September 1st 2010

Going Round In Circles

“Jesus answered, ‘You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’
‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked.”
John 18:37-38 (NIV)

Webster’s Dictionary—that ever-popular fount of opening paragraphs—defines the word ‘truth’ in terms of other words defined elsewhere in its pages. It probably relates truth to facts, information and data; I don’t know; I might look it up after I’ve finished writing this.

Pilate asked a circular question. There are plenty of opinions on whether he was trying to be politic, denialist, existential or just cynical, but to ask for a worded definition of “truth” just leads into some sort of self-limiting game of lexicographical treasure-hunt. Try it. If you meet a seven-syllable word and can put it into a sentence, well, you’ll have beaten me by one, but I think you’ll have forgotten what you were looking for.

On a very concrete level, if we say something is “true” then we usually mean it has been measured, verified, proved in some way. It’s fairly straightforward deciding whether a statement about the physical world is true or not. It’s harder when we move into the abstract, towards areas like relationship, morality, ethics, theology, faith. Because perceptions and experiences vary, and because aggressive intolerance is a bad thing, there is a movement towards the idea that everyone should decide for themselves what is true.

Of course, what this means is that each person’s code of belief and honour will be just about as honest and consistent as human nature itself. You end up with something circular all over again: trusting in your own integrity to maintain who you are and what you will be. Did any human being ever have real integrity?

What did Jesus mean when he spoke of truth, and why didn’t he answer Pilate’s question? What Jesus said actually sounds like a sort of spiral itself: that if you belong to the truth then you recognise and follow the truth of his teaching, submitting to his rulership. Before Pilate asked the question, Jesus had in a way already defined the terms by which his truth is to be known: himself.

Father, help me to look to Jesus—The Way, The Truth and The Life.

Study by Fiona Jones 

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