I first published this post October 26th, 2014, with the intention of taking a break from writing and coming back in the new year to consider and write more on the subject of “truth” and what it means in a “postmodern” era. So that’s what I’ll do. I spend a lot of time–probably too much time–thinking about what “Truth” is and how we can know the truth. I’ve reconsidered some of what I’ve written here. There’s nothing I think is wrong, just clarifications and additions that I think should be made. But I’ll do that next week. This the same post, unedited, from October.
It may be the urn talking, but the effusively emotive Keats surely shared the sentiment. But he’s wrong. Beauty and Truth are kindred, and Truth may at times be clothed in Beauty (not always), but they are distinct. Beauty beckons, points, suggests, evokes. But Beauty does not speak. Beauty is impressionistic (or maybe like a Turner watercolor) and malleable to deliberate misinterpretation. And Beauty entices and woos, but it does not confront.
Art (which is not always beautiful and does not have to be), since the Romantic era, has been promoted as a unique vessel or even embodiment of Truth. I think art sometimes can gesture beyond itself to a transcendent reality and even “incarnate” Truth or Beauty. But, like everything merely human, art participates in the brokenness and distortion of a fallen world. Art can equally be used to convey lies and delusions.
THE LATE PHILOSOPHER RICHARD RORTY once famously said that truth was whatever his colleagues or community would let him get away with saying. He disputed the very notion that Truth is something real and “out there” and attainable; there is no capitalized “Truth” to be had. Truth is just the great postmodern Whatever: Whatever we agree to believe in our communities, Whatever works for us, Whatever helps us get along in life; that’s “truth” enough. I won’t let him get away with saying that, so it isn’t the truth.
Rorty wasn’t tongue-in-cheek; he meant what he said, and he said and wrote and elaborated on it over and over. He obviously thought what he wrote was true, and that we should believe him. The obvious irony of this didn’t escape Rorty, who demurred, declaring he wanted to “avoid hinting that this suggestion gets something right, that my sort of philosophy corresponds to the way things really are” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 174). Right. I don’t want to be uncharitable to someone who cannot respond, but Rorty’s position is the kind of educated nonsense that gives philosophy a bad name. Rorty cannot escape the pressure of our awareness that Truth is the way things really are and not the way we might wish them to be. If Rorty wants to disagree with the declaration, “‘Truth’ is the way things really are”, he must be thinking, in some way, “That’s not the way things really are”, which is to say, in other words, “The Truth is there is no Truth”.
Rorty engages in these mental gymnastics because he has presupposed it true that there is no God—no guarantor or final arbiter for what counts as Truth. But he does not arrive at a denial of God after careful consideration of what may or may not be true, he begins with atheism and goes where it takes him. Atheism is the leaky vessel he sails on his personal journey across the Ocean of Truth; we should not be surprised then if he founders and sinks along the way.
IN THE MOST FAMOUS INTERROGATION IN HISTORY (Gospel of John 18:28 – 19:16), the Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate (AD 26 – 36), was faced with a dilemma—expediency or justice. Charges of sedition and rebellion against Jesus of Nazareth—charges he knew to be false—presented him with the inconvenient truth that for him to do the right and lawful thing and release Jesus would no doubt spark a riot and get Pilate in serious trouble with the emperor Tiberius. We all know the conclusion of the matter. Along the way, Pilate questioned Jesus about the claim that he was the “king of the Jews”. Jesus’ answered that his kingdom was “not of this world”; a cryptic reply that prompted Pilate to exclaim, “You are a king, then!” Jesus affirmed Pilate’s response and then offered the straight line to one of the most famous non-comedic comebacks in history— Jesus is on trial for his life, yet his concern is not his own defense, but Pilate’s destiny. Jesus offers both an invitation and a confrontation: Pilate can choose Truth if he would have it. He knew Jesus was innocent; Pilate himself had pronounced him so. He could release Jesus or pervert justice for the expediency of crowd control. Pilate’s response, “What is truth?” could have been a shrug or sarcasm; either he flippantly rejects the very idea of Truth or he expresses his sense of being caught between a rock and hard place—placate a mob or risk the emperor’s wrath. We don’t know. In either case, as biblical scholar Merrill Tenney puts it, “Pilate sacrificed truth for what he thought was security and lost both.”
TRUTH IS THE WAY THINGS REALLY ARE and not how we might wish them to be. Reality won’t alter to suit our mood, nor Truth bend to our feelings. Truth is an invitation and a confrontation. We think we can avoid the truth, but we cannot. We think a lie will comfort us, but it only tightens our chains. Truth can be a gentle breeze, bracing gusts, or a roaring hurricane, but it always sets us free to sail into Reality.
Next Week: Truth Be Told – Part 1, “What is Truth?”, continued: “Truth is a Story”