Before Jesus was handed over to be crucified, John 18:37-38 records an interesting conversation about truth he had with Pontius Pilate. Here’s the exchange:
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—I to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
As I considered this passage, and the fact that Pilate posed this question to ‘the way, the truth and the life,” two things occurred to me. First, Pilate’s “What is truth?” statement is one of the most important questions one can ask. In fact, how one lives and dies, what and who one values, and what one believes is dependent upon how one answers this question. Indeed, I submit that it is life’s most important question. Therefore, determining what is true is the most essential and necessary task of our human existence.
Second, when it comes to truth, there are two types of folks in the world. Let’s call them “Mr. Objective” and “Mr. Subjective.” Mr. Objective believes truth can be, and often is, separate from what he feels. And, since feelings can change or be misleading, there must be an objective standard to determine what is true. Therefore, Mr. Objective is on a constant search for this objective standard. In contrast, Mr. Subjective believes that truth is based on what he feels. In other words, if he feels that something is true, it is true. Period. Therefore, rather than seeking an objective standard to determine what is true, he has a subjective standard based on what he feels.
For example, imagine that Mr. Objective and Mr. Subjective are asked the temperature of a room in which they are both sitting. Mr. Objective says 68 degrees and Mr. Subjective says 72 degrees. Now, of course, they both can’t be right. In fact, they both could be wrong. But, how would one determine this? Well, one would go to a thermostat to find out…right? Let’s say that the true temperature is 75 degrees. In this case, Mr. Objective would align his belief about what was true to the temperature on the thermostat, which is an objective standard. However, Mr. Subjective would not. He would say that it’s 72 degrees because it feels like 72 degrees to him.
Now, it used to be that Mr. Objective and Mr. Subjective could coexist just fine in our culture. As a kid of the 60s and 70s, I remember well the mantra, “Live and let live” and “I’m OK. You’re OK.” But, over the last few decades, something very pernicious has happened. Mr. Subjective has changed. As Mr. Subjective has increasingly acquired power in our culture, he now demands that Mr. Objective abandon any standard of objective truth because he finds it offensive. No longer is Mr. Subjective’s truth just his own, but Mr. Objective must now embrace it too or risk being labeled as suffering from some kind of “phobia” and/or being silenced and shamed from the public square. Mr. Subjective’s new mantra is “Live and insist that others live and believe like me.” The “thermometer” is now meaningless.
Of course, there is an irony in all of this because in order for Mr. Subjective to enforce his standard, he must embrace an objective truth worldview. In other words, Mr. Subjective must say that the only standard for truth is that there is no standard, which, of course, is an objective standard…right?
That said, lest you underestimate just how problematic Mr. Subjective’s double mindedness can be if fully embraced by our culture consider two real life situations. First, a physician once told me about a 50-year-old patient who was biologically a man but was living as a woman. At an office visit, the patient requested a mammogram because this was standard of care for a woman of this age to avoid breast cancer. However, when this doctor suggested that the patient get a prostate exam, which is standard of care for a man of this age to avoid cancer, the patient refused because the patient believed and felt that he was a woman. Moreover, this patient never returned to this physician’s office. You see, the physician was emphasizing an objective truth and the patient preferred a subjective truth, even at the risk of death.
Second, there is a young woman I have known for many years, who, unfortunately, struggles with an eating disorder. Although she is underweight for her height and frame, when she looks in the mirror, she feels significantly overweight. So much so that she often throws up after her meals, exercises excessively, even at the risk of her life. Indeed, she rejects the objective truth that her bathroom scale shows her.
The good news is that her physician didn’t get her medical degree from the University of Subjective Truth. So, when this young woman goes for treatment, she is encouraged to embrace the fact that there is truth separate from what she believes and feels to be true. You see, just like in Pontius Pilate’s case, and as these two cases illustrate, truth has life and death consequences. That is why the question, “What is truth?” is so relevant today. It demands an answer…the right answer. Our very lives depend on it.