You can't handle the truth
Even if we’ve not seen the film, we’ve all heard that quote from the courtroom in A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee climaxes in his line of enquiry in a crescendo of frustration, “I want the truth”, only to have Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessop bellow back “You can’t handle the truth!” I know you can hear his voice in your head right now.
Truth. It’s an ideal, it’s a virtue we aspire to. But it’s painful, it’s awkward, and it’s offensive.
Have you ever been in a conversation with a friend or someone you know in which you are discussing your faith, your belief in God, why you believe Christianity is the most convincing explanation of the world? A conversation in which perhaps you feel you’ve been able to articulate yourself well for once and you think you’ve really nailed your pitch? Or perhaps it’s just been really hard work as you’ve stumbled over your words in an attempt to offer something that makes sense? But despite your earnest effort in explaining, you’ve come up against an impasse in your conversation. “Well, that may be true for you, I don’t want you to stop believing that, but it’s just not for me...”
To be honest, I find that a frustrating experience, probably more than I should do. But it’s an all too common response amongst our friends and peers today. It reflects a society and culture which champions the individual’s choice to make of their life what they wish in a vast and vibrant market of ideas, lifestyles, beliefs and stories. This is what people are talking about when they talk about living in a “postmodern” society. It’s about choice, and about individualism, and it reflects a diminishing of objective, absolute truth. Of course no one can ever do away with truth altogether; everyone, should they find themselves in a situation of personal injustice, would argue there’s some solid right and wrong in the world. And I should add, I’m not going to be the Christian who completely writes off postmodernism as exclusively anti-Christian or anti-God.
But a diminishing of truth is problematic because when I’m having this conversation and talking about my Christian faith I’m not only suggesting that this is something you will want to believe, but that it is also something you need to believe because I think it is true. Let me surprisingly quote Richard Dawkins who said this: “the question is not ‘does it make people good or bad?’ nor ‘does it comfort people or frighten them?’ the question is ‘is it true?’” In our lives, we could make our decisions based on what is nice, what suits our preferences, what might make a good story (for the record I think Christianity wins on this front), but all of this counts for nothing unless it’s true.
C.S. Lewis said this: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
This is also the case when we look at the details of our Christian faith. What is God like? Is there a heaven and a hell? How do we receive eternal life? Is Jesus the only way to God? How should we behave and live our lives according to God’s wishes? I’m not going to answer those questions for you now but if we believe that Christianity is true, all of these questions have truth behind them, and no matter how we answer them, they must be answered not in the interest of personal preference but in the interest of answering “is it true?” This is why there is such a history of conflict and division in the church, because truth is worth standing up for. But that is not to condone such violence and disunity; we must work hard as Christians to disagree agreeably, in love and grace.
Truth is an ideal; a virtue we aspire to. But it’s painful, it’s awkward, and it’s offensive.
We like truth when it suits us, but we don’t like truth when it is staring us straight in the face telling us we’re wrong. We don’t like truth when it suggests that something may be amiss in my life, because the world is not all about me. Truth threatens our individualism and autonomy as it points to a higher power, something outside of us, something that is real and is important.
Jesus was so bold as to claim “I am the truth” (John 14:6). In fact we find that truth is mentioned in Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John more than anywhere else in the Bible. The disciple who was so close to Jesus that he described himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, wrote in his prologue “we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John met and walked with the one who was The Truth, and wrote his Gospel to testify to that truth. A bold claim of Jesus perhaps, but if he really was God, then as C.S. Lewis said, Christianity is of infinite importance. It is worth investigating, it is worth exploring and owning for yourself.
Although I’m not a massive sci-fi fan, I love The Matrix. Ten years ago or so youth workers squeezed this film for every analogy or illustration they could for countless talks and bible studies to the point of overkill. This film is a brilliant engagement with questions of truth, even if its underlying philosophy is one of suspicion and doubt. I love the tension of the scene in which Neo first meets Morpheus in that derelict building with the red leather chairs. Christianity, I think, offers in a similar way to Morpheus, that red pill/blue pill moment, in which Morpheus invites Neo to make a choice. He stops Neo in his tracks “Remember, all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more.”