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Monday July 20, 2015
The first of a multi-part commentary on an Indian proverb. The first installment asks the question that stumped Pontius Pilate: what is truth?
He who purifies himself in the river of a subdued spirit, the waters of which are truth, its waves compassion, and its shores excellent temper and conduct, will be liberated from this world; but liberation cannot be obtained by just outward observances.
-Ancient Indian proverb
There is a lot of wisdom in this short, beautiful, practical proverb. It is insightful for anyone who desires to be the best version of themselves.
Having a “subdued spirit” is an underrated concept. It's difficult to subdue the wildness of the self, it takes hard work and that most difficult of virtues: self-control. It's easier to be forceful, prideful, and self-absorbed. Hence the need for purification.
The proverb says that we purify ourselves in the water of truth. But what is truth? Is it relative to each person's views? Or is there absolute truth? A dramatic scene during Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate cryptically touches on the subject:
Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then?
Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”
Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?
(John 18: 37-8a)
It's a chilling exchange with no resolution. As Sir Francis Bacon cleverly says in his essay On Truth:
What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
To Pilate's credit it's tough to stay for the answer, especially if you follow the Christian tradition. Jesus' truth is life's highest calling: love God and love one another, even unto death. Take up your cross and die daily to yourself and what holds you back. As the great 20th century author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Easy Christianity is fake Christianity.
Jesus and the ancient Indian proverb promote different visions of what the truth is (though there is a good bit of overlapping). They both agree, at the very least, that absolute truth is real and attainable. This goes against our post-enlightenment culture which claims that one person's belief is as good as any other. It seems like a fine, inclusive view, one that promotes tolerance and coexistence.
However, if one person's truth is as good as that of anyone else, then what difference is there between Mother Theresa and Hitler? The relativist is forced to believe that they each had their own equally “right” version of the truth, which is obviously terrifying.
Even more definitively, “there is no absolute truth” is itself an absolute truth, so the argument collapses on itself philosophically.
Ultimately, each of us has to answer the important question of what truth is. We all have doubts, as jesting Pilate did, but there are answers in the faith of Jesus and the rivers of Eastern wisdom.
Check out part II here.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He was also Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.