Do We Live in a World of Post-Truth?


According to the OED (the Oxford English Dictionary), the new word of the year for 2016 was— post-truth. We have talked about post-modernity, and post-Christianity, but now, it appears we have to talk about post-truth. I am quite sure that there is a connection between talking about post-Christian culture and post-truth, at least when it comes to the issues of epistemology (how we know what we know), theology, and even what counts as reality. So, a few comments are in order about post-truth. Firstly, if this means the denial that there are facts, then we have arrived at straight-up nihilism. It’s one thing to dispute someone’s interpretation of facts, it’s another to deny that there even are facts, and it’s all a matter of interpretation. To some extent, this whole approach to reality we owe to people like Derrida and even Stanley Fish who wanted to insist that texts do not have meanings, meaning is either in the eye of the beholder or meaning happens in the interaction between the reader and the text. I would say that while it is necessary to acknowledge that we are active readers, by which I mean we bring things to the reading of texts, nevertheless, texts do have meanings, and that is why there can be bad readings or misreadings of texts as well as good and appropriate ones.

To some extent, the most clear outcome from the recent election is that playing fast and loose with facts and with truth became a regular practice, and frankly that is dangerous to not only democracy, it is dangerous to Christianity and to any real concept of reality. Profound cynicism about everything is not a constructive world-view. It builds no bridges, erects no civilizations, and certainly does not promote the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which does indeed believe there are facts and truths to be embraced and lived by. I am not for a minute denying that critical sifting of truth claims is a necessary part of good judgment. It is. The opposite of cynicism is not naive believing of whatever is claimed. No the opposite is ‘trust, but verify’. And sadly, Western culture is on the brink of some kind of self-destruction because it is no longer prepared to trust and verify, indeed, it is not prepared to trust at all. Pouring corrosive acid down my shower drain to unclog a pipe and make it go back to functioning properly is one thing. That has a constructive purpose. Pouring acid on everything simply because you can, and even reveling in the destruction, is a recipe for disaster, and for believing ridiculous conspiracy theories, and amazingly, even believing faux-news. So a few rules for going forward in a supposed post-truth climate are in order.

1) while everyone in a democracy may be entitled to their opinions, they are not entitled to their facts. Facts are not silly putty. They are stubborn things and they should always provide a reality check to theories, especially the more outlandish ones.

2) Your opinions, about whatever subject should be grounded in some reality OTHER THAN ‘that’s how I feel about things’. Feelings are a notably unreliable guide to truth or being able to distinguish facts from fiction. Unfortunately, social media of various forms has often degenerated into a vehicle for mere venting of feelings, not meaningful discussion and dialogue. This is both childish behavior, and it is especially childish when you are not even willing to take ownership of those opinions by USING YOUR REAL NAME WHEN YOU POST ON A BLOG, OR A TWEET, OR AN INSTAGRAM ETC. Hiding behind an alias is an act of cowardice. Either stick up for your own opinions or be quiet.

3) It is the basis not only of Biblical religion but of all modern science that: 1) there is an objective reality outside of one’s own mind and opinions, and 2) that human sense perception of that objective reality is reliable enough (not perfectly reliable, but reliable enough) so that that reality can be known, discussed, studied, and actions can be taken on the basis of that objective reality.

4) The way truth is normally arrived at in any given inquiry, is through careful critical study of evidence, in concert with many other truth-seekers. It is not usually arrived at by lone rangers, operating in ivory towers ignoring the views and evidence of others. In other words it is a collaborative effort, and it requires a community of learners. Our culture’s penchant for radical individualism, perhaps especially when it comes to things like religion and politics is a hindrance not a help to getting at the truth.

5) Arrogance and ignorance is a bad combination not only in political leaders, but in truth-seekers in general. Unfortunately, we see too many people like this in both of these spheres. Our views on things should be amenable to change on the basis of evidence and critical inquiry about the evidence, and what the real experts say about the weight of evidence. Recently, we have heard new theories of what sank the Titanic. You will notice there is no debate as to whether there was a Titanic or whether it sank. That is because the facts are out there and should not be disputed. But how to explain those facts is another matter.

6) A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. All good study of any subject must be detailed contextual study of it. Words do not have meaning in isolation. It is not true that ‘in the beginning was the dictionary’. A dictionary is simply an ex post facto study of how words are being used. Take for example the recent insurance commercial which perfectly illustrates my point—

The same words are said by two different sets of actors about the same object, but the meaning is entirely different when they say ‘I have to have it!’ One person means ‘I had to buy it’ the other means ‘I have to steal it’. Context matters. And this is precisely why tweeting and the like is mostly useless soundbyting. A few words without context are an invitation to all sorts of misinterpretations. If email is a cold medium and you often can’t tell tone from it, tweeting is even worse. And then of course the tweeter moans— ‘I’ve been badly misunderstood’. Solution? Stop tweeting and have real conversations in context.

7) There are objective realities and truths out there which we cannot manipulate, finesse, or avoid. For example, disease. It is something that happens to you that you, most often, did not freely choose. And yet— there it is. Frankly, I would say that among the many objective realities that impinge on our lives on a daily basis, some of them are inconvenient truths, and one of those is the reality of God. We would prefer to be master of our own fate, and captain of our own ship, but alas, it is not so. No one can control all their life circumstances, but there is someone who can ‘work all things together for good for those who love Him’.

We do not actually live in a post-truth world, it is just that some cynical people think we do. Truth is still out there, and we bump into it regularly whether we realize it or now. The basis of all civilization is trust, and this is also the basis of the Judeo-Christian religion. Abraham trusted God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. If America really wants to be great again, it would do well to put their faith not in politicians but in God….. like the money says.

Think about these things.