There are probably many ways to take Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”
Recorded in John 18:37-38, it was uttered amid a kangaroo court of injustice in which, for political purposes, a man was put forward as having committed a capital offense worthy of death.
In such a context, I hear the question dripping with cynicism and disregard. In an unjust system, untruths are asserted as truths to manipulate and to hold on to power.
Who cares about truth, even if it were possible to determine?
But truth is an important and frequently mentioned subject in the Scriptures.
“Writers of both the OT [Old Testament] and NT [New Testament] value ‘truth’ in the sense of correspondence between words and reality,” Ian Scott observes in his article, “Truth in the New Testament,” published in “The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.”
The Gospel of John pushes that meaning metaphorically to describe Jesus as Truth, Scott explains, as the Incarnate Word revealing or corresponding to the divine reality.
Now, I know that wading into talking about truth is a daunting endeavor.
What truth is has been one of the central subjects of philosophy, discussed for thousands of years. And I am not naturally of a philosophical mindset.
Additionally, postmodern philosophers warn against any claims for universal or absolute truth.
Rather, they urge us to realize truth is always partial, and its understanding is contingent on social and historical contexts.
So, it is with humility I still venture to assert that to have a just and peaceable society, we need to search out truth.
And that truth must have some correspondence with the facts and the reality of how things actually are.
Isaiah 59:14-15 emphasizes the connection between truth and justice in declaring, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it and was displeased that there was no justice.”
We are in the middle of a pandemic crisis and looming beyond that is the increasing threat of the climate crisis. The last three years have often brought up discussions about how our democracy is in crisis.
But it seems to me that, along with these crises, and keeping us from addressing them well, is a crisis of truth.
Denial of overwhelming scientific consensus and the creation of alternative facts make it very difficult to move forward together toward solutions and a better world.
The truth can, in fact, be inconvenient, as Al Gore’s book and movie about climate change asserted in 2006. It is inconvenient because it can require us to change and not continue living oblivious to what is actually happening.
Truth can also be risky and have legal consequences when dishonorable and illegal behavior has occurred.
And truth can be financially costly, which is great motivation for covering it up and creating counter narratives so that profits continue, as we see being done by fossil fuel companies.
Truth can also be terrifying and cause for great grief, and the tendency may be to deny it until its reality pushes through, so it is no longer deniable.
It can be hard to look straight at reality and accept its truth. That’s true whether it is the death of a loved one or the loss of anything else we have held on to as precious.
And yet only in finding and accepting what is true can we move forward toward constructive action that may bring healing and hope.
Unfortunately, it appears that it is often religious people that seem most easily manipulated by those denying reality and asserting an alternate truth.
This underlines the importance of our task as religious leaders and people of faith.
We need to learn and teach how to think critically, to ask questions about assumed beliefs, to interpret sacred texts with hermeneutical integrity and to interact with the best of truth found in the world around us.
We need to help congregants become seekers of truth rather than accepting authoritarian versions of it.
A few months ago, I attended a conference titled “Human Rights: The Foundation of Peacebuilding.” It was emphasized that when there are human rights abuses, one of the targets is truth.
Park University was a co-sponsor of the event and has a peace journalism program. Students are educated to seek out the facts and report them in a way that leads to a more peaceful society.
I have been following the news much more carefully during the last few years. And my respect for the profession of journalism has greatly increased as I have watched their dedicated search for truth, even when it takes them to battlefields in harm’s way or to confronting power with uncomfortable questions.
As religious leaders and people of faith, may we also have such dedication to the truth, as we can best discern it. May this be true of us no matter how unpopular it may be among those we serve.
May we speak truth in love, sometimes gently because truth can be painful and threatening. But may we also speak truth to power to challenge the false narratives that lead to suffering, injustice and war.
May we follow the way of Jesus, even in the most threatening of times, to testify to the truth.
I pray we will have the wisdom to discern what is true, strength to do what is right, courage to speak truth to power and gentleness to offer truth in love.
Ruth Lofgren Rosell is the Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Counseling, Director of Contextualized Learning, and Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence.