In a world of Liquid Culture, many evangelicals, particularly in the USA and Europe, are protesting that “truth” is losing out. Some, particularly moved by their concern, “take a stand” to “fight for the truth.”
In a week that focuses on the death of Jesus it is appropriate to think about truth in relation to his death. The night before he had Jesus executed Pilate asked Jesus: “what is truth?”
Many different opinions about how to answer that question, and why it matters come down to us through the ages. The question came up again this week also in the context of the death of Jesus.
Bill O’Reilly’s book, “Killing Jesus”, now made into a documentary, caused a reader of the review of the film, in Sojourners to make the connection again. One person asked whether the Muslim actor who played Jesus is “still a practicing Muslim or is he a Muslim converted to Christianity” and she pointed out that it was important to her because the film was “done by Bill O’Reilly I worry its not a truthful depiction of our Savior.”
In the text about Pilate: Jesus does not use words to answer Pilate’s question. Pilate is, rather, portrayed as asking his question in response. Jesus has already said that he came to bear witness to the truth.
Pilate questions Jesus’ claim to “bear witness to the truth.” Is he making his own claim on truth? Was Pilate turning truth into a philosophical idea: timeless and valid everywhere?
Pilate may have been revealing his ideas about truth—that truth is a function of power, or that it is propositional. But neither of these options is consistent with what John, the author of this gospel, seems to want us to get out of this story.
First of all, if Pilate is asserting his power to define the truth, he fails. Pilate is remembered beyond the time and place of his question, not because he represented the power of the Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland, but because he executed one who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. He is remembered not by how he would have answered the question, but because of what happens next regarding Jesus’ claim to the truth and to his Messiahship.
Second, no answer to Pilate’s question appears as a propositional statement that can impose itself on all times and all places. This story about Jesus, just like all the other ones in the gospel, is selected to tell what happened at a particular time and a particular place. John tells us that his intention is to tell events as a “testimony” to the truth.
Neither Jesus nor John gets philosophical about truth. Rather, John says on the witness stand of history, that Jesus truly accomplishes something when he is executed, and that we should pay attention to that.
Since Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, perhaps this quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks might help us in our own pursuit of truth:
“Biblical truth, [is] a truth that cannot emerge at once but only through the experience of formative events, is a movement from acts done by God for the sake of human beings, to acts done by human beings for the sake of God.” To Heal a Fractured World p. 157
John is inviting us into this story, in which the truth is in the outcome: God does what God says he will do, despite all the ways power and the powerful conspire against him. And that is better than what we can say about ourselves.