Alethiometer, the imaginary “truth-o-meter” featured in The Golden Compass (c) Scholastic Ltd.  “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” [John 8:32]

There’s a poignant scene in the movie Golden Compass.[1] Lyra, a 12-year-old wise beyond her years, is handed a magical mechanical instrument which looks like a golden compass. This “compass” however is not designed to point to true north; rather, it points to truth. By manipulating its clock-like hands and dial the operator can read the true answer to almost any question of past or present reality (tellingly, the compass is not much good for any questions about the future). It’s called an “Alethiometer”, from the Greek word for truth – aletheia. Thus, it’s a “truth-o-meter”.

Having never seen an alethiometer before, Lyra is frustrated in her first attempts. Then a wise elder in the art tells her, “You must approach as if it were alive.” With her new-found recognition that truth is alive, Lyra quickly masters the art of alethiometry.

I wonder if Lyra ever stopped to think about what it means for truth to be alive. What kind of truth is this living truth? Is the truth, 2+2=4, alive? Or how about the truth that water freezes at 0 degrees C? Is that kind of truth alive? It’s not patently obvious why we should need to approach those truths as being alive. We seem not to find a lot of life in such cold facts; rather, we find life in an entirely different set of questions. We find life in questions that require discernment and awareness of how it is that we can know something. For example: How do we know right from wrong? How do we know that we love or are loved? How do we know who we can trust? Or even, how do we know that we are alive? These are truth-seeking questions that can be answered only as they are revealed in our lives.

I would put ethics in this realm of living truths. Ethical questions cut straight to the heart of being: they have no truth apart from the life of a living creature (you or me) who can apprehend them and wrestle with them. If it were not so: if ethical questions could be relegated to a book of arithmetic facts, like 2+2=4, then we wouldn’t need to be alive to give them meaning. We could set up a computer program that would run the rules of ethics. That is not a very life-giving idea of truth; nor is it a very live-giving idea of life!

What makes truth alive is relationship. A scientist discovers life in a truth when she or he approaches in a relationship which admires and respects nature. We all find life in truths that reveal who we are and how we shall live. So the alethiometrist was right – truth is alive. It’s not mechanical like a golden compass. Truth exists where there exists a living relationship to reality. That’s the meaning of life. It’s the answer to the deepest epistemological question: “What is truth?” (cf. John 18.38).


[1] Based on the novel His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman. Pullman’s novels have attracted controversy because of his stated deliberate attempt to defeat religious faith: “My books are about killing God,” he says. (quoted by Jeffrey Overstreet, 30 November 2007, in the article at Christianity Today International website: http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/commentaries/fearnotthecompass.html)

Moonrise over the Wadi Rum desert in present-day Jordan.  What is it about the desert that makes it a spiritual place?  From Abraham, to Moses, to Jesus, the desert defines crucial moments in spiritual growth.  No sooner has Jesus been baptized and the witnesses have heard the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”, than he is driven by the Spirit into the desert wilderness.  He is alone there, but for one other voice – the devil’s. [Luke 3:22; 4:1-14]As Luke reports these things, he pauses to tell us who Jesus is – He is “the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of …” and so on… for a whole page of genealogy. [Luke 3:23-38].  These are important historical details, and they do indeed tell us who Jesus is.  In order to know someone it helps to know where they come from; it’s usually one of the first questions we ask, to learn who their people are, and from what roots they have grown.

But we can’t really know a person from merely from genealogy.  And so, with his very next sentence, following this family history, Luke reports that Jesus was led into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days.  Now we see more clearly who this Jesus really is.  The devil gives Jesus the chance to prove who he is, to prove he is the Son of God, to prove he is the beloved and anointed one who comes in power.

And what does Jesus do with this opportunity?  He turns down the offer.  He says no.  He has the opportunity to save himself from hunger, and at the same time to save the world from doubt.  And he turns it down.  He chooses not to show anyone who he is by such actions.  He chooses not to prove that he is the Son of God.  And in that choice, which represents abject failure in the eyes of the devil, and in the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor,[1] and potentially in our own eyes as well, Jesus reveals who he truly is, for he is not defined by our ideas of how he might exercise his power.  He is not defined by the devil’s gambit.  Nor is he defined by our wish that he might prove his glory and deliver the world through main force.  He is not defined by anything we can think of for him to do for us.  No, he derives his identity from none of the above.  His identity comes rather from the one and only desire of his heart – to be his beloved Father’s Son.  His identity rests entirely in this relationship.

And so this desert place, where Jesus says “No”, is the place where the grand unspoken “Yes” of his true identity gives him the strength, hope and love to be who he really is.

This is the power of the desert – to strip us of all the details and entanglements, temptations and opportunities which we so often use to define who we are.  But the job and the paycheck do not define who we are; nor do the grades or the medals; nor do the praises or criticisms. No, none of the above.  The Yes’s that define us are the relationships that we hold most dearly in our hearts – the relationships defined by life, not by genealogy. And the one relationship that defines us most completely, the relationship that reveals the single-most core of our being, is the relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son.  This relationship tells us who we are – God’s daughters and sons, made so by Jesus who reveals who he truly is by refusing temptation in the desert.  Jesus is the one who shows us who we are truly meant to be.


[1] I have commented below on the Grand Inquisitor in “The Temptation of Christ(ianity)”.