At the time it came out in 1970, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was unusual. Rock and roll was not typically the music upon which musical theater was based, despite the success of “Hair.” And it was also unusual for there to be no dialogue, for the whole work to be carried out in an operatic format. The original concept album (which I nabbed from my older brother’s record collection and listened to relentlessly as a child) featured the lead vocalist from Deep Purple as Jesus. When it came out, many Christian groups condemned it because it didn’t go far enough in proclaiming Jesus as the Christ. Jewish groups worried that it fueled the dangerous and antisemitic “the Jews killed Jesus” trope. But it became an obsession for those who loved rock and roll and Broadway, and launched the career of Weber and Rice as the most famous Broadway production duo since Rodgers and Hammerstein.
One of the most tense and critical moments in the musical is the face off between Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruling Jerusalem on Caesar’s behalf, and Jesus. Pilate is grappling with the position he’s been placed in, being asked to deliver a death sentence to a man whose only crime under the law appears to be that some people think he’s a messiah, and there were actually a lot of those running around Jerusalem in the first century. Jesus has delivered the cryptic response to Pilate’s inquiry as to whether he is the “Son of God” by saying “It’s you that say I am. I search for truth, and find that I am damned.”
Weber and Rice raise the stakes in this section of the musical with a chorus in the back singing “Crucify him! Crucify him!” — a persistent, slightly off key plea in the background while Pilate questions Jesus. Pilate grows louder and more aggravated. Jesus gets quieter and more submissive until he makes no more sound. Pilate then turns to dialogue with the dissonant and progressively more insistent crowd/chorus. The music from this point forward grows more frenetic and fevered in pacing, tone, and pitch, spiraling up and up in tension until Pilate finally snaps in the climactic moment of the whole musical and delivers the order to kill Jesus. Suddenly the central theme music of the work bursts forth majestically with the support of the full orchestra, signaling that finally, at long last, THIS is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Everything else from this point on is denouement, even the crucifixion itself.
But it is Pilate’s response to Jesus in the moment before all hell breaks loose that has always been for me the quiet beating heart of the musical, the underlying question upon which everything turns:
But what is truth?
Is truth a changing law?
We both have truths — are mine the same as yours?
Years and years later, as a pagan, this the moment in the work that still lingers in my memory. It shouldn’t be a surprise. All people who walk a path seeking spirit are also looking for truth. And Pilate’s questions (which it should be noted, Jesus does not answer) are really good ones, no matter what path you are on. It is perhaps the subversive in me that relishes the idea that the best, most relevant issues raised in a now cherished musical about the Christian gospel should be asked by the lone pagan character.
We are living in an age where the truth is up for grabs. We have a President whose lies number in the tens of thousands, and happen daily, and fuels chatter for entire news networks dedicated to convincing people that many of those lies are true. This is the battle for facts, what some would call “objective truth.” I am a human person who resides at a certain address. These are facts that one may show to be true by varying means with tangible evidence that demonstrates their veracity. These are facts that I can prove to someone and they’ll believe it and take it as truth.
But evidence is a tricky thing, because sometimes there isn’t enough of it, or the available evidence doesn’t lead to a cut and dried conclusion. No matter what you believe about Jesus, the only thing that can really be said with any honesty is that we in the 21st century have no idea what happened to him. We just don’t know, and we never will.
And then there are attempts to manipulate evidence, to hide it, or to encourage people to ignore it. This last issue, the ability of the human brain to ignore outright pieces of evidence it does not like, is something that can be scientifically documented. (Yes, there’s some irony there.) And one needs look no further than the headlines to see instances of blatant attempts to “spin” facts to assert something as truth. It’s probably best for everyone if we don’t get me started on Bob Barr and the Mueller Report. None of us has that kind of time.
And then there are the truths that we hold based on our perspective. These are the truths most audiences think Pilate is getting at. We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours? This is the realm of subjective truth, or truth that is influenced by one’s identity and perspective. A Christian sees Jesus of Nazareth and says he is the Son of God and the Messiah. A Roman administrator sees a man who has broken the law and who has a following, and who may pose a danger to Roman rule. Looking back at that moment from over 2000 years in the future, deciding who this Jesus person was gets even trickier. There are no contemporaneous records really. The earliest of the gospels comes several decades after Jesus’s death, and builds off of oral accounts from followers. And anyone who’s ever played a game of telephone knows that oral accounts often shift significantly over time from what actually happened.
But here’s what’s even more exasperating about truth: we divide the world into subjective and objective truth as if that’s a real distinction that we can operate with. But they really are just mental constructs. To the human mind, ALL truth is a matter of subjective thought. There is nothing in our experience that is not filtered through our brain, which is lousy with prejudices, biases and preconceived notions. If we actually DO stumble upon objective truth, we’re still deciding whether it’s truth based on a subjective assessment performed by a biased brain.
All truths, even the ones that are easy to prove with evidence, could just as easily be questioned if enough pressure is applied, and enough evidence is concealed, eradicated, or called into question. This is what has made Donald Trump’s assault on the truth and particularly on the media so dangerous. By removing scientific studies from government websites, by repeating lies so often people stop questioning them, by continually attacking those who investigate the truth and produce evidence of wrongdoing, the aim here is to make certain things true even though most of the evidence is conclusive in the other direction. He’s not the first person to ever try this, and he’s had a lot of help.
Truth is, in many respects, merely an expression of the collective belief. And truth can change. I’ve talked before about oceanographer and explorer Robert Ballard, who begins many of his presentations by holding up his high school physics text and explaining that everything he was taught in that book has since been proven wrong. In his own deep-sea exploration, he discovered a whole ecosystem of life forms operating on chemosynthesis, upending the “truth” that life was not possible without photosynthesis.
What is truth? Is truth a changing law? We both have truths — are mine the same as yours? These are in fact, the questions of our age. They are of vital importance these days, now that we are faced with leaders who would build a version of “truth” not on evidence, but as an expediency to obtain power, wealth and control. Truth, it turns out, is a remarkably fragile thing, and yes, what you know to be true isn’t necessarily always going to be so. And what you think is true might not be viewed as such by everyone else.
The dirty little secret is that truth is much more elastic than we give it credit for. But it also has limits. While one can certainly try to argue that 2 + 2 = 5 (Read Orwell’s “1984” to get the reference more fully), one cannot do so with much credulity or for very long before the evidence to the contrary breaks through. But we can and often do hold on to things that are not true for a very long time, and there are in fact things that can be both diametrically opposed and true at the same time. (I am very smart, but sometimes the evidence demonstrates that I am also capable of great stupidity.) The reconciliation of disparate or competing truths is hard, and sometimes impossible. The psychological term for this is cognitive dissonance, and its presence in a situation can generate some pretty messed up results.
All people who walk a path seeking spirit are also looking for truth. But what do they find when they look? Do they find a set of absolutes that they cling to, tenaciously, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary? Some people certainly do. They have their beliefs and nothing, no nothing at all, will shake them. They believe that there are absolute truths in the Universe and those truths must be protected at all cost from anything that might challenge them. If the moment comes when those seemingly immutable truths are called into question, the person who believes them is often thrown for a loop. So much of who they are and how they think about the world is wrapped up in that one sacred belief. And to render that belief at all questionable is to unmoor them from their sense of who they are. It’s threatening, so much so they will lash out at the person or group producing the evidence that challenges their deeply held truth. It’s why in so many cultures and groups, being a heretic, someone who opposes the traditional orthodoxy, is considered so terrible they must be punished by death.
One of the hallmarks of this age, I believe, is that we are finally, as a human race, starting to acknowledge that truth and perception are irrevocably tied together, and that perception is almost always driven by context, and context is really just a nicer way to talk about power. We are finally reaching the place where we maybe, just maybe, can shed our need as humans for orthodoxy, the need to dominate each other and subjugate ourselves to attempts at truth that are no more than thinly veiled bids for power. It is often said that “the truth will make you free.” The phrase has its origins in the Gospel of John (which at this point should come as no surprise.) The writers of that work of course were talking about THEIR truth, and asserting that only through belief in THEIR version of deity may one find real freedom.
As a pagan, I reject the idea that there is one god who embraces and expresses all of deity. I reject the idea that there is one absolute truth to which I must ascribe in order to obtain freedom. In fact, quite the opposite — freedom is the ability to embrace the truth as YOU understand it, without fear of being harmed for it, and even knowing that what you think is truth might actually not be the same for someone else as it is for you. Your truth will make you free. You and no one else. And in fact, if I try to apply my truth to you, that’s precisely the opposite of freedom. It’s an attempt at control.
But nor can we live in anarchy. This brings me back to the point I made earlier — there are limits. The truth may be stretched, but there is a breaking point past which an untruth cannot hold. There are truths that we do, as a human collective, need to believe to survive. But there are far fewer of them than we once thought, and they are not the truths some of us expected.
The truths we need to survive as a species will not be handed to us. They are not the ideas that are being sold to us as “the truth” by the people and institutions that seek to control us. What makes this time in history so difficult is that figuring out and acting upon those truths is not enough — we each need to both step in to our own truths, and simultaneously learn how to live alongside each others’ truths peaceably.
Jesus never answered Pilate because he couldn’t. No one god, no one philosophy or way of thinking can. It’s going to take all of us, working together, to come up with a way to do this, and even THAT won’t be perfect. Whatever truths we come up with will have to stretch and grow to meet the challenges we face, and be resilient enough to not break. It will need all of us to stretch and grow along with our individual truths. But while all of us has our own truths, not all of those truths are equally capable of holding fast in a world of coexistence. Not all of us will have what it takes. Some of us will snap as our truths are shown to be insufficient to encompass the world we hope to live in. Remember, when someone’s truth is shown to be not so truthful, they usually get hostile. People will do a lot and say a lot to avoid acknowledging their truth has snapped under the tension of trying to accommodate reality.
I believe we’re seeing a lot of that today. I believe much of the anger that’s out there is because people feel the tension as their long cherished truths are stretched past the breaking point. They don’t lack comprehension so much as imagination. They cannot imagine who they might be without their jankey unyielding truth.
This is why, after all is said and done, I’m a pagan. I’d much rather spend my time asking the important questions that acknowledge the real nature of truth than guard the truths themselves, most of which will eventually let me down in the end. Truth has its limits, but the Universe, it turns out, is infinite.