What is truth?


By Micah Kiel

Micah Kiel

On Good Friday, we will hear the passion narrative from John’s Gospel and listen to Pilate, in his extended conversation with Jesus, ask a question as timely today as it was when John put it on papyrus: “What is truth?”
Within the context of John’s Gospel, the reader knows the answer.  Jesus has previously proclaimed that he, himself, is the way, the truth and the life.  That Jesus is the truth is a way of thinking about the question, but I’m not sure how definite an answer it provides.  We still struggle today to answer Pilate’s question: “What is truth?”  When one reads the four Gospels in the New Testament, Pilate’s question about truth appears in only one of them.  Indeed, among the four Gospels one finds so many differences, changes, discrepancies, and flat out contradictions that my students usually react with a version of Pilate’s own question: “Which one is true?” The assumption is that truth equals history.  If we hold to this dictum, however, I think we will find ourselves with an insufficient understanding of truth, and eventually theologically impoverished.
The question of truth has been foisted upon us in the news in the last couple of weeks with regard to the popular entertainer Mike Daisey.  Daisey puts on a one-man show in Chicago called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he recounts his own investigative trip to China in an effort to document the working conditions of the people who make Apple products: the ubiquitous iPhones, iPads, etc.  Chicago public radio’s popular show “This American Life” picked up parts of Daisey’s monologue, and dedicated an entire hour-long show to his story.  In it, he tells of his encounter with underage workers, workers crippled by chemicals and repetitive motion injuries, cramped living quarters, and forced overtime. Daisey’s style is gripping, his ability with narrative is remarkable, and his story is very moving in how it forces people in the modern United States to think about where their technological products come from.
There was one small problem: large parts of Daisey’s story were not factually accurate. When this story broke, “This American Life” quickly retracted the episode, and then published another one in which they apologized and investigated anew the ways in which Daisey’s monologue was not “true.”
In the interviews that “This American Life” did afterward, they make the same assumptions that my students do: that truth equals historical accuracy. Ira Glass repeatedly says that Daisey’s account was “not true.”  Daisey’s comeback is that he was trying to tell a story that would make people care. Many of the details of Daisey’s work were corroborated by articles in the New York Times a couple weeks later. What Daisey did was compile them cleverly into a narrative that involved himself and his own experiences that was not factually accurate. Daisey clearly erred, especially in letting “This American Life” represent his story within the context of journalism.
When we read a newspaper article or a history book, we expect that the facts are correct. My contention, however, is that this should not be a limit of what we call true.
Can Mike Daisey’s story be “true” even though the details are not entirely “accurate?” If our understanding of truth is so rigid that it must be equated with historical accuracy, then we are in trouble when we read the Gospels in the New Testament. We would be forced to choose one, the true one, and then disregard the rest. Historical accuracy, of course, was never the intention of the authors of the Gospels. They don’t completely ignore history, but their aim was always something way beyond that: the theological truth about who Jesus was and why he was significant. In doing this, each of the Gospel authors offers a unique interpretation. They each have their own truth, and they are in ways compatible and incompatible with one another. Not that Mike Daisey should be put on a level with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but I think in his monologue he is attempting to do something similar: to try to get people to care about where their fancy products come from. If he misrepresented himself as a journalist, he deserves criticism. But, at the same time, I have despaired over the simplistic, rigid and jejune understanding of truth and its relationship to history that has accompanied this story.
As Roman Catholics, and Christians more broadly, our tradition embodies a much more complex, supple, and mysterious definition of truth. When Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus does not respond. He honors the question, as if to suggest that the answer is not simple.
(Micah Kiel is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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