Oxford dictionaries declared post-truth as the 2016 word of the year, defining post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This marked not just a change in the English language, but also an important cultural and intellectual shift in how we view facts, truth, and narrative. Post-truth suggests a key shift from truth to ideology, placing both on equal ground (at best). The post of post-truth does not mean that we’ve left truth completely behind, but it does suggest situations where truth might be overtaken by ideology. Thus creating situations where the narrative, whether true or not, is more important. As long as the narrative is compelling, it doesn’t matter so much that facts no longer correlate with the narrative.
Last year was a remarkable year, particularly in politics. We saw politicians from both sides promoting stories that were clearly and obviously false. The internet exploded with the phenomena of “fake news,” where fabricated news stories were shared more than real news. It created a climate of confusion among the public, furthered distrust in journalism, and generated skepticism in our political process. Sadly, we don’t seem all that surprised by this. Post-truth seems to make sense in a time where trust in our government and our institutions are at all-time lows. Post truth has found a place in the increased partisanship, division, and anger that exists in our nation. Truth appears less desirous in an era where division and anger reign.
It’s quite surprising that post-truth exists in this time of seemingly unending information. Think about the information we have at our fingertips. In a few seconds we can connect to a world of information, both past and present, on virtually any topic imaginable. We can discover the world on a device that fits in our hands. Even just 30 years ago, it seemed impossible (the stuff of science fiction) that we would have so much information available to us. The digital revolution has forever changed the way we acquire information. In many ways, we are living in an golden age of information. The truth, on any topic, is within reach, but do we have the wisdom to discern truth from fiction? More importantly, do we still desire the truth or have we already grown accustomed to a post-truth world?
What does it mean to be religious in a post-truth world? As a theologian, this is the question I ask myself. If post-truth is the direction we are collectively heading, then where does that leave Christianity? This has lead me to think about what Jesus states in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What does it mean when we read this today? Does it matter that Jesus calls himself truth in a post-truth world?
Due to the speed of information, truth can be difficult to comprehend, especially when the truth seems to be continually revised and updated. On the one hand we are learning more about our universe and world. We have better knowledge of human health, genetics, and the causes of disease. Technological improvements have made life easier, but also more layered and complex. Social media has created new personal dynamics and challenges, and all of this has seemingly occurred overnight (at least in terms of human history). The speed of science and technology, the way knowledge can change, creates a nagging sense of uncertainty. How do we stay up to date, stay current and relevant, and trust the truth when the truth appears (at least a first glance) transitory and subject to revision?
Karl Rahner, one of the most important 20th century Catholic theologians, wondered about the speed of information well before the internet. He was concerned about the growing uncertainty surrounding knowledge and information. The speed at which all this is occurring can be daunting and challenging. He describes how, “An element of the unfathomable surrounds all this knowledge and life in a way this impenetrable” (Rahner, “Justifying Faith in an Aganostic World,” 130). The unfathomable or uneasiness in the supposedly impenetrable (truth), can lead to fear. This is the fear that, as Rahner describes it, that our thoughts are “basically nothing more than a nebulous haze that has nothing at all to do with true reality.”
It appears shocking that knowledge, and increased access to it, could cause fear. Information can bombard us at ferocious pace, and it is hard to keep up. New discoveries are being made every day, discoveries about our universe, planet, food, health, and so on. Several of these discoveries can be downright scary and unnerving, like the growing threat of climate change. Other information such as political unrest, the refugee crisis, and terrorism make us understandable anxious and uneasy. We have this information, but we are unable to adequately process it. What are we supposed to do with this knowledge? How do we react?
It’s hard to process it all, especially given the piecemeal way in which we acquire information. Pre-internet, Rahner already recognized that,
Our minds are fed with disparate insight and pieces information from a great variety of sources of knowledge and these do not admit any longer of a positive and complete ordering into a coherent whole. (Rahner, “The Foundation of Belief,” 6)
Now, through social media, we acquire all sorts of disparate information. Social media has completely changed the way we acquire information. Information is immediate and direct, and certainly ever-changing and often unnerving. Truth, half-truths, sensationalism, and downright falsities all blend into one unsystematic mess. We’re bombarded with information across a wide array of topics, some useful and others less so. We might be reading about the discovery of new earth-like planets, and a few seconds encounter celebrity gossip (back-to-back on the same social network).
It’s hard to filter all of this information, and nearly impossible to get a complete picture. Of course this is not a bad thing. Local and global problems are vast and complex. There may not be one right answer, but problems and challenges often require multiple viewpoints to understand. It can be helpful to question our assumptions and the lenses with which we view our world. Unfortunately, our minds do not always work like this. It’s hard to balance multiple vantages to a problem. It’s nearly impossible to read information with lenses other than our own. We like to find a clear choice, an obvious solution, and we want to be right. We will sacrifice truth for meaning (as if they are two separate things) in our desire to be right, to feel comfortable, and make sense out if all. We demand meaning, thus we are tempted to accept without reflection or consideration, information that claims to be true. That makes truth to be something that neither confronts nor challenges us.
Limiting knowledge is certainly not the answer. More knowledge, better education, and increased access to information for all must continue. The problem is not with information, but without our interpretation, the ways we handle and filter this information. As human beings we are still learning how to learn, we are learning how to be wise men and women.
To cope with this, Rahner suggests that we are faced with three choices. There are those that create a barrier of triviality. These individuals escape from the everyday by avoiding it. Technology has made this easier than ever before, we can literally block ourselves from the world through entertainment and social media. We avoid the problem by pretending there is not a problem, thus the world can continue on without us. The world continues until it affects us personally, and given enough time it will.
Others erect another sort of barrier, a less obvious barrier, but one that does contribute to this post-truth world. It’s a barrier of oasis, being lost in a desert of information. When feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, we retreat to our oasis. We retreat to those realms and places where we feel comfortable and shielded from the harsh desert. We thus jump from oasis to oasis without opening ourselves to wider world. Today we have an interesting phenomenon of self-isolation and insulation from the world, a pick-and-choose adventure of information. We remain stuck in our enclaves, liberal and conservative, using social media and technology. We’ve become accustomed to picking our oasis, selection what is most meaningful without questioning if it is true. Throughout 2016, the election brought out the worst of these instincts. The election process encouraged us to barricade ourselves, selecting the narrative that we liked best. Certainly there is nothing wrong with living in narratives that we find meaningful, except when it is done at the expense of truth. When truth is sacrificed for narrative, our narratives become ideologies (truth is displaced by meaning). Our oasis, a zone where everyone thinks and acts in the same way, become breeding grounds for fear, anger, and radicalism. Rahner asks,
“Do you want to continue in a life consisting of nothing more than particular experiences of meaning, as though you were on a desert journey passing through an oasis here and there only to die of thirst in the end in the desolate wasteland?” (Rahner, “Question of Meaning as a Question of God,” 207).
Post-truth leaves us thirsty. It doesn’t satisfy our desire to ask questions and consider multiple possibilities. Post-truth doesn’t ask questions, it accepts without consideration. It forms us in the shape of an idol. An idol that when revealed hollow, lacking substance and depth. Post-truth ushers us toward a void, a nothingness of meaning. Religion has no place in post-truth. As a result, Jesus’ claim to be the truth has no validity in a post-truth world.
There is a third choice, a way between escapism and post-truth. It is what I believe represents the religious path, and the path of wisdom. Rahner suggests that one must leave the oasis, the enclave, and plunge into the incomprehensible desert. Rahner writes,
It seems to me that one simply has to accept that in the present situation there are many things presented by both experience and knowledge which cannot be arranged into a neat pattern. (Rahner, “The Foundation of Belief,” 11)
A pursuit, passion, and desire for truth should inspire questions. Questioning connects to our human condition. A condition of never stopping in our pursuit of truth, the truth of our nature and purpose, the truth of place and position in the universe, and the truth of our relationship with the incomprehensible, God.
Post-truth holds back on questioning, encouraging us to suppress doubt. Post-truth encourages us to fear what is hidden and undiscovered, anything that may challenge our own values and beliefs. Post-truth, at least as we saw last year, concealed truth through superficiality and sensationalism. Post-truth suppresses truth.
Truth is deep, multilayered, and complex. Truth is a mystery that we’re constantly drawn to, pushing us to plunge its depth and inquire into its nature. The religious mindset does not accept any answer that is “conclusive and intellible in itself.” Consider the Greek word for truth. Truth, alethia (ἀλήθεια), means to make manifest the hidden. Truth uncovers and unconceals, literally meaning “the state of not being hidden.”
This an incredibly important point to consider. Because Jesus declares himself to be alethia, Jesus’ nature is one that manifests the hidden. Thus Jesus presents himself as the truth, as the one who reveals. He reveals and transforms truth. He embodies the truth we seek, a truth revealed to be one of social justice, humility, and love. Jesus reveals that truth is not only a matter of the right theory or information. Jesus, as revealing and truth, tells us that we must do the truth. In John 3:21 Jesus states, “But those who do what is true come to the light.” Older translations may say “doeth the truth,” or doing truth.
This is where post-truth fails, ideology falls short, and fear passes away. We are called to do the truth, which why I believe that religion remains important in a post-truth world. We too embody the truth, and are called to live it in our actions.
How can we be religious in an age of fake news, sensationalism, and ideology? How can we be religious in uncertainty? We can be religious in a post-truth age, by doing the truth. Doing the truth is remaining open to others. Doing the truth works for social justice. Doing the truth speaks out against mistreatment and inequality. Doing the truth acknowledges the depth and complexity of truth, as something we neither own nor possess. Doing the truth lives truth in word and deed. Doing the truth resists ideology and embraces love.
Doing the truth plunges into the incomprehensible, therefore leaving behind what is easy in order to embrace what is hard. For it is in the incomprehensible where one encounters truth.
For Christians adore in hope and love the incomprehensibility which is called God, and in this their faith transpires. (Rahner, “Justifying Faith in an Agnostic World,” 136).