Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

John 18:37–38


So here we are at a chapel service entitled “The Pursuit of Truth.” No small matter. Just truth. No small thing.

About this Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
March 6, 2019
John 18:37–38a

We are often described these days as living in a “post truth” world—at a time when people don’t seem to care what’s true or not; they care more about what they feel to be true. “Don’t confuse me with data and facts; I know what’s what.”

But for us who gather here, truth is not an option, it’s a requirement. Our traditions are grounded in a belief that in them the truth is revealed. The Truth of the Torah, Truth of God, Truth of Christ, Truth of the Gospel, Truth of the Message, the ‘Truth of your salvation,’ the Truth of the Way, and so on.


But how does one go about finding this truth? 

In the passage from the Christian New Testament read earlier, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” and Jesus just stands there. The question has haunted us ever since.

A. Revelation

For a long time, the answer to that question was by revelation. Revealed truths came through prophets, elders, visions, church councils, papal encyclicals, rabbinic rulings, and so on. Philosophers and religious thinkers of the great religious traditions argued that beyond what could be observed with the senses, discerned with intuition, or reasoned out with the mind was a truth that was only accessible through revelation.

And so for a long time, we were content to define truth as that which was known through revelation.

B. Reason

But that didn’t go so well. 

Competing claims to truth resulted in a lot of people dying, particularly as a result of the Thirty Years War—three decades of Protestant-Catholic fighting that left Europe decimated and bleeding.

As a result, the nation-states of Europe established the Peace of Westphalia, which, among other things, determined that reason would be the guidepost for foreign policy, not revelation.

And following along with the Enlightenment, all of the Western world looked to the guide of reason for all things. And it seemed to be going quite well. Science and progress. New discoveries. The nineteenth century, but for a little scuffle with Napoleon, was largely a peaceful century in Europe and Progressivism and the belief that everything was on an ever upward swing. 

And then…

C. Maybe there’s isn’t a …?

And then World War I. When the technology and progress that had been made possible by reason became mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, machine guns, and all manner of waging war on a horrific scale.

In America, this happened a little later—some historians arguing that it happened with the Kennedy Assassination.

The devastation of the First World War and the Kennedy Assassination brought about a collapse of the Modern Era and the rise of something new—something less trusting in reason and rationality. Rationality, reason, and “progress” had brought us war, death, and The Bomb.

So where, then, could we look to for truth? The emerging Post-Modern movement had a troubling answer to that question: There is no Truth.


There are those who argue that language should be used only to make objective statements about objective realities and truths. These objectivists believe that using metaphor is using words in their “improper senses” to stir emotions and, therefore, leads “away from truth and toward illusion.”[1]Their belief is built on the idea that there is an objective reality independent of humanity that can be known, an idea that can be comforting in an uncertain world. 

This sparked a debate as to whether there was an objective truth or whether all we had were subjective perspectives. 

Image courtesy Wordle.

On the other side of the issue are the subjectivists, who argue that truth depends entirely on one’s own perspective. It is an idea found at the heart of postmodernism, rejecting the idea that there is an absolute truth at all. (A curious position if you think about it. After all, the statement, “There is no absolute truth,” is a statement of absolute truth.)

But perhaps there is a middle ground between these two poles, one offered by the use of metaphor. The linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson see the use of metaphor as neither an objective nor a subjective kind of rationality, but as an imaginative rationality. Metaphor uses one of the most important tools that we have for trying to “comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.” In this way, metaphor does not need to deny the existence of truth, but it accommodates our inability to perfectly know what the truth is. 

The use of metaphor doesn’t mean that there is no objective truth. It means that truth has to be conveyed in ways that people can relate to and understand. And in order to do that the truth has to be expressed in ways that appeal to ordinary human experience—through metaphor. Because it is impossible to separate metaphor from our experience of the world, we will never have certainty as to what that objective truth is. That is, the truth will always be expressed in terms that come from our experience—not from some objective reality. 

Is there an ultimate truth? I like to think that there is. Of course, I cannot be certainthat there is. I’m not alone in that; indeed, mathematicians and scientists and theologians have spent their lives looking for that ultimate truth, convinced that it exists. I will admit this: the postmodern- ists are right in saying that human beings will never know this ultimate truth with certainty. The statement that there is no absolute truth may not be true as a matter of ontology—that is, as a matter of the existence of things—but it is likely correct as a matter of epistemology—that is, what can be known. The truth is out there; but so long as we’re using metaphors to describe the ultimate reality of things, we will never be able to claim to have captured it perfectly. 

Our understanding may be incomplete, our knowledge lacking. We may never be able to comprehend with fullness the nature of ultimate reality, and the metaphors that we use to talk about that ultimate truth are not the same as the truths they represent. But they are pointers toward that truth, and, in that capacity, they have great value to us. 


And this is where our traditions of faith come in. They provide us with powerful truths, but communicated in parable, metaphor, and poem. 

They simultaneously remind us that the language they use is inadequate, but there is something to seek after.

The pointers are not pointing in random directions. They pointers are pointing somewhere.


Perhaps the biggest problem with the pursuit of truth is not the people who are on the quest, but the people who claim to have arrived. 

The greatest truth is the need for humility in the pursuit of truth.

This idea is reinforced by the fact that the main metaphor for religion, used across multiple religious traditions is one of a journey. The Jewish law is known as the הלכה halachah, a word that means “walking.” The earliest name for Christianity was The Way. The Buddhists speak of the Eight-fold Path. The Tao Te Ching of Taoism literally translates to “The Book of the Way and Its Virtue.” And in Islam, the شريعة Shari’ah, the Islamic code of ethics, is the word for “the path to the watering hole.”

All of these metaphors remind us that faith is a journey, faith is a road to be traveled. They are a clue that our task is not to capture the truth, but to pursue it. Not meant to master the truth, but to serve it.

And so, we can admit unknowing and humility, even as we depart down this road. We can set off on a journey, forever challenging our understandings, forever seeking after truth.

In so doing, we find a more powerful truth than we might ever have expected.

[1]Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 186–88.

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