August 3, 2017, by Dr.Bob Ellis —
Perhaps you have had one of those conversations lately in which your understanding of reality and facts stands in direct contrast with the other person’s perception. I certainly have. It is a symptom of our age. In our national discourse divergent perspectives vie for our agreement.
For example, which of the following is true?
• Humans are precipitating global warming and we must act to stop it – or – humans have no impact on global climate.
• Taxes must be slashed and government programs reduced if we are to survive – or – robust taxation is part of our responsibility to provide for the common good of all citizens and should be focused on the most vulnerable.
• Lax gun control is the reason for so much violence in our society – or – the unfettered right to bear arms is imperative for a citizenry to be safe.
• Capital punishment is essential for the sake of justice – or – capital punishment violates Jesus’ principle of loving your enemy.
And on the list goes, including disagreements about how to address poverty, same-sex relationships, racial inequality, health care, etc.
Academics identify our day as “postmodern,” in contrast to the “modern” era which is waning. In modern culture there was a confidence that objective truth that can be found and commonly agreed to. By contrast, postmodernity emphasizes that each person subjectively perceives reality and objective truth is in many cases unreachable. Perhaps that perspective has contributed to public discourse that speaks of both “facts” and “alternative facts,” and claims that “truthful hyperbole” is actually truth. What was once thought to be objective news reporting, has now very often been replaced on both the right and the left by agenda-driven punditry masquerading as objective truth. One very helpful contribution of postmodern thinking is that it pulls us back from over-confident claims of having reached absolute truth, calling for some humility about our own perceptions. Yet, at the same time, we need some common ground, something at least close to objective truth to stand upon.
In such an environment, where do we look for the truth we desperately desire? We find ourselves in a similar situation as Pontus Pilate who, when questioning Jesus after his arrest, asked, “What is truth?” (John 12:38). We might speculate that Pilate was pulled between competing views of reality. He found no legal ground to sentence Jesus to death, but he also saw the political expediency of letting the crowd have their way in demanding execution. We know what he chose.
Under Pilate’s questioning, Jesus said, “I came into the world to testify to the truth.” But how is the truth of Jesus pragmatically relevant in our day? If Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), how do we figure out the truthful way in our everyday judgments and conversations about how to live and what to do?
A good place to begin is to look for the foundation upon which we might make judgments about truthfulness. From my perspective, that basis rests in Jesus’ statements: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39). So in our decisions about truthful ways to relate to others, the principle is “love your neighbor.” Jesus helps us know what this means by his actions of love: he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, forgives the guilty, calls people to follow, and rebukes religious hypocrites who fail to show compassion to others. When Jesus announced his ministry at the Nazareth synagogue he defined it in terms of bringing good news to the poor, release for captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and proclaiming the year of God’s favor (Luke 4:18-19). In another place Jesus offered an eternal criteria for determining who the people of God are in terms of what they have done for “the least of these,” that is, how they have cared for the hungry, thirsty, foreigner, naked, sick, imprisoned (Matt. 25:34-40). In other places Jesus identifies our truthful responsibility as making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19) and being Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
If we put all this together, we have a foundation for evaluating what is true:
• What shows compassion to someone else in equal measure to the compassion I show myself?
• Do I understand that everyone, no matter how different from me, is my neighbor, deserving my compassion?
• What would sacrificially provide for the welfare of the sick, hungry, naked, immigrant, imprisoned?
• What would serve as an effective witness for Christ and help to make disciples?
These foundational principles are an essential beginning point for determining what is truthful. But that is only part of the task. Next comes the hard work of figuring out how to live out these principles in everyday choices – how to use them to judge what is the true thing to believe, advocate for, and do. I invite you to offer your insights on the matter. As you evaluate competing claims for what is true in our everyday lives, what process do you use and what conclusions do you come to? In other words, “What is truth?” for you concerning the great challenges of our day, and what decisions about truth are you making? I look forward to the conversation.