In one of the most intriguing conversations in the Bible, Pilate asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” To this, Jesus answers, “You say that 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.” And then Pilate asks him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38).
The text doesn’t tell us whether Pilate was asking this last question sincerely, or if he was being sarcastic. Nor are we told what, if anything, Jesus said in response.
But the question itself remains as important as ever: What is truth? How do we determine what’s true in a world of competing claims?
This question becomes even more pertinent in a time like this, when politicians and the media have given us so many conflicting versions of reality that it’s hard to know if any of it can be believed.
In an age of “alternative facts,“ is there anything, or anyone, that we can continue to put our trust in? Is there such a thing as absolute truth?
I believe that there is. But we will not arrive at this truth automatically, nor will we get there through a single source of information.
There are many different sources that people use in order to determine what’s true. One of the most universal is personal experience.
Indeed, we all interpret reality through the lenses of our own experiences. As much as we may wish we had an “objective” view of reality, there’s really no getting away from this.
And we can learn a lot from our experiences. But if this is the only thing we use to determine truth, we’re likely to have a pretty distorted view of our lives and the world around us. Other sources are needed to keep us balanced.
As a Christian, I have found Scripture (and particularly the teachings of Jesus) to be an important source in my quest for truth.
I have tested the teachings of Jesus many times, and have always found them to be reliable. I believe I can base my life on these teachings, and that doing so will help me live a better life – as it has already done.
Scripture and personal experience aren’t sufficient, however, to arrive at anything resembling a universal truth.
It’s all too easy to make the Bible say what I want it to say, if the only criterion for interpretation is my own experience. This is where church tradition becomes important.
By “tradition,” I mean all of the teachings and experiences of Christians for the past two thousand years. None of these, by itself, will necessarily lead me closer to the truth; but when I see a pattern of agreement forming in the lives of several saints from different times and places, it’s worth looking into. It may well be that these people are on to something!
My sense of tradition isn’t limited, however, just to self-professing Christians. Indeed, I think we can learn something from everyone’s experience, even those who may not believe in a God, or may not be particularly spiritual in their approach to life. All of humanity is, to some extent, connected with one another – even if we’re not aware of it.
By combining the insights of personal experience, Scripture, and the living traditions of others, I believe I can come to know the truth. But this doesn’t happen all at once, nor can I ever arrive at a place of certainty – at least not in this earthly lifetime.
At some point, we all have to step out on faith, and put our ultimate trust in someone or something. For me, this Someone is the God revealed by Jesus, and continually revealed in the experiences of the Christian community as we struggle to understand Him.
While my understanding of this God continues to deepen and change, something keeps calling me back to the teachings of Jesus and the church that follows Him. I have found, over and over again, that the God revealed here is one I can trust.
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,” Jesus says, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). I have found this to be true in my own experience.
Thus I will continue to use these teachings, as interpreted through both personal experience and the living tradition of the church, to guide me in my quest for ultimate truth.
I will also continue to trust the Spirit who lives within me, the One who Jesus says “will speak whatever (s)he hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).
Can I know for sure that I have it right? No. But I have found a place to start, and a place where I can continue to grow in my understanding.
So whatever the politicians, media, or anyone else tells me, I will continue to test it against the One who said of His own inner Spirit, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Hopefully, this testing will lead me to a place where I can demonstrate the truth of the gospel – a truth that is based, above all, on love.
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,“ Saint John admonishes us. “And by this we will know that we are from the truth, and will reassure our hearts before him” (1 John 3:18-19).