What is truth?

In the heat of the day a young hunter knelt down by a pool to quench his thirst.

As he reached down to drink, he was suddenly dazzled by the reflection in the pool of a great white bird of a kind he had never seen before. Instantly, he looked up and around, but the bird had vanished.

From that moment on, he was filled with a great unease and purpose. He felt he had to see more than just a reflection of the bird. And so one morning he left the place of his birth to search for the bird.

His journey lasted so long and took him so far that he was an old man when he came to a great mountain. There he was told that the bird had its nest high on the summit.

Enfeebled, he slowly climbed the mountain and, toward the end of a long day, as he came over the last of many false summits, he found himself confronted by a final cliff he knew he could not scale. At the end of his physical powers, he prepared himself to face his end.

But then it seemed as if a voice within him was commanding him to look up at the forbidden summit. As he did so he saw, in the golden light, a pure white feather fluttering down from on high toward him. He put out his hand and grasped the feather and, they who told the story said, he died content.

When the people were asked what the name of the great white bird was, they said: "The bird has been given many names, but we believe it was the Bird of Truth."1

Is truth that illusive?

Is truth as elusive as this story indicates? In a sense in it is, and yet in another, it is not.

Either way, it is characteristic of our time to reject the idea that there is any such thing as definable, normative truth. Then there are those who feel that they are members of an elite who have scaled the forbidden peak, captured the Great White Bird, and caged it.

But between these extremes are the majority of us who have a great desire to crack the code of life's mysterious meaning. It's a puzzle we are always working on. And it's not uncommon for us, if we have encountered a number of those "false summits" in our pursuit of the Bird of Truth, to have become highly skeptical, while at the same time we are asking Pilate's famous question, "What is truth?"

The source of our struggle is in part due to the fact that we have witnessed so many lies, shadings, and truncations that we distrust almost any truth claim. In a survey conducted a few years ago, Canadian teenagers were asked the penetrating question, "What do you wish for most in your life?" The number one answer was, "Somebody we can trust."2

In his life as a journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge had seen first hand so much hypocrisy and manipulation paraded as truth that he had become hard and cynical. He writes of his late-in-life movement from cynicism to certitude, and exposes the value of seeing and embracing verifiable truth. With devastating candor, he says: "Truth is very beautiful; more so, as I consider, than justice--today's pursuit--which easily puts on a false face. In the nearly seven decades I have lived through, the world has overflowed with bloodshed and explosions whose dust has never had time to settle before others have erupted; all in purportedly just causes. The quest for justice continues, and the weapons and the hatred pile up; but truth was an early casualty.... The lies of advertising, of news, of salesmanship, of politics! The lies of the priest in the pulpit, the professor at his podium, the journalist at his typewriter!"

Muggeridge ends his powerful tirade with this amazing insight: "It is truth that has died, not God!"3

These days, truth is up for grabs. We seem permanently stuck in perpetual crisscross, trying to pretend we're not bewildered, as we look nervously at the million contradictory signs packed together and pointing in all directions. It's no wonder so many of us have come to believe that "truth is whatever I believe it to be."

The heart truth

Most people today consider truth to be propositional--a gathered selection of the most productive norms, the most verifiable teaching and philosophy, the most incisive worldview.

Those who have a traditional Christian orientation see truth as a faith, a religion, a body of doctrine, the most biblical approach. All these definitely have their place in the scheme of things. But they are part of an outer court of truth. They are not in the inner sanctum, where living truth resides.

In this light, perhaps the most radical difference between the faith of the Old Testament and that of the New is just this: The Old expresses truth in terms of following a teaching, a formulated, written code, and a way of living and behaving that is by all means God breathed, holy, just, good, and eternal in its scope and authority, but is there to introduce something more to come.

In contrast, the New Testament, in the light of the accomplished arrival of Jesus, expresses truth in terms of a living, flesh and blood Reality. Jesus is the seeable, knowable One, the One who composed and administered the law and inspired the prophets of the Old Testament. He is Himself the very definition of truth. He came for the express purpose of being known to us. He is Truth (John 14:6-10) with a capital "T."

In part at least, this is what that magnificent passage, John 1:1-3, 14, is saying. (See also Hebrews 1:1-4.) Truth has its origin and its highest and most complete expression in this Word which became flesh, which was in the beginning with God, and was (is) God. What Jesus said, did, and was, is the infinite sum total of truth. When the "it" of truth becomes the "He," the face of truth changes radically, and such Truth is distinctly knowable (1 John 1:1-4).

Finding truth, Zacchaeus style

In the search for knowing truth, consider that strange little dwarf of a man, Zacchaeus. He was greedy, self-centered, and exploitative. But we have to say, "he had it right," because, if for no other reason, he was after a person rather than a mere teaching. "He wanted to see who Jesus was" (Luke 19:3, NIV). Luke means to tell us that Zacchaeus was clearly not satisfied with merely looking at Jesus.

This little man was passionate about his search. Luke uses two terse descriptions of Zacchaeus' search: First, he ran ahead, then he climbed a tree. The acts of running and climbing are acts of eager priority. The fact that he ran ahead of the crowd says volumes about the quality of this man's search. The fact that he climbed the tree at the end of his run completely confirms his unself-conscious passion.

This man's search also involved calculation and planning. He ran and climbed because "Jesus was coming that way" (vs. 4, NIV). He looked at the trajectory of Truth, and he patterned his path accordingly. He made an educated calculation of the direction Jesus was traveling, and saw that if Jesus continued in that direction, He would pass beneath the branch on which Zacchaeus knew he had to perch himself.

In the end, Zacchaeus could only wait for the arrival of Truth. There's no way other way. No human manipulation can work. Authentic truth gives us the slip the moment we try to control it. It may even seem to simply disappear from sight so that uncertainty and speculation take over. But the fact is that real Truth does not evaporate; rather, it evades disrespectful, possessive fingers, those that try to insist it be or act a certain way.

Yet with all the questions about Jesus coming that way, and Zacchaeus being in the right place at the right time, Jesus does this magnificent thing. He stops right where this little man needs Him to stop, because God and His truth have a characteristic way of coming to those who really want it and who are searching for it.

And so Luke says that Jesus "reached the spot" (Luke 19:5, NIV)--a provocative description. And wonder of wonders, Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus! All his life he's been looking up, at everyone and everything. He's tried to hide his deformity, his inferiority. He's tried to pretend it is not all that bad. Now, coming down from the tree and standing next to Jesus, it's finally not so, in fact.

Finding and embracing definitive truth has a great deal to do with whose thinking and proclamation we consider to be authoritative, and wether or not we actually see and apprehend who is, in fact, presenting us with a potential revelation of truth.

Conclusion

I remember a particular time when my older sister and I were told to go and wash the dishes. This sort of thing happened quite often in my childhood, but on this particular occasion I definitely had other things in mind. I'd just decided that washing dishes was women's work. Naturally, my sister didn't like my lack of cooperation, and told me in no uncertain terms that I should help her, adding, "Dad told me to tell you that you should help me." That, of course had no effect at all upon me. And the argument heated up.

Just then, much to my dismay, my father's shadow crossed the kitchen door. He looked in and said, "Will, please help your sister with the dishes."

And what did I say?

"Yes, sir!"

What made the words become flesh? It was seeing the father and hearing him speak the words. This is just what the Father did when He sent us His Son!

O God, give us ears to hear what the Spirit is saying (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).

Willmore Eva (D.Min., Andrews University) is an associate director of the General Conference Ministerial Association and editor of Ministry magazine. His e-mail address: evaw@gc.adventist.org

Notes and references

  1. Adapted from Laurens van der Post, Feather Fall, an Anthology (New York: William Morrow, Inc., 1994), p.1.
  2. Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), p. 94.
  3. Malcolm Muggeridge, The Green Stick: A Chronicle of Wasted Years (Glasgow: William Collins & Sons, 1972), pp. 16, 17.