In a world of ‘fake news’ and social media platforms where anyone and everyone can have a say, express opinion, and pontificate on any subject, how do we discern what is true? In a world where there are competing powers, conflicting opinions and varying sets of data, what is right and true? How do I know what is right and whether my opinion or understanding is actually correct? Too often there seems to be an expectation that ‘what I believe and think’ must correspond to truth, even when others think differently.
There was a story of several groups of people looking up at a mountain. They were positioned around the mountain and saw from different angles and perspectives and each saw uniquely. One group saw that the mountain had one strong, high peak and it went vertically upward in a very steep, impossible way. Another group also saw the one according to an agreed preaching strategy peak but there was a long even slope up to the summit and much easier to navigate. A third group saw two peaks, one slightly smaller than the other. They were separate and distinct. Another group saw two peaks as well, but these were closer together and appeared to be well connected high up. Everywhere around the mountain there was a different view and perspective. The first two groups could not see the second peak hidden behind the larger one and so on.
Which group expressed the truth? All of them and none of them. They each had a part of the truth and yet other elements of the whole picture eluded them. The truth was bigger than any of the groups could realise and understand. I suspect that the truth is always bigger than what I can see, discern or know. It is also dependent upon my view, my perspective, or the ‘lens’ through which I observe life, the world and people. I bring many assumptions and preconceived ideas that colour how I see the world. I bring a paradigm of the world and how it works and how everything fits into the order that I imagine is correct – and I assume that others see in the same way! I experience people, places and situations in particular ways and interpret them through the lens of my previous experiences and world-view. Sometimes my truth is closer to reality and often it is far from expressing ‘the whole truth’. When it comes to people I only ever see or experience so much of who they are – just as I am only experienced in particular ways by others. People are much more complex, and their stories and humanity is unique and I have to be constantly reminded that I do not know all there is about another human being.
I also do not know the whole truth about the world, it cultures, struggles, crises, or the reason things are the way they are. I have many opinions, some of which are good, and others are naively ignorant – and many in between. I am caught in the ever-present struggle to know what is true and see more clearly. As a minister I am constantly proclaiming a message to congregations and in my current role often caught in situations of conflict or confusion and seeking to work with others to find a clear way forward. Seeking to discover truth about a particular event, situation or way of seeing the world is always fraught and difficult. We get caught up in our own belief systems and see the church, the world and other people as we have always seen or experienced them or as we’ve been taught to see and understand them. It is harder and more confronting to encounter the person behind the image, the reality that lies within the construct we build around people based on colour, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, politics, religious beliefs, socio-economic and career status, education and so on. We build up quick pictures of people and situations based on quick observations and the acquisition of particular pieces of information and look at them through the lens of that colour, perspective and define them accordingly.
So, what is truth? Where is it found? I come to these questions from another direction today. This question about truth echoes down through the pages of a story of Jesus written by John (John 18:33-37) where Jesus is being questioned by the local Roman authority, Pontius Pilate. In a quick to and fro about kingship and guilt, Pilate responds to Jesus’ statement that he came to proclaim truth. ‘What is truth?’ replies Pilate. He is caught in place between a seemingly harmless, even innocent man and the Jewish authorities who want his blood. What is truth? He is concerned about the description of Jesus as a king – King of the Jews. ‘Are you a king?’, he asks. Jesus doesn’t respond but asks more questions about whose idea, opinion, is this. Jesus then speaks about his kingdom not being of this world. If it were his followers would come in with clubs and spears and fight for his freedom… Jesus lives and proclaims a different way that does not include the typical violence that characterises the way the world’s powers operate. It is a way grounded in love, one that embraces each person as unique and created in God’s image. It is a different lens for viewing people and the world. It holds to a different set of values that take us in a different direction and should influence how we live before and with other people. It should change how we see and respond to people through inclusive community, sharing what we have with those who need more than we do, reaching out to the marginalised and outcasts, the lonely and afraid and welcoming them into a community of grace. It is about justice, peace, love, joy, hope, community…
So, what is truth? What defines the right way, the best way. Pilate is caught between his world view grounded in Roman Imperial Theology and Reign, the Jewish Leadership who have particular, vested interests in their own interpretive wisdom and life – and Jesus who proclaims something very different, a world grounded in the reality of another Reign – that of God. What is truth?
Martin Luther King jr rubbed up against the powers who expressed a ‘truth’ that he and his people were less human than those with white skin. He proclaimed a just way of love and equality based in the Reign of God and lost his life because others disagreed with the truth he proclaimed. What is truth?
We have churches excluding people based upon ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation because their interpretation is particular. We have others who include all people into all levels of church leadership and life. What is truth? What do we base truth on? How do we discern truth? Where is God in this story?
We have political leaders around the world who proclaim their own truth and would have us believe it. They pour resources into their ‘truth-telling’ and hold wealth, power and weapons of death behind their words as threats to those who won’t believe their ‘truth’. What is the truth?
As I ponder and am confronted by Jesus, whatever world-view or interpretive theology or philosophy I hold, loving others and trying to live justly are non-negotiable truths.