What is Truth!
Religion & Liberty Online

What is Truth!

Hugh Hewitt interviewed Andrew Sullivan on the radio last week about Sullivan’s book, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.

Discussing the value of various figures throughout history as moral heroes, Sullivan speaks of “the great question that Pilate asked, what is truth? The truth is not quite as easy and as simple as we sometimes think it is. And the truth about everything, the meaning of the whole universe, is something that is, by definition, very hard for humans to grasp. I mean, God, if God exists, must, by definition, be unknowable to us.”

Mark Judge, who passes along the transcript (HT: Instapundit), says that Sullivan’s favorable quotation of Pilate made him “once and for all feel sorry for Sullivan.”

Chuck Colson, who delivered an address at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner last week (mp3) has a somewhat different take on the scene between Jesus and Pilate:

Truth is the great issue, always has been. When Jesus was hauled before Pilate, turned over to him by the Jews, and Pilate couldn’t figure out who he was. And Jesus said, “I am the truth, and those who are of the truth hear my words.” At that moment, to me it was the great clash that has continued all through the ages. When Pilate said to him, “What is the truth?”

Except that’s not what Pilate said. Every one of the translations of the Bible I think get it wrong. They all have question marks after Pilate saying, “What is the truth.” Mel Gibson, great theologian, got it right in The Passion of the Christ, when he has takes the Aramaic, the voice Aramaic, and translates into the subtitles and has, “What is truth,” exclamation point. Pilate was saying exactly as our culture is saying to us today, “What is truth!” Scoffing disregard for the very concept of truth.

What is truth? What is truth is ultimate reality, what Jesus meant by that answer. And of course there’s truth, unless you believe everything you are seeing in this room is an illusion. And so we are the people of the truth, we believe there is ultimate reality and we believe it is knowable. And that puts us right up against our culture.

Now of course the translators of the Bible aren’t wrong (Pilate’s phrase in the Greek begins with an interrogative pronoun and ends with the punctuation equivalent of a question mark), but Colson’s point is well taken. Sullivan’s emphasis on the ineffability or unknowableness of God undermines the truth that God has definitively revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

But instead of anchoring himself to this firm foundation, as you might expect a Roman Catholic to do, Sullivan flounders for a moral compass in a sea of relativism:

And what I find very troubling about today’s…some of today’s, not everybody, but some of today’s fundamentalists is their absolute certainty not only about what God is, but their right to tell other people how to live their lives, according to their view of what God is.

For more one the term “fundamentalist” as a term of opprobrium, check out Al Plantinga’s examination of the term’s usage in discussing his epistemological model in Warranted Christian Belief,

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged to first define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relative conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’ (pp. 244-45).

It seems to me that Sullivan exemplifies this usage of the term pretty darn well.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.