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:


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