Pontius Pilate would feel very much at home in our culture. His cynical question — “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38) — captures the prevailing mindset of our day. It provides a three-word summary of relativism — the view that objective truth does not exist, that there is not objective “right” or “wrong” about human behavior. Relativism refuses to limit or define human behavior. All is relative and depends on the situation, the culture, the person, etc.
Although often depicted as a courageous rebellion against forces of intolerance and persecution, relativism is really cowardice. Because truth requires something of us. Pontius Pilate knew this. To acknowledge the truth would demand that he release Jesus and incur the crowd’s wrath. So he chose to avoid the truth. Then he dressed up his cowardice in a pseudo-philosophical inquiry: “Ah, but what is truth?”
So also today. Truth requires something of us. It requires humility to admit that we do not define reality, self-denial to reject our disordered desires, repentance to confess our errors. The truth about language demands that we speak honestly and not lie. The truth about sexuality means that we strive for chastity and defend marriage. The truth about human life requires that we protect the unborn. Many find it easier to deny truth than to take up these challenges. And, like Pontius Pilate, they dress up this moral cowardice in pseudo-philosophical questions: “Ah, but who is to say what marriage is … what sexuality is … what words mean? After all, what is truth?”
Cowardice is a dangerous thing. Physical cowardice gets men killed in battle. Moral cowardice destroys the foundations of society. It has produced what Cardinal Ratzinger famously termed the “dictatorship of relativism.” Not content to live their own lives without meaning, relativists insist that the entire society reject any objective truth about life, sexuality and marriage. Moral cowardice can be lived comfortably only when no one else announces truth.
In the face of such cowardice and dictatorship stands Christ the King. He summarizes His life in reference to the truth: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:36). Similarly, John Paul II remarked that the most important word in the Gospels is “truth.” Not love, peace, or joy, but truth. Truth is the context, the atmosphere — the operating system, if you will — that makes the others possible. It is the stable environment that enables the others to flourish.
Love depends on the truth because it seeks to be definitive. The language of love — always, forever, completely, entirely — must rest on a solid foundation, not shifting sands. Without the bedrock of truth love becomes mere sentimentality, subject to the vagaries of situations and emotions. Without truth you cannot have true love.
Likewise, genuine peace cannot exist without truth. Peace comes about by a common adherence to something impartial and objective — when disputing parties reconcile by acknowledging an authority independent of them. If we cannot refer to objective truth, then disputes can only be settled by power — fiscal, political or military. If there is no such thing as “right,” then we have only “might” to end disagreements.
Finally, joy cannot exist without truth. It always comes from the outside — from something beautiful and real that is unbidden and unexpected. The relativist never experiences such joy because he has defined all reality according to his small mind and even smaller heart. The one in love with the truth finds true joy — the joy of finding something more than oneself, more than our minds can construct themselves, more than our hearts can hold.
A bit of the relativist lurks in each of us. We all labor under a fallen human nature and tend to compromise the truth so that life might go a little more easily. To the extent we imitate Pontius Pilate in this way, our love becomes colder, our peace disturbed and our joy dreary. To the extent, however, that we submit to the King of Truth our love increases, our peace deepens and our joy radiates.