As we approach Holy Week, the question asked by Pontius Pilate ‘Quid est veritas?' during the trial of Jesus is a question that has always fascinated me. What is truth?
Pontius Pilate’s unusual question as recounted in the Gospel of John (18:38) is one of the most challenging questions ever asked. I still remember coming across this question as a child when I was watching a movie about the life of Jesus Christ.
It struck something deep within me. It may even have been the significance of this question that fed my curiosity about science and maths.
Some of the world’s most famous philosophers have attempted to answer this perplexing question, yet it remains the most crucial of all questions. It is the question that we must ask ourselves if we want to make sense of anything in the wider universe, in our world or in our own lives. This is the single most important question that we can ask and it lies at the core of several issues in modern society.
Modern thinkers who embrace relativism suggest that the question is unanswerable, devoid of meaning and simply subject to personal opinion. However, this notion doesn’t correspond to the everyday world that we know well nor the intricacies of the world that science investigates. If truth is simply a matter of opinion, why do science at all?
We can only grow in wisdom when we ask questions in a spirit of openness and genuine knowledge seeking, so we have to set aside the easy suggestion that truth is unknowable. Since we live within the boundaries of reality, it is useful to come to some understanding of the nature of truth.
Simply put, truth is synonymous with reality. It is therefore the standard by which all things are measured.
We do not invent truth, we discover it. That being said, the relativists are correct when they talk about the type of truth known as subjective truth. This type of truth is about our experience of the world - how we feel when we see our favourite colour, what mustard tastes like or what is our favourite piece of music. We can each feel differently about these realities.
However, there is another type of truth known as deductive truth, which does not depend on our feelings or opinions. A simple example runs something like: All humans have a soul; Patrick is a human; therefore, Patrick has a soul. The conclusion is logically true (Patrick has a soul) if the premises are true regardless of how we feel about them. Deduction is commonly used in mathematics and in crime detection, the latter made famous by the character Sherlock Holmes.
Another broad category of truth is known as inductive truth, which works through analogy and generalisation. This approach is commonly used in the sciences. For instance, if we observe repeatedly that objects fall to earth, we can conclude that there is a force of attraction (now known as gravity) between the object and the earth. The more we observe and measure, the more confident we are of the outcome. This allows us to make valid predictions about the natural world. Of course, these predictions can be mathematically modelled using the language of probability. We may never be 100% certain (as in deduction) but we can be reliably certain that we are discovering the truth through observation and measurement.
As we navigate the world around us, we learn to integrate different approaches to truth in our daily lives. An important consideration in attempting to answer the question ‘what is truth?’ is thinking about ‘how do we know the truth?’.
We discover truth through the use of reason, which helps us to understand the rational foundations of reality. Our ability to reason allows us to integrate many ways of knowing, such as language, intuition and faith. Our faith does not exist in isolation. Both reason and faith together allow us to access deeper truths concerning reality. As we journey through life, we question anything that doesn’t fit with our overall view of reality. We discover truth coming together when we can find consistency (internal logic) and coherence (overall fit) in what we know.
Our sceptical culture strives to convince us that there is no such thing as objective truth and that faith is purely personal. However, the reality of objective truth is essential to the foundations of Christianity and to existence itself. Indeed, it is these Christian foundations that led to the development of the scientific endeavour. Modern science seeks objective truth but only within the bounds of material reality.
The Greek philosophers came to understand natural law through the rational observation of humanity’s place within nature. They saw natural law as a logical and ultimately sacred expression of Divine truth. Reason can help us to understand Divine attributes, such as justice, goodness, beauty, truth and love. However, when we truly want to approach the reality of the Divine on a deeper level, we need the Divine to reveal itself. We need humility when we want to go beyond our own limited knowledge. Therefore, we describe faith as a gift!
God’s revelation in Scripture helps us to better understand divine reality, humankind’s long history with God and our own journey of faith today. Ultimately, it is God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ which opens our hearts and minds to the fullness of truth grounded in our use of reason and rooted in our faith.
Pontius Pilate’s question ‘What is truth?’ is answered by Jesus Christ in the words recorded in Scripture ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). Jesus can testify to the truth and teach the truth because he is that truth.
Jesus is the truth and as such is completely one with God. In Jesus Christ, there is nothing false or misleading. Jesus Christ also makes it clear that we can’t know the exact route that we are to travel through life. As Jesus is the way, we simply need to know Jesus and trust in his love as we progress along our journey. This is a life of deep meaning, but it is not a life without sorrow. Reality is not easy. Yet, with God’s love, we can open our hearts and minds to the truths of justice, goodness and peace.
The Scriptures also speak of the life to come following our life on this earth. As we humbly listen to the voice of our shepherd, we glimpse the reality of eternal life. This helps us to avoid prioritising material things that don’t last but instead appreciate the reality of immaterial things that do last. Such immaterial realities have eternal significance. This brings us to the reality of eternal truth. What greater truth can there be?