12 July 2002 Welcome - Charles - Thoughts - Truth?

The outlaw peered carefully round the rough wooden post which formed the corner of the building and saw that it was true; they were going to hang his friend. Before him, in the market square which should have been full of market stalls and traders' barrows, there was instead a gallows. A hastily built affair (as it must have been) with a platform at shoulder height and gibbet of unhewn timber, it looked truly dreadful. On the platform, with the noose being tightened around his neck, was Will Scarlet. Even as Robin watched, the windlass was turned, the rope tightened and the man was lifted off the platform. With no time to spare, Robin took an arrow from the quiver, readied the bow and, hoping that his trusty followers were ready in position, loosed the arrow. Its flight was true! The broadhead severed the rope where it passed over the cross beam and Will dropped to the platform as the roaring crowd was stunned into silence.

I shall leave the story at that point, noting that it is just a story. (I wrote it.) Robin and Will might or might not have existed. Will might or might not have been in such a predicament at some time. What I want to consider is what "true" might or might not mean. Pontius Pilate is reported (in the Bible, and therefore with somewhat more authority than the story above) to have asked "What is truth?" and people have assumed that it was a difficult philosophical question. It was not, really.

In the story above, I have used the word true twice, and truly, once. Nothing there is philosophical. The outlaw saw that it was true. Presumably he saw that a report he had been received was accurate, or true; it matched his (character's) reality.

The flight of the arrow was true. This doesn't really mean that the arrow flew rather than just flopped to the ground. It doesn't mean that it hit the intended target. It means that it travelled along the intended flight path to get there.

The phrase "it looked truly dreadful" is a statement to the effect that anyone seeing it would agree that dreadful was an accurate description of how it looked.

Truth is not an absolute entity. It is a measure of how well something matches a reference. If the teller and the hearer are using a different reference there can be misunderstanding The arrow flies true if it follows the intend path. In just the same way, a craftsman might "true up" the edge of a board - that is straighten it to an acceptable degree for some purpose.

In order to judge the truth of a statement, we need to understand the reference or standard that was intended. We need an understanding of what variation is allowed. In the story above, the hanging was taking place and that is difficult to misunderstand from any viewpoint. That the gallows looked truly dreadful is likely, but open to question. To some it might not have inspired dread. It is possible to imagine someone to whom it looked attractive; perhaps someone who had been kept a long time in bad conditions and would welcome any way out. In this case we need to understand that the gallows looked dreadful to the average person seeing it.

The modern use of truth as an absolute seems in keeping with logical argument allowing for only two states, and those distinctly different; yes or no, on or off, black or white. To employ this understanding in all instances is to create a false picture or understanding of a situation. Further, it leads to ever more complex rules being needed to allow the definition of anything - situations, behaviour, agreements. Litigation becomes a way of life.

Going back to Pilate and his question: he was faced with a person who claimed to be the truth. Avoiding the hard (and misleading) logic approach, we could conclude that Jesus was claiming to be a measure of what god wanted of man. His whole ministry provides the context. He was in effect saying "I have lived to God's standard, and I show you His standards by what I do."