By Steven Norris

     A well-known moment in the Easter story has always haunted me. Standing before Pilate, the Roman governor, Jesus states, “…the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth…”

“What is truth?” Pilate retorted.

     I couldn’t help but think of this scene over the past weekend as I watched a debate between two high-profile political candidates in our state. Throughout the debate, each side accused the other of telling lies and bending the truth to fit their own narrative and agenda. I suspect we will be hearing a lot of similar talk over the next 7 months.

     What is a Christian to do? How are we to understand truth when it is under attack in every corner and undermined at every turn?

     I used to teach an introduction to philosophy unit to my high schoolers, where we discussed numerous theories of understanding truth. Let me summarize those briefly.

     A pragmatic or utilitarian theory of truth says, “Truth is what works or is practical.” It is the truth of many politicians. “The proof is in the pudding,” as my Mamaw used to say. “The ends justify the means.” The problem is that what works” is quite subjective — what you think works or what works for you might not be true for everyone. Additionally, what is true is not always practical (death, for example) and what is practical is not always true (as in a successful lie).

     An empiricist theory of truth states,Truth is what we can sense.” It is the truth of scientists and personal observation. Though it appears to be better, it has its shortcomings. Our senses are subjective and relative (the orange that tastes sweet to you is bitter to me; a room is cold to me but warm to you). Likewise, our senses can be manipulated, as in a mirage or optical illusions.

     A rationalist theory of truth says that,Truth is what can be proved by reason.” It is the truth of mathematicians. The problem is that many truths cannot be proven (the law of non-contradiction, for example) and some truths are not clearly rational.

     An emotivist theory of truth says, in essence,Truth is what I feel.” This is the position of  teens and parents at their wit’s end. It finds its most common expression in “because I said so.” Unfortunately, many feelings are false and many truths are not felt emotionally at all.

     Finally, we discussed a correspondence theory of truth. In other words, there is a one-to-one correspondence between what is said or known and facts in the world. The philosopher Aristotle put it this way: “saying of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not.”

     These are fine and good, but for the Christian, we cannot escape the reality that Jesus himself said, “I am…the truth.” At times, we might use one of the definitions above and knowing them can help us identify the shaky logic of others. At the end of the day, however, the truthfulness of a statement must be measured by whether it reflects the values and commitments of Jesus — the love, grace, hope, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and compassion of Jesus. Anything short of that is the real lie.