On returning home from Kenya, I read in my local paper the next morning about a dispute between officials in the Trump Administration and those who officially report on the size of the crowd at Presidential inaugurations. Personally, being out of the country when the inauguration took place I really don’t have an opinion as to whether the crowd was bigger or small than that at President Obama’s inauguration. Even more personally, I don’t care.
What caught my attention was a response by officials of the Trump Administration claiming that they had “alternative facts.” It is here that I choke. Furthermore it is here that Christians of all political persuasions ought to pause and offer a coughing gulp. [At this point I ask the reader to stay with me. This is not a blog about the Trump Administration – pro or con. I write instead to raise the larger issue of how we perceive “truth.” Make no mistake, the Christian faith is based on a reveal truth claim that Jesus is Lord. Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6] But then, once again I am ahead of myself.
Two further incidents intersect this fracture point in reality. First, a number of years ago I was visiting with a young woman who was not Christian. I made a basic assertion about the existence of God. She responded that it was okay if I believe God existed but she didn’t. She went on to comment, “That’s you truth but it is not my truth. My truth is that there is no God.”
Hit the brakes here and think for a minute. We (she and I) made mutually exclusive truth claims. If one is right, the other is wrong. It logically can be no other way. And yet, she saw truth (and concomitantly “facts”) as so malleable that they virtually lost any meaning. At that point logic itself breaks down and we are left with mere opinion. The very fabric of speech descends into mumbled incoherent assertions.
The second story deals with a disagreement that took place about a year ago in the Bishop’s Conference room next to my office. I participated in an exchange of views with two other individuals who were disputing the importance of a proposed Conference apportionment. With some heat, one of the individuals retorted to the other, “you’re entitled to your own preference but you’re not entitled to your own facts!” This is the truth! We are not entitled to our own facts, alternative or otherwise. Facts belong to common shared reality and relate to truth claims on a direct basis. (Ironically, later it turned out that the maker of the statement was proven wrong about their assertion as to the facts of the situation.)
Track the truth of this second story/assertion. We may well dispute with each other about precisely what are the relevant facts. We may disagree about how the truth is to be understood or applied. Because of context and culture, we may even have radically different perceptions of the truth mutually before us. There is even such a thing as paradox (thought a paradox is quite different from mutually exclusive truth claims… but again I digress). But, philosophically and biblically the Christian faith has always asserted that Truth (with a capital T) stands independent of our preferences, commitments and ardent convictions. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as two truths that contradict each other or differing facts. (Again, we might argue about precisely what the facts are! But, the facts are the facts for all parties involved whether I like it or not!) A claim of alternate facts is linguistically nonsense. There is no such thing as alternate facts. Someone may claim that the other party has the facts wrong. But the facts are the facts for all involved. Put concretely, gravity holds on planet earth whether I like it or not. Those are the facts.
The reason this matters is far greater than a dispute over who is right about the size of the inauguration crowd. It gets to the heart of the very gospel itself and truth of Christ. As C. S. Lewis famously put it: When Jesus make the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) He (Jesus) is either a liar or a lunatic or speaking the truth.
A variety of theological scholars across the spectrum (including non-Christian scholars) have noted and disputed the current false notion that Truth is “fungible” and related to my personal preferences. Many have noted before me that we live in a “post-truth” world where subjective desire and preferences seem (appear) to trump (pun intended) objective facts and Truth (with a capital T).
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we assert that everything is not subjective. There is a reality that stands over against and above our preferences. In major part this is what is foundationally at stake in our confession of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A recent blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, states this truth exceptionally well. I share his closing for our edification:
“As the western world slips with ever increasing rapidity into a post-Christian cultural milieu, I am afraid that we will need to be ever mindful that, we are in a post-truth cultural context, which stands in stark contrast to a Christian world-view which affirms truth claims rooted in God’s self-disclosure. Because God is the creator of the universe, the whole of creation is founded on the bedrock of truth. Therefore, we must become the new vanguard of cultural truth-tellers who adamantly resist all forms of demagoguery which shroud truth for any desired outcome, even if it is a so-called “Christian end.” It would be easy if our struggle were simply over who sits on the Supreme Court, without a deeper regard for a broader discourse about the nature of truth itself.
Lesslie Newbigin was prophetic when he alerted us to the sign of the post-Christian malaise when “public facts” are trounced by personal preferences. We are then lost in a sea of ever divisive assertions of preferences—or projected fake news—rather than a serious encounter with public facts. In post-modernity, the pluralization of ideologies grows exponentially, creating a society hopelessly divided by seemingly endless personal preferences which are increasingly difficult to accommodate, but coupled by an ever increasing demand that we do so. It is naïve to think that now that the election is over, things will “return to normal.” On the contrary, it appears we are in a new norm—a post-truth generation. It is not merely a new word, it is an emerging cultural reality which cuts across every sector of society and all our institutions.
The church must find our rightful voice which rises above the din of partisan politics, post-truth discourse and fake news. We are those who are rooted and grounded in not only the truth of God’s revelation, but also we are those who still embrace the very notion of truth itself. That, in the end, may be our most valuable contribution to an ever fragmenting culture. This is also why we could very well be entering a very hopeful phase of Christian witness as we proclaim the gospel through word and deed. Post-truth may be the newest hot word in the English language, but truth will never lose its currency. We may be descending into a world of fake news, but there is plenty of cultural space to share the true news of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.” (Tennent, http://timothytennent.com/2016/12/12/fake-news-in-a-post-truth-world/)