Oxford Dictionaries’ designation of “post-truth” as the word of the year in 2016, related to the election of Donald Trump in America, Brexit in the UK, and other similar political events in the West, was not merely indicative of a phenomenon unique to that year but a reality still very much present today. However, the current President and administration are not the source but rather a symptom of this cultural shift, a change that will continue to progress long into the future. As those who are called to bear witness to truth, we must consider this impact beyond just the next few years.
While the caricature of a lying politician is nothing new, British journalist Matthew d’Ancona, in his book Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, highlights the ways in which this societal shift to “post-truth” is different. Whereas before dishonest politicians were criticized and looked down upon for not telling the truth, the onset of politicians and pundits who now unashamedly fabricate the truth and blatantly falsify statistics in full view of the public eye with virtually nothing and no one able to call them to account is new.
Perhaps of greater importance, though, is that this type of activity appeals to a broad base of Americans who have been swept up in the baseless claims of false narratives, some of which d’Ancona mentions, including: that vaccinations cause autism, that police brutality against people of color is a myth, that the climate crisis is a farce, to name but a few. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and statistical studies that run contrary to each of these claims (and others not listed here), many continue to espouse these views because it feels right and resonates with a personal experience that has otherwise gone unexplained (or not explained to their liking).
The Church in Post-Truth America
While the undoing of “truth” as defined by modernity may frighten many Christians and church leaders, if understood correctly and traversed with humility, integrity, and a willingness to revisit where we have placed the foundations of our faith, a new (old) way can emerge for the truth of Christ to be made known in the third millennium, even in a so-called “post-truth” society.
What, then, does this “post-truth” society mean for the church, a community whose mission and existence rests upon claims to the truth?
First and foremost, Christians must be champions of truth in every regard. When we are duped by conspiracy theories, fake news, unscientific reports, and the like, when we brush aside the testimonies of #MeToo and #ChurchToo to protect religious leaders we have long admired and hold dear, when we claim that racial injustice ended long ago and care more about respecting a flag and a song than we do the ideals for which they stand and the people they represent, we compromise our witness in the world. If we can’t face the facts or listen to the testimonies of others or believe victims, who will believe us when we bear witness to the truth? We might rephrase Martin Luther King Jr.’s axiom on injustice to instead say: A disregard for truth anywhere is a threat to truth everywhere.
However, post-truth culture is not only the rejection of modernity’s creed and its enshrinement of reason but is also the climax of the entire Enlightenment project and the inevitable end of the modern era. Whereas someone like d’Ancona might, within this post-truth trajectory, advocate for a preservation of Enlightenment ideals, the answer lies elsewhere for, at its core, the Enlightenment was always less concerned with the advancement of reason than it was with the elevation of (hu)man(ity) (or, more accurately: the white man).
Indeed, the proof is in the name. Why should this particular era of thought and progress be deemed any more “enlightened” than another to be worthy of such a name? Yes, it gave the world previously inconceivable medical miracles, never-before-seen scientific progress, and some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever seen; but, it also brought chattel slavery, two world wars, and the atomic bomb.
The arrogance and incongruity of Enlightenment reason and truth claims were on full display even as far back as America’s inception when, for example, its Founding Fathers made reason subservient to their own wishes and prejudices by holding in tandem the two conflicting convictions that “all men are created equal” while an African-American was considered only 3/5th of a person. Unsurprisingly then, this logic lingers still today, albeit in new forms, and post-truth society is merely the consummation of humanity’s unwarranted self-absorption and pride and the inevitable culmination of an era where reason is peculiarly but predictably pushed aside to make room for Man as the ultimate definer of the rational, the jewel of modernity, and the new creator of truth. Post-truth culture is not only the rejection of modernity’s creed and its enshrinement of reason but is also the climax of the entire Enlightenment project and the inevitable end of the modern era. Click To Tweet
“What Is Truth?”
Questioning the objectivity of truth is an old challenge for the Christian tradition and sits at its very roots.
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belong to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38, NRSV).
Indeed, just as Christ stood silent in response to Pilate’s final question, the truth to which we bear witness is a Person who stands before us, who exists and insists on being known. The realities of modern rational thought are a mere shadow of the Logos-Made-Flesh. It is a truth which, though never contrary to fact, can be made known in the hearts of women and men by revelation alone and cannot be contained or conveyed entirely by human thought; neither can it be deconstructed or devalued by the postmodern critique. It is not a mere set of ideals or a philosophy or a definition which can be debunked or tossed aside and it is not reason but revelation.
“My kingdom is not from here.”
This is the good news for the Good News in our post-truth world.
The Foolishness of God
The reality of a post-truth society presents a great opportunity for the church. It is good news for the Good News because it points to a world aching for solid ground upon which to stand on and firm knowledge to lean on.
Over the last several hundred years, many of the church’s attempts to convey and protect the truth of the Christian mission and message have rested upon arguments and modes of thinking rooted more in Enlightenment principles than in the revelation of God through the scriptures and stewarded by the community of faith. In a society which, try as some may, will not return to a modern or Enlightenment sense of understanding of fact and truth, a way is opened afresh for the experience and encounter of the Way, the Truth, and the Life to be discovered within the hearts and minds of women and men.
As we forge ahead, we must always be defenders of truth wherever it is made known and especially where it is challenged or obscured. This fight must continue and we must demand honesty and transparency from those in power, both within and without the church, we must listen to and believe the testimonies of victims, and we must do so with an unwavering endurance.
St. Paul writes:
But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom… (1 Corinthians 1:23-25a, NIV)
Perhaps what we are witnessing is the unraveling of a certain age of human wisdom and, if that is indeed the case, the time is ripe for the “foolishness of God” to be revealed within the hearts of women and men throughout America and beyond. In a society which, try as some may, will not return to a modern or Enlightenment sense of understanding of fact and truth, a way is opened afresh for the experience and encounter of the Way, the Truth, and the Life to be discovered. Click To Tweet