Quid est Veritas?

We have read it in the Gospel, heard it in church during Holy Week, and some of us have seen the Mel Gibson film. What is truth?

In Thomist philosophy, the truth is something outside ourselves, and seizing the truth is conforming our intelligence to the information our senses receive from outside reality. In the tradition of Plato’s realism, absolute truth exists, but truth on earth is but a mere shadow of the Universal Idea of truth. Thomas Aquinas went for Aristotle’s moderate realism that gave some reality to the individual manifestations of the Universal Idea. All that is very mind-boggling, even for those of us who have sat through hours of muddled Italian philosophy lectures at the Angelicum!

Is anything absolutely true? To be sure, saying that there is no absolute truth is an “absolute truth” in itself. That is the dilemma of the “dogmatic truth” put out by atheists to say there is no God. After all, science sets out to discover truth and certitude of knowledge. So do theology and philosophy. There are some things on which we all agree as absolute truth, but our agreement depends on an agreement of definition. How is an idea or a term expressed in a language understood by you and I? That is where subjectivity lies and where our understanding or apprehension of truth is made imperfect. Even if we have a great deal of evidence and proof about something, there is a percentage of error by which our judgement of truth might be wrong.

We Christians tend to believe things as true because they were revealed by God – through the Scriptures, the Tradition, the consensus of the Church Fathers and so forth. In a Platonic perspective, the truth lies outside our grasp, and our apprehension of this truth is the work of our lives. The truth is not ours but of God. The difficulty is when we begin to impose our “absolute truth” on others to exclude them and say that they do not have this absolute truth or are in error. Those who do not assent to the “absolute truth” of the dominant person or group is attacked and denigrated, persecuted, tortured in an Inquisition torture chamber, burned at the stake, trolled on blogs, you name it…

There has to be a notion of truth, something we all have in common and a transcendent reality outside ourselves to which we all aspire. Otherwise, there can only be chaos. It is a little like the issue of authority and anarchy, but there is the difference between the Universal Idea and the particular manifestation which can only be imperfect.

The notion of truth will continue to be debated as we all have such an imperfect understanding of what is mysterious and above the limits of our reason. Pontius Pilate was a Sceptic, one who denies the existence of truth or doubts our ability to understand anything about it. What is truth? That is the question in all our minds if there is an ounce of honesty within us.

I remember a scene from the famous film of Boris Karloff, Bedlam, made in 1946, about the notorious lunatic asylum in London in the eighteenth century. There is a scene where two young insane people are sitting on the floor squabbling over a book – That’s not true! No, that’s not true. A visitor to the hospital asks why they are fighting over truth, to which the answer is – Wiser men have fought over truth for centuries. Reading some peoples’ ideas about religion and truth, I wonder if we are not all in Bedlam!

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