“What is truth?” (Pontius Pilate, John 18:38)
Truth is a serious matter. Truth is the pathway to happiness and freedom. The Book of Sirach tells us that all our human misery comes from mistaking where our true satisfaction lies (cf. Sirach 15:16-17), and there are Jesus’ words “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Some famous thinkers were pessimistic about the human relationship with truth. For example, Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “It is far from being the case that people in general regard relationship with the truth as the highest goal.” And Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that, with most people, conviction would always coincide with convenience.
So, as Pilate asked, what is truth? Thomas Aquinas answered that truth is the correct correspondence between perception and reality. But what is reality? What is the ultimate nature of reality? Is this world all there is to reality? It’s like quoting St. Irenaeus who said “the glory of God is human beings fully alive.” But what is it to be “fully alive”? In fact, what is being human all about?
I get more and more interested in “ultimate” questions such as: What are we supposed to do with our time on earth? To whom and why are we ultimately responsible? I think the most profound and complicated question is: “Who are you, God, and what am I?” As someone put it: Who are we under these stars, with the wind on our faces?
Pope John Paul II, speaking of God, said this: “What is that unutterable mystery which embraces our lives and from which we take our origin and toward which we tend?” (Veritatis Splendor, 30) The Second Vatican Council stated: “For man will always yearn to know what the meaning of his life is, of his activity, of his death” (Gaudium et Spes, 41). Does it all make sense, does it have any ultimate meaning? William Faulkner wrote somewhere about “the frantic steeplechase toward nothing.”
Back to Pilate. Existentialists, such as Freud, argue that we must each create our own meaning, and no one can claim that his or her system of meaning is the meaning of life; there is no such thing. There is no God outside ourselves to whom we owe obedience. For many, truth is judged as simply matters of opinion. It may be true for you but not for me. What right do you have to impose your values upon me? We seem to be living in a time when more and more people are saying these things. Salvation is now defined as self-fulfillment.
One of the facts about truth is that truth is not necessarily with the majority. Majorities are no test of truth.
I suppose every adult has a vision of what reality means. A person may find it difficult to articulate his or her vision, but everyone has an interpretation of human existence. People have their different absolutes by which they make sense of reality. And it seems that most people believe that the way they perceive the world is the only way it can be perceived.
However, there are those who reach a point when they feel that their life seems to have no real order or purpose or meaning. They feel they are on a dull treadmill. As I heard one man put it “I work so that I can afford things like food and rent and clothes, so I can live so that I can work. It doesn’t seem at all fruitful; it makes no sense.” There are people who feel they live “an uncalled life,” one not referred to a purpose larger than one’s self.
Carl Jung said that the neurosis of middle age is meaningless. “A neurosis must be understood, ultimately, as a suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning. About a third of my cases are not suffering from any clinically definable neurosis but from the aimlessness of their lives.” Neogenic Neurosis involves a loss of the feeling that life is meaningful.
Carl Jung’s favorite story went something like this: The water of life bubbled up in a well and flowed without effort or limit. People came to drink of the water and were nourished by it. Gradually they began to fence the well, charge admission, claim ownership of the property around it, make elaborate laws as to who could come to the well, put locks on the gates. Soon the well was the property of the powerful and the elite. The water was angry; it stopped flowing and began to bubble up in another place. People searched and found the new well. Soon the same fate overtook that well. The spring took itself to yet another place—and this has been going on throughout recorded history. The moral of the story: basic truth can be missed and subverted into an egocentric thing.
But the wonder of the story is that the water is always flowing somewhere and is available to any person who has the courage to search it out. It flows in some odd places. It has often ceased to flow in the accustomed sites and turned up in some surprising locations. But, thank God, the water is still there. As always, it is free, and it is fresh. It is often where one least expects it. This is the meaning of the biblical phrase “Can anything good come out of “Nazareth?”
For me, one of the best observations about truth comes from Edith Stein who said: “Do not accept anything as truth if it lacks love.”
To be continued…
By Thomas H. Hicks