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“What is Truth?”
The context reads : “ Pilate saith unto Him, What is truth? And
when he had said this, he went out.”—JOHN xviii. 38.
PILATE, you see, did not wait for a reply. 1 Bacon calls him "jesting Pilate.” Hegel speaks of his “ genteel indifference.” But I think his conduct is rather to be explained by the fact that he belonged to the class of men called sometimes Pyrrhonists, sometimes Sceptics, and sometimes Agnostics, who hold that it is impossible for us to attain to any certain knowledge. And so he said half contemptuously, half sadly,“What is truth?” and with a shrug of the shoulders turned upon his heel. But whatever may have been Pilate's state of mind on this occasion, let us avoid imitating his example in one respect at least, let us wait for a reply.1
1 The majority of men, as the author of Obiter Dicta' bluntly puts it, instead of seeking an answer to the question, “What is truth ?” are content with the humbler inquiry, “What is trumps ?”
I do not propose in the present sermon to say anything to Agnostics. My aim is rather to throw a little light on the subject, if I can, for those who have already some faith in the possibility of attaining to certainty.
There are two senses in which the word truth is commonly employed,—either for fact, or for the harmony between our thought and fact. This harmony between thought and fact, or between thought and its object, may be better expressed by the term knowledge. We may be said to know anything when we think about it just what we should,—when we think it as it is. I should prefer to apply the term truth to that which is known, rather than to the knowledge itself. This is the way in which it is often used in common 'speech. For example, when we speak of revealed truths, we are manifestly referring to certain objects of knowledge,—to certain persons, events, and doctrines that may be known. Christ, too, used the word in this sense when He said, “I am the Truth,”—the supreme object of knowledge.
In whichever sense we use the term,—whether for fact or for the knowledge of fact,—it is of the utmost importance to distinguish truth from opinion. The word “ truth” is no doubt connected etymologically with the verb to trow. Accordingly
Horne Tooke tells us, truth is “that which a man troweth.” But this is precisely what truth is not, if we understand “troweth” in its present acceptation. We must go back to its original meaning. “Trow” is connected with an old Sanscrit root signifying fixed or firm, and this suggests the proper signification of the word truth. While opinions constantly change, truth is that which does not and cannot change. While opinions may be false, truth cannot but be true. Truth is something which is the same for all, whatever may be their opinions or absence of opinions ; something which should be believed in because it can be proved, not something which should be considered proved because it is believed in. Just so is it with what we call fact. Facts do not alter with our ever-varying opinions; for a thing must be what it is whether we believe it or not. If a man takes poison he will be poisoned, however loudly he may vociferate that he believed it to be medicine. Fact is firm, steadfast, reliable, remaining always the same, however much our opinions may change in regard to it. Generally the word Truth is restricted to the most important kinds of facts. We speak of physical facts, and of moral or religious truths. But this distinction is unnecessary and rather misleading. For all facts are realities; and truth comprehends everything that is real.
If, then, you understand truths to be synonymous with facts, you may say that all facts are part of that vast whole which is summed up in the word Truth. Or, if you prefer to use the term in the second sense, for the harmony between thought and fact—that is, for knowledge
-it will follow that all facts are parts of that whole, the knowledge of which is summed up in the word Truth.
Broadly speaking, we may distinguish three spheres of truth. There is, first, the truth involved in and revealed by nature; second, that involved in and revealed by man; third, that involved in and revealed by Christ. Though these spheres of truth may be legitimately recognised as distinct, yet it must be remembered their connection with one another is very close and very important. A knowledge of one of them will throw great light upon the others, and ignorance in regard to one will inevitably darken and confuse the rest.
First, as to physical truth, or the truth of nature. The Duke of Argyll has well said, that “indifference to truth, in apparently the most distant spheres of thought, may and does relax
the most powerful springs of action.” He is right. The connection, e.g., between hygiene, or the laws of health, and your religious welfare, is closer perhaps than you imagine. The more extensive is your knowledge of those laws, the better will it be for you spiritually as well as temporally. If you eat too much or too little, if you sleep too long or too short a time, if you work too hard or not hard enough, if you indulge in recreations too often or too seldom, if you in any way violate the laws of your own naturelaws which can be fully understood only after careful investigation and study—not only will your life be shortened, but your character will be deteriorated. It is of little avail for the spirit to be willing when the flesh is weak. Discontentment, despondency, despair, and suicide not unfrequently result from a dyspepsia which is due to ignorance or carelessness.
The laws of the human body, however, are only a very small portion of physical truth, indifference to any part of which is the sign of a moral languor incompatible with real greatness or goodness. Every fact of nature is interesting and important, not only for its own sake, but because it is “a window through which we can look into infinity.” How constantly Christ