Reverend Joe Haward considers what the pursuit of truth really involves and how knowledge of this is being manipulated by our politicians

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“What is truth?” are the enigmatic words recorded on the lips of Pontius Pilate two millennia ago. Some traditions have Pilate ask a further question: “Is there not truth upon the earth?”

Whatever time and culture we are living in, this seems to be a potent question for us all. What is truth, and can it be found? 

In Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, Pilate asks Jesus (Yeshua in the novel) the same truth question, to which Yeshua replies: “The truth, first and foremost, is that your head hurts.”

This might seem a fairly innocuous reply in the grand history of philosophical wrestling with such a question, but its impact upon Pilate is significant. In Bulgakov’s novel, Pilate has ongoing headaches, a secret pain that is causing him a lot of distress. Yeshua’s knowledge of his headaches calls to attention the truth of Pilate’s immediate reality. No longer is Pilate alone in his pain, hiding it from a world that demands his show of continual power. Another person has stepped into the truth of his reality. To speak truth, in part then, is to bring attention to the reality and authenticity of another’s life. 

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek makes an interesting observation about how obscured this is in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film, The Dark Knight. He noticed that, throughout the movie, the only person who actually tells the truth is the Joker. By demanding that Batman takes off his mask, the Joker knows it would mean the unravelling of the myth of who Batman really is. No longer a symbol of justice, but a billionaire playboy whose wealth has created injustice and pain in other parts of the world. It is easy to draw parallels here with our own economic system and the obscurification of truth by the rich and powerful.

The fight for truth is not a naive belief that its discovery will result in an alleviation of suffering. Rather, it is a principled rebellion on behalf of freedom. Even in the face of defeat, those who pursue truth will have asserted their unconditional commitment to freedom.

The Apostle Paul once wrote that our fight is “not against blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this darkness”. In other words, there are systems that perpetuate untruth for the sake of continued power. We should not regard people as the problem, but understand that it is the system that needs unmasking. 

In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the owners of land have become either kind, cruel or cold. The bank, or the company, owns the land, and it needs, wants or insists for money to be paid by the tenants, as though it was an insatiable monster. “They breathe profits” and “if they don’t’ get it, they die”. The monster has to keep feeding and growing. “Men made it,” declares the owners of the land, who have come for their money, “but they can’t control it.” 

We do not have to look too far within our political systems to recognise how difficult the pursuit of truth is. At every turn, it seems that the narrative it manipulated in order to support the current mask.

Such acts of untruth should alarm us, especially when democratic rights are impinged upon so those in power can increase their influence. The lines are increasingly becoming blurred between fiction and reality, with public perception of an event finely crafted and tuned and prioritised over anything of substance. Control the perception, control the public.

Post-modern ideas around truth have hindered its pursuit; truth is apparently in the mind of the beholder. But this masks the truth from us and enables untruth to flourish. If anyone’s opinion of what truth is true, then no one’s is. As people refuse to believe experts, they turn to the soundbites and empty promises of populist leaders. Those leaders regularly lie and frame their lies within an attack upon the media and the further undermining of expertise.

Using nationalistic appeals to pride and nostalgia, the truth is demolished and replaced by doublethink. As George Orwell highlighted in 1984, doublethink requires you “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them”.

Using the tactics of doublethink, alongside an appeal to national pride, allows such leaders to eliminate political contradictions. Swathes of traditionally Labour voters in the north of England voted for the Conservatives at the last General Election arguably because of a belief in nationalism and the erosion of trust in the political class. The contradiction of Boris Johnson being part of that political class and questions over whether he will actually improve these people’s lives is consumed by stronger narratives that do not require working out what the truth is.

Jesus called out those in power who lie with impunity: “Alas for you… because you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear lovely, but within are filled with the bones of the dead and with all uncleanliness.” The veiling of truth, and the subsequent injustices that result, must be brought into the light, however ugly such reality is. 

Truth is the pursuit of reality, to name things as they really are, so that justice may roll as a river. We may not see the fullness of that river any time soon, but we must, at the very least, try and get our toes wet. 

Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain


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