In the Gospel of John, the interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate (after the Sanhedrin brings Jesus to the Roman) ends with a question, simple, probably rhetorical, but profound. Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
It’s a literary masterstroke, the insertion of this question at just this point in the narrative. Everything over the scope of John’s Gospel, and everything in the immediately-preceding action points to just this question–what is the truth about the identity of Jesus? Coming after Jesus’ teaching but before the Resurrection, the reader is put in the same place as the characters within the narrative. In this way, the structure and content both force the question: what is truth?
Pilate’s utterance of the question perhaps reveals him as the ultimate pragmatist–a believer in the pragmatic view of truth as we’ll discuss below. For him, it seems, the importance of “truth” is what it does, what it accomplishes.
We could argue quite a bit (as has been done) about the nature, intent and meaning of Pilate’s actions. It’s common to view his question about truth as scorn heaped upon Jesus just as that given to him by the Pharisaic Sanhedrin that convicted him before he arrived at Pilate’s palace. But I’m not sure that that’s correct.
You see, after interviewing Jesus, Pilate attempts a different approach with the Sanhedrin than the scornful reading of his question would predict. He tells them the (objective) truth–at least as he believes it to be–“I find no guilt in him,” he says. As Shakespeare’s Benedick would say, “There’s a double meaning in that.” In the one sense, Pilate states that he’s found no legal culpability under which he should be punished by Roman law. On the other, though, we can read Pilate’s statement as one of cosmic import: he literally finds no sin in the man Jesus, which fits, of course, with a theological point of John’s writing.
Pilate’s willingness to tell the truth regardless of the cost (for he knows the discord he’ll sow with the Sanhedrin should he refuse their request) lacks the pragmatic forethought and sense of realpolitik the scornful reading attributes to him.
Though it’s Matthew that gives us the image of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’ death, in John he takes affirmative steps to prevent the execution. We are told that, when the Sanhedrin’s members tell Pilate that Jesus must die because he has “made himself the Son of God,” Pilate becomes afraid, but we are not told whether this fear arises from his realization of the extent of the civil unrest Jesus has the potential to cause or because he realizes that Jesus might actually be the Son of God. I believe it’s both/and, that Pilate’s accession to Jesus’ crucifixion results from Pilate’s mistake in prioritizing the temporal world over the spiritual one (and here he provides moral instruction and warning to the reader), not simple cold-hearted political pragmatism.
If all of this is the case, there’s a very different way to read Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” It’s not a mockery, it’s the fatalistic resignation of an astute mind who both recognizes the truth of Jesus and the inevitable execution that the Sanhedrin’s “truth” requires for the sake of peace.
As a third way, we could see Pilate’s question as an exhausted complaint about the ambiguous nature of existential questions when such a cosmically fundamental question of truth lies before him. In other words, could we see him asking, “How am I supposed to know what’s true?”
The reader, in fact all persons who struggle with the question of whether to have faith in the Christian religion (and therefore the nature of Jesus Christ), must confront the same dilemma. What fascinates me in this scripture (as many parts of scripture do) is just how succinctly, how eloquently and efficiently, the Gospel writer manages to stuff all of this into a single verse (or perhaps a passage if you’d like to be a little less generous).
After all, this is a fundamental human question–as are all of the problems inherent to the various readings of Pilate’s question–applicable to all manner of inquiry into the nature of existence itself. The Bible is not afraid–as I’d argue it cannot be if it is to maintain legitimacy–to allow those fundamental questions to inform the question the Gospels ask of the reader.
Consider that Jesus has (previously in the Gospel of John) made the claim that he “[is] the truth.” Confronted with the truth of reality right before him, Pontius Pilate remains ambivalent. Maybe we should cut ourselves a little slack.
Theories of Truth
The upside to these questions about the nature of truth being fundamental to humanity is that they’ve been asked over and over again by thinkers and philosophers in various cultures and contexts. In modern philosophy, there are four main theories of truth. I’m taking the following from a lecture in Professor Steven Gimbal’s Great Course, Take my Course, Please!: The Philosophy of Humor, which has in part inspired both this post and at least one more I’ll be posting soon. You should check it out.
Correspondence Theory is the idea that something is “true” if it accurately describes something in the objective world outside of ourselves. This is the most common understanding of truth, I think, but according to Dr. Gimbal it’s also the most “metaphysical,” because it relies on assertions or assumptions about essential qualities, the existence of abstracts and the nature of existence.
It’s also extremely metaphysical because we must grapple with all the deficiencies humans have in identifying objective reality if it exists. How do we know what we know? Can we know anything? There is a playground for metaphysicians wrapped up in this theory, despite being the one that most of us are readiest to accept.
I’d liken Coherence Theory to the idea of “internal consistency” I often speak of in worldbuilding and fiction–it’s the idea that a thing is true if it can be incorporated into the web of beliefs we have about the nature of reality without creating an irresolvable contradiction with one of those other beliefs. There’s something of this in the scientific approach as well (although there’s also something of the Pragmatic Theory below)–if new information contradicts current theories about the nature of the universe, either the new information or the current theories must be wrong, one is necessarily untrue.
I’ve also cited several times in this blog the comment in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer that hypocrisy is the only way to judge someone in a morally relativistic society; Coherence Theory to me seems that idea writ large. In a world in which we have fundamentally-irresolvable epistemological questions, it may well seem that the best answer we have for understanding truth is “No hypocrites!”
The Pragmatic View (see C.S. Pierce, William James and others) focuses on the practical effect of an idea as the measure of its truth–a true statement does what it is supposed to do. The pragmatic view falls even more in line with scientific method than coherence theory–under the pragmatic view, a statement about the physical world is true if it allows us to effectively interact with the physical world (by making predictions about the effects of actions, by designing technologies that exploit aspects of the physical world, etc.).
Ironically, I’d argue that, while correspondence theory is what most people would intellectually ascribe to if asked, we tend to live by the pragmatic view. If a “fact” allows us to effectively interact with those things outside ourselves, it’s as “true” as we really need it to be, metaphysics be damned.
Dr. Gimbal rejects the subjective theory of truth out of hand, and I agree. The subjective view states that we afford privileged status to some statements (those that are true “for us”) and not others (those that are not true “for us”). If the subjective view is correct, there can be no meaningful discussion of truth (or much else) because, to quote the great philosopher, the Dude: “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
Still, there’s something important about the subjective theory of truth. As a lawyer, I often have to tell clients that they have to treat the beliefs, opinions and attitudes of the person on the other side of a negotiation as true, whether they’re patently false, illogical and irrational, or otherwise unreasonable. If we’re not going to change the mind of the person we have to interact with to get the deal done, we have to find a way to work with or around those counterfactual beliefs (or a-factual ones, in the case of opinions, I suppose) if we’re going to be successful. In this (very limited) sense, there is some truth to the subjective.
There are a number of other philosophical theories of truth (like the constructivist and consensus views), but Gimbal doesn’t discuss them in his lecture and I’m going to omit them as well given my skepticism about their overall usefulness–but they are worth exploring and considering.
It’s possible to think about truth in a different way; not as a sentence that asserts something about the nature of existence but as an approximate model of reality, a necessarily simplified analogy that is useful to us in the ways it assists us to interact with our reality. This, really, is how scientific approaches to truth work (though, as mentioned above, we might argue that this is just the result of a synthesis of the coherence and pragmatic theories of truth over a foundation of correspondence theory).
Under the idea of modeling, the more precisely and effectively a particular model of reality allows us to interact with reality, the “truer” it is. When our inquiries discover something out of joint with the model, we conduct further analysis to determine whether the new discovery is likelier than the old model to be in error. If the model is believed to be in error, we adjust the model to account for the new information, giving us an iteratively more accurate understanding of (physical) reality. By constant observation and refinement, we improve our models.
But note, even in this understanding of the nature of truth, it is impossible to say whether a model we create can ever fully capture the truth of things as they are in the universe. I’ve discovered that this makes some otherwise scientifically-minded people uncomfortable to the point that they remain unwilling to accept this point despite its logic. Whether this is a matter reflected in stereotype–that there’s just a fundamental difference in the way more scientifically-minded people and more philosophically-minded people think–or this is where the scientific mindset becomes a matter of faith rather than logic, I cannot say.
Christianity and Truth
Let’s return to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and the question of Christianity. Here, though, I’m not going to talk so much about the nature of truth within Christianity (I think it’s pretty well settled that the Christian ought to use the correspondence theory of truth, even if we might disagree about what that truth is in its most precise forms) as how we think about truth when dealing with those outside of our faith.
This is the point I think most of us want to stand on when attempting evangelism, apologetics, or argumentation with those not of the faith. Here’s the problem: we are not capable of proving the key assertions of Christianity through logic. Therefore, direct and dogmatic argumentation of the tenets of our faith doesn’t come across very well. At its worst, this approach comes across as less-than-sane or as willfully ignorant.
It’s another way of looking at Pilate’s question. Is truth those things that we can hold in our hands, create and destroy, touch and taste, weigh and measure? Or is truth something harder to discern, often hidden from us and accessible only through non-logical means? Detractors might call the latter irrational, but the inability of logic to answer these kinds of questions at all means that they must necessarily be approached with non-rational means–faith, intuition, introspection, mysticism. All rules of logic point in this direction–absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
There is, though, one very good indirect way of appealing to correspondence theory in the demonstration of our faith–the way our scriptures speak to the truth of existence in describing the way things are and in providing understanding of the human condition. Much of the advice Jesus gives us (as I’ve elsewhere argued) is not just suggestions for good behavior–he is laying out the very nature of things and telling us that, because humans work in certain ways, doing X should lead to the expectation of Y, and if we don’t want Y, we shouldn’t do X.
But nothing in faith is ever simple, and coming to an understanding of some of these ideas (my limited understanding of which is the source of most of my theological posts and my “New Mysticism”) relies grappling with all of the interpretive and hermeneutic pitfalls of Biblical exegesis: How do we resolve seeming contradictions? How do we determine the proper context for understanding certain phrases or commands or actions? How can we determine what to read as literal and what to read as metaphorical or allegorical?
In the end, this appeal is certainly a mystic and metaphysical one–it is the assertion that, in reading the Bible, one will have a genuine, if superrational, experience of existential truth by encountering God. It’s hard to argue with that kind of an experience–which brings us back briefly to the subjective theory of truth.
We should, I think, resort to an altered form of subjective truth in talking about our faith. That is not to claim that the truth itself is subjective (God is objectively God, after all), but that our experience of mystical and metaphysical truth is highly subjective in the sense that it may prove something to us in totally-convicting way without giving us any ability to use our experience to prove that same thing to anyone else. Perhaps this is a fine distinction, but in discussing the nature of reality, I’d say that fine distinctions are essential!
Coherence and Pragmatic Theories
I think it’s important that we point out that the coherence and pragmatic theories of truth, at least under certain interpretations, might be seen as methodologies for seeking understanding an objective truth (under the umbrella of a correspondence theory) as much as theories of the nature of truth.
As I mentioned above, it seems to me that the pragmatic theory of truth describes how we functionally and subconsciously think about truth as we go about our lives–world politics these days seems to indicate a solid reliance on coherence theory as well, particularly as an excuse for rejecting objective facts (yes, I realize the linguistic slippage inherent to calling something “objectively true” in this post) that do not mesh well with pre-existing beliefs. But that’s really a description of a psychological fallacy rather than a theory of truth.
Here’s the point: if we’re going to talk about the truth of Christianity to others, we need to think about the ways that they think about truth, and the ways our ignorance of that might be hurting us. Some examples:
(1) If a person’s belief system involves the beliefs that (a) Christianity is not true, and (b) Christians are [take your pick of common views: judgmental, tight-buttoned, repressed, unintellectual, ignorant, offensive, hateful, prejudiced, self-interested, hypocritical, etc.], then, under the coherence theory of truth, challenging (b) may lead to a reevaluation of (a). Two important points here. First, this is not about proving anything to anyone (as I’ve argued in a different post, I believe that it’s a beautiful fact of God’s creation that no one can be bullied, cajoled, conned or otherwise forced into genuine faith); this is about breaking preconceptions to get people to actually consider the arguments of the faith itself rather than judging it by its flawed and human believers. Second, since we’re called to not be anything I listed in (b) above, working this goal is a matter of sanctification anyway. I love it when a plan comes together.
Now, this idea is nothing new, think of the hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” itself derived from John 13:35. But it bears repeating, especially when so many Christian theologies lead to just the opposite.
As for the pragmatic theory of truth, what is our Christianity accomplishing in the world? Our claim is that, by our love of the God revealed to us in Jesus we are called to be better people, to be healers, seekers of justice, givers of mercy, peacemakers. Is Christianity accomplishing that in the world today, or are we sowers of division, too in love with our own ideas of justice and too short on mercy, too afraid to surrender our guns in favor of a more hopeful approach to the future?
This matters, desperately, because people intuitively disbelieve Christianity when it doesn’t do what it says it’s supposed to do. That’s a logical fallacy, with the believers falling short of what they’re called to rather than some flaw in the claims of Christianity itself, but some people will never come to consider correspondent claims of truth if we can’t get past coherent and pragmatic counterarguments to the truth of our faith.
And like I said above, that’s a subjective truth we have to accept as somewhat objective, at the very least a threshold issue to any discussion of the faith itself. If a person strongly holds a particular belief, let’s say that religion is the “opiate of the masses,” we can’t ever address other issues of the truth of our faith until we can address that belief–ignoring it won’t ever move us forward.
Truth is a hard thing–philosopher’s don’t even agree on what the nature of “truth” necessarily is! And that’s where faith comes in–the whole point of faith is that it is a belief in things that seem to be true for reasons that are superrational (that is, provable by means beyond our application of human logic). We need to own that logic fails in the argumentation of the faith; thus, we ought more to talk about our personal existential understandings of our own faith. Don’t tell someone why she should believe (and please, for the love of God, don’t try to convince them to believe simply to avoid some concept of Hell you’ve bought into!); tell them what has driven you to believe, where they might look if they honestly want to seek an answer for themselves. You can’t prove the faith to them, but you can point them in the direction that might give them opportunity for their own mystical experience of that metaphysical truth that transcends human comprehension and argumentation.
At the same time, think about how we humans think about the nature of truth, and all the things that our failings as Christians seem to do to add to perceptions that Christianity is not true.
“What is truth?” For the most important questions, it seems we have to find out through experience.