What is truth?


At the core of the trial of Jesus, Pontius Pilate asks a question, self-servingly and flippantly, “What is truth?” Pilate scoffs at Jesus’ idea of bearing witness to the truth. From Pilate’s position of power, truth is optional, inconsequential even; truth can be defined anyway one wants.
In many ways it seems as though the same attitude to truth prevails in the world of today. People talk of being “economical” with the truth, of “mis-speaking” instead of “lying”, and of “fake news” as the news that is inconvenient.
The truth, the whole truth about the past can be covered up, manipulated, revised and presented to suit the agendas of the powerful today. But truth matters infinitely. Christians must not be content to keep silent in a world where truth has almost become a disposable commodity – occasionally of value, but capable of being twisted or discarded when awkward, disturbing or embarrassing.
‘The corrosion of truth in these strange times is terrifying’, wrote journalist and author, Richard Franklin, late last year. ‘And when Donald Trump lies, when Vladimir Putin lies, when corporations and power lie about climate change, about refugees, about our world, it is not simply that they are lying about a particular issue. It is that they are saying the truth is of no consequence.
And it is this corrosion of the very idea of truth that is so terrifying’ .
In the Gospel of St John, Pilate says to Our Lord, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’ (John 18:37) Then Pilate responds – “What is truth?”
How would you answer that question if it were posed to you today? The dictionary says that truth is “conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be.” As Catholics we believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. His life and his teachings have revealed the truth to us. We all have at our disposal a reflection of this divine revelation of what is “true” and “real” captured within the scriptures. So for the question – “What is truth?” – the answer can be found within the pages of the New Testament. “Sanctify them in truth, Your word is truth” (John 17:17)
Do we form our thoughts about what is true and real by reading the Scriptures and praying for an infusion of the Lord’s Holy Spirit to grace us with understanding and discernment? Is our belief about what is good, right and true in the world, formed by our experiences, the opinions of others and the values of society? What do we do when these are in conflict with one another?
As Catholics, we have the additional benefit of having the Church, which was established by our Lord and graced with his Holy Spirit to be the guardian of “truth”. We can lean upon the Church, the Body of Christ, to help us discern the issues of our day in the light of Divine Revelation and Sacred Tradition.
None of us is immune from being influenced by the popular culture in a manner that influences our perception of what is true, real and good. There has always been a spiritual struggle between the kingdom of this world and that of the kingdom of God and this will continue till the end of time.
Humanity searches for answers to the truth about our identity and purpose – who are we, where do we come from, how should I live, what is right, what is wrong, what happens when this life is over? For Christian disciples the answers to these questions are ultimately to be found in the dramatic events of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.
It is Truth that is at the heart of the story of Holy Week and Easter. Jesus Christ goes to the Cross because he is the embodiment of Truth, betrayed by grubby ambition and squalid self-interest. The Resurrection is the ultimate vindication of the Truth that the God who is Love will in the end prevail over darkness, hatred and suffering.
The great German Lutheran theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, preaching in Berlin as Hitler was coming to power, reflected on Pontius Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” He said that although we may ask for the truth, there is also a Truth that is asking for us, seeking us out. We may live in a miasma of half-truths and untruths, but the Truth that is Christ himself is challenging us, on a daily basis, to take our place at his side in the name of unconditional truth and of absolute integrity.
In these weeks of Lent, we have an opportunity to delve more deeply into the mystery of the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord and allow ourselves to be taken over by the Truth who seeks us out. In opening ourselves up to Jesus who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”, we can courageously face the truth of our own lives, and become people who live by and bear witness to the Truth.

- Bishop Les Tomlinson, Catholic Diocese of Sandhurst