Truth and faithfulness in a post-truth age
As a philosopher, I have thought a lot about truth. As a citizen, I am disheartened that truth seems far too often to be a casualty of partisan, and frequently ignoble, interests. As a Christian, I trust that, ultimately, my life is secured in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life. But what, exactly, does that mean?
We are told by cultural commentators that we live in a post-truth age. This means neither, as some suggest, that no one cares about truth any more, nor that no one believes they have the truth. Clearly, many of us do. Rather, it means that, as a society, we no longer agree on how to arrive at truth, that there is no longer a broad consensus on which authorities (political, scientific, religious) are to be trusted to tell us the truth. Today we are bombarded with conflicting truth claims pouring in from every possible angle and perspective, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, without the resources to adjudicate between them.
The temptation is to either retreat into the arms of some or other dogmatic community within which we can be assured that “we” (defined over against “they”) have the truth after all, or to despair of truth altogether. And who can blame anyone for taking either of these routes? Life is hard enough without having comprehensively to settle every issue before we can leave the breakfast table. We need to get on with things. But neither of these options strike me as particularly satisfying.
One of my strategies as a philosopher is to look for those places where we as a society have come to an impasse, where we have become so divided by our disagreements that we are unable to move forward, so depleted by our investment of energies into litigating our tensions that we are too exhausted to fulfil our larger mission. Faced with such situations, I try to ask myself: “What question are we asking, and how are we framing that question, such that we are getting ourselves stuck?” Because maybe, just maybe, we are asking the wrong question, or asking it in the wrong way. Why do we conceptualize things the way that we do? Where did such conceptions come from? Are they necessary, or might other possibilities exist? How might we ask a different question, re-conceptualize the situation? And how might we access the resources that would allow us to do precisely this?
Such an impasse with respect to truth, it strikes me, is precisely what we are attempting to name with the term “post-truth,” an era in which we are drawn into seemingly irresolvable conflicts over what should be considered true, and who or what has the right to determine what counts as truth. Science? Revelation? Public opinion? Tradition? Common sense? Political correctness? Personal preference? In lieu of a sufficiently broad consensus not only on what is true, but even on how we would determine what the truth would be, we are left with a variety of disparate and competing truths—left wing truth vs. right wing truth; Muslim truth vs. Jewish truth; women’s truth vs. men’s truth; the truth of the majority vs. the truth of minorities; “our” truth vs. “their” truth—and, because each of these competing truths bases itself upon a different point of appeal, no common point of appeal exists by means of which we might adjudicate between them. And our assertion of Christian truth—however convinced we are of it—seems simply to add another competitor to this myriad of competing truths, exacerbating rather than solving the problem. With respect to truth, we appear at an impasse indeed!
So, are we asking the wrong question? Are we framing the question in the wrong way? What resources might we draw upon to think of “truth” in a different, and perhaps more promising way?
In pondering these issues, it occurs to me that most of the time what we are arguing about when truth is in question are the facts of the matter. That is, we want to know “what is true,” meaning what the facts are, what is the case, and we understand exactly this to be what is at issue when we argue about truth. So when we argue for Christianity, or testify to the truth of Christianity, we find ourselves asserting and supporting a certain set of facts that we understand to be the basic truths of Christianity, truths the belief in which we understand to constitute the foundations of our faith. And so we get into all kinds of arguments about what is in fact the case with those who adhere to truths that are at odds with these Christian truths. I may appeal to the Scriptures as the source of my truths, while others appeal to science, or another holy book, or their own intuition, or what have you, as the source of theirs. So, at least insofar as we seek a common truth, one that could govern our lives in the world that we share, we are at an impasse.
Ironically, however, despite the fact that we find ourselves asserting and defending Scriptural truths, when the Scriptures themselves speak of truth it is not facts with which they are principally concerned. It is not that there are no facts communicated in the Bible; there are! But when the Bible itself speaks of truth its principal concern is not with facts but with faithfulness, that is, truth in the sense of “being true to someone,” meaning, “being faithful to someone.” So when we are told that Christ is “the truth” we are not to imagine that he is qualified by a bunch of facts, but that we can trust (a word related to “true”) in his faithfulness to us, that he will be true to his promises to us. And when we are called to participate in the truth of Christ we are not charged with learning a bunch of facts, but with being faithful to that to which we are called: to the love of God and neighbour. Before it refers to facts (which are one, subordinate kind of faithfulness: the faithfulness of some statement about things to the things about which the statement is made), truth means faithfulness. So if I am concerned with truth, with the sense of truth of highest concern in the Scriptures, then my first task when confronted with my neighbour who does not share my truth might not be to assert and convince, but to be faithful to her. What new and redemptive thing might that make possible?
Such a re-visioning of the question of truth does not solve all of our problems. But it might create a space in which something different, something hopeful and promising, might be revealed, and we could find ourselves re-configuring our current impasse not as a cul-de-sac, but as a way forth—a way that would be the truth, and a truth that would lead to life.