What Living in a Post-Truth Culture Means
It took a newspaper syndicated cartoon (“Non Sequitur”) to inform me that the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language now recognizes “post-truth” as a real English word. So I looked it up and, according to that unimpeachable source, it means: “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.'” I take it this is related to the neologism “truthiness” coined by comedian Stephen Colbert in 2005. (Yes, I know, there is some reason to believe “truthy” was already in some dictionaries long before that, but most people attribute “truthiness” in that particular usage—similar to “post-truth”—to Colbert.)
Long before discovering that “post-truth” is an actual English word I had begun to suspect that the condition it names is becoming extremely prevalent in American culture. (I won’t attempt to speak for or of any other culture here.) In my opinion, many Americans simply do not care about “objective facts” as much as they care about feelings when it comes to forming their beliefs.
This cultural condition of post-truth, truthiness, lack of interest in facts, causes me—and should cause you—no end of consternation. I think it is evident in politics; many people are more interested in what their favorite radio or podcast or television political talk show host says than in actual truth, facts, what is really the case. One example is the vast public rejection of science noted especially in people’s disdain for what most scientists say about the environment and the causes of global climate change.
But I am a theologian and an ethicist and am especially concerned about American Christians’ seeming lack of interest in truth in my fields of study, research, writing and teaching.
This is why, when I recently (summer, 2016) posted a series of essays here about “Why I Am an Arminian Evangelical Christian” (ten distinct posts forming a “mini-book”) I began it with “Authority Is Truth.” Some readers objected, claiming that I should have begun with some other claim about authority. I reject that; ultimate authority is truth—what is actually the case—whether we are capable of knowing it perfectly or not. (I am a critical realist who believes no human being is infallible.) What I meant and I mean is, to use a cliché, “truth is out there”—to be searched for and discovered to the best of our ability even if our claims about truth must remain open to correction.
The example of what I now know as post-truth was self-help guru Ashleigh Brilliant’s book title I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy. Brilliant may have meant it somewhat in fun; he may even have meant it a bit tongue-in-cheek. But I think the book title well describes the attitude of many Americans, including religious ones and including among them Christians.
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For many years I taught a course about America’s “new” or “alternative” religions and was especially fascinated by what I call “invented religions.” Those are religious movements and organizations not based on a reform of some older tradition but apparently simply invented by a founder considered a prophet or guru or whatever. Sometimes the basis of such a religion seems to be science fiction or a desire to gain wealth by deceiving followers into thinking some new spiritual technique is the key to happiness, wealth, power or “burning off karmic debt.”
Illustrating anecdote: One time during the 1990s I took my class on a field trip. We borrowed the college’s bus and all went together (about thirty of us) to the world headquarters of an alternative religion that claims to be the most ancient religion in the world. My own research into it led me to believe it was actually invented by a 1960s self-proclaimed “master.” The headquarters of the religion included a “world worship center.” We were given a tour with “explanations” of the religion’s nature (much of which was not mentioned) and then ushered into a “chapel” that contained portraits of ancient masters of wisdom with unpronounceable names. None of them were photographs and none of them looked like real human beings—except the final few who were, by my research, real men. As the tour guides began to explain about these “people” pictured in the “portraits” my students began to giggle uncontrollably. I couldn’t blame them. The whole thing was so blatantly made up that anyone had to wonder how the religion’s followers could believe the claims we were hearing to be true. Maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s their “Good Fantasy.”
But please don’t think I’m just pointing an accusing finger at so-called “cults and new religions;” I also point an accusing finger at many Christians who, so it seems to me, simply don’t care about truth as much as they care about feelings. If a doctrine, for example, doesn’t feel right, then it is at best unimportant. If an ethical stance seems hurtful (e.g., “not nice” or “intolerant”), it must be wrong.
In my opinion, outside of Reformed and fundamentalist circles, and even in some of those, truth is taking a backseat to post-truth in preaching, teaching, discussion, deliberation. Increasingly, doctrine and ethics are treated as opinion at best—even in relatively conservative, traditionally orthodox Christian contexts. Except when being nice is in view; then opinion is irrelevant even if it is well-grounded and reasonably articulated.
So, what living in a post-truth culture means for Christians, and that is my main concern here, is renewing our commitment to truth regardless of feelings. In the search for truth, feelings such as: desire to feel nice, desire to feel comfortable, desire to be affirmed, desire to be included, desire to feel warm and cozy, desire to be wealthy and powerful, etc., all must take a back seat to reasonable decision-making based on something recognized as authoritative that is believed to be true (meaning consistent with what is actually real and the case).
For all his faults and flaws, and I know many of them, Francis Schaeffer was something of a prophet in this regard. He saw what was happening in American religious life—the devolving of Christianity into a folk religion. That’s why he made the helpful distinction between “truth” and “Truth”—between truth with a small “t” and truth with a capital “T.”
Some years ago I gave a public talk to an educated audience of people all of whom consider themselves Christians. It was titled “Whatever happened to truth?” The title was something of a play on words because I had witnessed the removal of a large marble sign alongside a major interstate that contained the one word “TRUTH.” I knew, after some research, that the sign and the word on it named the company whose headquarters was next to the interstate. It was actually the name of the founder of the hardware company. But, I was told, when I called the headquarters, the large marble sign had caused so much confusion with people thinking it was a church that they removed it from alongside the interstate. I used that incident as the “hook” for my talk about the lack of interest in what Schaeffer called “Truth” even among many Christians. Somewhere in my talk I mentioned Shirley McLaine and the New Age Movement which was then all the rage. I talked about Christians, in particular, who simply choose to believe in reincarnation without regard to whether that is consistent with Christian sources and norms.
After my talk a Christian educator and intellectual came up to me and said this: “You, know, Roger, reincarnation can be true for Shirley McLaine even if not for you.” I was so shocked that I was speechless. The man simply walked away without giving me any real opportunity to think about what he said and respond. I consider what he said simply absurd unless what he meant was “truth” in Francis Schaeffer’s sense of truth with a small “t” instead of “Truth.” I can only suspect he was caught up in the sweep of what is now known as post-truth culture.
The problem with a post-truth culture is, of course, that there is no way to adjudicate between conflicting claims. When “Truth” disappears or is simply brushed away and ignored, anything is possible.
For you philosophers out there, please know and recognize, and take into account in any response you may wish to craft and submit, that I am not talking about epistemology here. I am talking about ontology. How we know truth, and whether we can know truth as it really is, etc., are all issues of epistemology. But I don’t see any point in such questions unless Truth is believed to be “out there” (viz., outside our own inner spaces of feelings and fantasies).
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