Pilate asked Jesus, ‘So, you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘you say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18.37-38)
Pilate is the consummate modern western person. There is no time in our history than now when people, as did Pilate, struggle with the question, ‘What is truth?’ We live in a time of ‘Fake News’, no longer trusting what is presented to us through the media, our government agencies, societal institutions (such as the Church), and even what our friends and family tell us are the facts. There is no longer such a thing as just plain fact(s) that everyone accepts is true, accompanied by a ‘moral order’ we all could follow. That’s why we’re often told, and may say to others, ‘nobody can tell me what is true or not true, nor should I be able to say the same to anybody else.’ This autonomous perspective of the world is often mingled up with right’s language: ‘it’s my right to say this, do this, or believe this. Therefore, you don’t have the right to tell me what to do.’ The epitome of freedom, therefore, only exists when ‘everyone is free to decide for oneself what one thinks, believes and does.’
There is only one problem with living in a world where truth is relative (and consequently so is morality), not objective. It’s incoherent and, ironically, undermines the modern notion of rights and freedom we value so much today. Let’s consider some examples. First, let’s examine the political turmoil that’s unfolding in the US. Political divisions are deep and growing deeper by the day in that country. They are exacerbated by what Donald Trump has popularized as, ‘Fake News’. Trump, and his cohorts, has tapped into the autonomous modern mindset that says, ‘only I can decide what is true or not true’. This individualistic approach to truth coupled with an increasingly distrust of political institutions has enabled Trump to rise to the presidency and expound his outrageous ideas. It’s very easy to blame Trump for what is going on in that country. But he’s merely tapping into what many of us believe, that my facts take priority over your facts. My facts are true to me and it doesn’t matter what you think are the facts. Therefore, if I say, ‘the largest crowd to assemble and watch a presidential inauguration took place at Trump’s inauguration’, it doesn’t matter whether it’s objectively truth or what you say. All that matters is what ‘I think’ is true. We may not like or agree with Trump’s facts, or moral perspectives, but we can’t really blame him for what’s he’s doing because he’s just following the same grounds rules we all follow.
I had a very interesting discussion with a friend recently as to whether it was right or wrong for a Lesbian couple to conceive and raise a child as parents. Before I continue, I want to make something clear. I am not using this illustration to address the overall same-sex questions facing the Church today. That’s for another time. I simply want to look at the complicated moral issues that arise when a same-sex couple wants to conceive and raise a child. Most would say, ‘if they want to have children why not?’ But it’s not so simple. Where are they going to get the sperm necessary for one of them to be impregnated with so one partner can have a child? Is it right to expect a male to mechanically produce the necessary sperm and be the biological father? He may agree to offer his sperm with no strings attached. But what if he changes his mind at a future date? Does the biological father have any right to know his future son or daughter? Does the child of this lesbian couple have the right to know his/her father if they want to? My point is this. How can we support the so-called rights of one person (or in this case, the lesbian couple), when it conflicts with the rights of a male’s biological connection to said child? If there is no such thing as ‘the’ facts, ‘a’ truth and thus, a moral order, we don’t have the resources (at least helpful ones) to solve such conflicts.
Many moderns would say, ‘we’ve turned away from believing in God and his moral order because its caused wars, the oppression of minorities, people of different colour and people with different sexual orientations.’ I do not deny that it was in this context that such oppression did take place (albeit not in places like the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and China!). But I would say it’s naïve and reductionist to say God and His truth caused all the problems. What caused the oppression was not God, His truth, and moral order, but people and their misinterpretation or misrepresentation of God, His truth and order of reality. And therefore, moving away from believing in ‘the’ truth to ‘many’ truths doesn’t solve our problems, but in fact, exacerbates them.
So what do we do? As Christians we can offer a resource for a way forward towards dealing with our political, cultural and moral differences. But that source is not a theory, ideology or philosophy. We must be careful to not fall into the same trap some of our Christian brothers and sisters in the US have done by adopting conservative or liberal agendas with a Christian twist. The starting point for bringing us together as people and giving us some moral direction that is coherence is the person of Jesus Christ. As to why we should turn to Christ as a resource, let’s carefully consider what Jesus says to Pilate,
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice
First, Jesus says, I came into this world to testify to the truth. Notice Jesus doesn’t say a truth, but the truth. Jesus is the truth and the truth is Jesus. He is the truth in whom we discover our creator, why and for what purpose He created us. Jesus is the ‘truth, the way and life’ (Jn. 14.6). We know He is the truth because He’s told us so: I came into this world to testify to the truth. Accordingly, Jesus is the bridge from God to us in whom God reveals and speaks to us the truth about who is God, who we are, the world and our relationship with God and the world.
So why does Pilate say, what is truth and rejects the truth standing before him? Why do we reject him? Jesus gives us the answer: everyone who belongs to the truth will listen to my voice. That’s an astonishing statement when you think about it. It’s an astonishing statement because the ‘who’ that belongs to the truth is everyone! Many do not know or accept this to be true, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong to him. By definition, if God created us and gave us the gift of life, then everyone belongs to Him. Consider also this. Who did Jesus die for on the cross? Did He die just for you, just Christians, or me? No, he died for the sins of the whole world and so for everyone. Why? He died for all of us because we all belong to Him; each and every one of us is precious to Him because we all belong to Him.
But we still haven’t answered the question, ‘why do we not accept Jesus as the truth?’ The answer has to do with the nature of our ‘belonging to the truth’. Although we all belong to God because we are precious to Him, we do not belong to Him as equal partners. When Pilate asked Jesus, are you a king, Jesus responds, you say I am. For this reason I came into this world. Jesus comes to Pilate, you and me as our Lord and King, not as a creature of our imaginations. Jesus is not our buddy. He is our Lord and we are his subjects. Therefore, only as his subjects on bended knee can we listen to his voice.
Let’s face it, we – like Pilate – don’t like to bow down to anybody.. But unless we do and recognize we belong to Christ as unequal partners, we will not listen to His truth. But the consequences are dire. Clearly, the relativity of truth today does not give us the necessary resources to address our moral dilemmas. What we need is ‘the’ truth, ‘the’ way, and ‘the’ life. That truth, way and life is Jesus Christ.