What is Truth?

Русский: "Что есть истина?". Христос...
Pilate asks Christ, "What is truth?" Image via Wikipedia

I  have heard this question more than once in my life, but every time I hear it I think of Pontius Pilate asking Jesus this question. This scene is quite instructive. It puts the emphasis right where it belongs, and it demonstrates the problem we all face every day. What is truth? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on what the meaning of ‘truth’ is.

Truth. We think that when we hear something that accords with the facts as we know them, we have heard the truth. When I ask my child if he took a cookie out of my cookie jar, knowing that a cookie is missing, and knowing that nobody is in the house except me and my child, I think the child is not telling truth if he says he did not take the cookie. I know the facts, and I know he is the only person who could have taken the cookie. I feel that I know the truth, and he did not speak the truth. To know truth in that setting seems very easy. It is not so easy in other situations. If I want to live my Christian faith in a culture that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to Christian teaching, I will discover that there is no such thing as ‘the simple truth.’

Bill Clinton’s answer about the meaning of ‘is’ actually does illustrate an important factor in truth-telling. Words have meanings. For any word in the language, there is at least one dictionary definition. There is a cloud of connotation, interpretations and relationships that color my understanding of the word when I see or hear it. Most of us know to look in dictionaries and thesauruses for enlightenment on this sort of understanding of a word. Yet even these perspectives do not provide the whole story on words. Words that come to be used in daily speech because of their common use in some current political issue take on meanings that can only be described as political. The same thing is true with religious beliefs and practices. Christians who use the word ‘prayer’ almost certainly mean something different than a Buddhist might mean when using the same word. Because of all the usages and relationships a word may have, it is quite difficult at times to know if someone is telling the truth. We might well ask “What is truth?”

This problem is well-developed and clearly exemplified in the current political conversation about what our political leadership calls ‘contraception.’ The set of all political speech about ‘contraception’ has intersected with the set of all political speech about ‘the free exercise’ clause in the First Amendment and with the set of all political speech about ‘religion.’

The conversation is about the ‘truth’ about contraception, the ‘truth’ about free exercise of religion, and ‘the truth’ religion itself.

I will start by saying that I would never have taken any contraceptive medications if I had known that they did not prevent conception from occurring. Is that not the natural assumption when you hear the word ‘contraception?’ Yet the medications that are labeled ‘contraceptives’ actually do not prevent conception. Despite the fact that the drugs are designed to prevent ovulation, they actually do not reliably achieve that goal. Studies have found that the medications sold to prevent ovulation, and thereby to prevent pregnancy, successfully prevent ovulation between 40% and 70% of the time. If ovulation is not prevented, sexual intercourse can result in the fertilization of an egg. The moment of fertilization, the moment of conception, is the moment a baby first exists. If an egg is fertilized, a living human being is created. Medications that do not prevent fertilization may still prevent implantation, but if a living human being exists, then a failure to implant becomes an abortion. Contraceptive medications and devices cannot be relied upon to prevent conception. This is the first lie – the first challenge in our search for truth. The word ‘contraceptive’ was chosen as the label for the medications in order to lead people to conclude that these medicines prevent conception – ‘contra’ means ‘against’ and ‘ception’ means ‘conception.’ Women have been taking these medications for more than fifty years, and it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of them, like me, assumed that when they took those medicines they would not conceive a baby. The truth is that contraceptives do not prevent conception.

The first lie has led to a second one. After pharmaceutical companies recognized that conception could still occur despite the fact that a woman faithfully took the medicine as prescribed, they were made aware that some women were quite sensitive to the life-threatening situation that existed if conception had taken place but the resulting embryo could not implant due to the second effect of the medications – the thinning of the uterine wall. The drugs in the ‘contraceptive’ medications caused the uterine wall not to thicken and become ready for the implantation of an embryo. Embryos which came into being due to the failure of the drug to prevent ovulation might very well be aborted due to the success of the drug in preventing implantation. Using this situation as an opportunity, the drug companies redefined the word, ‘conception.’ They defined ‘conception’ as what occurs when an embryo successfully implants in the uterine wall. The embryos that fail to implant have not, by that definition, been conceived. Contraceptives, by this definition, do prevent conception, and the companies can safely continue to use the label ‘contraceptive.’ This statement, too, is a misstatement, due to the fact that some embryos do, in fact, implant despite the use of contraceptives. Contraceptive drugs do not reliably prevent conception, the formation of an embryo, and they do not reliably prevent pregnancy, either, the implantation of an embryo in the uterine wall.

You can read the details of this information at http://www.prolife.com/BIRTHCNT.html where the research is documented with resource listings where you can dig as deep as you like into the research.

All this verbiage is clearly a way of masking, if not completely hiding, truth. At what moment do the sperm and egg change from being zygotes to an embryo? They change at the moment that a fertilized egg contains the DNA that codes for a complete human being. As soon as this happens, the fertilized egg is an embryo, the first cell of a complete human being. I have been involved in discussions in which some participants questioned if a fertilized egg were even alive. Some questioned if the embryo were even alive when it failed to implant. I defer to the scientist called The Father of Modern Genetics, Jerome Lejeune, who said, “Each of us has a very precise starting moment which is the time at which the whole necessary and sufficient genetic information is gathered inside one cell, the fertilized egg, and this is the moment of fertilization.” From that moment forward, a human being is growing, a process which continues until that human dies. If that human is unable to implant in the uterine wall of the mother that human will die. The death is not the end of “it.” The death is the death of him or her. The embryo has gender, among all the many other traits of a human being.

Contraceptives do, in fact, produce abortions when they prevent the implantation of an embryo, conceived because they failed to prevent conception, the process implicit in the label of the drugs – contraceptive.

None of this matters if a person chooses to believe that an embryo is not a human being, or that a fetus is not a human being, or that a newborn baby is not a human being. There is no way to deny that an embryo is living, because only living cells grow and divide. However, in order to get past that truth, the argument has now devolved into an argument about when the living cells become human. Unlike Dr. Lejeune, who considered the fertilized egg a human being, people who find babies inconvenient have devised any number of new definitions that diminish the humanity of a baby sufficiently to fool people into a willingness to kill them. Last week I saw the first suggestion that people ought to be allowed to kill newborns they don’t like. I am shocked by this suggestion, but not surprised. If the embryo is not human, and if the implanted fetus is not human, when exactly does that ‘product of conception’ (another semantic word game) become human? What is the truth?

All my concern with definitions and truth is rooted in exactly the same issue which has led the Catholic Bishops refuse to comply with the President’s edict. They contend that the conception of a baby is an act of God’s will that human beings must not tamper with. They believe God has the right and the authority to decide who lives and dies. They believe that human beings should not try to usurp God’s will by interfering with the creation and birth of human beings. Whether you agree with them or not, the point is that this conviction about the will of God and the right of a human being to live is a conviction rooted in their faith. It isn’t a personal principle; it is a religious conviction. Just as Jews believe they must mourn their sins on the Day of Atonement, Catholics believe they must not interfere with God’s work of creation in the act of human procreation. Catholics believe that the only godly method of birth control is abstinence. They do not support contraception, and they would not support it if it did prevent conception. They reject contraception, abortion and sterilization, considering them to be sins against God. For the federal government to compel them to pay for and distribute and provide and counsel contraception, abortion and sterilization is to attempt to compel them to deny their faith and commit sin against God. If any Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim or Baha’i ignores this problem because this conviction is not holy to him or her, be careful. What will you do when they come for you?

The second set of speech in this search for truth is the set of speech related to the concept generally labeled ‘freedom of religion.’ The First Amendment to the Constitution states that Congress may not “make a law … prohibiting the free exercise of [religion].” In 2010 Congress passed a law more than 2000 pages long, and it is reasonable to assume that nobody who voted for it envisioned it as a law that might breach the protections of the First Amendment. However, the law gives extraordinary powers to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who ruled that an exemption from certain requirements of the law would be available only to worship entities, the entities we all call ‘churches.’ Only churches could opt out of the requirement to pay the premium for coverage of services designated as preventive services that included contraceptive medications, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs such as the medication commonly called ‘the morning after pill.’ The Secretary acknowledged that there might be churches whose ethical teachings prohibited them from even encouraging the use of such services, but the Secretary drew the line at houses of worship. She dismissed the idea that schools, hospitals and charitable services founded and operated by the churches had any right to the exemption. Churches one and all found such institutions as an outgrowth of their obedience to God to love and serve their neighbors. They consider the institutions acts of ministry. This ruling raised a huge outcry, and the President subsequently announced an accommodation that would force insurance companies to pay the costs being rejected by the institutions, but that accommodation was also rejected. In the end, the original ruling was published in the Federal register, and that is where things stand today.

What is the truth about the definition of the phrase ‘free exercise of [religion]?’ (I bracket the word ‘religion’ because the amendment itself has the term ‘thereof’ which refers backward to the word ‘religion in a prior phrase.) What exactly constitutes ‘free exercise’ for purposes of applying the First Amendment protections? It is a question which would never have come up in a culture where the dominant life patterns of the people were permeated with Christian teaching. People just assumed that if a school or a hospital was started by a church, everything the church taught was embodied in that institution. In fact, if the institution did allow anything contrary to church teaching, people were shocked, even dismayed. It seemed as if some very fundamental truth had been violated. Yet today, the President has invented a separation between churches and the ministries of churches. He says the reason is that the institutions serve many people who are not ‘coreligionists’ of the churches, and that many employees of the institutions are also not ‘coreligionists’ of the churches. Because the population employed and served by the institutions is not confined to ‘coreligionists’ the President has declared that exemption of the institution from certain requirements of the healthcare law by reason of conscience does not apply. Many, many citizens think this declaration is nonsense, but our culture that is no longer dominated by Christian teaching includes many very vocal citizens who think this decision is very good.

What is the truth? Is an institution founded and operated by a church an extension of the church or a completely separate entity from the parent church whose ethical standards may not be imposed on the institution?

Which leads to the third set – political language about religion. The usage of the term ‘religion’ is much murkier than you might think at first glance. Several years ago I read an article about bookstores in which I learned that, at the time, the most popular subject in the store, after ‘self-help’ category was ‘Buddhism.’ The reason? Customers said they liked to read about Buddhism because it wasn’t a religion; it was a way of life. Christians rebut that image, saying that for them, the way they live is the substance of their religion, but many non-Christian citizens do not see it that way. It is a subject for some other post to explore why people feel this way, but the fact is that they do. In the political discussion under way, many people, including the President, believe that Christianity is what happens in churches while what happens in hospitals and schools is something else, no different from the humanist concept of charity. It will take a Supreme Court case to sort out the issue, maybe more than one, but the fact is that it is not the simple truth we might think it is. What is truth? How is a Christian to respond to this issue while remaining true to his faith?

What I see is that living our faith openly has become a minefield. If religion is what happens in churches and if religion may not legally be expressed in public, then we have serious challenges ahead of us. I don’t think we have quite reached that place. Yet I find the whole confrontation between the President and the Catholic bishops very disturbing. I think this situation, along with the language around contraception, abortion and sterilization will require all of us to pray and think and be alert.

The followers of Christ in the first and second centuries would think we are timid cowards. They knew real persecution. They were imprisoned and tortured and thrown into battle with animals and gladiators. Their property was confiscated. They had to meet in secret and dared not even speak the name of Christ in the hearing of a non-believer. Not all the threats were legal. As in any culture, the legal climate set the stage for private vendettas against Christians. The current legal battle over the freedom of the church institutions to express the same religious principles as the parent churches creates a climate that some individuals view as a green light to disparage and belittle Christianity and Christians in general. I will write more in future posts about the way we live in such a climate. For now, I simply repeat my opening question: what is truth? Jesus said that when we knew the truth about him, that truth would set us free. The current political ‘truths’ are the sort of lies we need to be free from, but do not imagine that our freedom is a license to abandon our wits. Jesus also said that we need to be as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves. We may have thought for two hundred years that our country was a place where Christian faith expression would never be threatened. We are discovering that it is possible to twist the language, to pervert ‘truth,’ in such a way that the government and the culture can attempt to suppress free faith expression under the guise that our First Amendment freedom means something it never used to mean. We must love everyone who is twisting the language and perverting the truth. We must wisely act in defense of our freedoms as long as it is possible to do so. We must pray for God’s will to be done, and we must pray to be ready for whatever comes.

What is truth? We are about to find out.