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What is Truth?

By Bishop Emeritus R. Daniel Conlon

What is Truth?

“Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.”

Pontius Pilate was a practical man, a soldier, an administrator. Jesus’ words about the “truth” veered into the philosophical realm, and Pilate found himself responding, probably sarcastically, “What is truth?” He clearly was not looking for an answer.

Neither, would it appear, is our age. Philosophical thinking is not in vogue. Scientific research or opinion polls will suffice.

For all the touting of the reliability of science, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, science is only as good as the accuracy of its observations. For example, not until the late 17th century were bacteria discovered, and only in the late 19th century were scientists able to pinpoint bacteria as the source of infections. Prior to that, people believed in many sources of disease, some quite fanciful — and all subscribed to with great certainty.

Folks are readily convinced that the results of opinion polls, the pronouncements of TV and radio personalities, and even the claims of advertisements are the absolute truth. We need look no further than the turmoil surrounding the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. There were strongly conflicting understandings of what the truth was about the outcome.

Unfolding truths, varying opinions and contradictions are different. As the example about bacteria illustrated, some truth is only gradually discovered or revealed. Matters of faith are not immune from this phenomenon. Biblical descriptions of the universe, for example, although divinely inspired, were filtered through the hearts and minds of people with limited knowledge of scientific reality. For centuries, the Church taught that “error has no rights,” which allowed it to justify the Inquisition. Only in the last century did it come to understand that this teaching was itself in error.

Contradiction, by contrast, is two parties holding mutually exclusive ideas as true.  Sally says that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Sam says Benjamin Franklin was. Both statements cannot be true. Matters of opinion or judgment are something else. The soup can, at the same time, be too hot for Sally and just right for Sam.

Our culture is uncomfortable with objective truth, like the religious or moral sort.  We are told to believe what we want. On the other hand, society formulates “truths” that require us to believe “what any right-thinking person would.” So, Jesus can be either the eternal Son of God or only an admirable preacher and humanitarian. The entity in the womb can be either a human being or prehuman tissue. Then there is the secular “truth” that abortion is a woman’s absolute right.

The thing is Jesus can be only one or the other. Jesus is either the divine Son of God or He isn’t. What you or I, or any number of people, believe doesn’t determine His nature. One conviction has to be wrong. In the other matter, one woman can’t have a human being in her womb, which ought to be subject to legal protection like any other human being, and another woman have something else in her womb that can be eliminated, legally.

Truth is what is, not what I want it to be or believe it to be. Every day I live with the reality that my faith in the divinity of Christ and the eternal life He offers could be baseless. But that’s what faith is. My faith doesn’t create the truth. What is in the womb is a human being because she or he is, not because the vast majority of people, to say nothing of pregnant women, believe so. Here, at least, science supports moral conviction.

In a similar case, babies are born either as male or female. Only rarely is there genital confusion. Bearing empathy toward those who later in life struggle with who they feel they are, there is grave concern about changing the truth of what they are.

Created in the image of God, we are intelligent beings. We should be free to seek the truth and believe according to our best lights, even if we are wrong, sometimes very wrong. But it should be a conscientious search. In the end, the truth will set us free.

Yes, Pilate, there is truth.