What is Truth?
I remember a time when the most popular evening news program was the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite was considered by many to be the most trusted news source in the United States.
In one poll he was named the most trusted man in America.
This from his 2009 obituary:
From 1962 to 1981, Mr. Cronkite was a nightly presence in American homes and always a reassuring one, guiding viewers through national triumphs and tragedies alike, from moonwalks to war, in an era when network news was central to many people’s lives.
He became something of a national institution, with an unflappable delivery, a distinctively avuncular voice and a daily benediction: “And that’s the way it is.” He was Uncle Walter to many: respected, liked and listened to.
When he said, “and that’s the way it is”, we believed it was that way!
It was the truth.
Cronkite came along at the peak of a time where the news media was doing its best to be objective.
News organizations had come a long way from the days of Hearst’s yellow journalism that had spawned rags like the National Enquirer.
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s fabricated or exaggerated stories had been published for the sole purpose of selling papers and advertising.
There was little concern for the truth.
But then the tide turned and reputable news organizations, basically newspapers in those days, tried to be accurate and objective.
Radio and television followed suit and tried to be accurate and objective.
Cronkite was the epitome of that.
We believed what he said was true.
Because he said it.
These days, it would be hard to identify any such news organization or reporter who is as accurate or objective as Cronkite.
It seems each news source has a particular point of view that it endorses and promotes.
There is precious little news offered.
Mostly opinions, the factual basis of which are hard to find.
We choose our news sources, predominantly, because of confirmation bias.
We tune in to the news we like!
The news we agree with.
What we want to hear.
And so, we believe it.
Anything that is inconsistent with what we believe, or want to believe, we call “fake news”.
And it is not new.
This form of thinking has always been used as a political tool.
It generally takes the form of negative ads.
And that goes back to the presidential campaign of 1800.
A campaign between two close friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Both were on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson accused Adams of being a monarchist, a terrible accusation in those days.
Adams accused Jefferson of being an atheist, also a terrible accusation.
And on one occasion, Adams’ supporters claimed it was pointless to vote for Jefferson because Jefferson was dead.
None of these things were true.
And those kinds of things have a very long history.
People make things up so that they can get and keep power.
Truth is defined as what expedient.
Which is why folks say that truth is unknowable.
Or worse, irrelevant.
And when truth becomes irrelevant, the world enters into a dense fog of uncertainty.
There is no direction for our lives.
No true north that guides us.
There is just expediency.
Which brings us to Jesus and Pilate.
John 18: 28-38
28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ 30They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 31Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ 32(This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him.
So, if you think Presidential politics is rough, think again.
It does not get any rougher than Jerusalem when Jesus came to town.
What was happening?
Jesus and his followers have come to Jerusalem and entered the city in a way we would likely call a protest march.
Jesus has come to take on the powers that be.
Criticizing and demanding change and justice for the people of God from the religious authorities.
The Temple authorities, the High Priest and the Sanhedrin have been given the civil authority over all Jews in Judea by Rome.
Lots of power.
Now they have a problem.
Jesus has been teaching in the Temple for several days and basically telling people that the Temple authorities are hypocrites.
He is challenging their power.
He is proclaiming the Kingdom of God and seeking people to follow him into that Kingdom.
And Jesus putting all that political power and position of the religious authorities at risk.
So, they need to do something to stop Jesus.
What better way for that risk to be eliminated than to accuse Jesus of sedition and having him executed as a common criminal?
So, they have him arrested and sent off to Pilate who has the authority to have Jesus killed.
But they had to make something up that would be grounds for death.
A bit of fake news.
How about this?
Jesus claims to be king of the Jews.
That is a direct challenge to Caesar!
Who cares if it’s not true?
Pilate will eat it up!
And they know their audience.
A vicious and cruel man who has been appointed Prefect of Judea.
The next best thing to being a king!
Lots of power.
Pilate had the power and the authority to order a death sentence.
And he did it a lot.
His most important responsibility was to maintain law and order.
There had always been conflict and trouble in Judea.
His job, if he wanted to keep it, required that trouble be dealt with immediately and harshly.
Death was not a deterrent.
It was a solution.
And here come these troublesome Jews raising a fuss over this Jesus.
Now Pilate has a political problem.
There was also conflict between Pilate and the Temple Sanhedrin.
They wanted Jesus dead.
What could Pilate do that would give him a bit more power over these people?
Pilate needed to make it seem like he was doing them a favor that they might someday have to return.
Kind of like “The Godfather”.
If you ask for a favor from the Godfather, you might be called on to return a favor down the road.
And you couldn’t refuse, right?
So, Pilate looked for a way to do just that.
And found one.
Jesus did not claim to be king of the Jews.
He made no claim that challenged Caesar.
He claimed only to have come to testify to the truth.
To which Pilate responded with his most famous question:
What is truth?
A rhetorical question.
Pilate knew what truth was.
Truth was the story that got you what you wanted.
And Pilate wanted to show he was in charge, not the Temple people.
Pilate then went out to give the Jews his news.
No enemy of Caesar here!
No evidence whatsoever.
But if that is what you want, I’ll do it for you.
Off to the cross.
Now you owe me!
Here we have Jesus sandwiched between people to whom truth was – irrelevant.
The religious authorities didn’t care about the truth.
They wanted to maintain their power.
That meant Jesus had to die.
Pilate didn’t care about the truth.
He wanted to preserve his position.
That meant Jesus had to die.
Jesus’ death was of no significance.
And so, Jesus was irrelevant.
Sounds like hard core politics.
That kind of thinking makes me pretty anxious.
Truth can’t be irrelevant, can it?
What is truth?
Emilie Townes, Associate Dean at Yale Divinity School describes truth this way.
There are two kinds of truth.
Intellectual truth which is the empirical kind.
Something we can learn from the scientific method or factual investigation.
We need some facts in our faith, right?
In order to understand our faith and how we are to live the Jesus way, we need to know some facts.
And to get those facts, we need to do some reading.
Do some historical research on language, culture and context.
Find out what we can know and what makes our faith reasonable.
As Cronkite would say:
In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of a story.
The second kind of truth is revealed truth.
Truth revealed by God.
John McArthur describes revealed truth this way:
Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. … Truth is the self-expression of God.
That is Jesus.
The mind, will, character, glory, and being of God.
The self-expression of God.
The truth revealed.
In both cases, fake news can gain influence when there is blind acceptance without insight or investigation.
But truth, the testimony of Jesus, the mind, will, character, glory and being of God, survives such influence.
Truth is knowable
And it can never be considered irrelevant.
The way to analyze empirical truth is to fact check … that is the term of the day.
The way to analyze revealed truth is to live it.
Townes says this about the distinction between them:
Though important in helping establish and maintain social norms, intellectual truth does not fill all of our needs. We are compelled to go beyond merely understanding and making sense and order in our world. We must seek to know God and live as active witnesses on this journey into God. Jesus life and mission is a model of this for us. In Jesus, we learn that truth is a stimulant for faithful living and witness, rather than contemplation. It is something we do.
Revealed truth is something we do …
We do it by living the Jesus way.
How do we live like that?
Eugene Peterson says this:
To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means … ways doing things … derivative FROM Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. … The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat one another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat. … And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated “ways and means” that characterize our way of life.
In anxious times, we can find peace in that.
We hold on to Jesus and live his truth.There will always be politics.
And there will always be fake news.
But Jesus came to testify to the truth.
What was Jesus’ testimony?
The Kingdom of God has come near.
It’s two greatest commandments are love God and love each other.
Do these two things and you will live.
It’s called the Gospel.
It’s called the “Way”.
The Jesus way.
Truth is that.
And that’s the way it is.