The River and the Land: Finding a Foundation in a Post-Truth Culture

Posted by Abdu Murray on October 19, 2017
Topic: Uncategorized

Some time ago I was on a car ferry crossing a river between Michigan and Ontario.  At the very moment that the ferry began to move, I happened to glance down at my car’s radio, so I didn’t see us disembark.  Because I stayed in my car, it’s weight kept me from feeling us leave the dock.  I looked up to see the river’s movement and the strange vertigo of not knowing if I was moving or stationary brought on a bit of nausea.  I had to find something that wasn’t moving to tell whether I was.  Looking at the boat wouldn’t help because it may have been moving, too.  The ever-flowing river provided no fixed point of reference.  Only the unmoving land could clear up my confusion.  Whene4ver we find ourselves in such situations, we instinctively try to en the vertigo by hurriedly finding a sure foundation that doesn’t depend on our feelings.  In fact, we recognize in those moments that our feelings are the problem.  But imagine if the land itself was moving, too. Awash in the river, I wouldn’t be able to find a bearing. My confusion would persist and the uneasiness would never leave me.

But we are obsessed with being in the river today.  We want to define reality as we like it.  We want to define ourselves individually as we see fit.  Our culture seems to have embraced confusion as a virtue and shunned certainty as a sin. And why?  Because only the certainty based on objective facts stands in the way of a today’s highest ideal: unfettered individual autonomy. But unfettered individual autonomy has its consequences, and we may soon find ourselves drowning in a river of our own making.

Illustrating the culture’s celebrating confusion and feelings over facts, Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as it’s 2016 Word of the Year.  According to Oxford, something is post-truth if it is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  To quality as Word of the Year, the word need not be new.  As Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine reported, the word must capture the culture’s mood and preoccupations.  As a word, post-truth dates back to at least 1992, but it’s usage has ballooned by in 2016 by 2000%.  This percentage may seem shockingly high, but pause to reflect on the past 11 months.  Has it not bee the case that facts just get in the way of a good story, that offense, outrage, and personal preference have shaped culture and the very words we are allowed to say in a supposedly free society?  It’s hard to think of a word more suited than post-truth to describe the Spirit of the Age.

And yet, the practice of subordinating truth to feelings is ancient.  During the most important trial of all time, Jesus stood claiming to be Truth incarnate.  Pilate stood with the authority of the worlds’ most powerful empire.  As Pilate questions Jesus’ source of authority, Jesus responds that his authority isn’t based on the vicissitudes of power or feelings, but on unchanging truth.  “You say that I am a king,” Jesus answers Pilate.  “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the wold—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”  Jesus hands Pilate the opportunity of the ages to ask the prefect question.  “What is truth?” Pilate asks.  But his motivation is wrong.  He walks out before Jesus can answer, making for quite the dramatic exit.  Pilate exchanges the opportunity of a lifetime for a rhetorical punch line.

Though it is not recorded in Scripture, the 2004 motion picture The Passion of the Christ is consistent with the scriptural account and history when it depicts a conversation between Pilate and his wife.  Pilate had sent Jesus to Herod, the Jewish king, to be judged so that Pilate could avoid doing so.  In the court, Pilate sullenly asks his wife the same question he asked Jesus. “What is truth, Claudia? Do you hear it, recognize it when it is spoken?” he asks.

“Yes, I do. Don’t you?”

“How? Can you tell me?”

She is brutally honest with him. “If you will not hear the truth,” she responds, “no one can tell you.”  As with Jesus, Pilate does not hear her words because the emotional and political ramifications of valuing the truth are too great.  “Truth?” he snaps back. “Do you want to know what my truth is, Claudia? I’ve been putting down rebellions in this rotten outpost for eleven years. If I don’t condemn this man I know Caiaphas will start a rebellion. If I do condemn him, then his followers may. Either way, there will be bloodshed. Caesar has warned me, Claudia—warned me twice. He swore that the next time the blood would be mine. That is my truth!”  Though Pilate said the word “truth for time, he elevated the ramifications and his personal desires over the truth.  Pilate is a post-truth man, living with a post-truth mindset.  You see, Pilate wasn’t a true skeptic. He was a cynic.  A skeptic won’t believe a truth claim until there is enough evidence for it.  A cynic won’t believe even when there is.

Pilate’s cynicism sends Truth incarnate to the cross.  What blissful irony, that Pilate’s ignoring the voice of Truth should result in crucifixion that sets the world free, but more on that shortly.

Today, we use the term post-truth 2000% more than we used it just a year ago.  How much more intense then is our cynicism than Pilate’s?  How much more difficult, then, will it be for us to follow the voice of Truth?

Subordinating truth to personal desires is such an easy thing to fall into, given human nature.  We are intellectual beings who strive to make sense of our world.  At the same time, we are emotional beings, searching for personal meaning.  The problem comes when we elevate feelings over facts, believing that personal preferences are what determine meaning in life.  When that happens, we not only elevate our preferences over facts, but we elevate them over the preferences of others.  Without truth as our arbiter, the victor in the contest of preferences is the one whose rhetorical or political power dominates.

{to be continued Oct 26, 2017}