Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003)
I’ve been thinking about these two quotes for quite a long time now, so while they might seem particularly relevant in the present cultural and political moment, like most of the things I write here the initial idea for this post came some months ago. I suppose that the pairing seems a bit strange at first, considering together the conversation between Pontius Pilate and the Lord Jesus on the one hand, and those of a Democratic United States senator on the other. But taken together these quotations remind me that while we in our conceit believe that the cultural and political crises of the present day are somehow historically unique, in fact the milieu of the Roman Empire in New Testament times was not altogether different from our own. As Solomon said a millennium before the conversation between Pilate and Christ, “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
In Pontius Pilate we have a character who is at best a morally weak political leader. At worst he is a petty tyrant. His flippant rhetorical question “What is truth?” suggests that he has little regard for actual reality when the facts on the ground do not serve the ends that he believes to be politically expedient. In the end he delivers the Lord over to torture and death, not because he believes Jesus to be guilty of any crime—he doesn’t—but because he cares only about placating the crowd, maintaining order, and assuring his own place as the facilitator of that little slice of the Pax Romana. For Pilate, “truth” is at best malleable, at worst irrelevant.
Sadly, that same attitude persists among the political and cultural leaders of our own day. Once again, “there is nothing new under the sun.” The most pressing manifestation of this at the present moment is the discussions surrounding the impeachment inquiry against President Donald J. Trump recently initiated in the House of Representatives. As is so often the case in such matters, one side looks at the evidence and concludes that it is damning. The other side examines the same evidence and concludes that it is a “nothing burger,” to quote one senator. Who is right? What really happened? Was a crime committed, and if so by whom? I have no idea, and I’m not sure that anyone in Congress or the executive branch has any idea either.
But what bothers me more is that I’m not sure that anyone in Washington even cares what really happened. They only care about winning. Truth is replaced with spin, and the integrity of our society and its institutions continues to erode.
There was a time in our country when people with widely divergent political and social opinions could enjoy civil conversation and even come to some agreement based on certain common assumptions and understandings. At the very least, everyone agreed that “true” and “false” were objective categories not subject to individual interpretation, so a shared understanding of “the facts” formed the basis for dialogue and even consensus. But in a time when “truth” is no longer considered to be an absolute category but rather a relative one, that broad agreement on basic factual propositions has collapsed, and people on opposing sides of issues find their interlocutors to be not merely mistaken, but unintelligible…or perhaps dangerous. That’s what is so scary about the present moment. It’s not that people have disagreements about government, public policy, societal norms, or the like. It’s the disappearance of a set of common assumptions that allows profitable conversation to even begin.
So how do we get to that place where people can even talk? I don’t know. I’m just a trombone player who thinks about things and sometimes writes little blog posts that ten or twenty or a hundred people might read. But I think Sen. Moynihan’s words are relevant. Diversity of opinion is fine. It’s even good, prompting people to refine, sharpen, and revise their views in the light of new and better ideas. But “diversity of facts” is a problem. It’s a problem because the lack of agreement that some things are so and some things are not-so prevents the formation of a shared understanding that enables civil discussion to take place. More importantly, it’s a problem because “diversity of facts” is a nonsensical term. Some things are so and some things are not-so whether or not you or I or anyone else understands or agrees with this. Truth is absolute, not relative. It’s sad that so few in our day acknowledge this. It’s even sadder that they don’t seem to care.
And then there’s the matter of the One who called himself “the Truth” (John 14:6). The rejection of that Truth is the most tragic of all. But in a time when so many ask with Pilate “What is truth?” it is sadly unsurprising.