What is truth?

“You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

 

-Jesus of Nazareth

 

 

One doesn’t get a choice about being older. It happens.  Unless one dies first, one gets old.  Everyone understands the disadvantages of being old – they are real and I won’t rehearse them here.  But there are advantages of advancing age and they are also real and important.  One of those advantages can be broadened perspective, and I’ve been thinking a lot, of late, about perspective.

 

I started voting for president in 1972 and have voted for president every 4 years since then. Even though in 1972 I lived in a staunchly Republican part of the country and grew up mostly surrounded by those with a politically conservative outlook, I resolutely cast that first ballot for George McGovern.  I was 20 years old at the time – just old enough to be at the tail end of the generation that was mostly anti-Viet Nam war.  I was assuredly not an activist – I never attended an anti-war rally – but somehow I knew that this war was at least tragically wasteful and perhaps deeply immoral.

 

My candidate lost. A year later the winner, Richard Nixon, negotiated “peace” with Hanoi and a year after that he resigned in the presidency in disgrace.  Since then I’ve supported winners and I’ve supported losers – more losers than winners, but the record is close.  I’ve invariably been disappointed at the loss of those candidates I’ve supported and at times have been (irrationally?) pessimistic at that which I imagined that loss to portend – but invariably my bleak anticipations have been overwrought.  These decades of experience have taught me to doubt my fears of apocalypse!

 

Is it the same this time? In one sense, it is too soon to know.  We are only one month into this most recent presidency.

 

Before going further, I want to be clear: this isn’t, first and foremost, an article about politics – it’s about faith. But I resolutely disagree with those who suggest that faith and politics should be kept separate – or even that they can be.  I can imagine no way to practice my faith with integrity and do so while avoiding political comment.  If God is truly God of the entire universe then the doings of kings and potentates – or presidents and nations – are assuredly of interest to God…and therefore of interest to God’s people.  How can one possibly read the Old Testament prophets and miss the point that these figures were political dissenters?  One might conclude they were disloyal or perhaps merely misguided, but assuredly they were political.  And interestingly – perhaps tellingly – those to whom it fell to curate what we now call “scripture” were convinced that the stories of these dissenters were – and are – sacred and therefore to be preserved.

 

richreading flipped 20130502For me, at least, there is no counter argument to the conclusion that the people of God are called to public and political comment – and the comment must at times be dissent.

 

The harder (and more interesting) question is knowing when followers of Jesus should compliantly assent to the existing authorities (which is also a biblical admonition) and when we should raise our voices (and placards) in dissent. Both attitudes are – at times – taught in holy writ.

 

I worry about Donald Trump not first and foremost because of what policies he will (undoubtedly) promulgate. Many of those policies will fly in the face of what I understand to be Christian values, but we’ve been to this place before.

 

But not in my lifetime have we seen a leader as openly, brazenly, and shrewdly antagonistic to facts and to “opponents” as is this one. Never before have we seen a political leader as dismissive of civility and kindness.  Never before has a president employed a staff with the apparent mandate to create “alternative facts” when and if the established facts run counter to his preferred narrative.

 

Pontius Pilate famously opined “What is truth?” just before authorizing the crucifixion of Jesus. I sympathize a bit with Pilate.  Truth is slippery and evasive and at times subjective.  I get all of that.  But just because truth is hard to get at does not mean its pursuit is to be dismissed as irrelevant.

 

The heart of the Gospel is a matter of “truth.” It is also hard to nail down.  But Jesus taught that truth is not merely something “nice” – he asserted that it has the power literally to make free.  “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

 

I’m not oblivious to the epistemological challenge in all of this. Many different “true believers” loudly and assertively claim possession of apparently oxymoronic truth.

 

But there are some common sense indicators that seekers of truth – and wisdom – might look for:

 

  • Truth is humble and graciously self-confident. It is not insecure and grandiose.
  • Truth is collaborative. It is never the exclusive possession of only the “one.”
  • Truth is kind and gracious. It edifies. It evidences the fruit of the Spirit. It never tears down.
  • Truth is not the same thing as facts, but truth and facts are relatives. Any system of supposed truth which necessitates the suppression of facts should be viewed with suspicion.
  • Truth is open. It allows itself to be tested. It makes itself accountable. It is never authoritarian.

 

When our current president began his campaign for president, he delivered a remarkable speech built around a remarkable assertion: “Only I…..” can accomplish that which needs to be done.  It is an audacious claim – one bordering on the idolatrous.

 

Audacity is not, of itself, incompatible with truth. Jesus was nothing if not audacious when he asserted that “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  Do note, however, that for 2000 years now, this claim has compelled countless millions to live lives of gratitude and service and hope.

 

Followers of Jesus are called to lives of accountability and we are called to advocate for the same in all spheres of life. The welfare of the poor and disadvantaged and marginalized is our calling.

 

The constitution of our nation bars the government from entanglement in religion, but there is no corresponding prohibition preventing people of faith from exerting influence in and on the nation. Assuredly we do NOT elect a president to be minister-in-chief, but assuredly when a president advances values at odds with those of the Gospel, then followers of Jesus must dissent.

 

That has been and remains my intention. May God have grace on us.

 

Rich Pleva
Conference Minister
UCC in Iowa

One comment on “What is truth?

  1. Jane Ryan on said:

    Right. Christian values are important, but, I still find that nobody, not even our mosteducated ministers, is in posession of “the Truth”. I’m glad you have not made that claim!

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