This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Is Truth?

Suddenly, words like “post-fact,” “post-truth,” and “fake-news” have come into our national conversation.  Not only do different political factions have different opinions, they now appear to rely on different facts and even different “truths.”  What is ridiculed and rejected as fake-news for some, is revered as the basis of others’ whole outlook.  What’s going on here?

When I was growing up, we all shared a basic understanding of history and values; we spoke the same language; we agreed with the same general outlook on life.  There were terrible, profound, and even violent disagreements and arguments.  But all our lives were built on the meta-narrative of the post-enlightenment West.  (A meta-narrative is an overarching story that presents a comprehensive framework for understanding various events, experiences, and phenomena, based upon supposedly universal truths and values.)  

We had only disgust and amazement for any views outside this framework, such as when Communist governments issued what were to us bizarre statements about events that we labeled “revisionist history.”  They were not telling the facts but skewed, cynical, self-interested lies made up to support their twisted and oppressive ideology.  The nadir of this approach was the 1959-1961 famine caused by Mao’s agricultural policies.  It turns out that the laws of biology supersede ideology.  Who knew?  But we would never do such a thing.  We were all about truth and real facts.  That was until scientific truth threatened our own lifestyle and economic order.  This is now happening with global warming.  Senator James Inhofe’s statement that he used to believe in global warming, until he realized “what it was going to cost,” is a perfect example of this.  Global warming deniers today are as revisionist and ideological in their refusal to accept scientific facts as Mao was.

So we see that our commitment to scientific truth and real facts eventually undermines the very meta-narrative we live by.  One classic example of this is the decline of Christopher Columbus from the heroic explorer and discoverer I learned about in school, to the depraved murderer, torturer, and enslaver of Native peoples, subsequent research has shown him to be.  Indeed, the whole superstructure of Western civilization is crumbling under the weight of the facts we are unearthing. 

One way to deal with this collapse would be to renounce (implicitly or explicitly) our commitment to scientific truth and facts, and proclaim and enforce an arbitrary ideological framework.  This is what global warming deniers are attempting to do.  It would require at least as massive a project of violent purging and enforcement as anything the Soviets or Nazis ever did.  

Another approach would be to separate into distinct cultural enclaves based on the particular constellation of truths and facts that each finds helpful and acceptable.  This would foreclose on much meaningful conversation and dialogue, since each interest group explicitly rejects the facts and methodology upon which the opinions of others are based.  If you don’t believe global warming is real, and you reject all evidence of global warming as a hoax, and rationalize whatever evidence you have to so it fits your ideology, then how do you have a conversation?  This would at best mean splitting a society into distinct, coexistent interest groups.  At worst it means civil war, as groups seek to impose its facts on others, and wipe out the ones whose lives are based on “lies.”

Post-modern philosophy has noted the fallacy of “objectivity,” pointing out how inherently ideological and biased is even the most “scientific” meta-narrative.  Often, claims to objectivity and universality are oppressive attempts by an elite to impose its self-interested perspective on society.  In our history it was the privileging of Anglo-Saxon culture as the pinnacle of human advancement.  All such top-down meta-narratives are violent, reductionist, lies designed to enforce social conformity and cohesion, cementing the elites’ privileged position.  But they are not true.  Indeed, some post-modern philosophy seems to question whether there is any single truth at all for us, and not just infinite different perspectives.

Which brings us to the question raised by Pontius Pilate in John 18:38, “What is truth?”  He, the official of the occupying Roman magisterium, cynically dismisses any “truth” except what his own weaponry can enforce by sheer terror.  The hearer knows that the real truth is standing there in front of Pilate: the beaten, tortured, humiliated, bleeding loser: Jesus of Nazareth.  He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only gateway to God (John 14:6).

We do not ever find the truth revealed in the self-serving, grand, ideological meta-narratives imposed by imperial fiat, sustained by State institutions, funded by its economic regime, and maintained by popular loyalty.  We only have access to the truth in the immediate and the embodied, particularly in those who suffer from the callous and gratuitous violence required to generate and hold up the false meta-narrative.

Jesus presents an alternative narrative, from below, in which coercion is replaced by compassion, retribution by forgiveness, diseases and disabilities by healing, scarcity by abundance, and institutional violence by God’s shalom.

So, as our society splinters into competing “truths” and oppositional sets of facts, it is up to the community of Jesus’ disciples to bear witness to his truth by living according to his example and teachings.


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