If Truth Matters, What is Truth?


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The other day, I stopped by my local post office to drop off some mail. I couldn’t help but notice the American flag outside the front door was limply hanging upside down. Since that is usually the symbol for distress, I inquired about it with the postal clerk.

“Oh,” she replied, “the truth of the matter is there was some kind of malfunction this morning. Maintenance has been notified, but they haven’t shown up yet.”

I couldn’t refrain from responding in half-jest, with a slight sigh, “Oh, I thought it was just meant to be a sign of the times …” The truth of a momentary incident was based on a simple fact; while I was looking for something deeper and more profound.

Here’s something I’ve learned and come to appreciate: Deeper truths, while often expressed in empirical facts, are not necessarily the same thing. That is the purpose of myths and metaphors.

The postal clerk had offered a reasonable explanation. But I had interpreted the meaning of an inverse flag metaphorically. This is because the mythic tales with which we shape and live our lives need not be factual, in order to be true, and convey a deeper life meaning. And, as I often like to say, our real task is to differentiate the deadly myths from those that are life giving, by the deeper truths they express.

What is Truth?

As I wrote this commentary, the majority of the political leaders of my country’s government were in the process of acquitting the current occupant of the White House; who has been found to have committed an impeachable offense, based on an overwhelming compilation of factual evidence.

But in the midst of hours and hours of arguments and counter-arguments offered by the prosecution and the defense, one manager from the House of Representatives concluded one of his impassioned speeches with the simple assertion, “Truth matters. Truth matters. If truth doesn’t matter, we are lost. We are lost.”

And so, the obvious question is this: If truth matters – above and beyond the facts of the matter – what is truth?

As one versed in biblical mythology, I couldn’t help but recall having heard that question before; posed by Pilate before the Jesus figure depicted in the sham trial described in one of the canonical gospels (John 18:38). Pilate’s question was in response to the mythic figure’s declaration that his presence before the court was to be a witness to the truth (John 18:37).  Witnesses matter.

But a frustrated Pilate was merely concerned with the facts; instead of the deeper truths that had been expressed time and again by the witness borne by the wisdom teaching, parables and aphorisms uttered by a 1st century CE Galilean sage. As a result, truth was condemned and buried for a while, only to irrepressibly rise once again.

This is the central mythic tale and truth of one religious tradition. And, because one’s religious life is inescapably intertwined with, and inseparable from, one’s political perspective, it is also a cautionary tale that returns again and again to remind us – as a people — of these truths; with other such haunting aphorisms, like “A house divided against itself shall not stand.” (Mark 3:25).

As an obsessed observer of our shared political life, I can shake my head in dismay when facts hardly seem to matter; but more so, when falsehoods seem to triumph over the deeper truths that constitute the values we claim to still honor and cherish. Still, I remain convinced and convicted that those deeper truths I profess to believe will not perish. Human history will not only expose those mortal un-truths by which we might feign to live our lives; but the deeper truths, as well.

Not long ago, I wrote a heartfelt letter to an old boarding school classmate, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a half century. Once an unsuccessful presidential candidate, and currently a US senator from Utah, Mitt and I had been dorm mates in our adolescence; before going our separate ways on our separate life journeys.

I found myself compelled to write him to share my unsolicited political views; recalling the historical footnote of his own father’s fleeting attempt to win his party’s presidential nomination in 1968. George Romney, the Republican governor at that time, returned from a trip to Vietnam, and infamously declared he’d been “brainwashed” about the facts of the American war in Southeast Asia. But more so, he bore witness to the truth of the matter that our country’s actions were morally indefensible. And so, I challenged my old classmate to not only consider the facts of our current conflict; but the deeper truths that still persist and truly matter.

As expected, I did not receive a reply. I do not even know if my letter was even read by its recipient. In the end, it doesn’t matter. All that I wrote has essentially been said many times before. And while it always bears repeating, it will never not matter.

I reminded my old classmate of our school logo and motto. It’s the image of an archer, kneeling, with bow and arrow pointing straight upwards. The motto reads simply, “Aim high.”

Then I closed with a verse from John’s gospel; likely never uttered by the historical Jesus, but attributed to him nonetheless by an early faith community who’d inherited and embraced the wisdom of that tradition:

“If you continue in my teaching you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  (John 8:31-32)

© 2020 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.
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