Damien F. Mackey
Reading through, this Lent,
Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week
From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection
by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,
I was particularly struck by his wonderfully philosophical discussion of Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate regarding ‘What is Truth?’
The basis of the unique kingdom of Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be the very Messiah – and indeed equal to God – was, not earthly power like the Roman kingdom in which Pilate served, but Truth. This was all of course completely mystifying to Pontius Pilate, who could not initially regard Jesus as any sort of threat to Roman law and order. So Benedict writes:
…. At this point we must pass from considerations about the person of Pilate to the trial itself. In John 18:34–35 it is clearly stated that, on the basis of the information in his possession, Pilate had nothing that would incriminate Jesus. Nothing had come to the knowledge of the Roman authority that could in any way have posed a risk to law and order. The charge came from Jesus’ own people, from the Temple authority. It must have astonished Pilate that Jesus’ own people presented themselves to him as defenders of Rome, when the information at his disposal did not suggest the need for any action on his part.
Yet during the interrogation we suddenly arrive at a dramatic moment: Jesus’ confession. To Pilate’s question: “So you are a king?” he answers: “You say that I am a king. 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” (Jn 18:37). Previously Jesus had said: “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world” (18:36).
That God the Almighty is utterly contemptuous of our much-vaunted human power, the ‘might-is-right’ mentality, is attested by Psalm 2:1-6:
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
Obviously Pilate, though, had never embraced this deeper wisdom of Divine perspective. Benedict continues:
This “confession” of Jesus places Pilate in an extraordinary situation: the accused claims kingship and a kingdom (basileía). Yet he underlines the complete otherness of his kingship, and he even makes the particular point that must have been decisive for the Roman judge: No one is fighting for this kingship. If power, indeed military power, is characteristic of kingship and kingdoms, there is no sign of it in Jesus’ case. And neither is there any threat to Roman order. This kingdom is powerless. It has “no legions”.
Jesus is operating on a plane completely different from the world of Pilate – a level of being with which this superstitious pagan Roman cannot come to grips. But can we?
With these words Jesus created a thoroughly new concept of kingship and kingdom, and he held it up to Pilate, the representative of classical worldly power. What is Pilate to make of it, and what are we to make of it, this concept of kingdom and kingship? Is it unreal, is it sheer fantasy that can be safely ignored? Or does it somehow affect us?
It is Truth, not power or dominion, that actually typifies the kingdom of Jesus Christ:
In addition to the clear delimitation of his concept of kingdom (no fighting, earthly powerlessness), Jesus had introduced a positive idea, in order to explain the nature and particular character of the power of this kingship: namely, truth. Pilate brought another idea into play as the dialogue proceeded, one that came from his own world and was normally connected with “kingdom”: namely, power — authority (exousía). Dominion demands power; it even defines it. Jesus, however, defines as the essence of his kingship witness to the truth. Is truth a political category? Or has Jesus’ “kingdom” nothing to do with politics? To which order does it belong? If Jesus bases his concept of kingship and kingdom on truth as the fundamental category, then it is entirely understandable that the pragmatic Pilate asks him: “What is truth?” (18:38).
But Pilate’s question continues to have relevance as it is still, today, being asked in political discussions. And human freedom and “the fate of mankind” may be dependent upon the right answer given to this question:
It is the question that is also asked by modern political theory: Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere, its place taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power? By relying on truth, does not politics, in view of the impossibility of attaining consensus on truth, make itself a tool of particular traditions that in reality are merely forms of holding on to power?
And yet, on the other hand, what happens when truth counts for nothing? What kind of justice is then possible? Must there not be common criteria that guarantee real justice for all — criteria that are independent of the arbitrariness of changing opinions and powerful lobbies? Is it not true that the great dictatorships were fed by the power of the ideological lie and that only truth was capable of bringing freedom?
What is truth? The pragmatist’s question, tossed off with a degree of scepticism, is a very serious question, bound up with the fate of mankind. What, then, is truth? Are we able to recognize it? Can it serve as a criterion for our intellect and will, both in individual choices and in the life of the community?
Benedict now moves on to a philosophical discussion of truth, beginning with the scholastic definitions of it by Saint Thomas Aquinas, so highly regarded in the Catholic world:
The classic definition from scholastic philosophy designates truth as “adaequatio intellectus et rei” (conformity between the intellect and reality; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 21, a. 2c). If a man’s intellect reflects a thing as it is in itself, then he has found truth: but only a small fragment of reality — not truth in its grandeur and integrity.
We come closer to what Jesus meant with another of Saint Thomas’ teachings: “Truth is in God’s intellect properly and firstly (proprie et primo); in human intellect it is present properly and derivatively (proprie quidem et secundario)” (De Verit., q. 1, a. 4c). And in conclusion we arrive at the succinct formula: God is “ipsa summa et prima veritas” (truth itself, the sovereign and first truth; Summa Theologiae I, q. 16, a. 5c).
This formula brings us close to what Jesus means when he speaks of the truth, when he says that his purpose in coming into the world was to “bear witness to the truth”.
Pope John Paul II had, in his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio (1998), observed that a modern distrust of human reasoning has led to thinkers of today greatly limiting the range of their philosophical endeavour:
- Surveying the situation today, we see that the problems of other times have returned, but in a new key. It is no longer a matter of questions of interest only to certain individuals and groups, but convictions so widespread that they have become to some extent the common mind. An example of this is the deep-seated distrust of reason which has surfaced in the most recent developments of much of philosophical research, to the point where there is talk at times of “the end of metaphysics”. Philosophy is expected to rest content with more modest tasks such as the simple interpretation of facts or an enquiry into restricted fields of human knowing or its structures.
Benedict will, along very similar lines, lament that now: “The truth in all its grandeur and purity does not appear”.
Again and again in the world, truth and error, truth and untruth, are almost inseparably mixed together. The truth in all its grandeur and purity does not appear. The world is “true” to the extent that it reflects God: the creative logic, the eternal reason that brought it to birth. And it becomes more and more true the closer it draws to God. Man becomes true, he becomes himself, when he grows in God’s likeness. Then he attains to his proper nature. God is the reality that gives being and intelligibility.
“Bearing witness to the truth” means giving priority to God and to his will over against the interests of the world and its powers. God is the criterion of being. In this sense, truth is the real “king” that confers light and greatness upon all things. We may also say that bearing witness to the truth means making creation intelligible and its truth accessible from God’s perspective — the perspective of creative reason — in such a way that it can serve as a criterion and a signpost in this world of ours, in such a way that the great and the mighty are exposed to the power of truth, the common law, the law of truth.
We, like Pilate, lacking a Divine perspective – such as Jesus was attempting to proclaim – end up by falling hopelessly short of the ideal, worshipping power, not truth:
Let us say plainly: the unredeemed state of the world consists precisely in the failure to understand the meaning of creation, in the failure to recognize truth; as a result, the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world.
And, with power, science, since we consider it to supply many of the answers – some would even go so far as to say it encapsulates ‘the theory of everything’.
But, as Benedict goes on to explain, science does not of itself have the capacity to penetrate to the deeper metaphysical truths:
At this point, modern man is tempted to say: Creation has become intelligible to us through science. Indeed, Francis S. Collins, for example, who led the Human Genome Project, says with joyful astonishment: “The language of God was revealed” (The Language of God, p. 122). Indeed, in the magnificent mathematics of creation, which today we can read in the human genetic code, we recognize the language of God. But unfortunately not the whole language. The functional truth about man has been discovered. But the truth about man himself — who he is, where he comes from, what he should do, what is right, what is wrong — this unfortunately cannot be read in the same way. Hand in hand with growing knowledge of functional truth there seems to be an increasing blindness toward “truth” itself — toward the question of our real identity and purpose.
Truth is indeed most powerful because God’s seeming powerlessness far outweighs any human power:
What is truth? Pilate was not alone in dismissing this question as unanswerable and irrelevant for his purposes. Today too, in political argument and in discussion of the foundations of law, it is generally experienced as disturbing. Yet if man lives without truth, life passes him by; ultimately he surrenders the field to whoever is the stronger. “Redemption” in the fullest sense can only consist in the truth becoming recognizable. And it becomes recognizable when God becomes recognizable. He becomes recognizable in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history. Truth is outwardly powerless in the world, just as Christ is powerless by the world’s standards: he has no legions; he is crucified. Yet in his very powerlessness, he is powerful: only thus, again and again, does truth become power.
The kingdom offered by Jesus Christ is liberating for man, because in truth man finds his true liberation:
In the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, the subject matter is Jesus’ kingship and, hence, the kingship, the “kingdom”, of God. In the course of this same conversation it becomes abundantly clear that there is no discontinuity between Jesus’ Galilean teaching — the proclamation of the kingdom of God — and his Jerusalem teaching. The center of the message, all the way to the Cross — all the way to the inscription above the Cross — is the kingdom of God, the new kingship represented by Jesus. And this kingship is centered on truth. The kingship proclaimed by Jesus, at first in parables and then at the end quite openly before the earthly judge, is none other than the kingship of truth. The inauguration of this kingship is man’s true liberation.
Jesus Christ is Truth incarnate:
At the same time it becomes clear that between the pre-Resurrection focus on the kingdom of God and the post-Resurrection focus on faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God there is no contradiction. In Christ, God — the Truth — entered the world. Christology is the concrete form acquired by the proclamation of God’s kingdom.