The Passion readings were fresh in my mind the other day, when I saw the cover of Time magazine. Perhaps it is a bit impious to even suggest it, but I think that while Our Lord is the protagonist of the Passion—in control of Himself and of events all the way through to the end, when he commends His spirit to the Father—Pilate expresses the dramatic nerve center of the whole story.
The scene, from Saint John’s Gospel: Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place. “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
A half century ago Time stunned the country by asking (in yet another cover story): “Is God Dead?” I was then a smart-alecky adolescent, still in love with my baseball cards. I was also among the 97 percent of Americans who identified themselves as believers. I remember, faintly, being baffled by the question. Now Time asks: “Is Truth Dead?” I am not baffled this time.
Yes, the question is preposterous. Truth (like God) is not the sort of thing that dies. It is logically possible that God does not exist, never did. Truth? Not even that, for at a minimum one would have to say something like: the truth is that everything is relative (or subjective, or whatever). Both God and truth do exist, and there is no time-stamp or shelf life on them.
The question which Time just posed is nonetheless overdue for an airing. Since the last election, a huge tranche of the media has decided that people no longer care about reality, that they choose to believe the “news” that fits into and reinforces their personal narrative. Or perhaps it is just those who voted for Trump that dine on “fake” news nightly. The political aspect of the cover story focused on the President. Time branded as “false” Trump’s claims about Russian hacking, Obama spying, and illegal immigrants voting by the millions. The punch-line of the piece is this: “Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century. The truth is real, but falsehood often works better.”
I would have thought they discovered that a long time ago, like in the Garden of Eden. I discovered it before the earlier Time bombshell, the first time my mom opened the refrigerator and found that someone had consumed all the soda and I thought about falsely blaming my brother. (I didn’t, because it would not have worked; everyone knew that my brother was a goody-two-shoes.)
What Time calls Trump’s “discover[y]” has nothing to do with “epistemology,” anyway. It has to do with human nature, rhetoric, pragmatism, wanting to win at any cost, and not caring about being fair to others. Even on Time’s account, Trump knows that there is truth and that there is error. He simply finds the latter more useful.
Pilate, on the other hand, was an epistemologist. At least he raised a philosophical question about what sort of knowledge is possible, and even about what having “knowledge” really amounts to.
I do not doubt that many people today cling to narratives about themselves, and about the way things really are, that are plainly false. These people are indeed often impervious to evidence, argument, and logic. Most people are like this sometimes, and all of us have a blind spot or two (or three) of this sort. I have no opinion about whether, all things considered, the proportions across the board are worse than, say, fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago.
One distinctive feature today, though, is that all sorts of cultural authorities—political, academic, spiritual, even scientific—are promoting headlong embrace of fantasy and neuroses as the real deal—as the truth, if you will, about human sexuality, identity, and orientation. Thus one is expected to address a troubled thirteen year old boy, born and built like other boys and with male chromosomes in every last one of the billions of cells in his body, as “she” because he reports that he is really a girl.
Sad evidence of this tragic flight from reality is all around us, especially on a college campus (even on this college campus). Many commentators describe the scene as a cultural collapse. I would not so much argue against this view as argue for a more powerful cause of the meltdown, namely, the parallel solipsistic turn in contemporary religion. In elite opinion, in most academic legal commentary, in much law, and to a significant extent in the minds of many ordinary people, religion is about emotion, empowerment, edifying fables, liturgy experience, spiritual satisfaction. For some it is about sociality and for others it includes social justice.
Religious acts have come for many to have the same dignity and value as do other acts by which persons express and actualize their deepest selves, desires, or self-defining thoughts and emotions. The supreme and perhaps only universal value here is authenticity and thus “identity.” As John Finnis aptly writes, religion’s “status and immunities are as instances … of the only really basic human good, the only intrinsically worthwhile end at stake, setting for oneself one’s stance in the world.”
Once religion is transposed into a peculiar form of self-empowerment, it is prone to collapse into psychological categories. As the cultural critic Philip Rieff wrote in 2006, “People who try to practice orthodox Christianity and Judaism today inevitably remain trapped in the vocabulary of therapy and self-fulfillment.” They are in the “miserable situation,” Rieff observed, of being “orthodox for therapeutic reasons.”
All of this might not be so bad if religion were not, well, real; that is, about reality—and the various world religions thus either true or false accounts of what’s real. Identifying and adhering to the true faith is then a matter of living in the real world.
In his Address to Latin American bishops, in Aparecida, Brazil in May, 2007, Pope Benedict described what is at stake with unsurpassable clarity. “Could [our] faith and life in Jesus not perhaps be a flight towards emotionalism, towards religious individualism, and abandonment of the urgent reality of the great economic, social and political problems of Latin America and the world, and a flight from reality towards a spiritual world?”
The Pope knew his audience well; many of those present were still enamored of the utopian immanentism of liberation theology. He continued, “As a first step, we can respond to this question with another: what is this ‘reality’? What is real? Are only material goods, social, economic and political problems ‘realty’? This was precisely the great error of the dominant tendencies of the last century, a most destructive error, as we can see from the results of both Marxist and capitalist systems. They falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality which is God. Anyone who excludes God from his horizons falsifies the notion of ‘reality’ and, in consequence, can only end up in blind alleys or with recipes for destruction.”
But, the Pope declared, “only those who recognize God know reality and are able to respond to it adequately and in a truly human manner.” A further question immediately arises, he said” “who knows God? How can we know him? For a Christian, the nucleus of the reply is simple: only God knows God, only his Son who is God from God, true God, knows him. And he “who is nearest to the Father’s heart has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Hence the unique and irreplaceable importance of Christ for us, for humanity. If we do not know god in and with Christ, all of reality is transformed into an indecipherable enigma; there is no way, and without a way, there is neither life nor truth.”
Perhaps then we should consider the two Time covers as bookends, separated by some fifty years but nonetheless bounding the same thought: God and truth live (or die) together!
And I think that the most important thing that this Catholic university can do for any of its students is this: to steel them against the acidic, even hopelessly unsatisfying, turn in the day’s understanding of religion, so as to keep alive in them and for them, access to the truth about all that there is, visible and invisible, here and beyond, now and for eternity.
Gerard Bradley is a professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, director of the Natural Law Institute, and a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover.