“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, asked Jesus. The Bible [John 18:38] does not quote Jesus’ answer. We don’t know whether Jesus chose to remain silent or Pilate had no patience to listen.
Nineteen centuries later, the Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov extracted an answer from Jesus. “The truth is,” tells Jesus to Pilate, “first of all, that your head aches, and aches so badly that you’re having faint-hearted thoughts of death. You’re not only unable to speak to me, but it is even hard for you to look at me. And I am now your unwilling torturer, which upsets me. You can’t even think about anything and only dream that your dog should come, apparently the one being you are attached to. But your suffering will soon be over, your headache will go away.” [The Master and Margarita, Penguin Classics, 2007, p.24]
Bulgakov’s Jesus goes on to advise Pilate that he would do well to go for a stroll, maybe in the gardens on the Mount of Olives. “The trouble is,” says Jesus, “that you are too closed off and have definitely lost faith in people. You must agree, one can’t place all one’s affection in a dog. Your life is impoverished....” [p.25, emphasis added]
For Bulgakov’s Jesus, truth is an imaginative and compassionate understanding of reality. It is not a philosophical or scientific understanding. It is an understanding that leads to trust in people and compassion for them.
A century before Bulgakov, one of the British Romantic poets wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” [John Keats (1795-1821), Ode on a Grecian Urn]
What Keats meant to say, according to many interpreters, is that the truth or the ultimate reality is not known by the reasoning mind but by imagination. Such knowledge of the reality opens up a world of beauty to the perceiver.
It is a beauty perceived by one who understands the deeper meaning of reality. The beauty that transcends appearances. Beauty that lies beyond costumes and cosmetics. Beyond opulence and copulation. Beyond economics and technology...
Of course, beyond mere discipline and order. Beyond spirituality and mortifications.
It is the beauty of a profound understanding of life. The kind of understanding that Bulgakov’s Jesus reveals. The kind of understanding that the great visionaries possessed. An understanding of the essential interrelatedness of all beings.
An understanding that fosters trust in one’s fellow beings. Fosters compassion.
Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer survey shows that people are increasingly losing trust in other people, especially the politicians and the business people. “...only 18% trusted business leaders, whilst government leaders scored a yet more miserable 13%,” says the report, as quoted by an article in the latest issue of the Economist. Technology is the most trusted industry, say the report, with 77% approval, 8% ahead of the car industry.
Perhaps, we need to remind ourselves once again a la Bulgakov’s Jesus that one can’t place all one’s affection in a gadget or a car or even a dog. Perhaps, we can reclaim our potential to dig deep...
Note: Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) completed the manuscript of The Master and Margarita in 1938. But the novel was published only in 1966. It is a merciless satire on the novelist’s contemporary Russia ruled by Stalin. The devil and his henchmen are the major characters.