Is it true? What is truth?
by Rev. Paul Corman, priest emeritus of The Christian Community
More than a century ago, when Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “There are no facts, only interpretations”, it was not the first blow to “Truth” in human history, but it most probably gave rise to or at least fed the ever more prevalent modern assumption or better written conviction that Truth as an absolute does not exist, only small truths do and they are relative to one another, i.e., existing side-by-side with supposedly equal validity. However, many of our contemporaries, in a strange twist of this fatality, ardently believe that only their beliefs are true and that any belief different to theirs is not true. Thus, with one stroke of misguided conviction, relativism and absolutism are married in unholy wedlock, a nifty trick if you can get away with it. This is not the same as plain old-fashioned relativism in which absolute Truth (absolutism) does not exist, but relative ones do: my truth is my truth and your truth is yours. That certainly has some merit to it, for there are, indeed, smaller or partial truths that are apparently contradictory, because they have not yet grasped the whole, but which in part at least contain bits and pieces of truth. This tends, as we can clearly experience in today’s world, to lead us to be utterly divided and absolutely intolerant of any other truth that is not our own. Relativism becomes absolutism. Thus has been spawned in our current culture such illogical and contradictory concepts such as “alternative facts” and “fake news”. Of course, some news is not true, some of it is made up and fake, but then it should not deserve to be called news. Those who cry loudest about “fake news”, mean that certain news is fake and false because it is contrary to what their convictions insist is true. Again, we come face to face with a modern, irreal hybrid: relative-absolutism. And the concept of “alternative facts” is another thought pretzel. Either something is factual, real and provable or it is not a fact, at least not yet. Alternative facts do not exist. Facts are true; false “facts”, alternative “facts”, cannot exist. They are lies dressed up as convictions and parading around to look like truths.
This takes us to the present all-pervasive world of conspiracies and conspiracy theories, all of which, no matter where they may come from or by whom propagated, by their very nature of being a “theory”, are not yet proven, so not yet true. They are theories and when we elevate them, without proper methods and proofs, to the realm of Truth, theories become convictions which we feel obligated to defend tooth and nail against anything that presents itself as something which we do not hold to be self-evident or even a little bit evident. It may be of little comfort, but it is astounding that Nietzsche also wrote: “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies”.
Some will think that all of this is a political problem. I would suggest that it may appear so, but fundamentally it is a spiritual and religious problem. When we confuse theory with conviction and conviction with truth, we do grave damage to our social discourse, to our own health and to that of others. We do damage to the realm of thought, divine thought, the home and birthplace of language, of the Logos, of the Christ himself, as the evangelist John, writes: “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God”.
Christ struggled his whole adult life with the problem of truth. He says of Himself: “I am the Way the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), and before He was sentenced to die on the cross, some of the last words, always expressions of His own logos substance, that He heard, were phrased as the monumental question by Pontius Pilate: What is truth? We have on the one hand an absolute in the statement that the essence of Christ, of His being and His being in us, is the “I Am the Truth”. On the other hand, we have the very real question that comes from an honest query, derived from the state of separation of the human condition, in which the human being no longer knows for sure if absolute Truth exists and must come to terms with relative truth. Between these two disjunctives of human reality, do we all, as incarnated humans, still live to this very day. Both absolute Truth and relative truth should be able to live in harmony, side by side. We should be able to live with them in a more perfect union than we seem to be able to do at the present time. We can take this condition as a loss and tragedy, which, of course, it is, but we can also take it as a challenge and a path to be tread forward toward higher knowledge.
Let us look for a moment at the mystery that language holds in the words we have at our disposal to express the concept of “Truth”.
The English word is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root, “deru”, whose basic meaning “is firm”, “solid”. From this same root, Latin gave birth to “ver” (veritas), the Latin root word that means “truth” or “true.” This root is also found in a number of English words, like “verdict”, “verify” and “veracity”. When we think or speak of “truth” in English we are referring to firmness and solidity, something fundamental to our existence and that can be both absolute and relative, both personal and collective, both objective and subjective.
Since we are dealing with this topic in a religious context, it will be helpful to look at the words for “truth” in both Old Testament Hebrew and in New Testament koine Greek.
In the Old Testament we find two words for truth: אֱמֶת (emet), a feminine noun that like English, means “firmness”, “faithfulness”, “truth” and ק֫שֶׁט (qoshet), a masculine noun that comes from an otherwise unused root meaning “to be balanced”, “distributed with equity”, as in something evenly weighed, an accurate and true measure.
One can gather from these Hebrew words and their meaning that for Hebrew thought “truth” is something that has to do with the divine and with humanity. The firmness of God’s creative work as the basis of all life, is absolute. When humans have to deal with each other in the earthly sphere, it requires finding a balance and an “honesty” that doesn’t “cheat” one’s fellow man on what is correct, equitable and real. “Qoshet” can be considered a more subjective, social, “relative” aspect of truth, while “emet” would be an objective, even absolute aspect. However, we must consider that in the Old Testament what was equitable and balanced and fair in our dealings with our fellow humans was given to us as commandments or “mitzvot” by God. We see here, too, that absolutism and relativism can live in harmony.
The Greeks had a different take on “truth” as evidenced by the Greek word used in the New Testament, ἀλήθεια (Alethia). It is often translated as "unclosedness", "unconcealedness", or “revelation”. All of which are not very accurate translations, although they can be considered as related to "truth". The literal meaning of the word ἀ-λήθεια is “Un-forgetting”, in other words, “remembering”. For the Greeks, this world and the world of the spirit, the world of the dead, were separated by a river, called the Lethe stream. A soul, before it could incarnate in the earthly sphere, had to swim through the Lethe stream, the stream of forgetfulness, in order to forget all that it had experienced in the realm of spirit. The same was true for a newly departed soul. Before it could enter again into the realm of spirit, it had to swim through the same Lethe stream and forget details of the past Earth life. “A” is a Greek prefix that means “un” or “not”. A-letheia would then mean “not forgetting”. Alethia is most commonly translated as “truth”. Truth, for the Greeks, was an act of remembering what they had experienced in the realm of Spirit before incarnating and recognising it in some aspect of life on Earth. So, truth was revelation, or better described an act of recalling pre-natal spirit thought, ideas and pictures. Truth was, indeed, the state of something spiritual becoming evident, of being revealed. Aletheia, thus, was considered “factuality” and earthly “reality”. Truth was spirit objectivity revealing itself to the subjective human mind and heart.
Of all the four Evangelists, John was the one most concerned with the concept of Truth. We have seen above that for him, Christ was the creative Logos-Word. At the end of his prologue, he writes: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John1:17). One could say that for John, writing in a Greek sense, Christ is the revelation of all that is true, that He is Truth on Earth. Later in chapter 14:6, as we read above, he lets Christ confirm this about Himself: “I am the Way the Truth and the Life”. There are other moments when John shows Christ grappling, for Himself and for us, with what Truth is all about. John 8:32 “The truth shall make you free”, or John 15:26 where the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth sent from God and finally Pilate’s fatal question, John 18:38, “What is Truth?”, which leaves to us the task to continue to grapple with this central human-divine question.
We do continue to grapple with it, nowadays almost on a daily basis, in our social encounters and dealings and through the vastness of social media. Even in the Act of Consecration of Man, though in a somewhat indirect manner we are grappling with the question. The service does not mention the word “truth”, it does however, mention “all true Christians who are born” and “the attainment of true salvation”, leaving us with the obvious looming counter question: “Are there un or not-true Christians who are born?”, and if so, who decides who is and who is not a “true Christian”? I think not any of us should have that power over any others of us and yet, that is exactly what the tendency seems to be today: “Those who do not believe as we do, are not true Christians”. What arrogance, what presumption has invaded the sacredness of modern religious space!
Still the question of what true Christians and what true Salvation may mean is a serious one and deserves to be seriously considered. If that were not the case, these words would not appear in the Act of Consecration. Quite possibly they have little or nothing to do with a judgement of who is or who isn’t a true Christian, but rather, perhaps, with the central act of becoming Christian: struggling with “I am the Truth”, with what truth is and means. And then there is “true salvation”, begging the question again: “Is there untrue or false salvation?”, and if so, what would that be like? Answers can be given, but my answers could well not be your answers and more to the point is the sense that can arise from these contemplations: the process of becoming a Christian must involve a struggle with these true questions about Truth.
To close this contemplation and to spur us on in our considerations of the questions about Truth raised here and those raised in our daily lives, the following two quotes may be helpful in our struggle for Truth:
Rabindranath Tagore-- “If you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out as well.”
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing-- “It is not the possession of Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which the human being extends its powers and in which its ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes us passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent search for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice between the two, I would, with all humility, fall down before Him and say: Father, give me what you have in your left hand.”
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