I cannot stop thinking about the painting below, What Is Truth, by Nikolai Ge. The fact I use this image as my phone’s lock screen undoubtedly contributes to my obsession, but it goes much deeper than that. Take a look:
The painting caused quite a stir when Ge painted it in the late 1800s. His presentation of Jesus as being rough around the edges (to say the least) was upsetting to Christians, accustomed to paintings depicting Him as having physical perfection. Ge, a groundbreaking realist, gives us a Jesus who looks like you would expect Him to in that moment — exhausted, ridiculed, physically and mentally abused.
This realistic image of Jesus led people to accuse Ge of blasphemy, and the painting was banned for many years.
But as I ponder the painting it seems to be so right. Look at Pilate. Smug, meticulously groomed, elegantly dressed, utterly confident in his power, the power of Rome, and his utter command of this situation.
And yet Pilate is a fool. He asks, What is truth — and Truth is staring him right in the face. But Pilate can’t see it. He can see riches and other exterior manifestations of worldly success, but that is all he can see. He’s like many of us, caught up in the world, and, not only unable to see truth, not even interested in looking for it.
This low regard for truth, as Ge so perfectly captures in Pilate, is certainly a widespread problem today, and a deadly one, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Everything is spin. Censorship rather than open discussion of problematic issues rules the day. Even in the realms of science and medicine ideas and facts are manipulated to pander to fashionable thinking and exploit opportunities to amass wealth.
Ge’s painting confronts us with a challenging fact: the truth is not obvious. Jesus certainly doesn’t look like an embodiment of truth in the painting, and in fact many who encountered Jesus wrote him off as a blasphemer or an out-and-out nut. If I had been there, I might have reacted the same way; I don’t know. How would you have reacted to seeing and hearing Jesus?
But one thing is for sure: you can’t get anywhere near the truth through soundbites or slogans. You have to think things through. You have to set aside biases. You have to admit you could be wrong, and admit you don’t know something — very hard things for many people to do.
As the world grows more complex and pace of change accelerates, the quest for truth is more important than ever; in its absence, we are just passengers on a runaway train attempting to be steered by people who are no more competent than Pilate.
Not a good place to be.