You Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Set You Free

This is the gist of remarks I made before students and faculty at the spring 2017 Matriculation ceremony at Bacone College.

Many years ago I was a student at a university on the East coast. This university had a large library filled with books—the kind of library that a person can get lost in rummaging around searching for knowledge. On one side of the building, on a large granite face, were these words: You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. I used to walk by this building just about every day, and I would see these words. Admittedly, I was not sure exactly what was the source for these words. I knew they were found somewhere in the Bible, but precisely where, I was not sure. But the words daily made me pause and think. What could they mean? You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

To know the truth: what is meant by, the truth? At the time, as a college student, I vaguely was aware that I sought the truth. Isn’t that what I was doing in college, anyway? The only reason to go to college is to acquire knowledge, to learn, to become educated—in other words, to seek the truth. But what is the truth, and how does a person know if they have come to possess it, to know it?

And the truth shall set you free. Now this second part of the proclamation carved onto the granite face of the library was even more perplexing. Free? Free from what? In what way am I not free? We live in America, the land of the free, correct? What do these words mean?

You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free: the implication of these words is that if you don’t know the truth, then you are not free. So, if I have not yet arrived at sufficient knowledge, if I have not yet completed my education, then I am not free, I am a slave. To what?

This was all very perplexing to me, so many years ago at this university on the East coast. I could not claim at that time—nor can I claim today, so many years later—that I know the truth. I am in pursuit of the truth. This is one reason why I like to be a professor, as I enjoyed being a student: I feel like we are all in pursuit of the truth. But what kind of truth is it? Scientific? Humanistic? Artistic? Moralistic? Religious? Well, yes—all of the above.

As time passed I became aware of the source of the quote on the granite wall of the library: the Gospel of John. Jesus of Nazareth said these words. I think the key to understanding what he meant is to focus on the second part of the statement: And the truth shall set you free. By free, he did not mean freedom to do and act, freedom to vote and speak: he meant freedom to think. The problem is, that although we all think—some more than others—there are always constraints on our thinking. Sometimes social and cultural norms, ideologies, pressure from friends and colleagues, direct our thinking into certain patterns and accepted paths.

To have freedom to think is to have freedom from something. What? Fear. The reason why humans are not free is because of the fear that dominates our lives. Jesus was saying, that when you know the truth, you will be free from fear.

Fear? Of what? Fear comes to us, confronts us, in so many different ways: fear of the future, fear of being wrong, fear of offending, fear of not conforming, fear of being different, fear of being the same, fear of making a mistake, fear because of making a mistake, fear of what we are feeling and thinking, fear of where we are living and what we are doing, fear of life. Fear, in short, overwhelms.

You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free: the more that we learn, the more that we know about others and ourselves, the more that we think and understand, the more we will not allow illusions, and rumors, and the opinions of others, and the actions of others, and the future, to dominate us, to shackle us with fear. To think, to know, is to conquer fear. The more we think, the more we learn, the more we break down what is false, the more we come out of the darkness into the light, the more we can understand ourselves, and understand others. As another great thinker of the New Testament said, “Love knows no fear.”

So, yes, You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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