Truth will set you free (Jn. 8.31-32)

“The unexamined life is not worth living. But the examined life is painful,” declared Cornel West. It requires a lot of courage to introspect one’s own life and see the ugly realities. William Butler Yates said, “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your soul, than it does for a soldier to fight on the battle field.” Most of us are cowards to search our own heart. This timidity is concealed in pointing out our finger at the speck in our neighbour’s eye. This is not only the problem of the present day Christian leaders and believers, but also the problem of the first century Jewish religious leaders and followers of Jesus.

The discourse of Jesus with the Jews is sandwiched between the story of a woman caught in adultery and the story of a man born blind (Jn. 8.1-9.7). In the first story, the Jewish religious leaders, Scribes and Pharisees, brought a woman caught in the “very act of adultery” (did they spy on her? Probably!), and made her stand before all people (self-righteous attitude and behaviour). Then they asked Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women (Mind you, not men!). Now what do you say?” (Jn. 8.3-5). When Jesus asked the pointed question, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn. 8.7), the self-righteous religious leaders left the place. Jesus did not condemn the woman (Jn. 8.11). In the second story the disciples of Jesus, seeing the man born blind, asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9.2). Jesus answered that neither he nor his parents sinned, and then healed him (Jn. 9.3,6,7). The society despised both the woman caught in adultery and the man born blind, for it considered them as sinners, but Jesus’ attitude and behaviour towards them was more emancipatory.

However, Jesus’ approach towards the Jews was different. Knowing their self-righteous attitude and behaviour and their cowardice to introspect their own life, he told them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8.31-32). Their claims that they were the descendants of Abraham and the children of God (i.e. their doctrinal statement) blinded their eyes from perceiving their real situation and state that they were slaves and in bondage to sin. Their behaviour as the ones who were trying to kill the one telling the truth not only disproved their claims, but also exposed that they were the children of devil, who was a liar and murderer and did not stand in truth (Jn. 8.33,34,40,44).  

Being in the truth

There seems to be a merging of Jews who believed in Jesus Christ with the Jews who opposed him. Jesus addressed those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8.31-32). He accused them, “You look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word” (Jn. 8.37), and “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (Jn. 8.44). 

Did the author of the Gospel of John deliberately merge the Jews who believed in Jesus Christ with the Jews who opposed Jesus? Probably. These believers in Jesus Christ did not “know the truth”. To “know the truth” means to be in the truth.

Truth is not a sum of statements, nor a system of concepts or doctrines, nor a matter of knowing this or that. Truth is not a deposit of acquired knowledge. To merely know the truth is insufficient. Mere knowledge of truth is, in a way, same as not knowing the truth. In both the cases truth does not affect the person in anyway. In order to have any effect on or value for the person, that person must have a subjective relationship with the truth. That means, truth must be appropriated subjectively.

The truth, which John is talking about, is more relational than rational. If a person relates herself/himself to the truth, that person is supposedly in the truth. It is like food. Just as food is appropriated or assimilated and thereby becomes the sustenance of life, so also the truth. Merely having a set of Christian doctrines and claiming to have knowledge or teaching them to others is not being in the truth. One may become a “believer” in Jesus Christ without allowing his word or the truth to become a part of her/his life. For such people, truth becomes merely objective and a matter of indifference. To become objective, to become preoccupied with “what” of Christianity, instead of with the “how” of being a Christian, is nothing but retrogression.

John relates truth to a new mode of existence. Knowing the truth pertains essentially to existence, to a life of decision and responsibility. Our spiritual condition is inevitably revealed by our decisions and life, not by what we might merely profess to believe. Truth should become personal appropriation, inwardness, a life. It is the truth for which one lives and dies. Truth has always had many loud proclaimers and apologists. But the question is whether a person will in the deepest sense acknowledge the truth, allow it to permeate his whole being, accept all its consequences.

Thus, John is talking about truth as a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions. Bertrand Russell tried to understand that truth was about propositions that correspond to objects in the world, whereas Plato understood truth as tied to a way of life, as a certain mode of existence. It is the truth for which one is willing to live or die, essentially leading a passionate Christian life.  Passion is a quality of striving to become. Without passion there is no movement, there is no becoming into a new being. Therefore, the true believer is continually striving, is always in the process of becoming a new being.

It is the life which preaches, not the mouth. What my life says is my sermon. There is no room for hypocrisy or pretending to spirituality while actually acting from worldly motives.

Truth frees

Being in the truth results in freedom. “The truth will set you free” means that truth is not abstract and irrelevant, but powerful and liberating. Freedom is rooted in the truth, and there is no freedom without truth. Commenting on “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free,” Pope John Paul II said, “These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.”

Someone may ask, if freedom is bound by truth, how can it be freedom? For the people of present day society, characterised by high consumption, compulsive acquisition and instantaneous gratification, freedom means absence of constraints. To be free, in this sense, is to act according to one’s inner inclination, desires and self-interest.

However, if my motives could never transcend my individual self-interest or the collective self-interest of my group, I could never be truly free. I could always be manipulated and compelled to act in specific ways by fear of punishment or hope of reward, just like animals that can be drawn by dangling of grass or their food in front of their nose. We should develop the motivation and character that enable us to resist physical, psychological and social pressures.

Lord Acton said that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Michael Polanyi declared, “The freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to act as he must.” Based on the relational character of the human being, every person is both a being willed by God for himself, and at the same time a being turned towards others. To be isolated from others is a form of enslavement or self-imprisonment. We become most truly human in the measure in which we give ourselves for the sake of others.

Freedom is meaningless and self-destructive, if it is not used in the service of what is truly human and good. A freedom that dispenses itself from concern with truth could only be a false and illusory freedom. The freedom of the individual can not stand without personal adherence to truth. Human dignity requires one to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted by truth, and not through blind impulse or mere external pressures. People achieve such dignity when they free themselves from all subservience to their feelings, desires and self-interest, and in free choice of doing good and serving others. 

Jesus, in a way, is saying, “Professing believers! Do not be liars and murderers of truth-tellers, but be in the truth in order to experience freedom.”

 

Sources

 

  1. Avery Dulles, “John Paul II and the Truth about Freedom,” in First Things (August/September 1995).
  2. An excerpt from Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, a 2009 companion book to Astra Taylor’s documentary film Examined Life, where she talks to influential philosophers about concepts as far-ranging as Meaning, Ethics and Justice. Here, Taylor speaks with Cornel West about Truth.
  3. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  4. Søren Kierkegaard, “Two Ways of Reflection.” http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/reflection/reflection.html
  5. Søren Kierkegaard, “Truth is the Way.” http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/TruthWay/truthway.html
  6. Steve W. Lemke, “Subjectivity in Kierkegaard: A Reassessment.” A paper presented at the Eastern regional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Salem College. http://www.nobts.edu/faculty/itor/lemkesw/personal/kierkegaard.html
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