What is Truth?
Does Truth Matter?
The Scala Sancta (the Holy Steps)
Last Saturday I had the incredible privilege of climbing the Scala Sancta in Rome reverently on my knees, and of standing near the place Christ must have stood when Pontius Pilate first asked Christ “What is truth?,” then solemnly declined to condemn Him, ceremonially washing his hands of guilt.
Feeling that same floor under my feet, kneeling on those steps where the Passion of Christ occurred, and contemplating how St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, located Pontius Pilate’s Praetorium steps and transferred them from Jerusalem to Rome, I was filled with an even deeper sense of connection to the reality of our Christian beliefs, and of the importance of acknowledging the conversation that took place on those steps, located now at one of the holiest places in the world. “Non est in toto sanctior orbe locus;” There is not in the whole world a more holy place.
Truth does exist, truth does matter, and even our world’s great secular leaders, including Pontius Pilate, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, instinctively cared about and respected truth, not to mention every parent who instinctively insists on truth from their children. Christ willingly DIED for truth, because truth is so important.
Truth is most often defined as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It is clear to most of us that humans, while young, must learn certain facts or realities about life in order to negotiate the world safely and effectively, and in order to become functional adults who are responsible for the perpetuation of our society.
How Important is Truth?
Our institutions of learning go to great pains to instill in us certain commonly accepted truths, such as mathematical truths. We would not dream of graduating a grammar school student lacking the ability to determine logically whether 2+2 was equal to 4.
Historically, more complex philosophical and ethical truths relating to man’s purpose, existence, his ethical behavior and morality, have been widely discussed, analyzed logically, and taught to students in depth at all levels—i.e., philosophy. It is universally appreciated that a sense of purpose and direction, as well as an ethical code of behavior, are as important to the smooth functioning of society as are mathematical truths. Truth has been analyzed and explored on many levels, and actually involves numerous qualities such as faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, sincerity, veracity and tolerance (Oxford English Dictionary,).
Today, however, philosophy, the branch of learning which deals with defining logic, the mind, and the mind’s capability to analyze reality, is greatly undervalued and often distorted. Most high schools and universities fail to teach even the fundamentals of philosophy to their students. It is now possible to graduate from College without taking a single philosophy course.
Perhaps some of the philosophers of the modern era, who question whether truth can even exist, and even suggest that truth could be inferior to non-truth, may be to blame. Nietzsche, for example, suggested that untruth was better than truth if it had life enhancement as a consequence. Translated: go ahead and lie if it gets you ahead or makes you comfortable. We are living with the consequences of this “philosophy” in 2011 in a big way. Prudence, caution, delayed gratification have gone down the tubes; relativism (individual definition of truth) has arrived. 2+2 may = 4 for you, but for me, it equals 7, if it suits my goals. Then we wonder why we struggle to function together when the rules are not fixed and when truth and fairness are not valued.
What About Freedom?
For those who treasure the “freedom” to define one’s own truths regardless of logical proof or freedom from fallacy, and who resent the restrictive nature of conforming to societal norms, an analogy with standardized electrical power outlets might be helpful. For years, manufacturers have been restricted to one standard design which was defined historically; our freedom to manufacture newer, more interesting, and perhaps even better power outlets has been sacrificed in favor of the smooth functioning of a society in which all toasters and all computers can be plugged into all outlets in the United States. This illustrates how the restriction of some “freedoms” can be beneficial in society. In fact, society has a certain obligation to define standards and truths in order to prevent chaos.
Abuse of Freedom
The mention of computers brings Bill Gates to mind, a prime beneficiary of the new business philosophy in which societal restrictions are lifted, truth, fairness and the general good are supplanted by personal profit or “freedom,” and in which conformity or compatibility with previously existing equipment has been discarded. Planned obsolescence is now assumed, and one man can accumulate staggering wealth by releasing defective products that are not recalled or updated when found
to be lacking, but instead the populace must repurchase the next defective product every three years or so.
I do still have and treasure toasters and refrigerators that are20 and 30 years old and do not need “updating.” They still work, still fit the power outlets, and are still usable. They were produced by a business philosophy that still had a commitment to the general good, and was built with pride by people satisfied with a fair profit instead of an obscene profit. There is little computer software, and even little computer hardware that can make this claim today. Nor does any other manufacturer stand behind product quality, as “purchase protection plans” are sold to customers at customer cost, instead of providing manufacturer 10 or more year guarantees.
Imagine what commitment to fairness, quality and compatibility would do for the computer and manufacturing industries today! It is ironic that the very liberals who demand freedom from traditional ethical constraints are so disturbed by the resulting inequities in wealth that result from the new “freedoms” that manufacturers enjoy. Now liberals are calling for increased taxation to reclaim wealth from those who played the system for what it was worth.
Ironic, too, to hear that Warren Buffet, another obscenely wealthy man, is being quoted by President Obama in support of increasing taxation of the “wealthy” (of small business owners who provide jobs,
jobs which will disappear when these small businesses are taxed at a higher rate), when in actual fact Buffet hypocritically has not paid, and is still bickering about, $1 billion of his taxes owed since 2002. Both Buffett and Obama, in their politicking and wheeling and dealing, seem to have completely lost touch with truth. There is no room for dishonesty in our leadership.
Back to truth
What happens when you drift from it?
While detailed analysis of the essence of truth has been a subject of interest to philosophers for millennia, most of us today are satisfied with the simple definition; truth defined as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. Few of us take it any further to wonder just how important IS truth, and what happens when truth is not respected.
The erosion of respect for truth often begins with small things we consider harmless, called “white lies.” But the ultimate progressive erosion of respect for truth over decades results in a society where communication and information exchange is at best difficult and most often unreliable. When public figures get away with blatant lies made in their own self-interest, yet continue successful public careers, the erosion of respect for truth has progressed to a disturbing level.
- Bill Clinton comes to mind, ridiculously parsing words to the point of asking what the meaning of the word “is” is on national television.
- Hillary Clinton comes to mind, lying to the United Nations as our Secretary of State about the Catholic Church’s position on abortion, in order to advance her global “abortion rights” agenda.
- Barak Obama comes to mind, most recently twisting and misrepresenting bridge safety figures wildly in a speech in South Carolina in order to advance his federal stimulus spending agenda, and violating his oath of office repeatedly by violating the Constitution of the United States.
- Martha Stewart comes to mind; a celebrity whose dishonest financial dealings led to her imprisonment, but which do not seem to offend the public sufficiently to impact Martha’s subsequent retail business success.
- At least two Justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court come to mind, in the latest scandal where they have committed perjury, yet there is no public clamor to unseat them. If these two did not commit perjury, then four others who contradict them did. Supreme Court Justices are now giving false sworn testimony during criminal investigations about events at which all of them were present.
.This is hardly a comprehensive list; 2011 is teeming with examples of public figures lying blatantly, getting caught, and the media and public tolerating the lies as though they were excusable.
The Meaning of Words like Truth and Importance of their Constancy
Language and words are essentially “tools” by which humans convey information to one another. When these tools are redefined, when the meanings of words are reversed and twisted, when lying becomes forgivable and acceptable, then information transfer becomes impossible.
Most of America knows that much of the media, including the primary information sources, can no longer be trusted. Objectivity is no longer a prerequisite in journalism. Spin is assumed and expected. Facts are no longer facts, but can be falsified and readjusted for political expediency. As liars no longer suffer ostracism and disgrace when caught in their lies, they turn bolder and even more shameless.
Erosion of Public Commitment to Truth
Without a public commitment to truth, our society becomes dysfunctional and chaotic. How can you know whom to vote for, if lying and flip-flopping has become acceptable? How can you vote intelligently when you don’t know whether you were given true facts by the media? How can important national and global decisions be made when you cannot distinguish truth from spin?
Is global warming a looming tragedy or a carefully constructed and convenient lie for global power-mongers? Is abortion a woman’s fundamental human right, or is it the murder of our own children, a violation of each person’s fundamental right to life, and a practice which will imbalance and destroy our society both fiscally and morally?
Conflict Resolution in a Democracy Must Rely on Truth
Liberals have their priorities laid out, and are not flexible on them.
Conservatives have their positions laid out, and are not flexible.
The two groups are diametrically opposed on many issues, and their positions are often mutually exclusive; i.e. there is no room for seeking the truth together.
In a healthy world, mediators and experts would be called in to analyze the logic of the arguments and the repercussions of various policies on our society. There would be some debate to determine which side is right on which issue, and the populace would vote, or reputable judges would rule on the issues of conflict.
Yet in a world where the existence of truth is not acknowledged and truth is not respected, everyone has their own “truth,” no truth is absolute, and no discussion can occur to determine which group is right on which issue. We all continue on the road to polarization, which degenerates into unproductive disrespect and verbal abuse.
The populace has not been educated in logic or philosophy, and votes impulsively, with the outcome often reflecting the size of TV advertising budgets. Lies are paid for and lies are believed. Judges do not rule based on the U.S. Constitution, but have become political appointees who place themselves above the Constitution and who rubber-stamp the agenda of those who appointed them. We already have at least one U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Sotomayor) who apparently does not view the Constitution as “Settled Law”, and has made comments about the Court of Appeals being “where policy is made.” The Courts have now changed from a place of weighty and logical decision to a place of political posturing and internal contradiction.
Yet truth is neither liberal nor conservative; it is simply truth. The sum of 2+2 does not change depending on one’s political affiliation. Nor do certain fundamental moral and legal issues.
One prime example is abortion.
Abortion cannot simultaneously be a good and fundamental human right while also being evil, the killing of a human being. There is a moral discontinuity here.
The discontinuity is also legal– a mugger who kills a pregnant woman is guilty of two counts of murder. Yet if that woman were on her way to Planned Parenthood to get an abortion, then the killing of that preborn human for HER would be legal and would NOT be murder. So the courts have now implied that the humanity and rights of a pre-born human being vary according to the intentions of the mother who is carrying them.
This is dangerous ground to tread. Many are already considering the killing of additional inconvenient human beings – the disabled and the elderly. Will we soon progress to the killing of an inconvenient and difficult spouse or child? Peter Singer, a bioethics professor who holds a chaired professorship at Princeton University, already espouses the killing of a human child within the first month of life, if the parents do not like what nature has dealt to them. Such people are holding positions of respect and honor in our society.
Government Redefining Morality
Without bothering to settle the moral or legal discontinuities associated with abortion, President Obama is now trying to mandate abortion by law. Obama has proposed an Obama Care regulation that requires all private health insurance plans to cover sterilizations and abortions, despite the fact that these procedures violate the ethical beliefs of 80% of Christian America. The U.S. Catholic Bishops are calling this an “unprecedented attack on religious liberty,” pointing out that even Jesus would not qualify as “religious” under the proposed regulation’s “religious exemption.” The U.S. Bishops have set up an urgent call to action on their website which facilitates the sending of messages to the Department of Health and Human Services protesting the proposed regulation. The standard public comment period is ending on September 30, 2011.
The fact that a U.S. President dares to violate the beliefs of the majority of Americans and to dismiss the concerns of a respected ethical authority such and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, illustrates the lack of respect for truth, or for seeking the truth together, as well as the dysfunctional nature of our present society. It resembles a game of schoolyard “King of the Mountain” more than it resembles a civilized democracy.
Where are We Headed?
What is the Solution?
Such are the dilemmas and contradictions spawned by eroding respect for truth in our society. It will not get better; it will first get worse. The restoration of truth as the value of utmost importance throughout our society is the only solution possible to the moral and legal chaos we have generated and with which we struggle with daily.
Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict), a philosopher, has pointed out that the modern notions of truth such as those espoused by Kant, which view human reason as incapable of knowing religion and ethics, amputate the mind’s capacity to answer fundamental questions, dishonor reason, and are contradictory to the modern acclamation of science, whose basis is the power of reason. In his book Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger argued that truth and love are identical. And if well understood, according to him, this is “the surest guarantee of tolerance.” 
Truth is therefore more complicated than the definition of “state of being in accord with fact or reality.” Truth actually includes the discernment of what is right and what is wrong, of what is fair i.e., morality and ethics. Morality cannot be dismissed as an artifact of religious belief; it has been of concern to leaders and thinkers throughout history. Hippocrates, for example, included the prohibition of abortion in the Hippocratic oath (this prohibition is excluded by medical schools today).
The laws of most Western nations including the United States have been founded on Judeo-Christian philosophy/values, which stem from the Ten Commandments. Some of these values, previously codified in law, have now been abandoned. Abortion is an example of values abandoned. Murder, theft and perjury are still forbidden, but these, too, are beginning to erode, as euthanasia, infanticide, taxation of the “wealthy” are being discussed, and as we live each day with a President who is famous for his flip-flopping/lies. It is not surprising that the unraveling morality is now accompanied by unraveling economy; after all, if we are self-serving and inconsiderate to each other, how can we make a successful team? We take great pains to teach our children the value of sacrifice, teamwork and cooperation through sports activities from a very early age. Yet as adults, many of us abandon these values to a self-serving redefinition of “freedom” which simply hurts everyone.
Back to the Ancient Conversation
So as we analyze the ancient conversation, which occurred on the Holy Steps between Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ in the light of modern events, we begin to appreciate the momentousness of that interaction. Christ announces that he came to bring truth. He IS the Truth. He is willing to die for truth. Pilate does not quite grasp the indispensability of truth and questions it, yet has a sufficient innate sense of respect for truth, which compels him to refuse to participate in the killing of Truth:
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot
was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.”
Christ’s definition of lies, the opposite of truth, can also be found in the Bible, when he speaks of Satan:
You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.
This contrast between truth and lies, between right and wrong, between God and Satan, between the Word, the Truth and the father of lies, this contrast is found at the crux of all human conflict and injustice.
Struggle for a Conclusion; a Modern Philospher Provides the Solution
I have struggled all week with articulating the conclusion of this article, battling to describe the connection I sensed last week, while I reverently climbed the Holy Steps, between the erosion of respect for truth and our increasingly suffering human condition.
Yesterday morning, at Sunday Mass at Madison’s Cathedral Parish, our Pastor Msgr. Holmes very articulately provided that missing connection for me, quoting and explaining Pope Benedict’s remarks upon his arrival in Germany three days ago. The Pope, a modern philosopher, was addressing this subject.
Pope Benedict is a deep thinker capable of explaining the connection between truth, freedom and justice. He spoke words to Germany that apply equally to all of us– “I have come to speak about God.” He went on to quote the great bishop and social reformer Wilhelm von Ketteler, who pointed out two hundred years ago “Just as religion has need of freedom, so also freedom has need of religion.” Pope Benedict explained the essential and indissoluble connection between freedom and religion.
“We are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations.
All the same, a binding basis for our coexistence is needed; otherwise people live in a purely individualistic way. Religion is one of these foundations for a successful social life. “Just as religion has need of freedom, so also freedom has need of religion.” These words of the great bishop and social reformer Wilhelm von Ketteler, the second centenary of whose birth is being celebrated this year, remain timely.
Freedom requires a primordial link to a higher instance. The fact that there are values which are not absolutely open to manipulation is the true guarantee of our freedom. The man who feels a duty to truth and goodness will immediately agree with this: freedom develops only in responsibility to a greater good. Such a good exists only for all of us together; therefore I must always be concerned for my neighbours.” – Pope Benedict
The above links are pivotal in explaining why religion (philosophy, truth) is a prerequisite for true freedom, and cannot be discarded in favor of short-sighted utilitarianism.
Where do we find Truth?
Religion seeks Truth. Christ stated that he came to bring truth. Religion is the vehicle, the higher authority, which can remedy the erosion of truth in our society and reverse society’s moral and economic dissolution. Freedom is not possible without truth, nor without a higher authority, which prevents those who are stronger from trampling the freedoms of those who are weaker, as they pursue their own ill-defined and unlimited “freedoms.” Msgr. Holmes/Pope Benedict
The leaders of our society have begun to lie systematically. We have tolerated the lies and we have reelected those leaders. We are paving the way for the destruction of our society, we are crucifying the truth, and we are assisting the father of lies, who has little fondness for the human race.
The truth will NOT be found in lies.
Course of Action
It is time to listen to our moral leaders, to pray, and to vote.
When it comes to voting, the first criterion must truth, including all of its subtleties:
- Candidates must be in accord with fact and reality, not with fantasy. This applies on all levels, including the fiscal responsibility level.
- Candidates must be interested in the discernment of what is right and what is wrong, NOT in relativism, not “my truth” versus “your truth.”
- Candidates must respect morality and ethics, and must acknowledge that some individual “freedoms” are ill defined if they are hurtful to others.
- Morality cannot be dismissed as an artifact of religious belief, but must be understood as crucial component of true freedom.
- Candidates should exhibit love, faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, sincerity, veracity and tolerance.
- Qualities such as tolerance should not be re-defined. For example, tolerance of harmless differences is good. But tolerance of selfish and hurtful behavior is not real tolerance. True tolerance acknowledges when an action is wrong or hurtful to others (sinful), and then responds with fraternal correction, mercy, and forgiveness, not with condoning.
These issues, all related to truth, have been of concern to leaders and thinkers throughout history, and must remain high
“What is truth?”
Let is hope we get the answer right this time.
My gratitude to my sons Chris Reitz and Tom Reitz, whose Oremus Catholic Rock song, The Song of Benedict, have kept these important issues foremost in my mind.
And to my husband Rolf Reitz, for climbing those steps with me, and for his endless patience and assistance with editing.
 Jn 18:38