Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What Is Truth?

The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. (John 18:37)

When one reads the story of Jesus' encounter with Pilate in the Gospel of John it sounds like Pilate gets the last word. In fact he does literally speak the last words of their encounter. And, for the last two thousand years, philosophers and even many theologians have concluded that Pilate's cynical remark left Jesus with no response. Truth, it turns out, is almost impossible to define.

So what is this "truth" that Jesus said he came to bear witness to? Is it a propositional argument that defies anyone to disprove it? It is an observable event or object that all are compelled to agree upon? Pilate, who had built a career demolishing the "truths" with which his opponents sought to overpower him, had a right to be skeptical of all claims to know the truth. Just as history is written by the victors so truth is defined by those in charge, those in control of our minds in any given era of human existence.

The truth that Jesus came to bear witness to cannot be proven or falsified by the rules of evidence employed in this truth-less world we live in. Sin has distorted everything in this world making it impossible to definitively know what is true and what is not. The shadows trick our eyes, the multitude of opinions confuse our ears, the saccharin sweetness of experiences fools our tongues and conflicting opinions leave us groping in intellectual darkness. What is truth? Will we ever know?

The history of humanity is the account of adam limping along, building his world – his cosmos – piecing together observations that seem to him to be true, that seem to bear some fruit but in the end must be discarded when competing truth presents itself. So our race has "progressed" from what we call superstitions to what we call modern science by an uneven path that has never been without its detractors urging us to go another way. What is the true way? What is truth? Can the knowledge and wisdom of the past no longer be trusted? Can we expect the expertise of our time to be valid next month, next year or in the centuries to come? Will we ever know?

If I am not mistaken Jesus only ever asked us to believe one thing – to believe in him. (Not in any scientific or pseudo-scientific theory, not in any particular theology, not in any political ideology, not even in the Bible.) He once said to his Jewish audience – famous for its loyalty to Yahweh – "You believe in God, believe also in me." We have to assume that Jesus would not ask us to believe in anything less than truth. And so the truth that Jesus came to bear witness to was the truth of his father Yahweh's suzerainty over all of his creation and that Jesus Christ, Yahweh's son, came to our earth to supplant the error with which Satan has successfully darkened our minds, replacing it with the truth of God. This he accomplished by his victory over the ultimate lie, death. "Whoever believes in me will not die but have everlasting life." And again, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free."

Our society is greatly disturbed that various individuals, political organizations, Internet media organizations, "legitimate news outlets", and sadly even religious leaders have lost all respect for truthful expression, in some cases even glorying in the proliferation of easily identified lies.

I am greatly disturbed by this. But recalling Pilate's words to Jesus has reminded me that the world has never been, since Eden, a place that one should take at face value.

There are, of course, those whom we trust not to purposely deceive us. Thank God there are such persons. But even they can be wrong. Even they can be duped. Even they can, for a moment, become the "voice of Satan" as Peter was, causing Jesus to rebuke him – "Get behind me Satan."

And there are some reliable rules that allow us to trust our eyes and ears, but we all have been fooled by them enough to know that caution is called for even in the most reliable of situations.

Our brains still have the ability to assemble the information given to us and judge it trustworthy or not, but we have to confess that our "brains" are themselves the product of many inputs, some credible and others less so. We are creatures easily fooled, and not the least often fooled by our own poor judgment.

So what is truth? Can we ever know it? Who can we believe? How can we verify that which comes to us in the guise of truth? These are very challenging questions.

The first two questions are easily answered but less easily realized in our own experience. Jesus is the truth. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He promised that the Holy Spirit would indwell the believer and lead him or her into all truth.

But we live in a sensory world and must judge every purported truth by the five senses God has given us. Or not. He has, after all, offered us a sixth sense, the presence of the Holy Spirit, who can search our hearts, the apostle Paul tells us, then search the mind of God and then guide us in prayers that exceed our normal understanding. Presumably that same process assists us in discerning the truth claims we encounter in this fallen world.

We may never unerringly and invariably discern error? But we can commit ourselves to Jesus, who is the truth. And to the extent that we submit ourselves to his Spirit, we can be led into truth. Ultimately only eternity will reveal how successfully we have attuned our hearts to the Spirit's voice.

But the urgent question for Christians living in a free society, asked to select leaders and policies based on truth claims is, who can we believe on this earth? How can we verify that which comes to us in the guise of truth?

We certainly need to be prepared to admit, too often, that we've been fooled again. The lie came packaged so cleverly. It was delivered by one we trusted explicitly. It came in the guise of a "word from the Lord". It fit so beautifully with our own preconceptions and preferences. And we fell for it. It will happen far too often. But just as we can know the ultimate truth – about Yahweh and his Son, Jesus Christ – we can, by establishing a faith-based relationship with God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, sort out the lies of this world.

One of gifts of the Holy Spirit, mentioned by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 12, is the "discernment of spirits." It may be the least utilized spiritual gift that God has given to his people. But the Holy Spirit wants a relationship with Jesus' disciples so close and intimate that even the slightest variation from the truth triggers a nudge or a voice that says to their spirit, "That's not true, that is anti-Christ! Get behind me Satan."

I am sorry to say that I despair of finding truth reliably spoken in this world, even in the church that calls itself Christian. Not everything presented to us is a bald-faced lie. But our society has so given itself over to slander, gossip and faux news; has so sharpened its skills at "spinning" a story, photo-shopping an image, inventing "truth", elaborating both truth and error and concocting advantageous myths that I am afraid it can never turn back. The LIE will only grow larger. We are observing that even now in our society.

So what is the conclusion of this matter? Believers, believe little that you hear or read these days. "Do not [automatically] despise prophecies but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil." (I Thessalonians 5:21)

Draw as near to Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit as you can, and listen. Remember Jesus' final words to Pilate, "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." 

Let him who has ears to hear . . . listen.

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