Jesus said, “To this end was I born, and for this came I into the world, to bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth hears my voice. Pilate then said unto him, What is truth?” (John 18:37-38)
Pilate’s response is a fascinating one. “What is truth?”, he says, but he does not voice the question as a genuine query – it is a rhetorical question, a statement describing reality as Pilate observes it – there is no truth, there are only constructed ideologies and practical necessities and people act based upon these and function within the social/economic/political realms generated by these constructs. Right and wrong, truth and justice exist only within the relativistic confines and context of these constructs.
Pilate’s response is a quintessential modern response – in a world of relativity, “what is truth?” In a world dominated by pragmatic realities, ideological loyalties, and political manipulation what, indeed, is truth?
Jesus answers Pilate’s question with silence. And so perhaps it is presumptuous for us to seek an answer, or to listen for elucidation from within his quiescence. Yet this is a question which is a very human one – and one that every age has struggled with and sought to answer in different ways – some from the vantage of faith, some from philosophical logic, some from the rationalism of science, some from postmodern relativism, some from an individualistic mix of different avenues – it is a question which has been approached from every conceivable direction. Pilate asks the question cynically, rhetorically – seemingly not truly seeking an answer – and he receives only silence. But perhaps, in the case of Jesus, even his silence can become a potential exegesis, a speech of subtle elucidation – a pointer, not to a single answer, but to a direction which may take us to a mode of understanding.
Pilate’s world is governed by ideological fealty to the empire and a path governed by pragmatic decision making. His choices hinge, not on any particular concern with distinguishing between truth and untruth (he perhaps is unconcerned to even contemplate what these might mean), but on the weighing of threats and inconveniences to the empire, on the politics of dealing with the constituents of the empire, and on his own personal ambitions within this milieu. Pilate acts and reacts, as we all tend to do, within the limits and parameters of the surrounding society and his own ideological loyalties – juggling personal ambitions and personal compunctions with the realities of his time, and his place within the Roman hierarchy. There, pragmatism and political and economic realism, not some “abstract” truth, carries weight. For Pilate, as perhaps for many of us, existing worldly “realities” overwhelm truth rendering it irrelevant to immediate events.
Jesus’ taciturn silence in response to Pilate’s “What is truth?” is indicative of the vast gulf that stretches between someone like Jesus and someone like Pontius Pilate – a sign of the chasm between two modes of understanding, one mode being rooted in the mundane and the other rooted in deeper modalities – one mode bespeaking the cynicism inherent in Pilate who the world had bent to its connivance (and who in turn sought to further the empire’s influence by his own exercise of authority), the other indicating the certainty of one who sees the world as only a passing shimmer rippling across the surface of Reality. Between these two viewpoints there is an unbounded void.
Pilate’s independence is no independence – it is action tightly bound within the confines of a limited and worldly set of controls and inputs – the rules of the empire he serves, the relationship with Herod and Tiberius, the local politics of the province he governed – Pilate no doubt weighed all these inputs and made decisions that best suited the current situation according to his own internal ranking of the hierarchy of importance of these inputs. This is human nature shaped and governed by worldly circumstance, unmoored from higher realities.
But Jesus speaks from an entirely different realm of inputs – between his world and Pilate’s the gulf is so vast that Jesus’ answer to “what is truth”, can be nothing other than silence.
If truth is that which corresponds most fully to reality, then the truth Jesus acts upon stems from the realities that extend from the throne of God down to the earth of this world. These constitute the foundational metaphysical verities which encompass, penetrate, and underlie the worlds of the heavens and the worlds of matter – not the fabricated constructs of human power structures. Truth, in the sense that Jesus speaks of it, is found along the vertical dimension of reality – that dimension which cuts through a hierarchy of existence that stretches from this world to God.
So Jesus acts upon a truth that goes so deep and that has such a powerful grounding in the foundations of reality itself, that every word he speaks and action he performs has a solidity and deep resonance and spiritual potency arising from its integral connection to the throne from which the reality of the world emerges and from which it draws its subsistence.
“For man does not live by bread alone but from every word that proceeds from God.” (Matthew 4:4) God’s words are the engendering, shaping, and sustaining commands which hold the world in existence, from instant to instant. These words are truth – they are the essential substance that shapes reality.
The first truth and the foundation of all truth is God – “God is the Truth (the Real)” (Qur’an 22:6). His right over His creation is above all other rights.
And He has created in accordance with His nature “We created not the heavens and the earth and what is between them but through the Truth (the Real – Haqq); and the hour will most surely come, so turn away (from the ignorant and heedless) with kindly forgiveness.” (Qur’an 15:85)
And He has placed within each creature’s essence a truth and a nature which can connect it with other truths. “Our Lord is He who gave each thing its creation, then guided it….” (Qur’an 20:50)
Through this nature, truth can connect with truth – “Every one that is of the truth hears my voice.” (John 18:37)
By this connection and attraction, He (God) makes possible the connection between the ones who bring the truth (the Prophets) and the ones who accept the truth – “And he who brings the truth and (he who) accepts it as the truth….” (Qur’an 39:33) Those whose hearts are on the paths of the prophets, whose beings have a resonant identity with them, whose spirits are seeking congruence with theirs – they are the ones who accept the truth.
And He sends truth in the form of revelation, as guidance – “And with truth have We revealed it, and with truth did it come….” (Qur’an 17:105) This is why there is the potential for revelation to enact an alchemical transformation in the one who approaches its truth with their own intelligent and honest sincerity.
And the truth overturns falsehood, revealing falsehood’s self-seeking and ephemeral nature – “We cast the truth against the falsehood, so that it demolishes it, and lo! it vanishes away….” (Qur’an 21:18)
In the Qur’an, truth is repeatedly connected with reality at its deepest and most profound levels. So Jesus’ being is integrally connected to the realities which permeate and suffuse all aspects of creation from the heavens to the earth and all that is in-between. Jesus draws upon and manifests that truth in each glance, in each word, and in each silence. He manifests the truth in the most appropriate manner in each individual action, in each separate time and place, to each person and group – he gives to each aspect of creation he encounters, that which is most appropriate to it. Sometimes he gives healing, sometimes an awakening, sometimes harsh words (to the hypocrites) and reprimands, sometimes specific guidance, sometimes silence, but always, it is truth – conveyed in the most effective manner since its root is firmly established in the full depth of reality. He is a Word from God – cast into Mary’s womb. “…O Marium (Mary), surely Allah gives you good news of a Word from Him, who is the Messiah (Christ), Isa (Jesus) son of Marium, worthy of high honor in this world and the hereafter and is of those who are in near proximity (to Allah).” (Qur’an 3:45)
God’s word is the truth – so when Pilate asks, “what is truth”, the answer is manifest before him. At that juncture, the silence of Jesus’ presence was the most potent response.
The totality of absolute Truth is only possible within the unique singularity and unknowable hidden essence of God – there all contradictions and oppositions find their termination and reconciliation. But here, in the world in which we presently dwell, the Prophets drew upon their profound connection with the unseen, they recognized the true nature of things, they understood the vast substance of the ocean of reality upon whose surface the ephemeral world floats unaware (“You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes….” (James 4:14)) They gave to each thing they encountered its rightful due, drawing out from each its unique truth – the nature with which it was created – since it is by standing on truth, by being true to one’s profound metaphysical nature that one acquires substance, and gains a firm foothold in reality. And it is from this acting on truth, from “…bearing witness to the truth.” (John, 18:37) that the felicitous bond with the ultimate Truth, Al-Haqq, emerges. “God is the Truth (the Real – Al-Haqq)” (Qur’an 22:6)
Irshaad Hussain is a contemporary Islamic thinker and author of Islam from Inside.