“What is truth?” (John 18:38) You may recall this provocative, profound question in the context of Holy Week or Good Friday services in the past. Unfortunately we rarely hear or read these words, or the extended conversation of which they are a part, the rest of the year. Jesus is near the end of his earthly life, the wheels have been set in motion for his execution. He stands before Pilate (Pontius Pilate — Roman procurator) and they engage in conversation (in all the Gospels Pilate is portrayed inaccurately as in some ways sympathetic to Jesus’ fate). At the end of their mutually respectful chat, Pilate offers the rhetorical question “What is truth?” Notice he does not ask the specific, closed question “what is the truth?”, but rather the open-ended, philosophical thought, what is truth?
So what is truth? Is truth important in our time? More or less so than in previous eras? Does truth matter?
I ask these questions in light of the controversy surrounding Lance Armstrong. As you know, last week the former Tour-de-France 7-time champion abandoned his legal fight against the U.S cycling body for reasons as yet unclear. Rather than continue with a process that eventually would have produced a series of sworn, video-taped (and therefore very public) statements from Armstrong’s former cycling team-mates about his alleged illegal drug use while winning his titles, Armstrong chose to end the investigation by not challenging that governing body’s case, at least not in the legal realm. And so questions arise? In this specific case, Lance, what is the truth? The USADA now submits that all seven Tour-de-France titles ought to be stripped from Armstrong’s possession, his incredible accomplishments erased from the record books. And Armstrong, as few as three days ago, in Montreal, stated clearly that he is innocent, is still the champion. What is the truth?
Yet also, what is truth? I’m frankly stunned by the fact that most of Armstrong’s sponsors are continuing to support both Armstrong and the validity of his achievements. Yes, the former cancer survivor has raised a ton of money for cancer research, second only to Terry Fox’s legacy in North America, and inspired thousands, but should that fact cloud the actual discussion here – that he may have had an unfair advantage over his competitors while racing for seven years? If in 1988 Ben Johnson’s gold medal was stripped from him because he had an unfair advantage over other sprinters due to doping, why not Armstrong now? Or is truth dependent upon how nice a person the alleged cheater happens to be, or the extent to which the person in question contributes to the greater good? Is truth important? Or is truth a pliable, inconclusive, dependent notion?
When it comes to our faith, our spirituality, does truth matter? For decades now, highly respected Bible scholars, New Testament scholars mostly, have gathered fairly regularly to take part in the Jesus Seminar, have voted as to which of the red-letter words of the Gospels attributed to Jesus are likely to have been actually said by Jesus, and which words are likely productions of the early Church and its interests. They’re after not only the truth but, it seems to me, in some ways truth itself. The same scholars, and others, often refer to the “truth claims” of Christianity, as well as other religions. In other words, how does a particular religion view God, the universe, and the claims about or made by their founders, visionaries, messiahs, or prophets? Are such claims inconsequential or fundamental? Does a Muslim need to accept that Muhammad was unique among all men? Does a Christian, while maintaining that God loves all people, need to hold nonetheless that Jesus was unique, Divine, before time? Does that truth claim matter? Some church leaders today are saying that it’s no longer all that important what we believe but rather, existentially speaking, it’s what we do in pursuit of justice and grace that matters. Yet, isn’t what we do, how we inform our own perceptions of justice and grace, dependent on what we believe, what we feel in the depths of our souls and the deepest corners of our minds, is true?
This Sunday we celebrate a Sacrament – Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, whatever terms works for you. What do we believe about this Sacrament – its history, its efficacy? Is that important?
Prayer: “I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” Amen.
(the words of the father of a possessed boy to Jesus, moments before Jesus heals the boy – Mark 9:24)