. Another touches a leg. The fourth one touches the tail.
As they try to tell each other what they feel, it seems they are describing something radically different from the others. But that does not mean that each description is false. It means each is not a description of the whole. It means that there is more to learn.
We have to discover the truth. In that quest, we have intimations of a reality that we explore in community with others.
We make mistakes. We revise our views – not on the basis of whims, but on evidence that is vetted by others who are likewise on a quest for truth.
That work requires us to balance confidence in what we know to be true now and openness to new insights. To quote Crawford again, “the truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators.”
Yes, we must defend the truth, but not as a settled, finished possession.
Instead, we must defend the quest for truth, a quest on which what we know now is understood to be only part of a larger reality that lies out there, ahead of us.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.