To Know the Truth is Untruth: Truth As a Life


I’ve been slowly working through Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. There is a series of passages from Practice in Christianity that are famous for positing a decidedly “un-Greek” (Christian) theory of truth, one that proposes that it’s a life that reveals what is true in the world, not a system of doctrines or teachings or religious propositions. and, therefore the surest, but most difficult universal source of truth.

Truth is not something you can appropriate easily and quickly. You certainly cannot sleep or dream yourself into the truth. No, you must be tried, do battle, and suffer if you are to acquire truth for yourself. It is a sheer illusion to think that in relation to truth there is an abridgment, a short cut that dispenses with the necessity of struggling for it. With respect to acquiring truth to live by, every generation and every individual must essentially begin from the beginning.

We cannot simply be “given” truth, or “inherit” truth by happening to grow up in a community that is supposedly truth’s sole possessor. There is a subjective element of truth that requires that we work to make ourselves a part of it, and it’s a process that will painfully sacrifice parts of us that are untruth. There are no secret tunnels that will deposit us at the truth faster and more efficiently than anyone else. No one could ever be so chosen as to not have to start at the beginning.

What is truth, and in what sense was Christ the truth? The first question, as is well known, was asked by Pilate (Jn. 18:38), and it is doubtful whether he ever really cared to have his question answered. Pilate asks Christ, “What is truth?” That it did not occur to Pilate that Christ was the truth demonstrates precisely that he had no eye at all for truth. Christ’s life was the truth (Jn. 14:6). To this end was Christ born, and for this purpose did he come into the world, that he should bear witness to the truth. What, then, is the fundamental confusion in Pilate’s question? It consists in this, that it occurred to him to question Christ in this way; for in questioning Christ he actually denounced himself; he revealed that Christ’s life had not illumined him. How could Christ enlighten Pilate with words when Pilate could not see through Christ’s own life what truth is!

Of what do we ultimately bear witness if not our own lives? Pilate inquires of Christ about the truth and Christ could say nothing to him; the question was too abstract, too academic, too un-invested. Too safe.

Christ healed the sick, fed the hungry, attended to the poor, condemned the rich, taught a higher spiritual life. Yet what do we do? We extract these from his life as propositional injunctions. We must heal the sick. We must feed the hungry, attend to the poor, guard against the corruption of wealth, etc. And these are unquestionably good things. But are we deceived into thinking that we’ve hit upon the correct calculus of moral goodness and are therefore in the truth? What quality of inwardness does this life possess? Are we living another’s life, no matter how worthy of emulation it may be? Despite the goodness of our actions and the incremental healing of a broken world, our relation to truth might not be fundamentally different from Pilate’s. Even moral commitments can be no more than philosophical responses to abstract problems, the “correct” answers to academic questions, tasks to be completed in order to feel like we are in harmony with ourselves through our ideals.  Just because we do the things Christ did (or any other figure of moral legend) does not mean our lives have been actually illumined by theirs. The answer to “What is truth?” is not merely “What I do,” but the measure of of my passionate inwardness in relation to what I do, how I live. More importantly, we will find that in the absence of this struggle for the authentic life, for the self that transcends my mere facticity, my simple presence as an object among objects, we will not have the strength and endurance to enact in the world what we know to be just and good.

Pilate’s question is extremely foolish. Not that he asks, “What is truth?” but that he questions Christ, he whose life is expressly the truth and who at every moment demonstrates more powerfully by his life what truth is than all the most profound lectures of the cleverest thinkers. Though it makes perfect sense to ask any other person, a thinker, a teacher, or whoever, “What is truth?” to ask Christ this it is the greatest possible confusion. Obviously Pilate is of the opinion that Christ is just a man, like everyone else. Poor Pilate! Pilate’s question is the most foolish and confusing question ever asked by man. It is as if I were to ask someone standing right before me, “Do you exist?” How can that person reply? So also with Christ in relation to Pilate. Christ is the truth. “If my life,” he might say, “cannot open your eyes to what truth is, then what can I say? For I am the truth.”