Finding a Foundation in a Post-Truth Culture
Some time ago, I was on a car ferry crossing a river between Michigan and Ontario. At the very moment that the ferry began to move, I happened to glance down at my car’s radio, so I didn’t see us disembark. Because I stayed in my car, its weight kept me from feeling us leave the dock. Looking up and seeing the river’s movement brought on the vertigo of not knowing whether I was moving. Looking at the boat wouldn’t help because it may have been moving, too. The ever-flowing river provided no fixed point of reference. Only the unmoving land could clear up my confusion.
When we find ourselves in such situations, we instinctively try to end the disorientation by looking for a sure foundation that doesn’t depend on our feelings. In fact, we recognize in those moments that our feelings are the problem. But imagine if the land itself was moving, too? Awash in the river, I wouldn’t have been able to find a bearing and my confusion would have persisted. But, unfortunately, we are obsessed with being in the moving river today. We want to define reality as we see fit, sometimes moment-by-moment. Our culture seems to have embraced confusion as a virtue and shunned certainty as a sin. And why? Because certainty based on objective facts stands in the way of today’s highest ideal: unfettered individual autonomy.
As if to prove this point, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its 2016 Word of the Year. According to Oxford, something is post-truth if it is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Although the word dates back to at least 1992, it’s usage has ballooned in 2016 by 2000%. It’s hard to think of a word more suited than post-truth to describe the Spirit of the Age.
And yet, the practice of subordinating truth to feelings is ancient. During the most important trial of all time, Pilate stood before Jesus claiming to have the authority of the worlds’ most powerful empire. Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate and claimed to be Truth incarnate. Jesus says that his authority and message aren’t based on the vicissitudes of power or feelings, but on unchanging truth. “You say that I am a king,” Jesus answers Pilate. “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus hands Pilate the opportunity of the ages to ask the perfect follow up question. The form of Pilate’s question is indeed perfect, but the motivation behind it is anything but. “What is truth?” Pilate asks, and then walks out before Jesus can answer. It makes for a dramatic exit, but a pitiful display. Pilate squanders the opportunity of a lifetime for a rhetorical punch line. So many in our post-truth culture do the same every day.
Interestingly, the contemporary post-truth mindset germinated in a lush garden long ago. God gave Adam and Eve freedom in Eden so that they could enjoy relationship with Him– the very reason they were created. They had but one restriction. They could not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once they did so, they would become aware of evil, and that would lead to their desire to not just know good and evil, but to determine good and evil. It was their desire for unfettered autonomy that Satan preyed upon to tempt Adam and Eve. He told them that they would not die when they ate of the fruit, but would become like God. That’s when the fruit suddenly became desirable. What God had said to them didn’t matter anymore. Desires and feelings were elevated over objective truth. That is the seed of the post-truth mindset that has bloomed in our day.
Though the questions seem to multiply with every passing day, they all center on the same theme: What does it mean to be human? Does being human mean having unfettered individual autonomy? No matter how subtly different our new questions are, they are basically repeating the same question. G. K. Chesterton presciently observed this phenomenon in Orthodoxy: “Free thought has exhausted its own freedom. It is weary of its own success,” he writes. “We have no more questions to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”
The gospel offers to free us from the snare of a post-truth, unfettered autonomy. True freedom comes when we are able to live our lives in the truest sense of what we are supposed to be. We were created for relationship with the transcendent God, the one in whom reality finds its grounding and humanity finds its purpose. To foster that freedom, there must be boundaries. My children simply would not have the freedom to play outside without the boundaries that protect them from the busy street adjacent to our backyard. Jesus taught that abiding in the boundaries necessitated by truth will make us free. “If you abide in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, ESV). The people’s ignorance of their slavery is fascinating. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (v. 33). Jesus would not leave them so deluded. With his characteristic mix of frankness and compassion, Jesus exposes the human heart while offering the remedy. “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (vv. 34-36). He said that the truth will set us free and then a moment later said that it is the Son that sets us free indeed. He equated his very personhood with truth. Is that not a poetic response to a post-truth culture that elevates personal preference over truth? In Jesus, Truth is personal.
Jesus’s words expose the fact of our sin. The fact of his crucifixion demonstrates his unbounded love for us. And the fact of his resurrection provides us with the joy of knowing our fulfillment can be real. There they are: joy and knowledge, feeling and fact. A post-truth culture that elevates feelings over facts gives us only half the picture. And in being half right, it’s all wrong. It offers us the river only, not the land. Jesus is the river and the land, the fount of living water and the rock of our salvation. What is truth, we may ask? The answer is that truth is personal.