This question, which has been around long before any of us were born and was famously asked by Pilate in his interview with Jesus when he asked “What is truth?” has visited many a generation, but perhaps none as significantly as those born in the last 40 years or so. Pilate’s question is perhaps the underlying question that determines the set of answers one will draw from to form trust, knowingly or unknowingly.
Pilate went beyond the question of what he could trust, to the very heart of the matter – the nature of truth. Pilate lived in a day when there were many “truths”, or “gods” that had been setup by various authorities as holding the power to declare the narrative of what life meant, and how it was to be interpreted and conducted. His question provided good insight into the backdrop that governed the set of answers that were mainstream at the time, i.e., any truth statement was relative to its circumstances. The Greek and Roman gods were seen to embody ideals, but were capricious by nature, encumbered with the same impediments of humanity.
But truth has not always been seen through the lens of relativity. At one time, Galileo revolutionized the world of religious authoritarianism by a premise that stated that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics – a truth statement that formed the basis of his scientific accomplishments. Truth at that time was vested in what was uttered by a religious council, which was capricious at best as church history attests. Today one might scoff, as people in his day did, that one could make such a truth claim apart from an earthly authority. But the goods he delivered overcame the petty objections of the religious order, ushering in a time when truth statements founded on something other than authority were evaluated and accepted by the majority of thinking people. Galileo paid a heavy price for his Biblical interpretation and his thoughts about the nature of proof or demonstration. He was also buried in an obscure grave after his conviction and death, his body exhumed to an honored position at a later time when the ruling order of Galileo’s time had been deposed by his discoveries built on his faith of an ordered universe.
Today the popular belief is that truth is relative to individual circumstances, something very close to the time when the gods of Greek mythology carried this banner. Instead of gods, now, however, the belief is made more palatable by appealing to the “self” as the center of reason versus a god’s attributes. And this belief is analogous to the world Galileo was born into – a Ptolemaic universe that circulated around the earth. This is the world I was born into and experienced in the 1960’s through the 70’s and beyond. Now “self” is set up as the center that provides truth for the individual. Striking similarities to Galileo’s time, but this has also been a theme since humanities fall from the Garden of Eden.
Reason, or logic, was the basis of Galileo’s discoveries, but at the root of the reason was the belief that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics. But mathematics is the language of intelligence, not randomness, or what we might call the capricious gods of the relativists. Galileo believed that order had been placed upon nature. It was this belief that caused him to challenge the earth centered view that capricious religion had determined to be truth based on the interpretations and beliefs of learned humanity. So reason provided a doorway into discovering truth when it diverged from the erroneous “earth as the center of the universe” belief.
Reason is a willing servant to any fundamental belief, leading one to adamancy regardless of which belief lies at the heart of the self. For instance, in the religious belief of those who fundamentally base their belief in not knowing, and consequentially adopting “tolerance” as how they interpret what they see, it is anathema for anyone else to be intolerant. Adamancy reveals itself in any belief system, regardless of it’s fundamental belief. Thus the question, what should we trust to avoid the dilemmas, or hypocrisy that is created when non-truth is evaluated and accepted through reason and logic?
For me, reason, the evidences available to me, and revelation have worked together to create a foundational belief that is at the root of where I derive my identity and how I should relate to my fellow earth travelers. Buechner writes in his book “Wishful Thinking” that salvation is an experience first, and a doctrine second. The book goes into greater detail of the idea that we may not be alone in this universe, but that knowing this as a provable fact is impossible. Like Buechner, I have learned that what I experience and interpret through reason is not necessarily truth. Revelation is not something that is easily grasped by a heart that has shutoff the possibility.
So like many other Christians down through history, I interpret what I see by what I believe to be true about the nature of the universe and its Creator, just like Galileo believed the universe to consist of order by something outside of our ability to experience it with the senses we are equipped with. Love makes sense in this context, more so in any other view where self is the center, and self preservation is the ultimate reality. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians presents this succinctly by stating that if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. The evidence that Paul, I and other Christians use to justify and operate on our belief in a God that governs reality is vested in the words of Paul; “Christ was raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep”. Is this reality a risk to my earthly potential? Or is it a fundamental means to really pursue the meaningful and purposeful life both in the now and in the hereafter? If I am the center, then apart from revelation, whether the quiet “just coming to know” that C. S. Lewis describes while on a motorcycle ride with his brother or like Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, I may never know the meaning of life in the way it was meant for me by my Creator. Yet when I recognized that I am not the center of the universe, perhaps only by revelation, I began the journey back home to where I am loved and known more fully than I could ever know myself.