In one of his most memorable quotes, philosopher Richard Rorty once said,
“Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.”
Truth is a social construction and so what counts as truth is essentially whatever gains the greatest agreement (one way or another) at any time.
Rorty’s pragmatist orientation comes out further in this quote:
“Truth is simply a compliment paid to sentences seen to be paying their way.”
Hmm … truthful sentences are those that pay their way and that your contemporaries will let you get away with.
I guess that’s the way they pay their way.
By getting more of your contemporaries to get away with it.
So, by these terms, a statement is true to the degree in which it pays its way,
the degree to which you can get away with what you have said.
Kind of sounds like the rhetoric on the campaign trail, doesn’t it?
The contested truth in an election is twofold.
First, how many of your contemporaries will let you get away with the ‘truths’ that you are proposing?
Second, what sentences are paying their way by increasing the number of contemporaries who will let you get away with your own rhetoric?
Well, it is cynical.
There are just too many examples in history of tyrants who have got away with a hell of a lot of lies through the acquiescence of their contemporaries (often at the pain of death, but lets not mention that).
And the history of propaganda is all about the construction of sentences that pay their way by deception and the numbing of those acquiescent contemporaries.
In contrast to Rorty’s view of truth, consider this:
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said that.
Now lets not be naïve.
King knew that the truth of racial equality would one day need the agreement of his contemporaries.
And King knew that words had power and that rhetoric was integral to increasing that agreement amongst his contemporaries.
Sentences do indeed need to ‘pay their way.’
But here’s the rub.
King’s contemporaries did not let him get away with his ‘truth’ and he died by an assassin’s bullet as a result. He was 39 years old.
Richard Rorty died of natural causes at 75.
But there are two things about King’s view of truth that I find striking.
First, truth, for King, is ‘unarmed.’
Second, such an unarmed truth is necessarily connected to ‘unconditional love.’
King’s sentences had to pay their way, just like any other sentences.
But that way had to be paid without the aid of violence
and had to be suffused with unconditional love.
During an election preoccupied with issues of geo-political and economic security,
one doesn’t hear much about ‘unarmed’ anything, let alone truth.
During an election primarily addressing self-interest,
sentences advocating ‘unconditional love’ just aren’t too likely to pay their way.
No, I would think that an election campaign rooted in unarmed truth and promoting something as politically suicidal as unconditional love would more likely be preoccupied with:
justice for the poorest of the poor in our communities who remain invisible in this election thus far;
an open, generous and hospitable immigration and refugee policy;
following the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for redressing the sins of colonialism and entering into a new partnership of equality with our First Nations brothers and sisters;
instituting serious carbon restrictions in the face of climate change, and changing the very shape and goal of our economy to be ecologically sustainable;
seriously reconsidering the efficacy of military engagement to redress the global conflicts that afflict us.
Obviously, I am not the campaign manager for any candidate of any party.
These sentences that I have just shared with you would not likely ‘pay their way’ on the doorsteps of the nation.
It is highly unlikely that many of my contemporaries in the electorate would let my candidate get away with much of this agenda.
But then, they didn’t let Martin Luther King Jr. get away with his sentences, did they?
Nor, did they let Jesus get away with his claims to truth either.
Jesus embodied unarmed truth and unconditional love.
“I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus said.
Not I tell you the truth, but I am the truth.
“No one has greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son …”
Jesus, who is full of grace and truth, is the one through whom we meet
radical, unconditional love.
And that love comes before the world unarmed.
The world that is armed to the teeth,
the world that protects its interests through the weapons of military power,
manipulation, extradition, torture, and imprisonment,
is confronted by truth incarnate, truth unarmed.
And, like Martin, Jesus was not naïve.
He knew what happens to unarmed truth in a well armed world.
He knew what happens to unconditional love in a world of narrow self-interest.
And he knew that what happened to him, will happen to his followers.
So he does not leave them alone.
Knowing that unarmed truth will always face persecution,
knowing that truth is always contested, and the contest can get ugly,
Jesus promises his followers that they will not stand alone in the trials of history.
They will have an Advocate who speaks with the authority of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit will stand in the courtroom of history,
in the courtrooms of the synagogue and the empire,
in the courtrooms of the academy and society,
in the courtrooms at College Park and the tough justice of the streets,
and she will bear witness to unarmed truth and unconditional love.
In a culture of deceit, this Advocate will be the Spirit of Truth.
That is where the real conflict happens, dear friends.
The real conflict in our world,
the real conflict in a contracting economy,
the real conflict in a world of strife,
the real conflict in a world of ecological vulnerability,
the real conflict over the sharing of resources,
the real conflict over whose voice gets heard,
the real conflict about the common good,
indeed, the real conflict in this election,
is a conflict of spirits,
a contest between spirits.
And Jesus tells us that he sends his Spirit of Truth to engage the spirits of deceit and spin.
And while this Spirit comes with unarmed truth and bears witness to the redemptive power of unconditional love,
the Spirit, nonetheless, enters into the conflict of human history.
She may be a pacifist, but she does not run away from the battle.
Indeed, Jesus says that when the Spirit comes he will prove the world wrong about three things:
sin, righteousness and judgment.
Now it may be that most of us are postmodern enough to be uncomfortable about too quick pronouncements
on things like sin, righteousness and judgment.
While we may not quite agree with Rorty
about truth as simply what your contemporaries will let you get away with,
we are, nonetheless, cognizant enough of the social construction of all truth claims to be suspicious, even incredulous,
of absolute conclusions about matters of sin, righteousness and judgment.
But here’s the thing.
The powers that be,
the imperial construct in which we live our lives remains secure and in control,
as long as we are reticent to engage in such judgments.
“Those for whom there are no ultimate truth-claims will have difficulty undermining the truth-claims of empire.” (Wright, Creation, Power and Truth, p. 56)
Or let’s put it this way.
If we don’t let the politicos ‘get away’ with their propaganda,
if we don’t allow their rhetoric to ‘pay its own way,’
then we will need to have some criteria by which we will withdraw our consent,
we will need to have some truth by which to cut through the spin,
we will need, I suggest, a Spirit of Truth to liberate us from the spirits of deception.
And so Jesus says that the Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin.
Wrong about sin because it does not recognize or accept its own sin,
and that is why its solutions are always too cheap and facile,
and why it rejected God’s answer to sin in the unconditional love of Jesus.
The world is wrong about righteousness, it is wrong about justice.
Not only is the world wrong in the condemnation of Jesus, the only truly just one,
it is wrong about its own limited and self-interested notions of justice.
And the world is wrong about judgment.
It got the judgment wrong when it condemned Jesus to the cross.
Indeed, it missed altogether how in his crucifixion,
in the unconditional love of this unarmed truth,
the real judgment of the world was happening,
because on the cross, ‘the ruler of this world’ has been condemned.
And John’s 1st century readers would understand that ‘the ruler of this world’
has a clear double entendre:
both the Evil One, the Father of Lies in conflict with the Spirit of Truth,
and his puppet who sits enthroned in Rome.
The ruler of this world has been condemned.
Let the contemporary reader hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
In the film, “A Few Good Men,” Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson,
memorably shouted, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
And somehow that resonates deeply with us.
Indeed, Jesus gets it.
“I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
You can’t handle the truth, he seems to be saying.
“But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you in all the truth.”
We are neither the final possessors of truth, nor are we devoid of truth.
We have the Spirit of Truth who cuts through the lies,
who bears witness to the unarmed truth and unconditional love of Jesus.
And yet we are still on the way,
still in this daily, historical process of discerning the truth,
discerning the path of unarmed truth before the weapons of propaganda,
discerning ways of justice in a politics of self-interest,
discerning unconditional love in a world of hate and fear.
And we are not alone.
We have an Advocate.
We have a Comforter.
We have a Spirit of Truth who guides us into all truth.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
God knows, we need you.