There Are No Old Truths

Jesus answered, "Every one who is of the truth hears my voice."  Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" (John 18:37-38)   

“Our age is retrospective,” Emerson lamented in the opening paragraph of his first book, Nature, published in 1836.  “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” 

Emerson was not speaking of scientific matters, where we have relatively little difficulty enjoying an original relation to the universe.  We have only to consider the preemptory manner in which Einstein dismantled Newton’s universe of absolute time and space.  Einstein’s paper on the special theory of relativity, published in 1905 when he was still an obscure clerk in a Swiss patent office, contained no footnotes, no references to earlier scientific work and almost no experimental evidence.  There was no false modesty about standing on the shoulders of giants.  Einstein had both feet planted firmly on the ground and his head in the stratosphere.  

So why is it that when it comes to spiritual matters we shrink from seeking an original relation to the universe?  Instead, as Emerson complained, we “build the sepulchres of the fathers.”  In almost every other area of human knowledge, we assume that the current generation has improved upon the old; in spiritual matters, quite the reverse is true.  We are content to dust off our sacred texts, defend ancient doctrines and embrace rituals performed by priests dressed in the finery of fourth-century Roman aristocrats.

We assume that if truth is timeless it must be old.  When God speaks, we may prefer to hear the words dressed up in Elizabethan English.  The magnificent King James Bible is much more elegant than the crude Greek of the original New Testament.  Inevitably, the simple storyteller of the gospels comes off sounding like a Shakespearean actor.  In due time, his home-spun stories and aphorisms were transmuted into abstract theological formulations that shed more heat than light.  Truth hardened into dogma.

Be that as it may, the original stories and aphorisms still retain their power-- not because they are old truths but because they are always new.  The reason is that truth is as much in the hearing as in the telling.  This is what Jesus was trying to explain to Pontius Pilate shortly before he was taken away to be crucified.  If you are of the truth, you hear the truth.  But Pilate was not and did not.  Instead, he posed the question that is the touchstone of all philosophy: What is truth?  

I know better than to try to say what truth is.  As much as we would like to contain it, truth carves its own channel into the landscape of reality.  It hides when we seek and reveals itself where it will.  As much as we would like to dress it up in suitable finery, truth remains utterly promiscuous.  It can show up on a billboard, in an advertising jingle, a snatch of song on the radio, a conversation overhead on an elevator, as the punch line to a joke.  “Wisdom cries aloud in the street,” it says in Proverbs.  Truth demands recognition, if not always understanding.  It may come as a sudden transparency where everything had been opaque.  Its source and destination are ultimately the same.  Truth is God speaking to himself. 

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