While the reader might assume that I have chosen today’s topic in reaction to recent events in the news, that reasonable assumption is not correct. My usual practice is to choose topics for the blog weeks or even months in advance, and this particular subject has been on my mind for quite some time. Christians have a particular interest in the concept of truth, and lamented its decline long before the present political and social concerns presented themselves. After all, as followers of the One who referred to himself as “the Truth” (John 14:6) and as those whose faith stands or falls depending on whether or not certain historical events—especially the Resurrection—actually took place (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:15-17), Christians are very concerned with determining what is and what is not actually so. We deny the relativism that has for years now been prevalent in our culture, particularly in the area of religion. Christianity cannot be “true for you if it works for you but not true for me,” nor can two competing religions or worldviews be simultaneously true. Christianity might be true or it might be false, but it cannot be simultaneously true or false for different persons, times, places, or circumstances. The denial that truth or falsehood are salient categories in the area of religion has long been a barrier to Christian apologetics and evangelism, as it is impossible to convince a person of the truth and exclusivity of the gospel if he does not even accept the idea of religious truth.
In recent years this loss of truth has become an increasing concern in areas beyond religion, as we are seeing the reporting or presenting of facts in a variety of areas replaced with spin. People in politics, the media, and even in private conversation seem increasingly unconcerned with ascertaining and reporting truth, instead concerning themselves with constructing compelling narratives. Everywhere we look we are presented not with facts but with spin, and people on opposing sides of the issues are unable not only to agree, but even to speak to one another on the basis of some shared understanding. This is to the detriment of our collective well-being.
While the pervasiveness of spin is perhaps new, its presence, of course, is not. When Christ was questioned by Pontius Pilate our Lord answered in part that he had come “to bear witness to the truth,” to which Pilate cynically answered “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38) This same Pilate quickly demonstrated himself to be concerned with the maintenance of order more so than with his own assessment of Jesus’ innocence; truth and reality took a backseat to appearances. Centuries earlier, when Adam and Eve were confronted by God over their disobedience both attempted to deflect blame; Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent (Genesis 3:9-13). Our first parents were also the first spin doctors.
While the strategic shaping of narratives goes all the way back to the Garden, Adam and Eve were guilty only of trying to present the facts in the most favorable light, not of denying that they had indeed eaten of the Tree in defiance of God’s command. Such a denial would have been futile, of course, but in any case the strategic presentation of verifiable facts is a far lesser violation of truth than the denial that truth even exists. What concerns me today, and what seems to be ruining our society’s capacity for civil discourse, is that we are witnessing a collective denial of objective reality, with every party, every faction, and even every individual constructing unique versions of “truth.” We’ve gone from spinning the facts to our advantage to denying the very existence of facts and being left with nothing but spin. No wonder we keep talking past each other.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) famously said that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” but this hasn’t stopped people from pretending that truth, if it exists at all, is endlessly malleable. The result? Democrats and Republicans sound less like two groups of people offering competing solutions to the same set of problems and more like people from different nations entirely—if not from different planets! The same can be said about our national conversation in numerous areas of social, political, and moral concern. I fear that until we learn to “Buy the truth and sell it not,” as the scripture commends (Proverbs 23:23)—until we collectively remember that truth exists, can be known, and should be known—we are going to keep finding ourselves not only unable to agree with those with differing opinions, but unable to communicate with them at all.
More importantly from a Christian perspective, without a shared commitment to truth the communication of eternal truths—with regard to which the stakes are infinitely higher than those regarding various temporal concerns—becomes nearly impossible.