(Painting by Brian Jekel.)
Hi, kids! I’m Travis Mamone over at The Boy with the Thorn in His Side, and I have the honor of writing a guest post for my friend George. Hope you all like it.
Pilate looks up and down the prisoner before him, trying to make sense of this weirdo whom many people regard as a king. He wants this man, Jesus, to just give him a straight answer, but all he gets instead are cryptic statements about a “kingdom” that “is not from here.”
“Aha!” exclaims Pilate. “So you are a king.”
Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens tomy voice.”
“What is truth?” Pilate asks. (John 18:36-38)
And it’s Pilate’s question to Jesus that philosophers have been trying to answer for years.
Up until the Enlightenment, most of Western Civilization operated under religious dogma and superstition. Then people like Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Francis Bacon started looking around and said, “Hey, what a minute, the natural world doesn’t work like that!” Thus began a new era in Western thought—the Age of Reason. This new way of thinking emphasized objectivity and human reason over religious dogma and superstition. If there wasn’t enough evidence to support it, then it probably isn’t true.
Although secular thought did prevail during the Enlightenment, it did not completely eradicate religion. Many of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers—Voltaire, etc.—still believed in God. They just had a different way of understanding how God worked. The most common image of God during the Enlightenment was that God was the Great Watchmaker who “created the world and [gave] it immutable laws to run by, and then [withdrew].”
Fast-forward another century and a few more scientific discoveries later, and philosophers are still trying to answer Pilate’s question. According to German philosopher Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel, human reason creates contradictions—the thesis and the antithesis—and out of those contradictions comes a synthesis between the two. “The synthesis cancels out the superficial conflict between contradictions, preserves the element of truth in both and so helps advance the inevitable progress of human rational thought towards the ‘Absolute Truth.’” In terms of religion, Hegel’s synthesis between faith and reason was a pantheistic view of God. God is Absolute Reality, an immanent reality that is “a part of all human beings and their spiritual selves.”
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, on the other hand, saw things a little differently. For Kierkegaard, truth was subjectivity, and not just objectivity. Yes, there are objective facts that cannot be ignored, but truth comes from “how one relates oneself to those matters of fact.” This is especially true in religion, which guarantees no external reassurance. “True Christians must choose their own certainty—about an objective uncertainty—and enter a paradoxical state of mind that necessitates risk and a ‘leap of faith.’”
I can see where Hegel is coming from. I’ve always been the annoyingly nice guy who tries to find a middle ground in every conflict so everyone can be happy in the end. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize I side more with Kierkegaard than Hegel.
First, there two kinds of truth: objective and subjective. Objective truth is a truth that we can see, hear, touch, etc. An objective truth comes with evidence that you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) argue against. Science falls into the objective category; it’s based on evidence and observation, not just speculation.
Subjective truth, on the other hand, is speculation. Like Kierkegaard says, subjective truth comes from how we relate to objectivity. For example, if I say it is 95 degrees outside, that’s an objective truth. Any well-operating thermometer can tell you that. If, however, I say that it’s way too hot to do anything outside, that’s subjectivity. When I go outside on a 95 degree summer day and I immediately feel like collapsing, that tells me that it is way too hot to do anything outside. Meanwhile, my stepfather Ray can cut the grass on the same day and it won’t bother him. For Ray, 95 degrees isn’t hot enough.
And to me, belief falls into the subjective category. When I say, “I believe in this or that,” I’m saying that based on my own observations and experiences, I’ve come to think that the world operates a certain way, but I don’t have any concrete evidence to prove it without a doubt. For example, I believe that love is the answer to most of the problems of the world today, but I didn’t do any scientific research to back this up. All I have is a number of experiences where being compassionate produced better results than being a shithead.
The same goes for God. I have no way of either proving or disproving God’s existence. All I have are moments when I feel this incredible sense of peace either during church or walking in the woods.
For Kierkegaard, faith “is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence.” Faith isn’t supposed to make sense, and that’s the point. You are asked to believe in something that nobody can prove (or disprove) for certain. You can disprove dragons, unicorns, and the Loch Ness Monster, because they are supposed to be material beings. But God’s not made of matter; God is spirit (John 4:24). How can you test spirit in a laboratory? You can’t, and that’s the point.
Of course it also doesn’t help that there’s no external evidence that God cares about us, either. Just turn on the news at any given moment: war, poverty, famines, child abuse, natural disasters . . . shall I continue? Yet faith tells us not to lose heart, and that God is making all things new (Revelation 21:5), even though it doesn’t look like God is.
And maybe that’s why Jesus never answers Pilate’s question; he wants Pilate (and us) to make that leap of faith.
- Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze, Introducing the Enlightenment (New York: Totem Books, 2007), 120.
- Dave Robinson, Introducing Kierkegaard (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2006), 26.
- Ibid, 77.
- Robinson, Introducing Kierkegaard, 96.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (New York: Penguin, 1985), 76.