This has been noticeable for some time now. Five years ago, “speaking your truth” in politics still sounded reasonable; now, while the habit of speaking in terms of skepticism and subjectivity has not been broken completely, a cursory scan of our politics demonstrates that certainty and objectivity are the new norm. In public health, racial justice, climatology, and innumerable other intersections of science and sociology and politics, our discourse emphasizes and enforces a winner-take-all struggle between truth and falsehood, good and evil. The sight of a mob of Trump supporters, convinced at least that he was the rightful victor and at most that he was about to bring down an international cabal of adrenochrome-eating pedophiles, was if nothing else a wakeup call. We need to stop indulging in make-believe. Maybe in that way, we can meet each other on the common ground of the reality that, willing or not, we all inhabit.
And the new president’s inaugural address echoed this. In what will be remembered as one of the sharpest uses of theology in modern American rhetoric, Joe Biden invoked St. Augustine’s formula that “a people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” And what loves unite Americans? “Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.”
In another day, with a president of a different party, the reaction in our country’s organs of respectable opinion would have been swift and brutal. Each of these concepts offered as “common objects of love” would have been picked apart as insufficient and insincere, none more so than the last: truth. The old habits of relativism would have returned: Founding a people on truth would be exclusive, benighted, dangerous. Truth as a common object of love? There would have been shudders: There is, we would have been reminded, only my truth and your truth. Only tolerance of different perceptions of the true and the good, they would say, can keep this people together.
But that’s all gone now. Truth is in. But, we are justified in asking alongside one of history’s most infamous cynics, what is truth?
Pontius Pilate’s intention in making this inquiry of Christ is ambiguous. It has been called “jesting,” or one of the greatest philosophical queries of all time. What I see in the Roman governor, though, is resignation—not despair of the reality of truth, but of whether it matters either way.
Consider Pilate’s next move: He knows the truth, and he tells it. “I find no crime in him,” he announces to the braying crowd (John 18:38). Pilate is not a skeptic. But in the face of the riotous reality of the mob, the abstract truth doesn’t matter, and so he deploys that damned contrasting conjunction: “But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:39). Of course they decline and demand Barabbas; thus he has washed his hands (as he does literally in Matthew’s account) not only of the injustice of Christ’s conviction, but of his responsibility to the truth.
Truth and justice are intrinsically related: Justice involves, fundamentally, the duties we owe in virtue of the truth—the truth of the human person, the truth of virtue and vice, the truth of equity, the truth of God.
Truth and justice are intrinsically related.
And so Augustine would have endorsed the president’s identification of truth as the essential foundation of the commonwealth. We should, we must, be a people formed by our common love of the truth, or we cannot be a people at all.
But Joe Biden was not speaking outside of place and time: He was speaking here and now. And so I think of the commentary of Theophylact of Ohrid, whose notes on Scripture were relied on by St. Thomas Aquinas, on Pilate’s question: “For [truth] had almost vanished from the world, and become unknown in consequence of the general unbelief.”
What is truth? Was the election illegitimate? Was Mexico ever going to pay for the wall? Was George Floyd murdered? Is Donald Trump a Russian intelligence asset? Did Joe Biden sexually assault a staffer? Did Donald Trump sexually assault several women? Is Hunter Biden under federal investigation? Do cloth masks suppress respiratory viruses? Did antifa incite the Capitol siege?
These are all questions with answers, most of them known or easily knowable. But do those answers, to return to Pilate’s cynicism, really matter? Of course they do morally, with regard to the acts themselves and to justice. It matters whether George Floyd was murdered, so that his murderer might be punished. (He was.) It matters whether masks work, so that we might calibrate our epidemiological regulations properly. (They do, generally.) But do these answers matter to the way our society is actually run? Do they inform our choices in leaders, and do they matter to those leaders?
In response to this question, we should make two observations: Donald Trump was particularly brash in his indifference to the truth; but Joe Biden promises nothing more compelling than a return to the more carefully stage-managed deceit of American politics, in which he has participated his entire adult life.
Trump’s frontal attack on truth as such exploded a public relationship with truth in politics that was, in the wake of decades of lies about scandals and wars and policies and the very nature and dignity of human persons, already a shambles. Truth had already almost vanished from the world; Trump made that fact undeniable; Biden promises to return us to a state of plausible deniability. This may be an improvement, but it is not a healing.
Healing would take a much higher dose of the love of truth than we seem able to bear. We love the idea of truth, and of truth-tellers, but what the polarization of our politics—more accurately, the calcification of a politics of anti-solidarity—means is that we love the selected truths that flatter the assumptions and prejudices, and advance the interests, of our side. But if we really love truth, then we can’t pick a side, at least in the uncritical way usually demanded. Is abortion morally acceptable health care, a locus of irreproachable liberty like choosing a house or a college? If an elementary school student finds that she does not identify as the sex her anatomy presents, has she found out that she is in fact not that sex, such that her parents and doctors would be failing her if they did not put her on puberty blockers? Are endless wars punctuated by drone strikes that fail to discriminate between soldier and civilian a legitimate foreign policy? Joe Biden would answer the first and, in agreement with Trump, the third in the affirmative; it remains to be seen how this administration will answer the second.
Healing would take a much higher dose of the love of truth than we seem able to bear.
But the answer to all of these questions is in fact no. The apparent fact that Biden believes them to be true does not change this. Because they are false, to enshrine them in law and policy would be unjust. Acquiescing or assenting to falsehoods that are given the slick veneer of truth—or are whitewashed to obscure the claims they make—will not bring unity, but tyranny.
It seems that we are, again, stuck with Pilate. Truth exists, and peoples and commonwealths must be founded on it. Justice requires it, and without justice, civilizations tear themselves to bits. But—there’s that damned conjunction again—in the face of mobs and tyrants and corporate behemoths, does it matter? Do we just have to go along?
But remember the man—the God-man—to whom Pilate was speaking. The words of Christ that elicited Pilate’s query were these: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37). And of course four chapters earlier in John, he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Christ could have answered the governor’s question, had he been given the chance, with two words: “I am.”
When truth is so unclear, and when facsimiles are wielded recklessly to excite passions, then the Christian’s first response to the question, What is truth? is to reword it: Who is truth? There we have a definitive answer. We don’t have to retreat into relativism or to embrace convenient lies; we can stand our ground and point to the cross. We can affirm with the president that society needs truth, and then show him the Truth, bloodied and triumphant.
We don’t have to retreat into relativism or to embrace convenient lies; we can stand our ground and point to the cross.
Truth is in, and that’s good. It’s much better for Christians, and for everyone, for the terms of discourse to be made clear, rather than obscured behind the false neutrality of skepticism and relativism and tolerance. But if we try to contain truth within American political categories, just as when we try to tame Christ and his teachings, we will continue to do violence to it, and to him.
A commitment to truth means an openness to others and a willingness to listen and to learn, not in skepticism of truth but the mutual and cooperative pursuit of truth that is an aspect of the love of neighbor. We can practice and demonstrate this among ourselves as Christians, showing that the truth—the real Truth—does form and sustain communities, does make living together not just possible but joyful, does bind us together while making us servants of all.
We can and should celebrate truth when we see it in American politics, but with that innocent wisdom (Matthew 10:16) that allows us to distinguish posturing from probity. We can affirm the abstract correctness of Joe Biden’s “shared loves” remark while wisely recognizing that in our context it simply does not reflect the real state of things: Americans do not all love the real truth, and the truth the president offers us is in places adequate, in places incomplete, in others perverse. It would be a lie to say anything else.
This is an uncomfortable, even painful posture to adopt, but the Christian is a pilgrim, an exile, a sojourner: We were never promised, nor should we expect, to exist comfortably or guilelessly with the powers of this world. And so if we take the president’s words to heart—and we should—they should inspire us to regard critically precisely the man himself, and all those who invoke the idea of truth while mistaking, or misusing, the genuine article.