There’s a story about a minister who came upon two boys and a dog. In a friendly, patronizing way, the minister asked the boys what they were doing. “Well,” said one boy, “we found this dog and we’re going to have a contest for him. Whichever one of us can tell the biggest lie gets to keep the dog.” The minister was shocked, and said, “Boys, that’s terrible! Why, when I was your age I never told any lies!” There was a moment of silence. Then one boy shrugged and said, “Well, I guess he gets the dog.”
Human beings do not always tell the truth. That’s nothing new. Some say that what is new is that we live in a time when the truth is under assault; that we live in a “post-truth” era. On my way to work this morning, a news commentator said our struggle with truth is making our country vulnerable to foreign interference and “disinformation campaigns.” So it is both timely and relevant that we continue this morning with our sermon series on what the Presbyterian Book of Order calls the Great Ends of the Church by looking at number 4: The preservation of the truth.
Our first challenge is defining what we mean by the word, “truth.” On the one hand, in the John passages today as well as elsewhere in the Gospels, truth is important. Jesus says that if we are his disciples, we’ll know the truth and it will Set. Us. Free. That’s a wonderful promise. The problem is that the commentators are all over the map about what truth Jesus is talking about here. Do we mean reality? Sometimes, we use truth to mean, “what’s really, really, real.” Or do we mean a human perception of reality? Sometimes we use the term to mean how a person or group perceives what’s really out there. In court, for example, when a person swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we understand that only God could honestly fulfill that promise, unless we’ve defined truth to mean, “an honest and full accounting of what you perceived.” Do we mean our knowledge of reality, which is also limited, and sometimes even intentionally? Do we mean a feeling of certainty? When some people use the word truth, they mean a feeling of certainty and security that means they no longer have to think or ask questions. In other words, truth means, “case closed.”[i]
Is the truth Jesus is talking about that we are to follow Jesus, to be his disciples? Chapter 8 of John is full of following and discipleship language. Or does Jesus mean truth, generally: truth as opposed to falsehood, as opposed to denial, as opposed to refusing to see the world the way it really is? You can see this gets complicated fast. It gives me some empathy for Pilate, who asks, “What is truth?”
Pilate is curiously in sync with our contemporary culture. A recent Barna poll shows that 74 percent of Americans believe there’s no such thing as absolute truth.[ii] A glaring example of our “post-truth” era[iii] occurred in the 2016 campaign, when, during a morning show interview, a congressman insisted on defending one candidate’s claim that crime rates were soaring. The host cited FBI data showing that we’re safer and crime is down, but the politician responded, “No. That’s your view.” The interviewer countered that this wasn’t simply a matter of opinion and once again cited FBI crime statistics. The politician said, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.” In other words, facts don’t matter; my feelings will create my own reality. Oh, and by the way, the folks who assemble crime statistics are not “theoreticians” – it has nothing to do with theory. They are documenting facts.[iv]
We also see truth under assault in the number of people who believe that vaccines cause autism, even though the study supporting that claim has been debunked. We see it in the many people who prefer to believe that global warming isn’t happening or that humans aren’t part of the cause. We see it when someone says, “Well, I’m entitled to my opinion.” Maybe we’ve even said this ourselves as a way to short circuit an argument, but it implies that all opinions are equally valid. That feels egalitarian and tolerant, doesn’t it? Here in Northern California we try hard to be open to other perspectives. So maybe our challenge in today’s great end, the preservation of the truth, is this very struggle: How do we in the Church hold the tension between Jesus’ promise that there is truth, and that it will set us free, and our very legitimate desire to be respectful of other perspectives – in a culture in which claims to the truth are suspect, sometimes rightfully so?
Given the arc of John’s gospel, I suspect the truth John means here is the truth about who God is, and Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. A number of interpreters say that the question we should be asking is not, “what is truth,” but rather, “who is the truth?” and the answer is Jesus himself. This approach can sound exclusive at first blush, especially to tolerant and inclusive Northern Californians. Many of us love the passage in Chapter 14 of John’s Gospel where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” but shudder at the words that follow: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”[v] People imagine that what Jesus is saying here is that Christianity is the only religion with any truth in it, that Christianity is the only way to God.
But Jesus speaks these words in AD 30, more or less. It’s the night before the crucifixion. There is no Christianity yet. Jesus is speaking only to his own followers. What hangs heavy in the air is his impending death. It’s all anyone can think about. These words are part of Jesus’ struggle to make his disciples understand why there is no way around the cross. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life – and that Way, that Truth and that Life are about to be made visible in the towering tragedy of the cross and the towering miracle of resurrection. Jesus’ point is that there is no way to show forth the deepest truth about God except through what is about to happen. So in context, Jesus is not saying “my way or the highway.”[vi] The preservation of truth in the Christian faith isn’t intended to be a defensive battle: our truth against yours.[vii]
Still, the fact is that I am a follower of this way, this truth, this life. I am a Christian, and that means I believe in the God made known in Jesus Christ. At the same time that I respect and affirm other faiths, Jesus Christ is the one through whom I encounter God. His words, his life, his death, his life again have come to lie at the center of my very being. I love how Frederick Buechner describes it: “A Christian is one who points to Christ and says, ‘I can’t prove a thing, but there is something about his eyes and his voice. There’s something about the way he carries his head and his hand, the way he carries his cross – the way he carries me.’” Our Reformed tradition is clear that at the heart of our faith, the truth of our faith, is this resolute trust that Jesus Christ is God’s self-defining Word.[viii]
But our tradition also insists on a wonderful notion called “the sovereignty of God.” That’s a fancy theological phrase that says God can do whatever God wants to do. If God wants to speak to people through nature, God can do it. If God wants to speak through art or philosophy or other religions, God can do that, too, simply because God is God, and God’s freedom, God’s sovereignty, cannot be bound. The sovereignty of God reminds us that God is bigger than any theology, bigger than any doctrine about God,[ix] bigger than the church. As Richard Rohr puts it, “If we are really convinced that we have the Big Truth, then we should also be able to trust that others will see it from their different angles – or it is not the Big Truth.”[x] So that means we can follow Jesus wholeheartedly, have faith in him as somehow the truth, and still accept that we don’t corner the market on all of God’s Big Truth.
Jesus says if we do follow him, we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free.[xi] What truth will we know? What truth is it that makes us free? It is the truth we see in the words, life, death and resurrection of Jesus: that we are free and responsible creatures in a creation made by a good, wise and loving God; that our Creator wants us to pursue virtue, collaboration, peace, justice and mutual love for one another and God’s creation. Of the many radical things said and done by Jesus, his unflinching emphasis on love was the most radical of all.[xii] That is the truth that I, and others of us who choose to follow Jesus, commit our lives to.
What does all this mean for us at First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo? How do we fulfill the fourth Great End of the Church, “the preservation of the truth”? As followers of Jesus, the way, the truth and the life, we begin by learning how to love God and love neighbor, and to practicing that, daily. Just one of many ways we love our neighbors is by resisting our current post-truth culture. What does that have to do with loving our neighbors? My friends, if we lie to our neighbors, deceive our neighbors, or pretend every opinion is of equal value whether or not it’s based in fact, we do not love them. I know that sounds obvious but apparently it isn’t. How do you feel when you’ve been lied to? Do you feel loved? Or do you feel betrayed? Maybe you can remember a time when you would have done something differently, made a different choice or decision, if you’d known the truth. The lie deprived you of that freedom. Do you remember when the tobacco companies knew that smoking causes cancer and heart disease, way back in the 1950’s, but they still fought tooth and nail to keep the public in the dark about it, denying any real connection? People might have quit smoking much earlier, if they’d known. It doesn’t make you trust tobacco companies, does it?
Without the truth, people aren’t free to make wise, informed, rational decisions. For example, when we make policies about refugees, shouldn’t we know what it costs our country? A leaked version of a federal study showed that refugees to the United States brought in much more in revenue than they cost the U.S. government. However, mention of the fiscal benefits of admitting refugees was excised from the study before it was finalized.[xiii] Don’t we need that truth to make good policy? George Orwell wrote in his book, 1984, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” We are not truly free if we do not know the truth, and cannot speak the truth. Our freedom depends on the truth.
So, one way to fulfill this fourth Great End of the Church is to call out lies when we hear them. To hold social media accountable; to hold our allies accountable, as well as our adversaries. To refuse to be complicit in lies, including lies that might help our own political causes. We can also venture outside of our ideological silos, get curious and ask questions that get us outside our bunkers of certainty.[xiv] Think about how often we listen not to understand but in order to refute. All of us can do better to remind ourselves that the main point of gathering information isn’t to confirm the views we already hold; it’s to better get the truth.
Beyond that, we can all strive to model truthfulness, civility, decency, and integrity in our daily lives, among our family, friends, and colleagues. One person acting alone can’t change much; a lot of people acting together create a culture. This isn’t just about the big public forums or the national stage, but also the small, daily acts of civility and decency, of honesty and integrity – really, the kind of things I see you doing all the time. I notice; people notice. It makes a difference. It creates a culture.
Frederick Buechner speculates that when Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” he does so, not out of cynicism, but with a lump in his throat. Instead of truth, Pilate has only expedience.[xv] He has no loving Creator who wants healing, justice, freedom and love for all of creation. No conviction that our courage, our truthfulness, our sacrifice, our hope and our love all have a greater and Godly purpose. That’s enough to choke up anybody. Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, or, at least, he doesn’t answer with words. Jesus’ life has already answered the question; his death will answer further; and, while raising many more questions, Easter morning will give an even more profound answer. As Buechner writes, “He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.”[xvi]
And the truth will set us free. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
[i] Brian D. McLaren, “An Open Letter to Chuck Colson,” January 20, 2005, https://brianmclaren.net/an-open-letter-to-chuck-colson/.
[ii] “The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code,” May 25, 2016, https://www.barna.com/research/the-end-of-absolutes-americas-new-moral-code/.
[iii] Peter Wehner, “Trump’s Sinister Assault on Truth,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/donald-trumps-sinister-assault-truth/591925/; Ira Hyman Ph.D., Does the Truth Matter? Psychology Today, December 29, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-mishaps/201612/does-the-truth-matter.
[iv] Wehner, ibid.
[v] John 14:6.
[vi] Michael L. Lindvall, “My Way or the Highway or Many Roads to Heaven,” Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church: Mission and Ministry for Presbyterians, Joseph D. Small, ed. (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2010), 108-109.
[vii] Joseph D. Small, The Preservation of the Truth (Louisville, KY: Witherspoon Press, 2005), 127.
[viii] Lindvall, 109, 111.
[ix] Lindvall, 111.
[x] Richard Rohr, “Truth Is One,” November 22, 2016, https://cac.org/truth-is-one-2016-11-22/.
[xi] John 8:31-32.
[xii] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 42.
[xiv] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness (New York: Random House, 2017), 93.
[xv] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC’s (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1973; revised and edited 1993), 114.
[xvi] Buechner, 115.