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The Complexity and Simplicity of Truth

On April 22, SBS Television replayed its fascinating 2006 Insight examination of lying, of which one of the most interesting features was that it gave almost no consideration to moral aspects – unless one thinks utilitarianism is a moral code, with one consequence of lying being a loss of trust.

One of the main interview subjects was Helen Darville, the author and lawyer who won the 1994 Miles Franklin literary award under the name Helen Demidenko for her book The Hand that Signed the Paper about the Holocaust in the Ukraine, which nationality she falsely claimed.

Far from repentant a decade later, Darville was truculent, claiming that the literary establishment and the media were far more culpable, far bigger “fakes”. Her sense of shame was not that she was exposed, but that her deception meant that she “threw away” her literary talents on this one book.

Challenged about dishonesty by former Federal Attorney General Michael Lavarch, she retorted: “Have you ever been poor? Have you ever had no money, ever had to live on the student allowance?”

For Helen Darville, it seems, the overriding truth was that she was gifted but poor, and this provided self-evident justification for her “creation”.

In the ancient debate over the nature of truth, such an outlook lines up with the many who see truth as mostly subjective – my truth, your truth, depending on the situation. “What is truth, said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer,” wrote Francis Bacon (about John’s Gospel, 18:38).

The concept of truth presents notorious difficulties in the field of philosophy, where the Platonic paradigm of knowledge as “justified true belief” can bring an array of counter-arguments. For every-day use, the correspondence theory will suffice for most people: the idea that a statement is true if it relates accurately to reality. Of course, terms such as “truth”, “relate” and “reality” need unpacking but that will have to await another opportunity.

Christianity adds another component to the idea of truth: the truth is embodied, it is a person, Jesus Christ. He claims this in John 14:6, “I am … the truth”.

This is a challenging concept. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, says Paul; it is in him that we can understand what God is like. In Jesus, for Christians, we also have the revelation of what human life truly is. Among the implications is that the truth is relational and it is not just an abstract concept. It involves love.

This insight is not confined to Christianity. Philosopher Iris Murdoch argues interestingly the same way when she says that to see someone justly means to see them lovingly, but she would acknowledge that it is a vital part of the contribution of Christianity to Western culture and morality. 

Whatever the inevitability of lying, as claimed by experts on Insight, most of us value the truth highly, and aspire both to tell it and to live according to it.

Barney Zwartz is former Religion Editor at The Age and is now a senior fellow at CPX

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