A Post-Truth World
I always find Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year provocative and, often, highly enlightening.
Take the Word of the Year for 2015.
It wasn’t even a word.
It was, as I highlighted in last week’s blog, an emoji. Specifically, this emoji:
You can read that earlier blog for a glimpse of the significance I put into that selection.
Oxford’s 2016 Word of the Year has just been announced, and it is equally reflective of our day:
It is defined as an adjective relating to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.”
Yes, it was born out of the recent political season that led to the U.K.’s “Brexit” vote and the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump. But it’s actually been long in the making.
A few years back we called it “truthiness,” as inserted into our lexicon through the Comedy Central television network, and specifically through the premiere of The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert:
And that brings us to tonight’s word: truthiness. Now I’m sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, not heart.
The idea behind “truthiness” is that actual facts don’t matter. What matters is how you feel, for you - as an individual - are the final arbiter of truth. “Truthiness” is the bald assertion that we are not only to discern truth for ourselves from the facts at hand, but create truth for ourselves despite the facts at hand.
If evangelical Christians have been about anything throughout history, it has been truth. Through the heresy-addressing gatherings of the great councils during the patristic era, the ad fontes (“back to the sources”) cry of the Reformation, the bold proclamation of the gospel during the great awakenings, or the gauntlet of revelation thrown down before modernism, truth has been our bulwark.
There have been three major conceptualizations of truth throughout the history of Western thought. The first, and most dominant, has been the correspondence theory of truth. The idea is simple: If I say, “It is raining,” then either it is raining, or it is not. You simply walk outside your door and discover whether my statement corresponds with reality. This is by far the most common understanding of the nature of truth and has left the strongest mark on evangelical theology. Of course its weakness is that not everything can be verified by walking out your door. I might say, “There is a God.” If you walk out your door, will my statement be proven?
However, the greater dynamic of the correspondence theory is regardless of whether you can validate something, what is true is that which does indeed correspond with reality – regardless of one’s current ability to actually make that correspondence. So while a triune God may not be discernible through the empirical method of science, the “correspondence idea” is that the triune God is true because there is, indeed, a triune God who exists in reality.
A second theory regarding the nature of truth is often called the coherence theory, which is the idea that truth is marked by coherence – meaning a set of ideas that do not contradict each other. The coherence theory of truth is much like a Sudoku puzzle: The numbers must align, there can’t be a violation of the internal rules, and the completed puzzle must fill in all of its own squares. Imagine a system of thought consisting of a tightly bound set of ideas that, when introduced, complement one another and hold no internal contradictions. Perhaps you might think of the ideas as a set of colors that do not clash when put side by side.
The coherence theory of truth not only holds that truth is that which is coherent, but that truth is ultimately marked by a system of thought which “hangs together” in a way that is superior to the way other systems of thought hang together. So democracy might be considered by one political theorist as “truer” than Marxism in terms of its internal consistency.
The dilemma is that such a view divorces itself from what may, in fact, be true. Think of the testimony of a witness during a trial: The story may make sense and hold up under cross-examination, but that doesn’t make it true. The argument simply presents itself as a plausible narrative without internal contradiction. Granted, this is far better than if it did contradict itself, but it is still not sufficient.
Further, the Bible goes out of its way to suggest that a coherence view of truth can, and will, prove grossly inadequate when it comes to the things of God. For example, it records God saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8), and contends that the gospel itself can seem “foolish” to the human mind (I Corinthians 1:18-25). Thus a human perspective will always find aspects of God’s truth incoherent although it remains profoundly true.
A third major contender for the idea of truth is the pragmatic theory of truth. When someone is being “pragmatic” they are pursuing a course of action because it achieves an end result. So a pragmatic theory of truth maintains that what is true is that which “works.” This is an appealing view, particularly when we consider Jesus’ words that we are to judge things by their “fruit.” However, determining what is truly fruit of the Holy Spirit, and what is done in the flesh – or even what is, in the end, evil – is tricky business.
One needs only to think of the “final solution” of Nazi Germany. Hitler believed that the principal woes of Germany were found in the existence of the Jewish people. They constituted an “erosion of capital” and a “waste of space.” From this, the removal of “lebensunwertes Leben” (“life unworthy of life”) was elevated to the highest duty of medicine. “Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life,” maintained one Nazi doctor. “Out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.” As a result, the “final solution” was their extermination. There can be little doubt of the workmanlike efficiency evidenced by the smoke that billowed from the furnaces of Auschwitz, yet there have been few enterprises more uniformly condemned as untrue – as well as rank evil.
So among the three candidates competing for our best understanding of truth, it would seem that the correspondence theory deserves its place of prominence in Christian and, more broadly, Western thought.
But this is precisely what we seem to be losing, and at risk is our sense of revelation itself.
This is, to be sure, the heart of the matter. It’s the idea that truth exists, and that it stands above human experience. It judges human experience. Truth is, by its very nature, transcendent. It exists independent of our acknowledgment of it, much less our obedience to it. To deny this is to live in not simply a “truthy” world, but a “post-truth” world.
But it’s not simply that “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” It’s that we deny the existence of objective truth itself, and make emotion our authority.
Yet even a skeptic as hardened as Sigmund Freud had to maintain that if “it were really a matter of indifference what we believed, then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take tear-gas as a narcotic instead of ether.”
Oxford Dictionaries’ Casper Grathwohl said “post-truth” could become “one of the defining words of our time.”
…but because it’s a word that defines our time.
James Emery White
“‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” BBC News, November 16, 2016, read online.
Stephen Colbert, “The Word – Truthiness”, The Colbert Report on Comedy Central Network, October 17, 2005, watch online.
“Colbert’s ‘truthiness’ strikes a chord,” USA Today, Monday, August 28, 2006, p. 1D.
Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: A New History (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), p. 37.
The comment by Freud was cited in the article “Truth” in The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer J. Adler, Editor in Chief.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.