Thus Spoke Pontius
What do we know, and how do we know it? These are fundamental philosophical questions, and whether we realize it or not, how we answer these questions informs the very way we think about the world. In science, we rely on empirical thought; we know what can be tested. In history, we rely on corroboration of independent sources. Not every method of knowing can be applied in every circumstance. We cannot put five Julius Ceasars at the Rubicon and see how many cross the river; the scientific method does not confirm matters of Roman politics. Different approaches to knowing have their uses, and each contribute to a totality of knowledge—as long as we don’t allow a method to assume it can answer questions for which it is unfit.
These are fairly basic ideas. Plenty of folks learn about epistemology (that is, the study of knowledge) in an intro philosophy class. Contemporary Christian apologetics will often touch on it. Unfortunately, despite these questions helping us understand what we know about the world and our lives, it seems all too rare to encounter much serious reflection or humility when it comes to matters of knowing how we know.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. It’s Holy Week as I write this, though to tell the truth that’s just a coincidence. It does, however, provide some food for thought. Before his crucifixion, Jesus is brought before the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The Son of God announces that he was sent into the world to proclaim the truth, and that those on the side of truth listen to him. Pontius is unmoved. He asks, “What is truth?” and leaves the room (John 18:37-38).
The moment drips with irony. The answer to the official’s question sat before his own eyes, but he was blind to it. Jesus not only spoke the truth; he said he was Truth itself.
In any system of thought, one must make some baseline assumptions before constructing a body of knowledge. For example, in astrophysics, it’s assumed that the laws of nature are consistent throughout the universe. We can’t exactly zip around the universe to confirm this. It’s just what we roll with. Some people make the assumption that the material universe is all that there is. Some think there might be something outside the universe, but whatever is there does not or cannot interact with our universe.
We can be rather dogmatic about these assumptions, even (or perhaps, especially) when our epistemology is unable to convincingly account for them–I have yet to meet a scientist who has looked under the tablecloth of the universe, and yet the pro-science, anti-religion memes that circulate Facebook and denigrate the intelligence of believers (and even secular philosophers!) would make one think that scientists had finally visited the gates of Heaven and found the place deserted. Perhaps it’s more tribalism than reason that drives our pursuit of knowledge sometimes.
Bringing things back to Jesus, we believers make our own set of assumptions. We believe that there is more than the material universe, that what lies beyond the material can and does affect our universe.
We also believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture. Apologists can talk all day about the New Testament being the most reliable of all ancient documents we possess, but how many of the faithful who don’t have academic interests actually know about that sort of thing? Many choose to simply assume that the Gospels are reliable. That trips some people the first time an evangelist of atheism comes swinging a Bart Ehrman quotation they read on the internet, but there are also plenty of believers who maintain that simple devotion all their lives.
We believe what the texts tells us about Jesus, his divinity, and his death and resurrection. That’s an assumption we make—or a leap of faith, we might say. We can’t verify that by scientific method. We can’t do a study where we crucify ten Sons of God and ten normal guys as a control group and see what happens. Still, unlike Pilate, we don’t turn away. We choose to believe.
We reject Pilate’s choice and we should reject Marcion’s as well. Marcion was a second century troublemaker who didn’t much like the orthodox teachings of the day. He excised the Old Testament from his version of the canon and whittled away at the New Testament until just ten of Paul’s epistles and a butchered version of Luke remained. Sometimes we’re tempted to play the part of Marcion; there are a lot of Scriptures, some of which are very inconvenient. Might it be better if we rejected them? Personally, I find Matthew chapters 5-7 uncomfortably demanding; perhaps this whole Christian thing would be less stressful and more fun if we removed sections like that.
On occasion, we want things both ways. We want to confess that Jesus is Lord, but we’d also rather not be in the same room with him. However, if we’ve made the assumption that Scripture is true and reliable, and that Jesus is Lord, but we’d rather practice selective application of the texts to our lives, we hit a snag. I believe that if a person only knows how to ask “What is true?” but not “How do I know what’s true?”, they could probably live with that contradiction their whole lives, picking and choosing what elements to apply to themselves and kicking the rest of it to the curb with nary a thought as to inconsistency. However, when we’re cognizant of how we decide what is true and are humble in our truth-seeking, it becomes obvious that something has to give: either our assumptions about the veracity of Scripture have to go or our stubbornness does. We can’t have it both ways.
Choosing our assumptions, ultimately, is something of a gamble. I believe Pascal once said something about that, and my assumption is that his own wager is now paying great dividends. I agree with the Frenchman; believing in the Truth is the best assumption one can make. Pontius Pilate once asked a very good philosophical question, but his mistake was to leave before hearing the answer and asking the follow-up question: How do I know the truth?
The answer, plainly, was to stay in the room with him.