All truths are interconnected, from the humblest to the holiest.
I refer to the simplest of truths as those that can be answered by “Yes” or “No.” “Tell the truth, now: Did you chop down that cherry tree?” George Washington’s father asked his son. “Yes, I did; I cannot tell a lie,” George replied. The truth of the matter was stated by the simple response, “Yes.” This affirmation represented the truth of what actually happened (at least in the tale told by Parson Weems). A lie would have represented a nonreality, although a very small one.
Truth is intimately connected with reality; the lie has no connection with reality. In this regard, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s remark that “one word of truth outweighs the whole world” is itself true. The lie has no weight.
The “true or false” test operates on this same level. The answers are “right” or “wrong” according to whether they are “true” or “false.”
In a court of law, a judge needs realistic evidence in order to render a verdict. The word “verdict” is derived from two Latin words — verum and dicere — meaning “to tell the truth.” There can be no justice without truth. The entire judicial system is dependent on man’s ability to know the truth that will lead to a just verdict.
We can understand “truth” in a larger sense that can never be answered by a simple “Yes.” What is man? What is the meaning of life? What is God?
There are no simple answers for such questions. People ascribe different answers to them. Some find them to be unanswerable conundrums. They are like the Riddle of the Sphinx, eternally evading the grasp of mortal man.
To the ancient Greeks, the words “Know Thyself” inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were placed there by the gods. So profound, they believed, was the truth about the human being.
“What is man that thou art mindful of him?” asks the Psalmist (8:4-8).
“O God,” cried St. Augustine, “I pray you let me know myself.”
“Each of us is farthest away from himself,” wrote Nietzsche. “As far as ourselves are concerned, we are not knowers.”
The truth of the human being, critically important as it is, is mysterious and elusive. We are not simply angels or animals, merely individuals or part of the collective. We are complex, enigmatic and ambiguous. Homo duplex was the name assigned to the human being by the medievalists.
How, then, do we come to know who we are?
In Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the world today, we read: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of him who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (22).
It is, therefore, no wonder that all the truths set out above flow from Christ and reach their highest form of expression in him.
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” Christ told us (John 14:16). This is an extraordinary statement. Whatever beams of illumination the doctors of the Church proclaimed came from outside of them.
They were not the source of Truth. But Christ is Truth, the perfect integration of the ideal and the historical. And how important is the Truth that this personification of Truth makes available to us?
“The truth will set you free,” John states in his Gospel (8:32), alluding to a life that is free from sin and one that allows man to put himself on the way back to God. There can be no real freedom without Truth. There can be no wholly authentic life without Truth.
God created man, but did not abandon him to his own devices. He provided a model to imitate.
Jascha Heifetz is a model for violinists, as Arthur Rubinstein is for pianists. They reveal the truth, so to speak, of their art. They actualize the ideal.
Christ is our model for life. He is to be imitated by anyone who wants to fulfill his being.
The simple truths that can be answered by a “Yes” or a “No” are truths of fact. The truth of man is a truth of being and therefore more complex, richer and more profound.
Before the truth of the human being, man is silent. The Truth that is Christ is a truth of being on a divine level.
The trial of Christ was a mockery of justice because it rejected both truth as well as Truth. It delivered not a true but a false verdict.
It was not true that Christ was guilty. This was simply a matter of fact. But it also rejected Truth incarnate. Pilate’s undying remark, “What is truth?” was a denial and rejection of truth on both of these levels.
Here, we can see that even the small sin against truth can be interconnected with its largest transgression, the sin against God, one that Adam committed in the Garden of Eden.
Had Pilate rendered a true verdict and held firmly to it, Christ would have been spared crucifixion. This total repudiation of truth paved the way for the greatest act of injustice the world has ever known — the condemnation of God by man!
In his international best-seller Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II refers to Christ’s trial as “that tragic proceeding in which man accused God before the tribunal of his own history and in which the sentence handed down did not conform to the truth.”
We should not ask the question, “What is truth?” Rather, we should ask how best we can serve both truth and the Truth that is Christ.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College.
His latest book is Apostles of the Culture of Life (TAN Books).