A Christian Reflection on Truth in a Post-Truth World
Paul O. Ingram Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
I saw truth last night in the emergency room and her name was compassion.
The truth is the historical Jesus, meaning the life of Jesus, the way of Jesus, the love of Jesus, and the death of Jesus. He himself is a complex embodiment of truth.
-- Paul Ingram
I once did some Google searches on the meaning of “truth. Here are the titles of articles that popped up most often: “The Death of Truth,” “The Assault on Truth,” “Notes on Falsehood,” “Our Post-Truth World.” Although these articles focused on contemporary American politics, their conclusions reached beyond politics to a more sinister and existential reality: we live in an Age of Untruth. Politics notwithstanding, we are steeped in a culture of blatant lies, sly exaggerations, doctored images, wild conspiracy theories, and fake news. Objective facts, for all intents and purposes, no longer matter to the vast majority of contemporary human beings. I suspect this was true for the majority of human beings in the past as well. Truth is falsehood, falsehood is true, and anything can mean anything.
What does this sobering situation have to do with that part of the lectionary called, “The Season of Pentecost?” The final Sunday of Pentecost is a liturgical hinge between the long “Season of Pentecost,” and the beginning of Advent. Which means this “hinge” is primarily a reflection on the meaning of Christ’s reign over the Church, the world, and the lives of faithful Christians. What kind of “king” is the historical Jesus confessed to be the Christ of Faith? What does his rule look and feel like? What does it mean to live and thrive under his kingship? If Jesus is king, then who or what is not?
In reflecting on this question, the Gospel of John—and the three synoptic gospels—offer a counter portrayal of Jesus’ kingship and his vision of the Commonwealth of God. First, the historical Jesus is not portrayed as having conventional kingly power. Instead, the Gospel of John offers us a picture of the Jesus at his physical and emotional worst: arrested, disheveled, harassed, hungry, abandoned, sleep deprived—and standing before the notoriously cruel Pontius Pilate for questioning. If I were going to write Jesus into a kingly scene, this would not be the one I’d write. But if there is any story about Jesus that can smack all smugness out of us—all arrogance, all gleefulness, all scorn—surely this one has to be it. For followers of the Christian Way, our “king” is an arrested, falsely accused criminal. A dead man walking. His chosen path is one of humility, surrender, brokenness, and loss.
But the question is, what does any of this have to do with our current crisis of truth and untruth? Consider, for example, the exchange that takes place between Jesus and Pilate: “Are you a king?” Pilate asks Jesus repeatedly, annoyed, perhaps, that a bedraggled peasant is taking up his valuable time on a tense and busy weekend. “You say that I am a king,” Jesus answers cryptically, implying that Pilate’s question is the wrong one because Pilate’s assumptions about power and kingship are irrelevant to what is happening before his very eyes. Then Jesus continues: “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Then Pilate asks a question that has haunted human beings since our Neanderthal ancestors painted the shapes of animals in deep caves in Lascaux, France forty-thousand years ago: “What is truth?” I have no idea if Pilate even really asked this question. But it doesn’t matter because Jesus offers no verbal response. He doesn’t engage Pilate in the sort of philosophical dialogue that would have made Plato or Aristotle smile. Instead, his response is embodied within his whole life, as if to say, “You’re looking at it.” “You’re looking at the truth. I am the truth.” In other words, truth isn’t an instrument, a weapon, or a slogan we can smack on a bumper sticker or use as a political slogan or use to sell cheap stuff in a television ad. The truth is the historical Jesus, meaning the life of Jesus, the way of Jesus, the love of Jesus, and the death of Jesus. He himself is a complex embodiment of truth.
What can this possibly mean in our contemporary post-truth era? What does it mean to “belong to the truth” in a culture that increasingly denies truth’s validity? Perhaps most importantly, how can we bear witness to embodied truth, complex truth, truth as an Incarnation story of birth and life and death and resurrection in a world that prefers soundbites, tweets, and clever New Yorker cartoons?
The more I reflect on these questions, it seems to me that one of the most urgent tasks facing the followers of the Jesus Way is forging a robust but gracious, urgent but respectful relationship to the Truth. If Jesus came to testify to the truth, if he is the truth, what does loyalty to the historical Jesus Christians confess to be the Christ of faith look like here and now? Perhaps something like this: if Truth is king, then “fake news” is not. If Truth is king, then self-deception—however expedient or attractive—is not. If Truth is king, then lazy relativism is not. If Truth is king, then distorting inconvenient facts for our own political, racial, social, cultural, religious, or economic comfort, is not.
As I wrote this essay, I was painfully aware of the Church’s long and miserable tradition of using “the truth” to consolidate and abuse its power. Over the centuries, Christians have excelled at using “truth” to colonize, enslave, reject, and dehumanize those we conveniently call “the Other.” But that’s not the kind of truth to which Jesus called his followers to embody. The truth Jesus embodied in his life, death, and resurrection is not instrumental or self-aggrandizing. It does not bolster his own power and authority. Quite the opposite—it humbled him. It broke him. It killed him. And as far as I can tell, Jesus’s embodiment of truth did not privilege any version of truth that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. He did not secure his own prosperity at the expense of other people. He did not allow religious teaching and practices to justify unjust domination systems. He did not make honesty optional when the truth struck him as inconvenient. And he never aligned himself with brute, dishonest power to guarantee his own success. So here is the question the historical Jesus as the Christ of faith raises for us today: can we, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did on his way to the gallows for the “crime” of confronting the untruth of Adolf Hitler, stand for the Truth as Jesus—and Bonhoeffer—did? Can we belong to the Truth? As the church year rolls into Advent, a season of waiting, longing, and listening, faithful followers of the Jesus Way will walk into the expectant darkness, waiting for the light to dawn, for the Truth to reveal itself, for the first cries of a vulnerable baby to redefine kingship, authority, and power. Of course, there are good reasons to fear the erosion of truth. But people of faith are not a people bereft of hope. Truth will survive against all odds.
-- Paul Ingram
Editor's Postscript: Notes for a Sermon
In Advent we Christians await the truth of Jesus. We await the appearance of a vulnerable child who, like all children, is precious in his own right, needing our kindness and care.
This child will grow up in a difficult time. He will know joy and sorrow, success and failure, wholeness and brokenness. He will need friends and family, and he will need time alone on mountaintops.
In his late twenties he will feel beckoned by his Abba to bear witness to a truth as important in our time as in his. He will give his life to this truth and become one with it. The truth to which he gives his life will have a personal side and also a political side. At a personal level it will include listening, loving, laughing, yearning, imagining, hoping, fearing, dreaming, and trusting -- all part of the spiritual alphabet of humanity. At a political level the truth to which he gives his life will be a dream, an animating ideal, for a new kind of society based on love. He will see both aspects of the truth as grounded in a deeper Truth: divine love.
He will try to help bring about that new kind of society, and people will see him as a king-like figure, a messiah. But he will reject that designation. Or, to be more accurate, he will redefine it. As Paul Ingram puts it, he will redefine kingship, authority, and power in terms of humility, surrender, and sacrificial love.
As he grows into his own sense of mission and destiny, namely to help bring about this new kind of kingdom based in love, he will invite others to walk in the way of Truth along with him. He will try to be a window to the Truth of God's love, so that it shines through him into the world. He will encourage others to be windows, too. They will be his disciples, and in a way he a disciple of theirs as well. Their faith will help make him whole, and together they will embody a Truth that transcends but includes all truths.
This Truth is the light itself: the light of love. It is this light that we seek and glimpse in Advent. The light is always ahead of us in a certain way, but also always inside us, as it was in him.
-- note for a sermon on "Jesus in a Post-Truth World" after reading Paul Ingram's essay