“‘For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’ And when he had said this, he went out…” (John 18:37-38)
Those that bemoan the modern tendency to view truth as something relative or subjective hopefully realize that this is neither a new nor modern tendency. Christ’s words to Pilate above were referring to “the truth”; definitive & objective. Pilate changed the parameters to mere “truth”; relative & subjective. Pilate also did something else other than change the parameters of Christ’s words when he asked his question “What is truth?”…he left without waiting for an answer. He had “the truth” standing right before him & he walked away. I find this ironic given that Pilate later stated, “I find no fault in Him…” Pilate very well may have believed that there is an objective & definitive truth, but did not believe that it could be determined or known objectively & definitively. Regardless he did not desire to pursue the truth or to truly know.
To be generous Pilate was probably as confused about the nature of “truth” as is our modern society. Just as our modern age is confronted with myriad religious sects & competing philosophical beliefs, so too was the 1st-c. Roman world. The Roman religious system was very fluid & easily influenced by those they conquered. The gods of those conquered were usually incorporated into or combined with those gods current in the Roman system. Neither was Judaism a truly unified religion either with its competing sects; Nazarenes, Essenes, Hellenists, Sadducees & Pharisees. Also there were the Samaritans whose religious traditions adhered to the Penteteuch, had a liturgical worship system & priesthood similar to rabbinic Judaism & claimed direct ascendency from the tribes of Ephraim & Manassah. The schism between the Jews & Samaritans actually bears a close similarity to that between Roman Catholicism & Eastern Orthodoxy of the 11th-c. Additionally there were the competing philosophies of Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism & etc.
Religiously & philosophically, the 1st-c. appears to be just as diverse, & therefore just as confusing, as our current 21st-c. Similarly few today realize that “truth” by definition cannot exist in various shades of gray. Truth can never be sort of true as well as simultaneously sort of false. Furthermore, truth cannot be true for one person while at the same time false for another. Something is either true or false; & furthermore, it is either true or false for everyone. Otherwise there is no such thing as truth as everything becomes false by default. Many Christian apologists fall into this trap, especially when arguing for one group over another or when arguing against scientism & atheism. They use the same tools (scientific findings, measurements & statistics, logical rationalizations) as their opponents as they strive to show that the Christian argument is more correct-less false than the opposing arguments. The attempts at “proving God exists” go no further than those attempts at “disproving God exists.”
However, is it correct to so strictly view & define truth in such a definitive & objective right vs. wrong manner? While Pilate changed the parameters from the truth spoken by Christ’s words to mere truth, would the problem still exist if his question had been “What is the truth?” I think so. Now instead of searching for just another option among many competing religions &/or philosophies, we merely substitute searching for the most true option which is actually not much different. Once again we have just merely changed the parameters of determining truth by limiting them to one absolute & grandiose parameter…true/false…right/wrong. Absolute right or wrong gets us no further than relative right & wrong. Obviously this vicious cycle cannot & will not lead to truth; it can only lead falsehood.
So who is the final arbiter of what is the truth so that we might escape the vicious cycle of falsehood after falsehood? Many here will proclaim God (& rightly so), but what in & of itself makes this a true statement in determining the truth? Is it sufficient to say that God determines the truth? Or is that statement also flawed?
A different question:
Personally, I think these questions are the wrong ones to ask & not much different than that of Pilate. St. John of Kronstadt shows us that our thinking is backwards when he states:
“Truth is the foundation of everything that has been created. Let truth be also the foundation of all your works (both inward and outward), and especially the foundation of your prayers. Let all your life, all your works, all your thoughts, and all your desires be founded upon truth.” (My Life in Christ, St. John of Kronstadt, p. 34)
In other words, rather than letting our thoughts determine the truth, we are to let the truth determine our thoughts! Now one must ask what is the foundation of truth that is to determine our thoughts? St. Paul neatly answers this question:
“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:19-22)
St. Paul is saying that the beginning of truth, the cornerstone of the foundation, is not a what, but rather a who…Jesus Christ. So Pilate’s question should have been “Who is the truth?” rather than “What is truth?” or even “What is the truth?” Can we consider truth to be a “who”, a person?
Actually, we must if we are to remain faithful to Christ. Fr. Stephen Freeman writes:
“In Orthodox thought, Truth is understood as a matter of being (it is ontological). If something is true, then it has true being, true existence. Thus, imaginary things can be described in many ways, but never as “true.” Having true or real existence is only part of the story. For it is God alone who possesses true being (“the only truly existing God” in the words of St. Basil the Great).” (The Beauty of Truth and the Existence of God, Glory to God for All Things, January 22, 2013, http://glory2godforallthings.com/2013/01/22/the-beauty-of-truth-and-the-existence-of-god/)
For the Christian, God the Holy Trinity is the truth:
God the Son is the truth: I am the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6)
God the Holy Spirit is the truth: However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; (John 16:13)
The early Church certainly experienced the truth as a who in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Theirs was not a comparison of various religious beliefs or philosophical systems until they concluded that Christianity was to be adhered to because it was more true than all of the other beliefs & systems out there or that Christianity was true while all others were false. God the Holy Trinity—Father, Son & Holy Spirit—is the truth because He is the only being that is absolute & infinite existence in & of Himself, dependent upon no other. He is the Source of all being & therefore of all truth.
Somewhere along the way we lost sight of the forest for the trees by relegating truth to a mere quantity &/or a mere quality of correct vs. incorrect…Rather than seeking the absolute & infinite “who” who is the truth, we seek to use relative & subjective human reasoning to determine truth; thus we have “exchanged the truth of God for the lie” of human reasoning. (Romans 1:24)
In many ways that is how I approached religion 32 years ago when I was searching for a “new home” after leaving the Presbyterian denomination of my youth. I knew X-Y-Z were true while x-y-z were false based on this reading or that book. I was shopping for the most true option among so very many (28,000+ at the time); I also knew that not all 28,000+ could be true. I was very close to chucking this whole religion thing for agnosticism. Then I came across Orthodoxy. All I knew at that time was that what I liked about religion was present in Orthodoxy while at the same time what I did not was not; i.e. Orthodoxy in my mind was more true & less false. So, too did I go through the objective standard of right-wrong cycle in my early years of Orthodoxy; I was right while others were wrong. I am not saying that Orthodoxy was wrong, for it was not, but rather my approach to & with Orthodoxy was wrong. I was still not being Orthodox in my approach. Fortunately the fullness of the True Faith was stronger than my flawed & empty-headed approach.
So can the truth be relative? Yes, but not in the sense of human relative truth as written about thus far. Fr. Stephen continues:
“The true existence of created things is relative to the being of God. It is God who creates and establishes all things and sustains all things in their existence (no created thing has existence in itself). True being (or Truth) is an existence that is according to the will of God – according to right relationship with the Only Truly Existing.”
In other words, if you want to know the truth, enter into union with the truth through the Church. It is upon the truth, God the Son, that the Holy Apostles built the Church, the Pillar & Ground of the Truth (1 Timothy 3:16). St. Gregory of Sinai advises:
“It is only by participating in the truth that you can share in the meaning of the truth. If you search for the meaning without participating in the truth and without having been initiated into it, you will find only besotted kind of wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 1:20)” (St. Gregory of Sinai, on Commandments And Doctrines, #22 from The Philokalia, Vol. 4, p. 216)