Living in a post-truth age
I’ve been reflecting on the announcement from Oxford Dictionaries that, courtesy of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump amongst other things, the Word of the Year 2016 is ‘post-truth’. This is defined as referring to ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In other words, it’s the situation where people ignore facts in favour of feelings.
For me as a Christian this trend is concerning as we Christians value truth. Christ himself embodies truth (John 14:6, 18:37), we are those who should live out truth (Ephesians 4:25, Colossians 3:9) and it is the devil who is ‘the father of lies’ (John 8:44). Indeed, historians point out that it was largely because Christianity placed such a high value on truth that science, which often provokes the awkward overturning of popular belief by some newly discovered truth, flourished in the West.
Actually everybody, whether Christian or not, values truth. I would prefer to hear an uncomfortable truth over a soothing lie. I don’t want an alarm clock that remains silent because it knows I prefer not to hear it! I don’t want a satnav that ignores where I actually am in order to tell me where I would like to be. I don’t want a bank that won’t tell me when I am overdrawn because it might alarm me. I want the truth even if it’s not what I want to hear. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of a ‘post-truth’ society is in the area of justice. It’s revealing how, in the trial of Jesus, once Pilate dismisses the idea of truth (John 18:37) he is immediately forced to yield to the will of the crowd (John 18:40 – 19:16). That pattern has been repeated ever since. The first casualty of the loss of truth is justice. When truth is weakened, it’s the bullies who shout loudest who win. In a ‘post-truth’ world it’s all too likely that the innocent will be found guilty simply because that’s the verdict the mob outside the courthouse is howling for.
Christians should note here that they may well be the first casualties. The earliest account of Christianity outside the New Testament tells how in ad 64, when rumours began to circulate that the Emperor Nero had started the great fire of Rome, he shifted the blame onto the Christians and had them viciously punished. We need to be very wary of truth being downplayed for our sake and that of everybody else.
There is, however, a positive side to this recognition of a ‘post-truth’ mood in society. For one thing, it reminds us that truth and logic have their limits. In every area of life, decisions are made on more than just facts. Human beings are not robots or calculating machines and never have been. Marketing, whether candidates, cars or carpets, has long relied on creating emotional commitment through words, music and appealing images. There’s a quote by the great seventeenth-century Christian philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal that is worth pondering: ‘The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.’
In fact the emphasis on the emotions of ‘post-truth’ applies in the area of becoming a Christian. Yes, evangelism is about truth and about presenting that truth as clearly and coherently as possible. Yet logic is surely only one element in the reception of the gospel. While there are those who have been persuaded by nothing more than intellectual arguments into becoming Christians, I suspect there are far more who have been led to Christ as much by their hearts as their heads. A loving, grace-filled Christian witness is probably the best form of outreach on earth. So many Christians, when they talk of their conversion, say of those who pointed them to Christ, ‘I saw what these people were like and I wanted what they had got.’
The idea of ‘post-truth’ reminds us that how we tell the truth affects how it is received. It’s interesting that although in John’s gospel Jesus is indeed portrayed as being ‘the truth’, we also read that ‘the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17). In a ‘post-truth’ world let’s hold firm to truth but let’s also be rich in grace.
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