Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth Culture

Priorities

During this year’s Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey’s powerful acceptance speech stirred an audience attuned to the #MeToo movement.

“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Winfrey said at one point, “and I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”

Later, she added, “For too long women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.”

While Winfrey also referenced “the truth” in her address, her repeated formulation “your truth” perked up some ears. Byron Tau of The Wall Street Journal tweeted, “Oprah employed a phrase that I’ve noticed a lot of other celebrit[ies] using these days: ‘your truth’ instead of ‘the truth.’ Why that phrasing?” He suggested that “your truth” undermines the possibility of agreed-upon facts in favor of privatized, separate versions of reality.

The Christian faith claims to be not a privatized, individual truth, but the truth. At the trial of Jesus, Pilate asked the $64,000 question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). How do Christians answer his spiritual descendants in a “post-truthculture today?

Summarizing part of John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, Archbishop Charles Chaput says, “Truth exists, whether we like it or not. We don’t create truth; we find it, and we have no power to change it to our tastes.” Medieval theologians such as Aquinas saw truth as grounded in the ultimate truth of God and Jesus Christ, who told His disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As Malcolm Muggeridge said, “The essential feature and necessity of life is to know reality, which means knowing God.” Truth, therefore, is grounded in a Person. But that is not all there is to say about it.

Jesus, the living Word (John 1:1-3) has given humanity the written Word, the Bible, which ultimately is about Him (Luke 24:27). Jesus prayed to His Father for the disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

God also wants us to know the truth latent in His created order. We can apply reason and logic to discover this truth. This quest is a fundamental aspect of our human nature. It is also part of our calling as image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:27). As the Bible says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Proverbs 25:2).

Jesus said that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:38). But the converse is also true—if we don’t know the truth, we will be enslaved—to sin, ignorance, and poverty. The fruits of belief in absolute truth for Western culture are too numerous to list here, of course. Truth, like biblical leaven, has a way of working its way deep into a society and producing profound changes over time.

Western universities, for example, were founded on the pursuit of veritas.  Harvard University, the first institution of higher learning in the United States, was founded in 1636 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after its first benefactor, a young minister named John Harvard of Charlestown, who in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution.

Modern science, too, was born in a biblical worldview, and, with it, a belief in the existence of discoverable truth. Some of the scientific pioneers who believed in God were Copernicus in astronomy, Bacon in establishing the scientific method, Kepler in mathematics and astronomy, Galileo in astronomy and dynamics, Descartes in mathematics, Pascal in mathematics and physics, Newton in physics and several other fields, Boyle in chemistry, Faraday in physics, Mendel in genetics, Kelvin in physics, and Planck in physics.

Today, however, many scientists say belief in God is no longer tenable. The late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking stated, “Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation.”

Science, however, for all its pretensions of providing a “more convincing explanation,” actually must make a number of critical assumptions, without which science itself falls apart. Science posits:

  • An orderly or intelligible universe;
  • A universe that is governed by laws; and
  • Human beings who have the ability to reason and explore the universe.

Amazingly, every one of these assumptions depends, not on atheistic naturalism, but on a biblical worldview. The cosmos is orderly because it has been created by an intelligent, orderly Creator (Genesis 1-2). The cosmos, while suffering the effects of human sin (Genesis 3), is the generally orderly arena in which God works out His plans (Genesis 8:22, Ephesians 2:8-10). Men and women, who are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” are responsible, intelligent beings who can explore and discover truth about the world (Psalm 139:14).

So, Christians are to be a people of the truth.  We are to love God with all of our minds, as Jesus commanded (Matt. 22:37). In the powerful words of J.I. Packer:

“The Evangelical is not afraid of facts, for he knows that all facts are God’s facts; nor is he afraid of thinking, for he knows that all truth is God’s truth, and right reason cannot endanger sound faith. He is called to love God with all his mind; and part of what this means, is that when confronted by those who, on professedly rational grounds, take exception to historic Christianity, he must set himself not merely to deplore or denounce them, but to out-think them. It is not his business to argue men into faith, for that cannot be done; but it is his business to demonstrate the intellectual adequacy of the biblical faith and the comparative inadequacy of its rivals.”

We therefore must continue telling not our truth but the truth in our post-truth culture, for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “One word of truth outweighs the entire world.” But it will not be easy.

Václav Havel, the Czech dramatist and dissident, told the story of greengrocer in a totalitarian state who, out of fear, puts up a poster in his store that says, “Workers of the World—Unite!” Then:

“… one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”

In this simple but courageous act of resistance, Havel says, “the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.”

Let us go and do likewise.

 

Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is an author, with Jerry Root, of The Sacrament of Evangelism.


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