ON my way to night lectures at the University of Queensland many years ago I often paused to read an inscription emblazoned on the wall above the entrance to the Forgan Smith Building: “Great is truth and mighty above all things”.
A quotation from the First Book of Esdras in the Hebrew Scriptures (4:41), it is an appropriate proclamation of what the university stands for and of what I was seeking as a student.
Among other buildings that prominently display an inscription of biblical provenance, I could point to the original Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in the United States.
In what is the agency’s unofficial motto, it reads: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn 8:32).
Given the CIA’s history, I am surely not alone in reacting with a measure of cynicism to this questionable use of a sacred text.
I am reminded of the irony I have long associated with the name of the former Soviet Union’s leading broadsheet newspaper that, for most of the 20th Century, was the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party – Pravda (Russian for “truth”).
That truth is the first casualty of war is a judgment as old as Aeschylus.
Sadly, it is under fire in today’s world not just in the reporting of hostilities between nations but also in many aspects of our daily lives together.
We are in danger of making cynical disbelief the default position in our dealings with the institutions on which a healthy society depends – a state of affairs highlighted by the recent Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry and by recurrent scandals in the political sphere both here in Australia and overseas.
Such mistrust cannot be good for the health of the body politic.
It should come as no surprise that, in an age of chronic mendacity, we have seen the emergence in our English language of expressions such as “post-truth” and “fake news” (not coined but much used by one of its principal contributors) and, most alarmingly, the introduction, often for nefarious purposes, of “deep fake” technology.
Increasingly we have to contend with spin doctors, verbal strategists, career propagandists and others who seek to promote their causes in devious ways by distorting or suppressing the truth, thus undermining the democratic process.
While we decry this malaise, we need to pause and take stock of our own attitude to telling the truth, always and everywhere, even if at times it is to our disadvantage to do so.
It is not enough to believe the truth; we must put it into practice.
According to Jesus, it is “those who do what is true (who) come to the light” (Jn 3:21).
Nor is it sufficient that we ourselves should be scrupulously honest in refraining from telling untruths.
We can be complicit in the lying of others by not speaking out when charity and justice require us to expose their falsehoods.
As a maxim of the law expresses it: ‘Qui tacet consentire videtur’ (roughly, silence bespeaks consent).
On the only occasion on which I was invited to suggest a motto for a school (a years 5 to 12 boys only establishment), my choice was “Do the truth in love”.
It reflects St Paul’s words to the community of believers in Ephesus: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’” (Eph 4:15).
Moreover, it captures the Hebrew nuance of truth as a dynamic concept and not simply (as in Greek philosophy) as that which is opposed to falsehood, the real as distinct from what is merely apparent.
As Christians we follow Jesus who is the complete embodiment of the truth he proclaims.
Because he is the truth (Jn 14:6), he is in his very person the answer to Pilate’s dismissive question, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38).
He says to us today: “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).