My husband and I were in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner this week when my 8 year old walked in and asked, “But how can we know what’s true?” That’s a “pay attention” question if ever there was one. She went on: “Like with IT. IT told Meg and Calvin that it knew what was best and that if they gave in to it, it would bring them peace. They wouldn’t need to worry or think or stress. How did they know not to trust it when those words sound like good things?”
If you aren’t familiar with the references, they are from Madeleine L’Engle’s 1960’s fantasy A Wrinkle in Time which we had just finished reading together last week. The 8 year old had been thinking about it apparently. The main characters, Meg and Charles Wallace along with their friend Calvin were tasked with saving Meg’s father from the powers of darkness, from a blackness that blots out the skies, that’s hard to detect from earth, that’s seductive in its grasp but is very, very real. Meg’s father was trapped on a planet that had succumbed to the darkness and on that planet it manifested as IT, a huge central brain that did all the thinking for everyone on the planet. When Meg and the others confronted IT, trying to save her father, IT offered them peace. IT would say things like: “Why don’t you trust me? Why don’t you trust me enough to come and find out what I am? I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come to me is the last difficult decision you will ever make…..in Camazotz all are equal; everybody is the same as everyone else.”
The 8 year old heard the words which were meant to confuse. She heard the big nasty IT say words that could be good but didn’t feel right. And so she asked critical questions about truth. She wanted to know why Meg knew not to believe IT.
And like everyone else, I am watching the news and seeing different takes on reality. I am watching, in real time, some people say one thing and some people say another, all claiming to be the truth. Truth is apparently in the eye of whoever can shout the loudest. Truth is determined by airtime and tweets. Everyone sees reality according to their own pain and their own benefit. Truth becomes synonymous with a worldview, not a real world where everybody lives.
Pilate asked the same question of Jesus, the question precipitated by the same circumstances – two takes on a reality that were vastly different. Some people said He was a healer, a prophet, someone who changed them and knew them and offered life. Some said He was a dissenter, a dangerous villain who was out to take away a way of life, to strip morals away from people, to ruin the work of God in their land and take power for himself. Everyone was angry, everyone was shouting, some were crying, some hiding. But the words of accusation made sense. Pilate didn’t want an insurgency on his hands, an uprising—he didn’t want a rabble-rouser disquieting the natives, claiming power. And yet, when he looked at the man before him, he knew to ask the question. He knew not everything was as it seemed, not everything was as it was being interpreted to him. So Pilate looked at the small, naked man in front of him and asked, “What is truth?”
There is no record of what Jesus answered. There is only a small, naked man standing there. Reduced, stripped, completely bare and unarmed. That is the answer to “What is truth?”
When my daughter asked the question about truth, she was asking about discernment. How do we discern what is good; how do we know we can trust it? How do we discern when the words all sound like good things?
This is a question I have been asking myself too. What happens to truth when reality can be interpreted as far away from facts and physical reality as need be? When anything makes sense if you talk around it long enough.
As my husband and I stood there in the kitchen, we tried to answer the 8 year old. Two things came out of that conversation that have struck me as genuine litmus tests for truth.
The first is fruit. As in, what is the fruit of the claim, the action, that is being discerned. What is the result. The 8 year old understood this idea of fruit—there’s a song (or 100) about it. This is what kids do in Sunday school – sing songs about fruit. The fruit of the Spirit of God is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. You can tell a tree by its fruit. It makes a nice song but take it towards discernment and its powerful in its clarity.
Does the outcome of the claim being made on truth result in love? Love, not admiration, not adoration, not praise, but love. I love bell hooks’ definition of love. “LOVE is as love does” she writes; love is when we “openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust.” (All About Love, bell hooks, 2000). Does what is being offered express care, affection, responsibility towards, respect of, commitment and covenant over and trust of the people involved. This kind of love takes seriously the human worth of people– all the people. We talked about this and it was clear to the 8 year old, IT did not love the people it claimed to be helping. IT offered them ease but not love for their very own selves, especially not when they advocated for themselves.
Does the outcome of the claim being made on truth result in joy? IT did not offer joy either. IT offered a version of satiety, but not joy. Not the swelling of the heart, not the gratitude that verbalized joy, not the color, the taste, the movement and new life that joy creates and recreates continuously.
Does the outcome of the claim being made result in peace? Well, yes, in a way, the 8 year old noticed. IT offered utter rest, no one had to think, no one had to fight, no one had any say in anything so no one thought they were better than the others. This is why the 8 year old asked the question! This is where the kernel of truth lay in IT’s claim. IT claimed peace but brought it through force. Was that real peace?
We moved on. But the questions are SO worth asking.
Does the outcome of the claim of truth result in patience? Does it make people able to stop and step back and listen before speaking? Does is create the capacity for second, third, fourth chances? How about 70X7 chances?
Does it result in kindness? Does what you are hearing as the reality you should live by result in kindness? Does it engender kindness? Kindness to who? You? People just like you? Or everyone—even those soooo different from you.
Does it result in goodness? In flourishing, in harvest, in abundance? For all of us?
Does is result in gentleness? Does it result in the ability to step back from rage and see the fragile human in front of you? Does it give you the capacity to then reach out with intention but care to who is in front of you? To yourself? We never talk about gentleness. But the Spirit does.
Does this truth result in faithfulness? In covenant? Does it result in long-term commitments to the good of the other? Does it help you trust more? Trust God, trust yourself, trust others?
Does it result in self-control? Does your truth result in the ability to hold yourself accountable to others, the awareness to hold yourself as living within a whole, not just for yourself and for the immediate?
The other thing that came out of our kitchen conversation about A Wrinkle in Time was this question: Who benefits from this version of truth? Who loses? Who gains more and who suffers? It didn’t take too many years of human stories for my younger daughter to conclude last year, “Bad guys always want money and power, money and power.” Thank you Disney movies. Seems simple, but it could be worth asking, “Where is the power (and money and fame) going?” Meg Murray, her brother and her friend saw that IT was after the power to control, to determine the fates of all the people on that planet. And IT carved that power by diminishing the humanity of all the people – it no longer saw individuals, but a cause, a system, a truth based on not seeing individual worth. Want to know why governments, churches and any institution can quickly move from truth to lie? From good to harm? Because of this…By no longer seeing individuals but only seeing the cause, when ends justify means, when the power to act tramples the real-live individual its supposed to help.
When we are called upon to make a judgment about truth, where is the power, and the money and fame that give it, going? Who is benefiting and who is suffering?
As Pilate stood there, looking at the naked small man before him, powerless indeed, he asked, “What is truth?” And the truth stood there naked and small—the truth stood there as basic as each of us on the day of our birth and the day of our death.
What was the fruit of this man, upholding and drawing in the humanity of all of us by just standing there. He did not have power or money to convince or sway. But he left in his wake people made more whole. People seeing themselves for real for the first time. Was there love? Joy? Kindness? Gentleness?
Who benefited from this man? The lost, the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the orphan, the widow, the thief, the cheat, the lonely, the sick, the desperate, the questioning, the rich, the confused, the blind, the lame, the selfish, the adamant, the ones who cried out loudly, the ones who couldn’t anymore. Every individual got to have their own selves given back to them, their dignity, their worth–Everyone who came into his frame, not just those who were just like him.
The God who gave. Who poured out. Who decided and intentionally emptied out for the benefit of the losers of the world, emptied out until his own death. Because he saw each of them? And served them? Touched their dirtiness? And loved them? Is that truth? Is this how we discern truth these days?
The answer of truth, again and again with this Jesus, is no answer we can defend with swords and power or even with well-crafted words, initiatives, or programs, but truth? Here, before Pilate and the powers of this world, truth is a person, fully alive.
Meg Murray…I keep coming back to her. As she faced IT in the end, she was powerless to stand firm from its pulsing control. She could not defeat IT through her will power, through her ability to think through the issues. She could not defeat IT through any of her gifts, her strengths. They were no match for its all encompassing lies that made complete sense. But she held out for one thing – love. Love for her brother, her baby brother who knew her, who saw her, who was cut from the same cloth she was, the one thing she could remember even in the face of the most peaceful lie of utter security, the lie of hardship ceasing. Love for one person, for one individual in that moment, was the only thing that inoculated her from the lie that would not serve them, but take from them their power to be truly alive.
Love did it. Somehow. Over and over again, we read this in books–the really old ones and the really weird ones. And 8 year olds the world over start to ask themselves the question, What is truth?
Is it any wonder the book was banned?
“A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” Madeleine L’Engle quoting astronomer Fred Hoyle in her Newbury Medal acceptance speech, 1963.