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The post-truth era

New York Times slogan, billboard. "Truth. It's more important now than ever."

Since the election of Donald Trump, prestigious figures in journalism have been wringing their hands over the "post-truth era." The New York Times has been brandishing the slogan, "The truth is more important now than ever." Journalists seem genuinely concerned that with the election of a compulsive liar—or a prolific and inventive story-changer—to the highest office in the land, something very basic and precious, truth-telling, has suddenly been lost.

I share their concern deeply. What perplexes me is why it took the election of Donald Trump for this to start worrying people.

I don't know what journalists were learning about truth in their universities' communications schools. But across campus in the liberal arts college, faculty have been attacking the existence of objective truth for decades. It has been core, orthodox dogma that each person's truth is their own, that no one can claim that someone else's truth is untrue, and that truth itself is merely an artificial construct created for the benefit of those who create it—in short, that there is no objective truth. Adherence to this dogma is virtually a requirement for graduation with a liberal arts degree from elite universities.

How could liberals have been so naive as to believe that such talk would have no consequences?

The two-story house

Modern people assume that reality is something like a two-story house. On the bottom floor is what are called "facts," assertions about the physical world and proposals for how these facts fit together. It's a world of public evidence and theories designed to explain what happened that produced that evidence. It's the world of the sciences, journalism, and criminal law. Here truth is objective and absolute. Even if there are varying perspectives that each have truth to them, it is believed that there is always some overarching explanation that makes varying perspectives form a coherent whole, even if we haven't found it yet.

Meanwhile, on the top floor of the house is what are called "ideas," assertions about what might be termed ultimate things, such as meaning, value, purpose, beauty, goodness, personhood, life after death, God. It's the world of philosophy, theology, art, and literature. This is the realm in which, according to late-modern people, truth is whatever you make it, because there isn't any outside of yourself.

Critical to the modern belief system is the principle that there is no staircase connecting the two floors; they are sealed off from each other. So one can be disgusted at people's disbelief in the truth of climate change on the one hand, because that takes place on the objective lower floor, while being offended at religious people's absolutist claims to truth on the other hand, because that takes place on the subjective upper floor.

What is so terribly shocking today is that someone has quietly been building a staircase. Now the caustically casual approach to truth on the upper floor has tumbled down the stairs to infect the lower floor, including our politics.

The two-story house model is very old, about as old as Western thought itself. Plato prioritized the upper floor, and Aristotle was equally invested in the lower floor (depicted symbolically in Raphael's famous mural The School of Athens, below). Medieval thinkers operated by a similar (if not identical) model when they distinguished between what truths may only be apprehended by faith in God's special revelation and what can be known without it. But for centuries, thinkers believed that the two floors were connected—what you learned on one floor explained or had to be coherent with what was happening on the other floor.

Raphael, The School of Athens

Credit for sealing off the floors may belong to Enlightenment philosopher Gotthold Lessing, who asserted that “the accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.” Lessing was attempting to undercut the absolute claims of Christianity, which rest on historical events (more on this later). Nevertheless, even though he and other Enlightenment thinkers sealed the upper floor from the lower, they still believed that objective, absolute truth resided on the upper floor.

A century later, thinkers from Friedrich Nietzsche to William James began setting dynamite at the notion of objective truth on the upper floor. Truth was a matter of one's perspective, maybe even something one created rather than apprehended. Stated most radically, truth is whatever helps a person achieve what they want, maybe even at the expense of others. This forms a spiral: the more power I have to define truth and impose it on the people around me, the more power I gain over them, which gives me still more power to define truth. (Though I disagree with the idea that truth is a human creation, nevertheless as a description of how people behave, this critique has something important to say.)

Then some twentieth-century philosophers began building the staircase back down to the lower floor, but not to unite the two floors in the harmony of truth—rather, to destroy the objectivity of facts by treating them as one more example of a power-play. Though this garnered some degree of popularity with philosophers, it was literature and some social science academics who went wild over it.

The extremes to which this could go was illustrated by a hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal on a postmodern literary journal when he submitted for publication an article claiming without argumentation that "physical 'reality'"—not merely descriptions of reality—"is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." To sweeten it further, Sokal concluded (with a silent smirk) that "the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project." The editors published it.

Tumbling down the staircase

I admit, it's quite a stretch to argue that Donald Trump—much less his white, working-class supporters—got his disdain for truthfulness, consistency, and factuality from relativist English professors. But then again, maybe it's not such a stretch. It is not such an unusual thing for avant-garde ideas to swirl among a dissident group of intellectuals, then gain traction in wider and wider intellectual circles, then cascade into further and further reaches of society. It doesn't happen by argument but more like changing the temperature on the intellectual thermostat, which gradually radiates to the whole room.

As the ideas diffuse through a society, they become simpler and blunter, and people act on them in ways that those who invented them never would have imagined. For example, Enlightenment philosophers in the early eighteenth century had no idea that they would frame a revolution in America, and the Founding Fathers didn't expect that those ideas would shape the anti-establishment attitudes of rude frontiersmen and their populist president Andrew Jackson a generation or two after that. Likewise, the truth decay that was all fun and games among literati in the 1960s and beyond has had astounding consequences after it reached and was transmuted by their opposites in class and culture.

Andrew Jackson inauguration party

What disturbs me most is the extent to which the objectivity of truth has affected even the church. And I'm not talking about theologically liberal churches either (though the influence there has been pervasive). I'm talking about people in what are, in principle, theologically conservative Christian circles.

It is disturbing when Christians read a text of Scripture, have different opinions about its meaning, and conclude, "You have your interpretation, and I have mine." Quite right—but not all interpretations are equally likely to be correct. There is still this objective thing, this Scripture that is breathed by God to communicate to us, that is there before us to be understood. We must still make a case based on what we see there as to whether our interpretation is valid or not.

It is disturbing when Christians exhibit hostility toward science and scientists on the grounds that what the scientists present is biased. No doubt it is in some sense. And scientists who have oversold their malformed philosophical opinions as science and then been disdainful of those who object deserve a lot of the blame for the hostility. But there is still this mass of natural phenomena in public view, from photons to fossils, that have to be made sense of, and scientists are the people working hard to make sense of it and busting each other's chops if someone produces an explanation that doesn't hang together with the evidence.

It is disturbing when Christians value news outlets because they confirm Christians' own biases and even worse when Christians know that this is why they choose what they choose but do it anyway. I suppose that to a certain extent this is unavoidable for us all. And journalists are indeed biased and produce stories according to that bias. Worse, while some journalists attempt to check their own bias, others believe that their bias—which very often clashes fiercely with Christian convictions—makes them good journalists. Such deserve the rejection they get. Nevertheless, we still have to deal with the evidence presented in a given news story, and the story should stand or fall based on the quality of its evidence, not on the name of the news outlet.

When Christians themselves treat the objectivity of truth so cavalierly—when they treat the whole world as hopelessly biased and subjective and reject what they do not want to hear—they get into real trouble when they want to share with people what they do believe to be true. Gotthold Lessing tried to seal off the upper floor of truth from the lower floor because he didn't want to deal with the consequences if Jesus really rose from the dead. And when we announce that awesome historical truth to people—which firmly stands on the soundest reasoning and the best evidence we have to work with from the ancient world—people often respond not by saying, "It isn't true," but by saying, "That's your truth, not mine."

What's at stake

To deny the possibility of objective reason—that there is a single, complex, integrated truth that stands between and over you and me that we can be in line with or out of line with—is to deny that humans are created in the image of God, which means in part that we are capable of exchanging ideas with our Creator and also with each other. It is also to deny that God speaks to all people through what he has made, that "the heavens are telling the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Ps. 19:1 NASB) and that everyone is therefore accountable for that knowledge.

But most important of all, to deny objective truth is to deny Jesus Christ. That historical figure is the Reason of God and the one by whom all things were made and in whom they all hold together. He is the living Truth who unites all reality in the whole house.

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