What is truth?

I have been thinking a lot about 'alternative facts' these days. It seems maddening, even frightening, that things that are easily provable - like numbers - can be debated or denied altogether by others. It is like quicksand trying to have a conversation if even the most basic understanding of what it is about can be dismissed. 

 'What is truth?' Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus before condemning him to death for no real reason at all, except the insistence of the crowd and the insecurity of those in power. What is our reason for doing anything?

It's easy to believe we are rational beings - that we make decisions based on factual information all the time - what we can perceive, what we have learned from others, what reality generally confirms for us. But I think this is true only in the sense that the facts conform to what we already believe.

When they are challenged, a larger truth is revealed: that we believe in a reality first, and populate it with facts later. Never mind that even science, at its core, is a mystery. Given the gazillions of facts available to us, we have to start with a pattern to make any sense of all the information available to us. 

And this is called 'faith'. We tend to treat faith as a personal accessory these days, and a primitive one at that. But I think our current 'fact' crisis shows us that it is what we ultimately believe that really matters.  

What we are having in this country right now is a faith crisis. The very tenets of democracy, even decency, suddenly feel debatable, even shakeable. If our faith only extends to what we can know and prove, there is a huge impact when we come to the abyss of where we disagree, where we inhabit different realities. It literally seems unbelievable.

And it seems like we should be able to bridge the gap by convincing each other of what is true by appealing to facts. As we are seeing, though, it is not always so easy. Rabbi Edwin Friedman called this 'the unreasonable faith in reasonableness'. Because people do not care so much about facts when they are afraid. When their reality is threatened. 

'Doubting' Thomas will apparently never live down his need to have the facts after Jesus rose from the dead (after Pilate's inability to recognize truth sent him to the cross), his desire to literally see and touch the wounds that Jesus received. But the real miracle of the story is not that Thomas asked, it was that Jesus answered. In the midst of a very literal alternate reality (resurrection), the love that transcends even death was present and in control. It was the only fact that really mattered. 

The chasms between us now are very hard to cross by appealing to evidence, because in many ways we are talking across realities - if I believe what you say, I have to recalibrate what I know. It is extremely disorienting.

But underneath even this there is the bedrock of love. There is the possibility that even when our neighbors do not understand us, nor we them, they are still our neighbors. This is not denial of the very real fears and concerns we may have. But it is an appeal to faith in what is even larger than what we can prove - the love of God. In this love is the power to heal and transform us. All of us. 

The beloved former President of my alma mater, the Rev. Timothy Healy, SSJ once said:

'Only for God is 'truth' a noun. For the rest of us it is an achingly incomplete verb'.

That is a fact I can believe in.