Thursday, March 30, 2017

Is Truth Dead?

This week's edition of Time, a magazine to which I've subscribed for years, asks this very question: "Is Truth Dead?" The context is the Trump Administration and the President's penchant for sharing "alternative facts." He has a history of making outlandish and often untrue statements, one of which was the accusation that President Obama wiretapped his phones. There are many examples of false statements on his part, which include his leadership in the Birther Movement, which in many ways propelled his rise to political fame. He has branded the traditional press as purveyors of "fake news," even as he draws from less than reputable sources for his own declarations. At one point in the lead article, the author, Michael Scherer, notes that "Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century. The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better."

Donald Trump has found a way to use falsehoods to further his own agenda, but he isn't alone, and it's not new. We seem as a people susceptible to embracing ideas that match our ideologies, even if they aren't true. There's a word for this. It's "truthiness." It has it's origins with Stephen Colbert, but has become a well-worn term. So the question is, does truth matter? Have we entered a "post-truth" era, because as Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men told his interrogator, "You can't handle the truth." 

The question of truth and falsehood that is currently under discussion in our nation seems to connect with a statement found in 1 John 2. My Wednesday Bible Study group is working its way through the Letters of John, and this week we took up 1 John 2:7-28.  In verse 21 of that chapter, the author of this letter (whose identity we don't know) declares: "I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth." (1 Jn. 2:21)  As we discussed this passage, I suggested that this rules out "alternative facts."  

In the Gospel of John Jesus makes an important declaration about being his disciple. He tells his interrogators something very different, though perhaps not, from what Jack Nicholson declared:  "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn. 8:32).  Is it possible for us to embrace the truth, or is it possible that we can't handle the truth. Is it possible that we've already passed the point of no return, so that truth has given way to truthiness, and even post-truth? Is this a symptom of our embrace of postmodernism? I hope not, because there are elements of postmodernism that open up the possibility of seeing beyond our senses, allowing us the opportunity to re-enchant our reality. But, if the end result is "truthiness," I'm not sure that's worth the benefits of the postmodern vision. As the author of 1 John reminds us, there is no lie in the truth!

The Time Magazine article focuses on Donald Trump and his loose grip on the truth, but my sense is that he is only a symptom of the problem, not its cause. We have allowed ourselves to be taken in by untruths. As I watch my Facebook feed, I see people sharing stories from left to right that simply have not factual basis. But, these "news" articles fit our bias, and so we believe them, even as we decry the embrace of equally false stories by those with whom we disagree. 

When Jesus told Pilate that he came to testify to the truth, Pilate retorted:  "What is truth?"   That is the question of the hour!  What is truth?

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