What Is Truth?

Light of truth

Question: Fr. Paul C. Ambookaran

They say we are in post-truth era, what did Pilate mean when he asked Jesus, what is truth?

Answer: Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST

The question on truth, which had long agitated the world, is a perennial one, a very complicated, yet relevant query. It was a great subject of inquiry in all schools of the Greeks and in the course of time different sect of philosophers have engaged with this question in their own way. In fact, it is a question related with every authentic human existence, because what one believes and values and how one lives, acts, behaves and dies depends upon the answer of the one to this question. Thus, determining what is true becomes the most essential and necessary task of human existence. However, the contemporary discussions on the post-truth takes a different realm of the entire query on truth.

Post-Truth Era: Some Key Features
Now many would argue that we are in an era of post-truth; a time that shakes and challenges the age-old concepts of truth, reality and authenticity. The Oxford Dictionary has selected the word ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year in 2016, for the use of this term had increased to almost five times than the previous year. The Oxford Dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In the post-truth era, without looking into facts and figures, people go after religion, nationalism or other similar sentimental issues. With the modern technological advancement, it is easy to make fictions, stories and narrations to tarnish the opponents or to make false propagation for one’s personal benefit and glory. Moreover, it has become common today to spread misinformation and disruption, especially through social media with abusive, hateful and insulting words or visuals with certain calculated agenda that prevents rational conversation or arguments. The aim of all these misinformation or fake news is to create a persuasive effect on the public. It is a well-calculated, algorithmic or organized move to confuse and bamboozle everybody else by floating conspiracy theories, wherein the line between fact and fiction has been blurredcritically. In this context, truth, freedom, dignity and fairness are highly challenged and flouted. As Hanna ardent has pointed out some years back; “deliberate falsehood, the plain lie, plays its role only in the domain of factual statements, and it seems significant, and rather odd, that in the long debate about this antagonism of truth and politics, from Plato to Hobbes, no one, apparently, ever believed that organized lying, as we know it today, could be an adequate weapon against truth.”

Perversion of Truth in the Contemporary Society
Despite organised creation of fake stories or news, the sad reality we face today is the loss of the credibility of the most important pillars of the society, such as religion and politics. It is observed that religion, which would be predominantly ‘a worship of truth,’ is slowly fading away from its original purpose. Whatever be the religious tradition, its primary aim is to seek God who is truth itself and through the worship and truth seeking, the presence of God would illumine the devotee with certain light and inspiration that would benefit the entire society. Losing its authenticity and high ideals, many religions become mere observation of certain ‘cultic practises’ ignoring its deeper philosophical and theological insights. When religious observance moves away from its essence, the worshipper loses the ideal of ‘truth seeking,’ forgetting the its authentic value. We also witness the loss of credibility to the leaders of different religious communities in the contemporary society. The religious leaders who were respected with high esteem in the society loses their integrity and becomes mere instruments of material and temporal power.Various religious leaders who were expected to promote peace, justice and fraternity in the society, ignore their role and become the propagators separatism and fanaticism.

Similarly, politics is understood as an attempt to build up the life of a society with the aim of promoting and protecting common good by methods of reason and subject to the sanction of reason, irrespective of the diverse principles and ideas that controls the ‘common men.’ But today politics is highly manipulated and became a means to achieve power. Many of the political leaders are guided by their individual or selfish motives. The high ideals of democracy are shattered and for many politicians, truth has a ‘despotic character.’ In order to monopolise power and to enjoy a precarious character, truth and fact are ignored and hidden. Harold Pinter in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2005, ‘Art, Truth and Politics’ underlines; “the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power, it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.” The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering, and they do not care about others especially the opinion of other people. Either they ignore truth or they forsake it, just for the fulfilment of their own personal interest. In so far as the society is driven by emotions, passions and mere beliefs than rationality and facts, we experience the negation of truth in different ways which may force us to ask the same the question of Pilate.

The Question of Pilate and its Relevance
In fact, the scripture does not explain what was the thinking of Pilate when he asked Jesus “What is truth?” Neither are we sure whether he expected an answer from Jesus. The scripture keeps silence about it as well. From the context and the behaviour of Pilate, many biblical scholars would argue that he has not expected an answer from Jesus. Pilate is seen as an archetype of a person who wants to please everyone, who does not have the courage to take strong and firm decisions without compromising genuine values of truth and justice. While confronting with the menace of injustice and untruthfulness, if people hesitate to witness truth, justice and righteousness, the question on truth remains unanswered.

Rather than ideals, Pilate was guided by the ‘voice of the mob.’ He had neither time nor the will to deal with truth or the plan to execute it. It was a ‘half pitying and a half impatient’ question of a practical man of the world and with the question he wanted to justify himself and evade his responsibility. It is also interested to note that his question does not indicate any serious wish to know what truth really is but it was uttered in a ‘light spirit of jesting.’ He was sure that Jesus was innocent, but he was under the pressure of the mob who wanted to crucify Jesus. Pilate was governed more by the worldly wisdom, and the rules of justice had no place in his agenda. It was easy for him to wash his hands after pronouncing the judgements. His only motivation was to keep his power or political career and was ready to compromise with the ‘majority.’ Here Pilate stands as the representative of all persons who have no patience to preserve their search for truth nor the humility to receive it. In the contemporary world too we see people, who shun their responsibility and go after some temporal and material gains. The temptation to go after the cry of the noisy majority and to shirk the authentic search for truth, conquer the entire public sphere and religious domain.

Had Pilate waited for the answer; would he might have got it from Jesus? It is a question for our own personal inquiry. Many of us ask such questions on truth in our everyday life, but we fail to wait patiently, we are unwilling to investigate and to wait at the gate of wisdom and hence are ignorant to the great source of truth and righteousness. In the society, in politics and in religion, when people are motivated by self-interest and individualism, truth is jeopardised and righteousness is discarded. When people lack authenticity in their life, they cannot be genuine truth seekers.It is to be remembered that truth seeking is always a challenge and it remains as an enigma. We need sincerity, patience and continuous effort to achieve truth in our life. As Hanna Ardent says; “throughout history, the truth-seekers and truth tellers have been aware of the risks of their business; as long as they did not interfere with the course of the world, they were covered with ridicule, but he who forced his fellow citizens to take him seriously by trying to set them free from falsehood and illusion was in danger of his life.” In Johannine gospel, the death of Jesus is seen as the apparent annihilation of truth. But the story does not end there. The meaning of resurrection is inseparable from the meaning of the crucifixion. The resurrection is the definitive stage of Jesus’ salvific life, without it, nothing would be complete. In other words, Pilate is answered by the event of resurrection. Though it can be hidden for some time or jeopardised for a certain period of history, ‘truth alone triumphs!’ But as Soren Kierkegaard points out; “truth is not something you can appropriate easily and quickly. You certainly cannot sleep or dream yourself into the truth. No, you must be tried, do battle, and suffer if you are to acquire truth for yourself.”

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