What is truth?

A young priest was feeling rather pleased with himself. As he stood at the door at the end of Mass and the people left the church, he received many complimentary remarks about his preaching. But one old man said to him, ‘you went on too long.’ More people left and passed compliments but the same old man came past and said ‘You didn’t preach loud enough. We couldn’t hear you.’ More people passed by saying nice things until the old man came past again and said, ‘you used too many big words, we didn’t understand you.’  At this the priest asked the churchwarden who this old man was, who was so critical. ‘Oh, you don’t want to take any notice of him’, he replied, ‘he just repeats what he hears other people saying.’

The truth may be uncomfortable, both to be uttered and to be heard. Whereas the truth is fertile, can promote growth and lead to change, what is false is sterile and barren, stifles growth and thwarts improvement.

The truth is integral to the Gospel of John, from the beginning to the end. In the prologue to the gospel, Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is described as being full of grace and truth. John the Baptist comes to bear witness to the truth, revealed in Jesus ‘the way, the truth and the life’.  At the end of the gospel, a vexatious Pontius Pilate asks Christ what truth is, but does not stay for an answer. And after Jesus dies and bodily leaves this world, the disciples are confirmed and strengthened in their faith by the Holy Spirit, who Jesus had called the Spirit of Truth who would lead them into all truth.

After the Last  Supper, Jesus asks the Father to consecrate his followers in the truth, (John 17. 11-19). Consecration is sanctification, making holy and setting apart. The host, once consecrated, is set apart from ordinary bread to be for us the body of Christ. A bishop, once consecrated, is set apart for teaching and the pastoral oversight of priests and people.

If we are consecrated in the truth, then we too are sanctified and set apart from falsehood and lies. We are consecrated in the truth when we accept the truth of the nature of God as expressed by John in his first letter (1 John 4.11-16): that God is love, and that God is with us and in us when we love one another as purely as he loves us. St John is astoundingly simple in his logical formula of faith. If you acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, the manifestation of his love, God lives in you and you live in God. If you live a life full of love, you live in God and God lives in you. 

A priest used to begin his confirmation class with a jar full of beans. He would ask the young candidates to guess the number of beans in the jar. They would then find out who was closest to the true amount. Then he would ask them to write down what they considered to be the best pop song. Then he would ask which one of them was closest to being right.  They would reply that there was no right answer, that it was a matter of personal choice. Then he would ask them, whether choosing their faith is more like guessing the number of beans or choosing the best song. They always say it is like choosing the best song; a matter of personal choice, rather than trying to get closest to the truth of the reality.

At Mirfield, we studied Islam in comparison to Christianity, and at the first session the tutor asked us why Islam was the fastest growing religion. A Muslim student replied confidently, ‘because it is the truth.’ Islam revealed to him the reality of God. One of the pillars of Islam is the Shehada the declaration of faith that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of God. This declaration of faith is at the heart of their being, and constantly repeated.

We Christians, in contrast, have long creeds, the products and causes of religious wrangling and dissension. The truth and reality of our faith is perhaps better and more memorably expressed in Jesus’ summary of the Law in the great commandment and in the formula of John that God is love, and whoever lives in love, lives in God and God lives in them.  

Early in the Gospel of John, Jesus told the people that if they followed his teaching, they would know the truth and the truth would set them free. The truth does set you free. It is liberating.

Julian of Norwich spent fifteen years pondering the meaning of the revelations she had received. At times she worried whether she had been raving mad. Then, in her spirit’s understanding, came the reassurance, that love is God’s meaning, that God loved us before he made us, and that his love has never slackened nor ever shall, and in that love our life is everlasting.

The truth, the reality of God, had been revealed to her.

May it be equally clear to us.