People who are familiar with the story of Jesus’ trial will remember Pilate’s famous or, rather, infamous question. As Jesus and Pilate are speaking in John 18, Jesus tells Pilate that he has come to speak the truth and that those on the side of truth will be with him. Pilate’s rhetorical response is, “What is truth?” And with that question lingering in his mind is convinced that Jesus has done nothing illegal and advocates (albeit timidly) for his release.
His question, however, I think has been vastly misunderstood. Modernist Christians tend to read this text through a very simplistic lens. “Jesus had the truth but Pilate refused to acknowledge it. Pilate simply refused to believe the truth.” The assumption behind such statements is that the truth Jesus claimed to teach is so clear and unambiguous that we cannot understand why Pilate could not see it and believe in it. In fact, we often think that people, like Pilate, who don’t believe the truth do so because of sheer willpower to continue on the path they deem the easiest or most pleasurable. It’s just simple rebellion against the clear “truth.”
Yet this explanation simply does not scratch the surface of the tension of this passage. Pilate’s question and subsequent pleading for Jesus’ life is anything but rebellious or pleasure-seeking. His response is anything but an appeal to uphold the status quo. In fact, the question has always carried a tone of deep sadness and hopelessness in my reading of that text. Why would Pilate ask such a melancholy philosophical question at a time like that? Why so cynical?
The answer which holds the greatest amount of easy indignation is that Pilate demonstrates a form of early “postmodernism.” That what Pilate is doing is simply retreating into a sort of solipsist deconstructionism where there is simply no such thing as “truth” and, therefore, any claim to truth is simply absurd. This reading of the text assumes that what Pilate is doing when he asks his question is denying that there is any such thing as truth at all. It assumes that his question is not sincere, but is actually quite sarcastic. This reading, however, fails to make sense of Pilate’s subsequent actions.
What if Pilate is being sincere? What if his question is, in fact, not intended to be a refutation of the existence of truth, but a reflection of an actual longing for truth? What if Pilate’s question isn’t actually the arrogant (and self-contradictory) claim that “the only truth is that there is no truth?” What if it is also neither simply a refusal to believe the obvious truth standing in front of him? What if, instead, Pilate’s question reveals a deep, inner longing for something which he seeks, but which remains elusively hidden from him?
Pilate’s question is, in fact, a good one. That Pilate did not immediately believe all of Jesus’ claims is not hard to imagine, if we are willing to examine the context of his world. There were many people claiming to have the “truth.” The streets of Rome, Ephesus, and Athens were lined with temples dedicated to a pantheon of Greek and Roman gods. The Areopagus of Athens was filled with philosophers and stoics from all over the empire who came to debate the latest philosophies. Caesar himself, a god among mortals, was touted to bring the good news (euangelion) of salvation for the Roman Empire by the heralds who read his daily pronouncements in the streets of Rome. The Jews whom Pilate was there to keep under control had made their myriad claims to him—Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians. What’s more, there was always some upstart rebellion popping up, led by some maniac claiming to be the messiah. All of these had made claims to “the truth.”
Why should Pilate find it so easy to simply believe this man standing before him, beaten and bloody, claiming to be on the side of “truth?” Why, when Pilate’s worldview is predicated on the Roman notion of power and glory? How does one so easily overturn all of one’s central assumptions about the way to understand and interpret the world around him just because one person standing here says, “I am telling the truth?” And, why are we so quick to judge his motives? Perhaps, we ourselves are guilty of revisionism?
Pilate’s question is, in fact, exactly the right one. “What is truth?” It is a sincere, honest, and thoughtful question. It is one that Christians will do well to recognize as thorny and well-worth reflection. Pilate may not have worked hard enough to answer it, but it doesn’t mean the question isn’t the right one.
This is not a popular thing to say in contemporary Christian contexts. Our engagement in the culture wars of our time has made a lot of Christians simply oversensitive to the silly statement “that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” As a result, Christians have taken up the banner of “truth” with such fervor that it has almost become a bludgeon with which to bash any perspective they do not immediately agree with or understand. No small amount of fearful moralizing has been done in the name of truth—all the while remaining unreflective of the fact that nearly everyone with whom we are arguing (even those who claim there is no such thing as “truth”) believes that what they believe is the truth.
In fact, I try to challenge my students, sometimes, to think back on their lives and or ministries and remember a time when they changed their thinking about a certain issue or belief. I challenge them to ask, “Did I not, prior to changing my mind, believe that what I believed was the ‘truth?’ How, then, can I be so sure that what I proclaim today is the ‘truth?’”
The problem with our speaking about the truth is that we assume, when we say the word “truth,” that the thing we claim to be “true” is always something completely objective—that there is no ambiguity about the proposition or ethic which we are calling “true.” And we tend to hold this assumption so tightly that we find it unreasonable that anyone else’s context might lead them to a different conclusion.
The reality, of course, is far from this assumption. We are all interpreters of the reality we perceive. That said, most of us go through our daily lives assuming that our perception of that reality is completely accurate. What we see is what is and what we hear is what is. Yet we all are willing to take into account that, seen from a different perspective, we often find that what we thought we saw wasn’t what was at all and what we thought we heard was actually very different. Does that mean that we believed falsely? Hardly. It is more likely that our initial perception was somehow flawed. What it means is that our perception was limited and we were interpreting reality through the narrow lens of our perception. It means that our error was understandable.
My proposition is that the problem with truth is not whether there is such a thing as truth, but how certain we can be that we are the holders of that truth. In other words, the issue of truth is not ontological, but epistemological.
For instance, let us say that a friend of mine and I are both riding horses one day. We stop to rest the horses and begin discussing their attributes. Both are Quarter-horses, well-trained. One is white with grey speckles, and the other solid roan with a mane and tail of tan hair. And both have different habits. One is fairly recently trained, the other is an experienced saddle horse. One requires a tight and steady control of the reins, the other a gentle touch of the rein on the neck.
Let us say that my friend says to me, “Your horse is better than mine.”
“How do you figure?” I respond.
“Mine is harder to control,” he says.
I look at him quizzically. “Control, I think, is not the right word. We are never controlling them. They could throw us off the moment they wanted to. We are working in relationship with them. Your understanding of ‘control,’ is not an accurate one.”
You see what I mean? One rider interprets the act of riding a horse as “controlling” the horse the way one “controls” a vehicle (although the same criticism may still be levied). The other sees the experience far differently. Both are making truth claims and both believe those claims to be true based on a certain set of assumptions and understandings. Both are competing perspectives of the same event. Yet, only one of these contradictory understandings (at most) can be actually true.
Take the conversation a step further. Say we begin to wax philosophical about the existence of the horses themselves. Say my friend is pleased that we have such fine horses to ride. But, say, I want to ask if we can be so sure that we actually do. “Of course we have them,” he says to me, angrily.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“Well, you can see them?”
“Can you?” I reply. “Are we actually seeing ‘them,’ or are we seeing light reflecting off of something which our eyes interpret to be horses? If we close our eyes, do they cease to exist?” (The conversation has taken a turn for the absurd, but I am trying to make a point.)
Exasperated, he responds, “Well, we can feel them and touch them and hear them!”
“Ah,” I say. “But is what we are feeling and touching actually a horse? Or is it that the nerves in our bodies are communicating that something is there and we are interpreting those sensations to tell us that a horse is there? What if what we hear and feel is some other type of animal making horse-like noises? How do you know our perception is not fooling us?”
Most friendships never make it past this stage.
My point is not to debate the existence of horses (or even the existence of the material world) in some Wittgensteinian word game. My point is that what we perceive is not the reality itself but our perception of that reality. We must assume that reality is true and that we are real (or else, what is the point?). But we cannot always rely on our perception of that reality because our perception can be flawed.
This is especially so when it comes to the truth of scripture which we preach.
When we think of truth this way, we come to the conclusion that the claim to preach the “truth” is, in fact, rather arrogant. To claim to preach “the truth” is to claim to have the kind of certainty that Christ and his apostles had when they wrote the scriptures we read and interpret. Their claims, which we believe are inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, are really quite audacious claims to absolute truth. And our belief in them, our faith, requires a bit of a leap before their claims begin to make much sense to us. Taken in the context of divine inspiration, their claims are actually reasonable. They are true. I believe this.
And yet, when you and I read them, fact is we don’t always read them the same way. You and I read them through lenses. These lenses are assumptions—part of our worldview—which have been shaped by our culture, family, and experiences. These assumptions can help us understand the scriptures which contain them or they can cause us to completely botch them.
But my point is, when we draw a conclusion about what the text says after we have done the work of interpreting the text and we proclaim that conclusion, what we are doing is stating our interpretation of the truth of that text. The claim that the Scriptures are true is a good one—a faithful one. But the claim that “I preach the truth” is actually an arrogant one. It assumes that I always read the scriptures properly and never misunderstand them. It claims that I see them clearly and always see clearly how to properly apply them to myself, my church, and my culture. It forgets that I am human and I make mistakes and, sometimes, I even find that a verse I once thought said one thing in fact says something completely different when I read it in its own historical-cultural context. It forgets that I am always in the process of learning the truth—I am always a student (disciple).
This means that we, preachers and teachers, must do our very best to be humble exegetes (students) of scripture. We must remind ourselves that, although we believe in the truth and we believe we have found its source (Jesus), we may or may not have found all of the truth. We may actually be mistaken about a great many things. For this reason, I have never been comfortable when people start speaking with such a sense of certainty about “preaching the truth.” I, for one, am far more comfortable telling people that I am “exploring the Scriptures” in search of it.