What is truth?

By John Burns

In February 1970, Johnny Cash released a protest song titled “What is Truth?” Cash wrote the lyric in response to the social unrest communicated by young adults in the United States in the late 1960s. Rather than criticize the young adults who were raising their voices, Cash affirmed their right to question the moral validity of much that our nation was involved in at the time. The second verse of the immensely popular song ended with the question, “Can you blame the voice of youth for asking, ‘What is truth?’”

More than 40 years have passed since that single hit the radio and, yet, the question resounds today with as much power as it ever did. Of course, Cash did not invent the question; he borrowed it from Pontius Pilate. John 18:37 documents Jesus as saying, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Verse 38 states, “Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”

Even Pilate and Jesus didn’t originate the exploration of truth. Almost a thousand years before Jesus, the author of Proverbs engaged the same topic. In the Inclusive Bible, Proverbs 14:15 reads, “The simple believe anything they are told; those of sound judgment weigh everything carefully.” This is another way of commending those who ask, “What is truth?”

There are multiple answers to the question. Truth can be a synonym for fact, but they are not quite the same thing. As any parent of a teenager knows, there is a difference between factual responses and truth. When asked, “Where were you last night?” a teenager can answer “out” — a fact that doesn’t reveal the truth the parent is seeking. “Out” protects the teen’s privacy or secrecy. It isn’t a lie, but it isn’t the truth. When an adolescent was at an unsupervised party, some parents prefer the generic response “out” to “I was at the movies” because, at least, it doesn’t intentionally deceive. Strategized deception seems worse than incomplete information. However, incomplete information, factual though it might be, is not truth.

Truth is the accurate presentation of the way things are without the intention to deceive, confuse, cover or mislead.

Truth is the accurate presentation of the way things are without the intention to deceive, confuse, cover or mislead. Anticipated reactions can’t alter the message of the truthful. To say, “I changed the story because I didn’t want to upset you” or “I altered the findings a bit because I wanted you to approve the money for the program” is to abandon truth. By the same token, to inflate facts to stir up trouble or make up information out of whole cloth to manipulate people’s fears is the work of the deceiver.

Proverbs is once again trustworthy when the writer states, “The words of the mouth are deep waters — they can be a fountain of wisdom, or a dangerous flash flood” (18:4 Inclusive). The destructive capacity of words is in direct proportion to the power of the speaker. If my grocer tells me the deli turkey is fresh — but it’s not — my family is going to be sick. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture declares that tainted turkey is fresh, much of America is going to get sick. The inflammatory nature of words is also tied to the power of the purveyor. If I preach that Mexico is raising an army to take back Texas, a few gullible parishioners might lose some sleep; if the Texas governor prints the same thoughts, a whole state will walk the floor at night.

When nations give up on the truth, they stumble along a precarious pathway.

In dealing with a culture that had lost the ability to relate the truth, Isaiah wrote, “Truth stumbles in the public square” (59:14). Surely the observation applies to our own times. The church of Jesus Christ cannot correct every falsehood perpetrated by the vast sundry of media outlets that exist in our culture. Nevertheless, we have been taught by the wisdom of God that when nations give up on the truth, they stumble along a precarious pathway. Whereas we might be unable to sort through all that is intended to manipulate, confuse, mislead or inflame us, at the very least, we can continue to look into the flash flood of words that wash across our nation and demand to know not what is being printed, tweeted, preached, stated or published, but “What is truth?”

Read Johnny Cash’s “What is Truth?” adapted for 2017 by G. Travis Norvell