The River and the Land: 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.
Whenever we find ourselves in such situations, we instinctively try to end the disorientation by hurriedly 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. My confusion would have persisted and the uneasiness wouldn’t have left me. But we are obsessed with being in the 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 a today’s highest ideal: unfettered individual autonomy.
As if to prove the point, Oxford Dictionaries has 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.” To qualify, the Word of the Year need not be new. As Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine reported, it must capture the culture’s mood and preoccupations. Post-truth does exactly that. Although it dates back to at least 1992, its usage has ballooned in 2016 by 2000%. That may seem shockingly high, but pause to reflect on the past 11 months. Has it not been the case that facts are dismissed as just getting in the way of a good, agenda-driven story? Isn’t it true that sensitivities to offense, outrage, and personal preferences have shaped culture and now determine the very words we are allowed to say in a supposedly free society? 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 world’s 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.
The 2004 motion picture The Passion of the Christ offers a fictional yet scripturally consistent depiction of a subsequent conversation between Pilate and his wife. Pilate had sent Jesus to Herod to be judged so that Pilate wouldn’t have to. Sitting in the court, Pilate sullenly asks his wife the same question he asked Jesus. “What is truth, Claudia? Do you hear it, recognize it when it is spoken?” he asks.
“Yes, I do. Don’t you?”
“How? Can you tell me?”
She answers with a long-time spouse’s candor. “If you will not hear the truth,” she responds, “no one can tell you.” As with Jesus, Pilate does not hear her words because the emotional and political ramifications of valuing the truth are too great.
“Truth?” he snaps back. “Do you want to know what my truth is, Claudia? I’ve been putting down rebellions in this rotten outpost for eleven years. If I don’t condemn this man I know Caiaphas will start a rebellion. If I do condemn him, then his followers may. Either way, there will be bloodshed. Caesar has warned me, Claudia—warned me twice. He swore that the next time the blood would be mine. That is my truth!” Though Pilate uttered the word “truth” four times, he subordinated truth to his personal ramifications and desires. You see, Pilate wasn’t a true skeptic. He was a cynic.
A skeptic doesn’t believe a truth claim until there is enough evidence for it. A cynic won’t believe even when there is.
Pilate is a post-truth man, living with a post-truth mindset. What a blissful irony, that Pilate’s cynical dismissal of Truth’s voice should result in the very crucifixion that sets the world free. But more on that shortly.
Subordinating truth to personal desires is seductively easy, given the human condition. We are intellectual beings who strive to make sense of our world. At the same time, we are emotional beings, searching for personal meaning and fulfillment.
The problem comes when we elevate feelings over facts, believing that personal preferences are what determine meaning and fulfillment. Objective truth is jettisoned. The transcendent is jettisoned. We no longer just elevate personal preferences over truth.
We elevate our own personal preferences over the preferences of others. When that happens, freedom will die the most ironic of deaths under individual autonomy’s machete.
It is this mood that drives our increasingly ferocious attack against the Bible as a standard for truth and conduct. Many oppose the Scripture as an outmoded method of control that arbitrarily suppresses human behavior. This stems from the failure to see the differences between unfettered individual autonomy and true freedom. They are not the same. The Bible opposes the former and champions the latter.
Unfettered individual autonomy can only lead to chaos. Think of the questions we now pose. What does it mean to be male or female? Are those the only two possibilities? Can we perhaps merge our bodies with computers, improving ourselves and thereby becoming our own gods. I’m reminded of Alexander Pope’s words in Essays on Man:
Go, wiser thou! And in thy scale of sense, Weigh thy opinion against Providence; Call imperfection what thou fanciest such, Say, here He gives too little, there too much; Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust. Yet, cry, If man’s unhappy, God’s unjust; If man alone engross not Heaven’s high care, Alone made perfect here, immortal there: Snatch from His hand the balance and the rod, Re-judge His justice, be the god of God. In pride, in reas’ning pride, our error lies; All quit their sphere, and rush in to the skies. Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes, Men would be angels, angels would be gods. Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell, Aspiring to be angels, men rebel: And who but wishes to invert the laws Of Order, sins against the Eternal Cause.
My oldest child is twelve-years old and my youngest is eight. The world my twelve-year old will inherit at eighteen will be quite different from the world I entered into when I was that age. But the world my eight-year old will inherit at eighteen will be far different than the world my twelve-year old will have entered just four years earlier. That’s the geometric speed at which the post-truth culture rebels against the Eternal Cause.
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). His audience’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.
Truth has to be personal if it is to touch our minds and hearts.
There are facts that are important for existence, like the fact that water boils at sea level at 100 degrees centigrade. But is that tidbit relevant to us in the sense that it answers the questions that stalk our minds late at night? Did any of us wake up this morning grateful that water boils at 100 degrees and not 101? To be sure, facts and reason are not determined by personal preferences or personal needs. But they become relevant when they are connected to fulfillment of our legitimate needs. In his book Existential Reasons for Belief in God, Clifford Williams so astutely puts it: “Need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile.” Our search for intelligibility drives us to intellectual understanding. Our desire for fulfillment drives us to emotional connection.
In Jesus, we have both the truth that leads to understanding and the person who provides connection. He is the truth our minds seek and the person our hearts embrace. He validates facts and emotions without sacrificing either.
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.