The Trajectory of Truth | 25.2
Posted by Vince Vitale on February 23, 2017
We live in a post-truth society—that’s what The Economist claimed at the close of 2016 when Oxford English Dictionary chose “post-truth” as its Word of the Year. Go back a bit further, and having eleven percent of America believe that you are “honest and trustworthy” was good enough to have a nine percent lead in the race to be the next President of the United States. But of course, even the polls were post-true.
We are very confused about the truth: There’s the truth, and then there’s the naked truth. There’s the truth, and then there’s the gospel truth (though the gospel is taken to be obviously false). There’s the honest truth, and then there’s the God’s honest truth (but that has nothing to do with God).
We stretch the truth and bend the truth and twist the truth. We bury the truth because the truth hurts. When we want something to be false, we knock on wood. When we want something to be true, we cross our fingers. Which wooden cross are we trusting in?
Why do we have such a confused relationship with the truth? Fear. We’re afraid of truth. Truth has so often been abused that experience has taught us the trajectory of truth—the trajectory of believing you are right and others are wrong—is from truth to disagreement to devaluing to intolerance to extremism to violence to terrorism.
And if that is the trajectory, then those committed to truth are in fact terrorists in the making. If that is the trajectory, then truth is an act of war, and an act of war leaves you with only two options: fight or flee.
Most of Western society is fleeing. Everything around us is structured to avoid disagreement about the truth: We spend most of our time on Facebook and Twitter where we can “like” and “retweet” but there is no option to “dislike.” Sports no longer teach us how to disagree. In professional sports, we replay every call to avoid disagreement. In youth sports, we don’t keep score and everyone gets a trophy.
When it comes to dating, we use online sites that “match” us with someone so similar in beliefs, background, and personality that as much disagreement as possible is avoided. We no longer meet people different from us at coffee shops because we go to drive-thru Starbucks. We no longer meet people while shopping because everything we could ever need or want is delivered to our door. Culturally, everything around us is set up to avoid disagreement.
The alternative to fleeing is fighting. I was walking around Oxford University a few months ago, and two guys walking just ahead of me were having a spirited conversation about how crazy they found certain Christian positions on ethical issues. One of them wondered out loud whether the only solution would be to shame Christians out of their positions.
His friend quickly responded, “Yeah, that’s what we should do! We should ridicule them mercilessly in the most insensitive ways we can think of.” That’s an exact quote. Then they both made a right turn and swiped their faculty cards to enter the University of Oxford Theoretical Physics building.
These were probably scholars at Oxford, a place that prides itself on intellectual freedom and the exchange of ideas, and “merciless, insensitive ridicule” was the best they could come up with for resolving disagreement. I found myself wondering how many beliefs they hold in theoretical physics will one day be considered ridiculous.
How does one get to this point? How does someone get to the point where merciless ridicule seems like the best way forward?
I think it’s because we have come to see truth as more important than love. If truth is greater than love, then you fight—then the end goal of truth justifies whatever means necessary, whether the means of haughty academics or the means of ISIS. If truth is greater than love, then love is a temptation—a distraction threatening to avert our attention from what is truly important. If truth is greater than love, then those who disagree with us are enemies, and warmth toward our enemies must be extinguished in favor of the cold, hard facts.
The alternative is that love is greater than truth. Then you flee. You flee from the dangers of truth and adopt a pluralism that assures us “All truths are equally valid.” Does that include the claim that all truth claims are not equally valid? One college student recently told my colleague Abdu Murray that he doesn’t believe it is his place to disagree with anyone.
Abdu said, “Sure you do.”
The student said, “No I don’t.”
Abdu said, “You just did.”
Philosophically, that’s how quickly pluralism runs into incoherence. But if truth starts you down a path that ends in extremism, violence, and terrorism, then philosophical incoherence might seem like a price worth paying.
Either truth is greater than love or love is greater than truth. Fight or flee. This is the cultural ultimatum we are living in. What’s your choice?
Maybe there’s another way. Jesus disagreed with us. His very coming was an act of disagreement with us—a statement that we require saving because our lives have disagreed so badly with what God intended for us.
But Jesus’s loving sacrifice for us was the very content of his disagreement; it was his very statement that we are sinners in need of a savior. God cut the link between disagreement and devaluing by making his communication of truth one and the same as his communication of love.
Not “Truth is greater than love.” Not “Love is greater than truth.” “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and God is truth (John 14:6). And therefore, love is truth.
Only in Jesus does truth equal love, and therefore only Jesus can get us out of the cultural ultimatum we are stuck in: fight or flee. Every other worldview makes a choice between love and truth. Jesus refused to, because in him, and only in him, love and truth are one and the same.
So the next time we have a choice between love and truth, let’s refuse to choose. Instead, let’s remember when the Truth—Jesus himself—was stretched. Let’s remember when the Truth was twisted and bent, when the Truth was naked. Let’s remember when the Truth hurt, and when the Truth was buried—and ultimately triumphed.
Let us remember which wooden cross we are trusting in. And let us remember that love that is not truth is not love, and truth that is not love is not truth.
Vince Vitale, PhD, is Director of the Zacharias Institute in Alpharetta, Georgia.