The passion and the truth

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Pontius Pilate had a great line in the Passion of the Christ - and one that I think may be emblematic of our 'modern' culture. "Veritas - quod es veritas?" Truth, what is truth?

Ethical, moral,cultural relativism would have us believe that there is no objective truth. You have your truth, and I have mine. I have been told that the basic credo of neo-paganism/wicca/many 'new age' religious expressions is that everything is OK 'an it hurt no one'.

Never mind that it is pretty much impossible to take any action without taking the risk that some one, some where, will be hurt. It is often unintentional, that hurt, and even more often it is unforseeable. But it is real.

Those who do not believe in any grand truth are often willing to distort the small truths in pursuit of a goal, be it an altruistic goal or a selfish one. After all, if there are no absolute moral standards, no absolute truths, no objective reality, then the ends do indeed justify the means.

The agonizing decisions of moral theologians over the dilemmas can become as naught. If one's goal is lofty enough, then any sin might be justified, nay, even sanctified. I think that we can all think about the political folks who have lied, cheated, and stole their way into power. But I am actually more concerned about the everyday 'venial' types of untruths. You know, the ones we learned at our parent's knees - calling in sick to be able to watch the game, having your child tell a phone solicitor that you aren't home, claiming that the store bought cupcakes were actually home made. Petty lies. "Little white lies".

But left alone, the attitudes behind these pecadillos can come to permeate one's soul, to the point where a police officer plants or fabricates evidence in order to assure the conviction of a person "we all know is guilty anyhow". We have accountants being fired because they refuse to make the bottom line look like what the execs think it should, rather than what it really is. We have contractors adding in just a shade more sand to the concrete 'because it really doesn't make that big of a difference'. We have inflated damage claims on insurance policies. We have students who buy their essays on the internet.
I remember reading some where (maybe in Heinlein) that there are 3 ways to lie. One is to tell an outright falsehood, another is to tell the truth but only part of it, and the third and most subtle is to tell the truth, all the truth, but in such a manner that no one believes you. But in a culture such as ours where lying is an everyday and accepted part of public life, where there is no absolute standard for truth, I think that there is yet another way to lie. That way is to tell everyone what you think that the truth should be, and loudly and often enough to get buy in from a large enough group.

Look at all the recent scandals - falsified medical research. Falsified financial records. Cover-ups of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors. We all need to get back to the basics - but without a unified sense that there are indeed some non-negotiable truths, how can we even decide what is basic and what isn't?

That is part of why I believe that we all need to look towards (among other things) the 'natural law'. You don't need to be a christian or a catholic to believe that there are basic principles written into the world around us. It is obvious that we have a law of gravity. Gravity is pretty much non-negotiable. We have technologies that can counteract some of its effects (airplanes and so on) but you or I can't just jump off the cliff and expect to float to a safe landing. No human being invented the law of gravity - rather observations of the way things work led to a discovery of this law, and to further refinements. Similarly, there are other laws that may be more subtle than gravity but just as universal - laws that apply not just to the physical universe but to the ways human beings relate to each other, to our place in the universe, to a right ordering of life.
I remember seeing a poster, probably 30+ years ago that I think applies to where we are right now as a culture.
John W. Gardner:
The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

gotta love google


Hey Alicia:

I just wanted to give a big ole (slightly tardy) right on for this post.

I often think of Pilate as the perfect example of the jaded moral relativist of today, who ironically thinks he is so post-modern in his cultural malaise and cavalier attitude toward moral absolutes.

If only he knew how old his cutting edge attitude is---Pilate predated him by some 2000 years.

Great post.

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This page contains a single entry by alicia published on June 8, 2006 11:02 AM.

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