What is truth ?
There are some phrases that have recently entered our vocabulary. He’s
a couple: ‘Fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. When I was at
theological college, we study post-modernism and one of its many
themes was that truth is relative: that there is no objective truth;
that we live in a post-truth world. The claim to truth must be
unmasked for what it is: the unrecognised bias of (usually) white
middle-age, middle-class western men claiming objectivity. Or, the
claim to truth (for Foucault) is an exercise of power and the task
must be to lay bare such carriers of power, and to criticise the
workings of institutions which appear to be both neutral and
independent. In a post-modern world, we must pay attention to the
voices from the margins. So enter the disciplines of feminist,
liberation theology and queer critiques of the Bible.
I think that a lot of the post-modernism critique makes since. And
these new ways of reflecting upon faith was spot on. But most of us
students felt that it was absurd to say that truth was whatever you
wanted it to be. Should we really give up on truth having any traction
beyond the local community? What’s so concerning today is that we seem
to have entered this Age of Untruth and to inhabit a culture of
blatant lies, doctored images and fake news. In such a world we can’t
state anything that’s universal.
What does this sobering situation have to do with the lectionary?
Well, this week we celebrate Christ the King, the Sunday that brings
our liturgical year to an end. This week we pause to reflect on the
meaning of Christ's reign over the Church, the world, and our own
lives. What kind of king is Jesus? What does his rule look and feel
like? And if Jesus is king, then who or what isn’t?
The lectionary Gospel for today is therefore a surprising choice. One
might imagine we would get to see Jesus in his kingly glory. Or
transfigured and dazzling on the mountaintop, perhaps. Or rising from
the waters of baptism with heaven thundering in his ears.
No. We discover a picture of Jesus at his physical and emotional
worst: arrested, dishevelled, harassed, hungry, abandoned,
sleep-deprived — and standing before the notoriously cruel Pontius
Pilate for questioning. [see front cover of service sheet] Christ the
king is an arrested, falsely accused criminal. A dead man walking.
His chosen path to glory is humility, surrender, brokenness, and loss.
How this intersects with our reflection on the crisis of truth, is the
dialogue between Jesus and Pilate: “Are you a king?” Pilate asks Jesus
repeatedly. I imagine that Pilate is annoyed that an insignificant
peasant is taking up his valuable time on a tense and busy weekend.
Jesus answers cryptically, “You say that I am a king”. Jesus implies
that Pilate’s question is the wrong one, and that his assumptions
about power and kingship are irrelevant to the ways of God. Jesus
continues: “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate famous response echoes down the ages: “What is truth?”
We’ll never know if Pilate asks his question out of contempt or
curiosity, hunger or anger. But it doesn’t matter; Jesus doesn’t
respond. That is, he doesn’t respond with words. Jesus doesn’t
engage Pilate in a philosophical debate. Instead, he embodies his
reply with the whole of his life: “You’re looking at the truth. I am
In other words, truth isn’t an instrument, a weapon, truth isn’t an
exercise of power, or a slogan. The truth is the life of Jesus, the
way of Jesus, the compassionate love of Jesus. He himself is truth's
most complete and complex embodiment.
This brings us back to the original challenge: What does it mean, in
our post-truth era that increasingly denies truth’s validity, to
worship the King of Truth? And a question for us today: in a world of
soundbites and Tweets, how can we bear witness to embodied truth, a
complex multi-faceted truth.
Well, if Truth is king, then “fake news” is not. If Truth is king,
then distorting inconvenient facts for our own political, racial,
social, cultural, religious, or economic comfort, is not.
Returning to the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s critique of
truth and power: the Church itself has a long and miserable tradition
of using “the truth” to consolidate and abuse its own power. Over the
centuries, the church has excelled at using “its truth” to colonize,
enslave, reject, and dehumanize those we conveniently call “Others.”
But that’s not the kind of truth Jesus calls us to belong to. The
truth he embodies in his life, death, and resurrection is not
instrumental or self-aggrandizing in any way. It does not serve to
bolster his own power and authority. Quite the opposite — it humbles
him. It breaks him. It takes away his life.
For Jesus, truth isn’t self-serving. He never aligns himself with
brute power to guarantee his own success. He doesn’t allow holy ends
to justify debased means. He doesn’t make honesty optional when the
truth strikes him as inconvenient. This is Christ the King.
In contrast, real power, God-given power, is about giving that power
away in the loving service of others. When Jesus washes our feet it’s
not the frightened touch of the slave who expects to be beaten but the
healing touch of one who loves us into wholeness and, by giving us
that taste of perfection, truly connects us with the living God. This
is the living and transforming Truth to which we are invited to
embrace and follow. This is the Truth that will truly set us free.