Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” —John 18:38
ontius Pilate might be the most loathed politician in history, and that’s saying something. That’s a high bar to achieve. So this might not be politically correct, but let me make a qualified, reluctant defense of his honor.
Jesus’ ‘trial’ here looks a lot like a kangaroo court, and yet if you pay attention to the details of the story, Pontius Pilate actually exhibits an admirable rectitude. He tried so hard to acquit this harmless carpenter he knows to be innocent.
This is especially true in the Gospel of John. We only had time to tell the central vignette of the Jesus-Pilate confrontation, but in the Gospel of John, the story sprawls for 24 verses and 700 words.
In John’s story of convoluted diplomatic West Wing intrigues, there are seven discrete episodes in which Pilate the erstwhile peacemaker scurries back and forth between his bench and his chambers and the prosecuting attorneys and the crowds screaming for blood outside his palace and the jail where they’ve got the prisoners locked up.
Seven discrete confrontations with seven discrete audiences; this man will simply not give up until he has exhausted every possibility.
Do you remember Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ from several years ago? Mel Gibson was so sympathetic to Pilate in his film that one reviewer said that in this film Pontius Pilate was “Dr. Phil in a toga.” Yeah, I like that. Dr. Phil. Just trying to make everything OK.
True, there is his feeble, flaccid query. “What is truth?” he asks while The Way, The Truth, and The Life stands there handcuffed right in front of his eyes. “What’s true? What’s false? What’s right? What’s wrong? Who’s innocent? Who’s guilty? I have no idea.”
But I get that. Do you get that? He wants to keep the accused alive. He wants to keep the accusers appeased. He wants to keep his job. He wants to keep all these things in a situation where he can’t have all these things. His dithering is infamous. But I get that.
And so I want to make a qualified defense of Uncertainty. It comes in handy in the progress of human thought, for example.
“The earth is the center of the universe,” said everybody from Ptolemy onward, until Copernicus and Galileo come along and say, “I’m not so sure about that.” Even the Roman Catholic Church which forced Galileo to recant eventually got around to agreeing with him—in 1992, 350 years late, and 23 years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” everybody thought since Moses, until Jesus comes along and says “I’m not so sure about that. Maybe you should love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Aristotle explained gravity by saying that objects fall to earth because by nature these objects want to be as close to the center of the universe as possible; they want to go home. People believed that for 2,000 years till Isaac Newton, sitting under his apple tree, says, “I’m not so sure about that,” and says, instead, that all objects exert a force on each other that is proportional to the product of their masses and inverse to the distance between them, and people believed that for 300 years until Einstein comes along and says, “I’m not so sure about that,” and tells us that objects appear to fall because of the curvature of space.
“God created all the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field in seven days,” everybody thought for 3,000 years, until Darwin comes along and says, “I’m not so sure about that. It might have taken a little longer than that, like, 4 billion years maybe.”
“I think there is probably a worldwide market for maybe five computers,” said Tom Watson of IBM in 1943. “I’m not so sure about that,” said Bill Gates.
“Phones are for making phone calls,” everybody thought since Alexander Graham Bell, until Steve Jobs comes along and says “I’m not so sure about that.”
Every new discovery, every new technology, every new philosophy, begins with uncertainty. It all starts with a challenge to the received wisdom of the ages. To get to the new, you have to drop the old. To achieve the next, you have to drop the last.
So a little Uncertainty can come in handy in the progress of human understanding. It can also be a gift to your marriage. Have you ever thought about that?
Many, many years ago, I was scavenging around for something clever and helpful to say at my weddings and I came upon this wonderful little piece called “What Men Really Want from Women and What Women Really Want from Men.”
It’s so good; I’ll tell you all about it someday, or you could attend one of our weddings, but one of the things on this list of what women want from men and men want from women is “Mystery, because it is the enemy of routine, and we need our dreams and our strangeness…Love is not perfect understanding but surprised respect.” I love that phrase: Love is surprised respect.
So don’t be so predictable with the love of your life. Don’t come home from work empty-handed—again—at the end of an occasionless workday. Bring some flowers, or dinner.
A friend of mine called his wife from work one weekday morning and said, “Dress to kill and be ready at 5:00.” She was going to say, “Did you forget we have three kids under the age of 10?”, but he’d already hung up. So she did as she was told, and at 4:30 the kids’ favorite babysitter rings the doorbell and at 5:00 there’s a car and driver waiting for her and it takes her to Miller’s Pub in the Loop and when she finds her husband waiting for her at a table there are two tickets to Hamilton at her place-setting. When my friend told me that story, I said, “You’re my hero! But I hate you.”
Don’t be so predictable. One guy said, “I’ve been married to 29 different women in 30 years. Coincidentally, each of them happened to be named Marianna!” He meant it as a compliment. I think.
So a little uncertainty is crucial for human progress. It might even be a good thing now and then in your marriage. And even in our faith, right? I was so glad to learn that uncertainty is a gift from the dark wood because that’s what we’re best at, right? Churches like ours, Kenilworth Union, mainline churches—the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Episcopalians. We OWN Uncertainty.
If you want implacable certitude, this church might not be the first place to look. You might be better off with the Evangelicals or the Catholics. No judgement either way; everybody’s gotta be good at something. We’re good at not being sure.
Now, in some ways, our lack of a strong and strident declaration of immutable truth might hobble our ministry. American Christianity is a vast and complicated thing, so this is a bit of an oversimplification, but in general, do you know what American churches have been thriving in the last 30 years or so, ever since Reagan and The Moral Majority? It’s churches with strict orthodoxy and high expectations.
In these thriving churches, the New Member Classes are six or twelve hours long.
In these churches, you sign your commitment to a statement of orthodox faith, and that statement might include the virgin birth.
In these churches, everybody is expected to tithe.
On Sundays, if you are in town, you are in church, and if you are out of town, you are in THAT TOWN’S church.
You are expected to join a small group and that small group might meet weekly.
People love that stuff. It gives them answers; it gives them truth; it gives them an anchor. It tells them the way the universe definitively works.
None of that is true around here, is it? Our New Member Class is 90 minutes long. There’s one this afternoon, by the way.
You could disappear from worship here for six months and nobody would notice. We would just say, “Well, they must have hockey or skiing expeditions.”
You could make a million dollars and throw a $20 bill in the collection plate every Sunday and nobody wonders what’s wrong.
Sometimes I have reservations about the Uncertainties and equivocations of mainline Christianity, but when I stop to think about it, it’s one of our more attractive characteristics, isn’t it?
We are open-minded, and uncertainty is a sine qua non of open-mindedness. We pitch a broad tent. We have quasi-agnostics and quasi-fundamentalists sitting in the pew next to each other every Sunday with reasonable equanimity, until something really important comes along like whether to floor the parlor with carpet or hard wood.
“Women should be silent in the church,” it says in the Bible. “We’re not so sure,” said the Presbyterians 60 years ago. Too late, to be sure, but earlier than most.
“Homosexuality is an abomination,” says the Bible. “We’re not so sure,” said the Congregationalists 30 years ago. “Maybe God would want our gay friends and neighbors and sons and daughters to have the gift of family just like straight people.” Too late, to be sure, but earlier than most.
Paradoxically, Uncertainty might be a gift. No one has ever seen God. Therefore, the statement “God exists” is an unproveable hypothesis. So is the statement “There is no god.” Be suspicious of fundamentalists on both sides of that equation.
Do you know the novelist Peter DeVries, 1910-1993? He’s from the South Side of Chicago. He grew up in one of those Dutch ghettoes on the South Side where they all make their living hauling garbage like Wayne Huizenga.
Peter DeVries is one of my favorite authors because he infallibly makes me laugh out loud, and because he is an alumnus of Calvin College, my alma mater. He was Calvin’s most famous alumnus until Paul Schrader came along, and then Paul Schrader was our most famous alumnus until Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education. DeVos is very different from DeVries. No judgement either way. Just an observation.
Because Peter DeVries was raised in the strict orthodoxy of the Dutch Reformed Church, he long ago lost his faith. In his childhood and youth, he went to church five times a week; his parents expected him to go into the ministry. But that was not to be.
Mr. DeVries had four children; his daughter Emily died of leukemia at the age of 12. I don’t know that that experience destroyed his faith, but it certainly crippled it. Many of you know John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars; that book is based on the story of Peter DeVries and his stricken daughter Emily.
Mr. DeVries once wrote a letter to J. D. Salinger: “One trip through a children’s cancer ward and if your faith isn’t shaken, then you’re not the type who deserves any faith.” Yes?
Unassailable certitude, either for or against God, is not attractive. Uncertainty has its place, but then it must retreat. Every Christian needs her certitudes. We all have to plant our feet somewhere.
Who was it said, “Be willing to die for your most precious truths, but keep those commitments to a minimum.” Keep them to a minimum, but defend your most precious truths. Some truths are non-negotiable.
Ultimately Pontius Pilate is an unworthy exemplar for us. His questions hint at a flaccid integrity, right? “What is truth?” he asks with the Truth looking him right in the eye. “What’s true? What’s false? What’s right? What’s wrong? Who’s innocent? Who’s guilty?”
You begin to suspect that there is a sponginess where his conviction or his character ought to be. He makes me think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. You poke him in the chest and your finger sinks in spine deep. And thereby Pontius Pilate committed the most noxious judicial blunder in human history.
Some truths are non-negotiable. Some certitudes are obligatory. Pilate asked, “What is truth?”
The truth is that when we look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, we understand most fully what God is like, and what we are to be like.
The truth is that every human being is a child of God, and that the strong have a sacred obligation to protect the weak—to nurture the least, the last, the lost, the lame, the leper, and the loser.
The truth is that you never make false or unfounded accusations against innocent persons.
The truth is that if someone comes to you with false or unfounded accusations against the guiltless, you bury them in disgust.
The truth is that if you are ever called upon to defend the defenseless against the Empire, if you are ever called upon to speak a truth to power that will cost you your job or your standing or your reputation or your life, you do it anyway, trusting that this is God’s world, and that if you fall, you will fall back into the everlasting arms, and you will be okay. Those are our certitudes.
John Petrakis, in “Tough Guy,” a review of the film The Passion of the Christ, in The Christian Century, March 23, 2004, 40.
John Leonard, “What Men Really Want from Women, and What Women Want from Men,” quoted by Joanna Adams in a sermon called “Christian Faith and Human Sexuality,” preached at Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, January 13, 1985. I scoured the Internet trying to find out who John Leonard was and where this thought piece originally appeared, but I could not find anything.
Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics and Other Wanderers (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), p. 28.
Quoted by Jeffrey Frank in “Riches of Embarrassment: The Comic Novelist Peter DeVries Was an American Original,” The New Yorker, May 24, 2004, p. 49.