« What is truth? » Despite appearances this is an answer, not to a question, admittedly, but to one of the last sentences that Jesus Christ pronounced: « You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice”
And the one who formulated this famous answer-question was Pontius Pilate. In my opinion, this governor of Judea during the first century, who had the great honor and the heavy task of being the official presiding over the trial of the most famous man in the world – and at least in all Judea then, was an intelligent man. His role as governor and his membership in the equestrian order, that is to say the order of the Roman knights, already suggest that this Roman citizen was an educated man, even an erudite one, and mostly intellectually capable of managing the affairs incumbent upon him in all the territory of Judea. But the intelligence I suppose in him is more subtle than that. In fact, unlike the impression of an empathetic and even kind character that can be left by the reading of the Gospels, Pilate was a provocative, tough, and even cruel man. And it is these personality traits that lead me to see in him this form of intelligence that is often found in a specific category of people: tyrants and torturers.
But even more, what makes me think he was smart is this answer-question. The answer first shows on one hand that he was quick-witted: Jesus’ assertion would have destabilized more than one, and on the other hand an advanced analytical mind: because the key element to understand Jesus’ sentence is indeed this « truth » that the latter mentions twice. Then the question, because I am convinced that as the Gospels convey it well, despite his rigid and intransigent management as one of the harshest governors that Judea has known, Pilate wavered. He did not only find himself facing Jesus but also facing his own existential questions, which every human being asks himself when he lets go and give free rein to this subtle intelligence that I believe we all possess – for better or for worse.
Indeed, I think his intelligence led him to ask this question so deep and yet so simple. Probably weary of his role and the reality in the field: recurrent opposition demonstrations by the Jewish people, followed by the violent and systematic repression of the Roman authority; most likely intrigued by the ancestral spirituality of men and women whom he doesn’t really mix with but from whom he observes daily, by necessity, both fervor and resignation. Pilate must certainly have been thirsty for more, he must have had the curiosity to discover something other than the cold and brutal reality which he lived in, even if this very reality was to his advantage.
However, the question that does interest me as I write this article, is not Pilate’s one, or not completely. His question which remains and will always remain universally relevant, I also asked it myself. And I deeply believe that I have found a response through the Bible and my Christian faith.
But today, I must ask myself a slightly different question. As if by a transposition mechanism, Pilate’s question is transformed, projected into a new frame of reference: a transposition from the time of the Roman Empire and Stoicism to the era of globalization and digital technology in which I live, transposition from Pilate’s role of Roman governor to my status as a mere citizen of a Western country, European in particular. In my context and with a specific focus on the period from 2020 until today, the question that resonates with me is rather: « What is reality? »
One might think that this is the last subject of the philosophy exam for high school diploma, but this is sincerely the question I have been asking myself for some time now.
It must be said that like Pilate, sometimes weary and often intrigued by our society and its values – or lack of values, by the tragic but cyclical events occurring in our world, I ask myself existential questions; questions about myself, about the people around me, or even about « fundamental » notions, such as reality. If I put quotation marks to fundamental, it is because in my opinion the recent technological advances, and the social issues that accompany them, have slightly cracked or at least shaken the rock that represents the concept of reality as a pre-reflective and irreducible experience or indisputable self-awareness, which some philosophers like René Descartes have defended.
Virtual reality, augmented reality, and lately metaverse, are words that today perhaps only make us think of fascinating video games, funny glasses having us looking like members of Daft Punk, or a new land of milk and honey for the giants of the web 2.0 industry. But in fact, it is about much more than that. These are the beginnings of what tomorrow will be an integral part of our everyday lives: work, leisure, shopping, … These new technologies offer an infinite number of possibilities, both likely to help us live better and worse, by analogy with the Internet and social networks today. And another analogy with the latter that can be deduced quite easily is the questioning of legal, social, economic, and political principles, among others. Because, if recently we have found ourselves dazed and helpless in front of leaks about manipulation during presidential elections from large data analysis companies via social networks, how will we react, for example, to electoral campaigns of candidates who will emotionally influence voters through virtual insecurity and racial violence completely made up in the metaverse? Or, if it is already so difficult for some parents to help the no-life their children have become, completely cut off from the world of the living and addicted to the virtual, what will happen to the parents who will undergo the first waves of « virtual re-births » – a kind of definitive and wanted artificial coma where the mind would leave the carnal world to remain only connected to the metaverse? And finally, if it is still so difficult to legislate regarding incitation to violence and harassment on social networks leading to crimes or suicides, what kind of legal puzzles will have to dissect our courts while dealing with murders committed in the real world but in reprisal for rapes committed in the metaverse? You may find I am pushing a little too far and that my fertile imagination is taking me into extreme sci-fi scenarios. On the contrary, I think I do not go far enough, and for two reasons. Firstly, writer Mark Twain could be quoted here, he said that « reality surpasses fiction, because fiction must contain plausibility, but not reality « . In other words, whatever we can imagine, reality free from the shackles that unconsciously restrains our minds is always able to surprise us, to make the wildest dreams or nightmares come true, and even, to go beyond them. Secondly, it is some famous authors of a genre that I like very much who can justify my attempt to glimpse a disturbing but probable future: George Orwell, René Barjavel and Aldous Huxley, among others, have written dystopian novels (also called anti-utopian) filled with fantasies that are sometimes naïve, but they are nonetheless considered today as prophets whose art has been able to warn us precisely against serious abuses of our society – unfortunately without us succeeding in avoiding all of them.
By the way, I do not even have to look so far to conceive that the notion of reality, as certain and tangible as it seems to us, is already questioned in our everyday lives. Actually, I ask the question wondering « what will happen to reality, to the proof by experience that what we are experiencing is real”. But already today, how do things stand for this reality of this world surrounding us and that we are supposed to capture through our screens more than ever multiplied? Indeed, at the dawn of this real-world technological revolution, another revolution that has lasted for several decades now – I think at least since 9/11 – is about to climax: the information revolution. And yet with the hindsight of the last two decades, I do not even know if we can really speak of a revolution and not simply of an evolution, Darwinian, mechanical, inevitable, brutal mutation of information in every sense. From the creation of the Axis of Evil in 2003, to the imbroglio on the anti-covid vaccines in 2021, by way of the subprime crisis in 2008 and the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013, we can see that now the action on information of only a handful of people, or even a single person sometimes, in a relatively limited and local way, is enough to profoundly transform the reality of hundreds of millions of others worldwide with a speed, intensity and dispersion that had never been observed before. Whether in the form of a vial of anthrax confirming the imminent threat, of a vaccine passport mandatory to access all or nearly all of what makes up social life, of a triple-A rating given to North American financial products despite their toxicity, or of a highly sensitive documents disclosure from US intelligence agencies, the flapping butterfly wings triggering tornados are there and more and more effective. With a certain polarization on the United States, globalization, ubiquity of media and the immediacy of Internet and social networks have made inevitable the evolution of the information system towards an information ecosystem, where information and their vectors are comparable to a community of interrelated beings acting in an environment governed by the might-makes-right principle: the mediatic, political and of course financial might.
I will at least speak for myself. When I look behind, when I think back to my reaction in front of this TV screen, alone, one afternoon I had returned earlier from middle school, when I remind myself that at first I thought it was a movie and not a TV news special looping scenes of panic, of blended dust and smoke, of crashing steel and glass, of planes and human bodies with uncommon and fatally horizontal or vertical trajectories; it is as if since that strange and yet so real day, I had finally entered a movie, a Hollywood blockbuster, with villains and heroes of course, a movie with an ending that we unfortunately suspect, yet a movie which as in The Matrix can sometimes abruptly change scenery or villains – however never heroes, at the occasion of a reprogramming by the cynic « architects », always thirsty for more power, or at the rare occasion of a flaw created by some rebels disenchanted to this reality that is forced into their minds and fighting in the name of truth.
Yes, when I look behind, I can only resolve to think that reality no longer exists or almost. What remains of it should be destroyed in the coming decades, if not years. I could tell myself that at least I have my feelings, my emotions, but even that I can no longer rely on it: more than my intellect what the new masters of the world, the lords of information, are chasing after today is my affect. The intellect does not sell, it makes you think, that is all, and even if you were taught to go in a given direction, it is far too dangerous and uncontrollable: from a thought comes an idea, from an idea an intention, from an intention an action. « What?! An action?! No, certainly not! It is necessary to influence but without setting in motion, to direct while paralyzing, to move without moving. Manipulating affect is perfect: it draws floods of tears, it makes laughter burst, it outrages, it soothes; yet all that, without moving anybody from his sofa, and especially, above all, without interrupting the streams of cash flowing directly or indirectly from our juicy washed brain. As I realize like the French 80s rock band Telephone, that « my reality has bedridden me » (« ma réalité m’a alité »), I try to wake up little by little, to get up, to throw myself with all my strength, guided by this one and only thing, like a bright star in a dark sky, the truth: the one I found in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the only one to have ever said « I am the way, the truth and the life ».
The last word
Dazzling, radiant, always wearing the brightest colors. You were full of something no one would ever have imagined it could dry up. Immortal, yes, your smile, the light on your face, seemed so. But fate made us all lie. As if he had to shut us up, he found for you the most brutal and unexpected end. But you too, in turn, I know you're going to make him lie. I know you’re not done shining brightly and playing with the colors of the rainbow like a painter with his watercolor palette. Where you are, up there, make him lie, this tragic fate, and show him that despite all his cynicism, it was you who had the last word.
My pastor is often saying that he is like an unfinished house. Out of context, it may sound a little weird, but it deserves to be looked at with more depth. To better understand, it is necessary to visualize the image he uses and clarify a few things. This is certainly a quite seldom phenomenon in some Western countries, but in my country of origin, Côte d’Ivoire, constructions are likely to stop and remain interrupted for years and even in the middle of the city. It is already very particular in itself but what is even more surprising is that in most cases the work resumes after a relatively long time and as if nothing ever happened, once the necessary funds have been raised, the initial project redesigned, or even once the ownership of the land has been « returned » to its true owner.
Once these few prerequisites are established, I think it is already a little easier to grasp this idea of an unfinished house. Indeed, the concept showcased by my spiritual father with this image, and with which I agree myself, is the fact that whatever appearances, no matter how long it takes, what we are called to, God’s plan for each of us will come to pass. Automatically, a whole bunch of questions, even criticisms, rise together like the shields of a Roman legion in front of the barbaric invasion that this concept represents for some people.
« Fate? But what is fate and if there is any, what about our free will?”, or, « If there is a god, and he lets so many tragedies happen on Earth, why hoping in his plan without even knowing if it is good or bad for me? », and even, “That is where all the problems of our society lie! Preference for passivity and alienation of our very real life to an imaginary god, instead of perseverance and rational thought to make things happen”. Maybe none of these sentences crossed your mind but believe me this is the case for many others: I have heard them often enough to confirm this to you.
The first thing I can say while facing such questioning is that once we put aside the idea of an almighty God who loves us above all, it is impossible to understand what I am talking about. It is like two people striking up a conversation in different languages, without one being able to speak the other’s own. In the present case, this language is the language of love, the one that is spoken throughout the Bible, in its darkest passages as its most enlightened, in its most boring chapters as its most thrilling ones. I can always be told that it is easy and usual for Christians to sweep away the question of the existence of our God by this kind of condition. For my part I just consider that this is another issue to which I am not the most qualified to answer and for which I consider having the chance that faith allows me to answer it, perhaps not rationally yet to answer it anyway. In the present days some have chosen to do it rationally, or at least to try, just as many others have done it before. Blaise Pascal, in the 17th century, proposed with his Wager an interesting reflection, based on a probabilistic approach, even related to the gambling register, which allows anyone to get an idea of what one loses and what one gains to believe or not to believe. Indeed, quite plainly, and perhaps even a bit too much, Pascal tried to show that we all have an interest in believing in God, whether God exists or not. For him, if God does not exist, the believer and the non-believer draw. However, if God exists, the believer is victorious because he accesses paradise for eternity, while the non-believer as for him loses because he is excluded from it, also for eternity. Simple but effective, and very questionable. But let’s go back to the main topic, because my idea was precisely not to get involved in that issue, but only to specify that others have done it, in case you are interested.
Indeed, as for me, I rather accepted to give in, without any rational proof or scientific guaranty and despite my rather formal professional background and personality, to this God who according to his word has always loved me and that even before I came into this world. People often speak about a leap of faith; I would rather call it a love story. Even though it is comparable in some aspects, I don’t think of it much as a romance but rather as a filial love, this for different reasons that we can mainly find in the Bible. Indeed, there we can read a definition of faith that is both precise and disconcerting: « Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see ». For a long time, those few words disturbed me, blocked me, even lost me, yet it is something altogether quite simple, and it is still in the same book, a few pages before, that Jesus gives one of the most important clues that allows to unravel the mystery of this sentence. « Let the little children come unto me, and do not prevent them from doing so; for the kingdom of God is for those who are like them. I tell you in truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a small child will not enter it, » he firmly said to his disciples. It is when we finally accept, to return to this infant state of trust, dependence and even vulnerability that we can embrace all the meaning of this definition and at the same time begin the wonderful journey that God proposes us to do with him. The one through which he actually makes us stronger, less dependent on the things of this world, and ever more assured of his benevolent presence.
Nevertheless, a journey is maybe not the right name because journey means a point of origin and a destination, while here both the point of origin and the destination are the same: God. It is more about a project in fact, the project of a lifetime, even a construction project. A construction where the work, the building, is each of us. The client, the original contracting authority and the one who will receive the finished project, is God. The general contractor, who carries out this project, is still God. Far from being at the center of this endeavor, we are only its material, which may seem somewhat simplistic and frustrating at first. It is no longer a question of the absolute importance of our choices, our desires, our will, but of something greater – and much more beautiful. Yes, when we understand that it is indeed God who is at the center, both for his greatest glory but also for our greatest happiness, we enter into all the power and beauty of this simple idea proposed by my pastor, that of a house under construction that will inevitably be completed to become a perfect, unique and priceless home; even if in the present moment it is far from resembling it, even if the obstacles and circumstances sometimes play all together against its realization. Once again, the key to this project, its starting point, is this love story, between a child, the one who can be found in each of us, and a Father, who has been waiting so long for us to let him build us up, to let him be with us, to let him love us.
It is amazing what a simple picture can communicate, without any words yet with so many emotions. More than 5 years ago this sculpture of the Burning Man festival challenged me while I was just looking for a nice background photo for my phone. More than 5 years ago, again, this is partly about my ex or rather the period of my life that I shared with her. It is becoming a habit; my articles often talk about it. Some might see it as a ghost breakup, which still haunts me after all these years, or an unspoken (and unspeakable?) love, to a person I have chosen to remove from my life.
Yet the questions raised by my references to this painful past are far from those of a masochistic and nostalgic gaze, turned towards a time that has certainly brought many tears but also so many bursts of laughter, or those of an illusory hope of the « what if? », which knows how to replay in our minds just like a genius director the best — and theworst, with more passion, better lighting and, always, the happy-end that goes well.
No, those questions are resolutely looking forward, more than ever in my life. This lust for life that I have recently discovered in me calls me to jump with all my strength towards my future, but for this I need to take all the necessary support on my past, in order to go as far, as high as possible.
Why this picture? What does it show? What did it tell me at the time? Love, this work by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov (photo credit: thestevenjames), depicts two adults of metal back to back, two adults with apparently nothing more to say to each other. But the two children in them, shining with a bright light, turned towards each other, seem to still have everything to say to each other. The welded metal bar structures that make up the adults were certainly not chosen randomly. Like prisons, they lock up in them these children who, if they could, would go towards each other, throw themselves into each other’s arms.
Even if at the time I discovered this picture it was still going rather well in my couple, like a bad omen, it showed me the drama that plays out every day in the lives of so many couples, families or even friendships, the drama that would play out a few years later between my ex and me.
For me this picture, before talking about love, as the name of the sculpture indicates it, speaks of forgiveness, a forgiveness that we cannot give each other when we should, when we would like to. It speaks of the fact that in us there is this child’s soul who just wants to forget those arguments, those grudges, those wounds, just to return to our games, to our laughter, to our happiness. And it also speaks of the fact that on the outside there is this carcass, this heavy framework of our rigidized habits, our structured — and structuring — attitudes, which prevent us from taking the first step, from opening the door to new possibilities.
I literally lived this picture, not only in my couple, but in various relationships and at various levels of affection. But every time, while I believed that the only memory of this sculpture, like a totem, could give me the strength not to let the drama happen again, not to let the child be imprisoned in the adult, I found myself — just like the other in front — trapped in the mechanism of conflict, in the machinery of resentment, the quicksand of apprehension, in which every second that passes seems to drive us ineluctably from all hope of pacification.
Forgiveness, the word is said. This word that fascinates, that makes both dreaming and trembling. This word that we idealize, elevates in chimera, above our too sordid realities. Or for others, this word that we submit to our will, that we censor, that we frame with meticulously drawn and marked borders. Indeed, here we mainly have two schools: those who believe in the power of forgiveness but do not do it, as an unspeakable superstition, a shameful belief, to which one cannot abandon himself completely, for fear of disappointment after being turned down flat by the opposing side – the friends of « I would love to forgive him, but I don’t know if I’m able to »-; and those who, failing to believe or even understand its power, choose to tame forgiveness, to tolerate it, but according to their own rules of the game, a game in which of course they never lose —the defenders of « I have forgiven, but I have not forgotten ».
But what about unconditional forgiveness, palpable forgiveness? If we push to extremes, we must ask ourselves the question of the forgiveness that allows us to hear still today incredible testimonies of fathers forgiving the murderer of their child, of women forgiving their rapist, of entire communities forgiving their oppressor of a whole century. Is it fake? Is there a trick? I’ve been looking for it, so far I haven’t found the transparent threads that an illusionist would be drawing behind the scenes of those shattered lives, the special effects that a prodigious director would be using to magnify these tragic miscellaneous news items. Finally, the only magician I was able to discover during my personal and existential questioning about forgiveness, it is Jesus. His subversive doctrine in his time but still revolutionary today has brought to light a power in the human being that is still too often unsuspected or even unknown nowadays. Indeed most of the time we are wrong about forgiveness, and doubly. Not only because we underestimate its effectiveness and reality in our lives, but also because we mistakenly believe that the first beneficiary of forgiveness – if not the only one – is the forgiven.
A sentence I heard one day during a sermon completely reversed my mindset and opened my spirit to the true potential of forgiveness. « Forgiveness is the most selfish act that can be committed, for it has the power to completely free us exclusively from the evil that the Other has done to us, while leaving the latter to his own guilt ».
I found it extremely powerful! To realize this, we need to remember what a conflict is. Etymology helps here because conflict could be translated by » the act of fighting together. » Together! As we hear it, it sounds implausible. When the origin of a conflict is the break that will turn two people into enemies opposing each other, and even in many cases breaking up emotionally or diplomatically, we learn here that in the end the first thing that this break creates is an object in common, an unwanted but indeed present offspring: the conflict itself. That is, as long as a conflict can last, the two people he opposes will bind, grow attached to each other, even sometimes love to hate each other. Once this notion was clarified, I could understand more easily how forgiveness is an exclusive privilege: it allows me, to preserve my peace and my well-being by unilaterally denying the other his right to conflict, his invitation to fight together.
Today, I imagine the number of times in my life where I could have used that power. I think of the time I would have won, the headaches that I could have spared myself — in the end all this is not so selfish because the other would realize at some point what he also has to gain, and my past couple experience which, even if not saved, could at least have been paced and ended more peacefully.
In the gospels it can be read how Jesus replied to Peter asking him how many times he should forgive the one who would harm him: « you will forgive him 70 times 7 times. » Put into context, his answer evokes the infinity of the power of forgiveness once our mind opens to it, and not a heavy and almost inhuman burden imposed by God on humans. Indeed, forgiveness is a gain, an overpowering gift that allows us to get rid of the chains of grief and resentment, while creating in the other a possibility, for him also, to get out of the trap mixed with guilt and pride that would close slowly but steadily on him without ever undoing its embrace. From the moment we understand it, we can then enter a hugely different reality, where peace is cultivated and harvested at hand, like a child’s play.
I was also able to discover, that the first step of forgiveness, as simple as it may seem, is vital, not only for the relationship that is at stake but also for oneself. This first step is to forgive yourself. It is sometimes obvious, and sometimes much more complex, but in a conflict there is very often some guilt on both sides. Even those who consider themselves aggrieved may either regret actions or words that could have hurt the other one and possibly led to the reaction of the latter that ultimately hurt them in turn; or outright conclude through convoluted psychological mechanisms that they are ultimately solely responsible for the harm that has been done to them. Whether you’re the responsible for the wound or the wounded, forgiving yourself seems to be something quite easy when it is just said, but I’ve had the opportunity to realize more than once that the collateral damages created in a conflict, that second wound that consist in guilt, is actually much harder to heal than we think. In any case, it all starts there: in the same way that I think we can’t love the other one without learning to love ourselves first, we can only win the war against hate with the power of forgiveness if we let the latter win its first battle inside us.
I am far from being a saint, and the picture still taunts me regularly today. Emotions, habits, instinct of defense – or attack, there are so many things in us that make us miss wonderful moments, or even entire blocks of life. But what helps me is to think about what I missed, what I would miss without forgiveness: so many laughs, so many sharing, so much love. Forgiveness is real, I am convinced about it today. I saw its power in action: in the Bible, in History, in lives like of Kim Phuc, survivor of a Napalm attack in south Vietnam, that of Pope John Paul II, seriously wounded during an attempted murder in Rome, that of the Amish community, bereaved by the West Nickel Mines School killing, those of the Tutsis and The Hutus, who after civil war and the genocide of the former by the latter are now living in peace in Rwanda.
Yes it is real, and I also want to enjoy it maybe alone or, I hope, with all those who, if they wish to, if they forgive themselves first and forgive me then, will be able to use with me this power that can change the world.