What is Truth?

One of the saddest phrases in all of Scripture is spoken by Pontius Pilate. He is questioning Jesus and he knows in his mind and heart that Jesus is innocent. He weakly tries to find a way to release Him and he engages Jesus in a dialogue. When Jesus says: “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” Pilate makes his sad response: “What is truth?” (John 18:37‑38). Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent and yet he allowed his mind to become clouded and his will to become weakened because of the opinion and threats of the crowd and because he feared what others would think of him. Having before him Truth itself, he expresses his tragic state of weakness and self‑imposed confusion by saying “What is truth?” The concept of being able to know truth and those things which are true is a very basic one and is particularly important to affirm in our own age. It is one of the themes that our Holy Father often speaks of in his role as universal teacher and so it seems that it would be beneficial for us to reflect on this concept this week.

Revealing who we are in our human relationships

We know that if we are to enter into healthy relationships, there is a necessity on our part and on the part of the other person to reveal something of ourselves. In fact, those who have an inability to reveal themselves in any way are generally incapable of intimate relationships with another person, whether that be in friendship or in marriage. In revealing ourselves, it is also imperative that we reveal the true person! Studies into the use of the Internet have shown that many use this latest technological marvel as a means of projecting different and assumed personalities. “Scientific American” magazine has even published a study showing that 90% of the people who use online dating services lie about who they really are!

As part of our glorious human nature, God has given us the ability to know reality and to know what is true or false. Beginning in the eighteenth century, certain philosophers put forth the idea that the human person is incapable of knowing the truth. They said that we might observe external signs but we cannot recognize reality or make a distinction between what is true or false. This ultimately led to the idea, which we frequently are confronted with today, that each person creates his or her own reality. According to this view there is no true or false or right or wrong. What is true for you may be false for me and vice versa. Your perception of something may be different from mine but the only “wrong” is to say that anything is “right” or “true!” Our good common sense should help us to realize that this is a faulty way of reasoning. It is also an insult to the dignity of the human person, whom God has endowed with the ability to reason, to know and to make judgments.

What is it not?

Some of the older priests of our archdiocese mention in their recollection of seminary days a particular professor of theirs, who used the question, “What is it not?” as an effective means of teaching. It is sometimes helpful to point out what something is not in order to better understand what it is. Let us look at what truth is not.

Truth is not public opinion

We are blessed to live in our beloved United States, where many have prospered and enjoyed the liberty given to us by our particular form of government. Our electoral processes are something we are proud of and we have become used to elections determining many aspects of our American life. All of this has served us very well and we should indeed be proud of it. However, this very process can also, little by little, give us the impression that the majority determines what is true and false and right and wrong just as it determines who will be president, governor or mayor. We have only to think of Jesus standing before Pilate, with the taunts of the crowds behind Him, as well as the many martyrs down through the centuries, to bring ourselves back to reality. Jesus was also the object of public opinion, both on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday! How could the glorious human mind be made just to be the slave of the fickle sway of public opinion? Just as our Creator endowed us with reason, just as the Father revealed to our Jewish ancestors in the faith the truth about Himself and just as Jesus, “the way, the truth and the life,” promised to send us the Spirit to lead us into all truth, so we wonderfully made men and women can know and embrace what is true of and in itself. What we know as “the majority” or “public opinion” may be very effective in electing public officials in a peaceful way but it does not determine what is true and false.

Truth is not emotion

On another occasion, I wrote about the true use of emotion, which is yet another part of our dignity as creatures made in God’s image. Under that topic, we discussed the good qualities of emotion but the dangers of emotionalism. Emotions are good but they are not the “fuel that runs the engine.” As with public opinion, our emotions can also be fickle and can make us their slaves. The use of emotion to rouse a crowd or to sway the opinion of a person or large groups of people can be very dangerous because it can bypass the natural order of thought and reason. History is filled with examples of this and our own lives are filled with examples of it as well. Tragically, an entire generation was told: “If it feels good, do it.” Many of the results of those choices, made without reflection but based merely upon emotion, have been tragic for so many of those concerned.

Proclaiming and recognizing truth is not being intolerant

If you knew someone who was color blind and, without help, chose an outfit of clothing which wound up looking comical, would you condemn that person? No, because there was a weakness which made it impossible to recognize color. On the other hand, would you say that brown was grey and blue was white because that’s how that person perceived those colors? No, because his or her honest mistake doesn’t change reality! So it is in the recognition of truth. Another may not recognize what is true because of lack of knowledge or because of some human weakness. That person may even be virtuous. However, it does not change the objective reality of what is true and what is false. It is comforting to know that while we preach the truth from our pulpits, according to the mission entrusted to us by Jesus, we apply it with mercy, understanding and forgiveness in the confessional.

Pope Benedict XVI

In Pope Benedict’s clear and easily understandable manner, he sums up in the following words the message of this week’s topic: “Today, as in the past, it is not enough to be more or less like everyone else and to think like everyone else. Our lives have a deeper purpose. We need God, the God who has shown us His Face and opened His Heart to us: Jesus Christ. If we Christians call Him the one universal Mediator of salvation, valid for everyone and needed by everyone, it is because we are gripped by Him who has touched our hearts and lavished gifts upon us so that we, in turn, can offer them to others. Thus our faith is decisively opposed to the attitude of resignation that considers man incapable of truth. This attitude, I am convinced, lies at the heart of the crisis of the West. If truth does not exist for man, then neither can we distinguish between good and evil. Truth proves itself in love. It is never our property, never our product, just as love can never be produced but only received and handed on as a gift. We need this inner force of truth. We are its witnesses. We must hand it on as a gift in the same way we received it, as it has given itself to us” (Homily, Shrine of Mariazell, Austria, 8 September 2007).

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  • junior

    reason is not emotion or public opinion; neither is it logic. Newman said that what is usually called reason is really the analysis of reason. linguistic philosophy and Freudian psychology recognize the philosophical, moral truth that if you equate reason with truth lots of times you are disguising your motive from yourself. Personalism was developed because Aristotelian Thomism didn’t answer the questions modern thinkers was asking.

    Pope Benedict appeals to maturity as the “reason” why relativism is false; that is brilliant, a worthy response to a Blake or a Nietzsche. Other than that, though, Pope Benedict points out the faults of the muslims and the faults of the secular humanists and says simply that because they are wrong we are right. He is missing about two hundred years of literary, philosophical tradition. He doesn’t have to agree with that tradition, but he does have to address people like Blake or Freud who are not religious fundamentalists, but who recognize how reason can be insidious.

    The language of the body is because Martin Buber was. Freedom and Responsibility gives a nod of recognition to Buber’s insight that to reduce the sexual instinct to love is to destroy it. Freud said something similar, but specifically in regard to men. Good girls like bad boys, or intuitively dislike good boys because, without the aid of Freudian psychology or a degree in Romantic poetry,they understand that the male sexual instinct/feeling cannot survive Christian moralism.

    The unformed personality of an adolescent, combined with the belief that one can be condemned, and seriously offend the love of God by a thought whose object may or may not be married sexual love, that’s a good mixture for repression. Identifying love of God with Eros is not the primary insight of Buber. Buber goes further. He explores the experience of love, and by analogy love of God, with coital experience, and part of that experience is non-intuitive. Pope Benedict identifies love of God with sexual love because he can, because it is something easily done on paper. In its own way it is a violation of the truth, not because he says a falsehood, but because it/he is not close enough to the reality he effuses about – he certainly is not lacking in love of God, but he does not write in the bold way Buber does about sex. John Paul was not as much of a poet as Benedict. His vocabulary was safely too abstract and dialectic to address the point Buber made, that one can figure everything out by reason, including the limits of reason, and still be an unreal person.

    John Paul could not address the point, but he could nod towards it in recognition. He points out that even learning what chastity is, not just being chaste, is a life-long process. Obviously he was speaking within the parameters of fidelity to God’s commandments, but nonetheless there is something harmful in the praise of people who don’t have the capacity to question what is being said. That “faithfulness” is not faith, but nostalgia, a decision not to give any rights to experience where reason doesn’t square with it.

  • mkochan

    JPII addressed the issue of authentic personhood repeatedly and deeply — I suggest a more thorough reading of both popes by you.

    Also beware what one of Buber’s editors noted — that one may be so full of self-congratulation at understanding his writings, that one may forget to ask if what he says is true. If boldness of speech made truth we would all be Nietzsche’s disciples.

    Finally the capacity to question per se does not increase a person’s holiness and that in the end is where the judgement lies.

  • neverthirstagain

    I agree with mkochan. In the end the truth shall set thee free, that is unless thee rejects the truth ( Christ ). Nietzsche may be set free – only God knows. Pray for his soul and all other who are or were led astray by the empty lies of atheism, materialism and relativism.