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Questions Catholics Ask

As Pontius Pilate says: what is truth?

To the biblically trained Jewish mind, truth is discovered through experience, which then gives rise to faith and promotes integrated behaviors. Pilate and Jesus weren’t in the same conversation.

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The trouble with Pilate’s question—apart from his dubious sincerity—is that someone with a Greco-Roman bias is asking this of a Jewish teacher. To the philosophical mind, truth is a substance obtained through a rational process. You can then pin it to the wall and say: Ta da! That’s truth. To the biblically trained Jewish mind, however, truth is discovered through experience, which then gives rise to faith and promotes integrated behaviors. Pilate and Jesus weren’t in the same conversation.

The Semitic word for truth is aman, meaning “reliable, constant, secure.” It’s the root from the Hebrew word Amen derives. In this sense a person can be true, as well as a word, a law, or a way of life. God is Ultimate Truth to the biblical believer, which is why all earthly ribbons of truth should be pursued, according to the sages of the Wisdom tradition. God will prove to be at the journey’s end. The person devoted to truth can look forward to a mystical union of the earthly and the heavenly: “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Truth will spring from the earth; justice will look down from heaven” (Psalm 89:11).

In Greek-speak, truth is an intellectually appreciated “known.” So Jesus is described as “a truthful man” by onlookers in our Greek New Testament. But to the Hebrew mindset, embracing truth leads to trust in its source. So those who believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” have to put their trust in him and not just appreciate his teaching. One who finds Jesus trustworthy in this way would also have to commit to “doing” truth or living in it: “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

Passionist scholar Paul Wadell notes that truth makes society possible. To live together we must trust each other. Living in the truth affirms trust and builds community. In a society of public lies, spin, and distortion, language becomes a disguise of meaning rather than authentic communication. We no longer trust our leaders—much less opponents, foreigners, or enemies!—because “You have my word” becomes an empty phrase. On the personal level, those who choose to live in self-serving fantasy rather than truth will reject reality and short-circuit social justice in favor of what works for them. A community without truth is a harrowing proposition. Say Amen, somebody!

Scripture: Ps. 12:2-3; 19:10; 119:142; Mark 12:14; John 8:31-32; 14:6; 17:17; 18:37; Romans 9:1; Gal 2:5; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; James 5:19-20

Books: Adult Faith: Growing in Wisdom and Understanding, by Diarmuid O’Murchu (Orbis, 2010)

What Is God: How to Think About God, by John F. Haught (Paulist Press, 1996)


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