By Matt Sapp
2016 wasn’t a great year for truth, and the first days of 2017 don’t appear to have offered any improvement. When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 everyone laughed. Few are laughing now.
Colbert used the word to mean something we understand to be true because it “feels” right or because our gut tells us it ought to be true. Truthiness means that facts are secondary to emotion and that wishful thinking somehow has the power to bend the truth.
The idea behind truthiness is closely related to confirmation bias, the idea that we are more likely to accept ideas or opinions as true if they tend to reinforce what we already believe.
During the 2016 presidential election we discovered an electorate primed for confirmation bias and truthiness. And our presidential candidates quickly proved ready to take advantage of the new reality by intentionally seeking to obscure the truth by muddying the waters about the basic standards of truth and by constantly calling into question what we previously accepted as reliable sources of truth — in the media, the scientific community, and the government.
Truthiness and confirmation bias are not, of course, only political phenomena. Religious leaders and constituencies fall prey to the same fallacies. In fact, there are few, if any, areas of our lives where basic standards of truth haven’t begun to erode. That’s why we find ourselves liking and re-posting things on Facebook that turn out not to be true—whether it relates to football teams or to political candidates.
All of this leads many to conclude that we are living in a “post-truth” America. In fact, “post-truth” was named the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. In a post-truth world we seek out and lend credence to only those sources of information that tend to confirm our biases, and we begin to reject the idea that there are any unbiased, objective sources of truth.
When information bubbles and echo chambers become so exclusionary and loud, when confirmation bias and wanting to “feel” right become more important than facts, and when we become so factionalized and entrenched in our ideological ghettos, that winning an argument or an election—that power and victory—become more important than truth, then we live firmly in a post-truth society.
To the extent that what I’ve just described is happening, we are in real trouble. And a post-truth society presents a distinct challenge to Christians because we believe that Christ is the truth (John 14:6).
So how exactly does a post-truth world present a challenge to the gospel?
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)—those are basic Christian truths. But in a post-truth world people sit in the pews and wonder if those truths “feel” right. Do they line up with what I heard on the radio or TV last week? Do they tend to confirm my biases? Because, if not, in a post-truth world, we are being conditioned to hold those ideas as suspect.
So we start to interpret the truth into something more akin to truthiness. We think, “In some situations loving your enemies means killing them and praying for those who persecute you means praying for God to destroy them.”
“Doesn’t that feel more right,” we think, “Let’s make that the truth.”
The last shall be first. You can’t serve God and money. Blessed are the peacemakers.
“Nice try preacher,” we think, “but that doesn’t feel right. Self-promotion feels better. My gut instinct tells me I can serve two masters. Bomb the hell out of ‘em. Sometimes peace is made at the end of a sword.”
Those ideas “feel” great, and in today’s world we’re learning that if it feels right, it’s true. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.
In this way the Sermon on the Mount isn’t outright rejected. We just question it around the edges and reinterpret it until it takes on the form of truthiness, until it becomes something that “feels” right in our gut—and until it becomes something less than true.
So how do we preach truth in a post-truth world?
First, we should preach the truth calmly and persistently, prayerfully and deliberately, and intentionally, so that we guard ourselves against a drift toward truthiness.
Second, we shouldn’t preach the truth only reactively—the truth must be more than just a response to every “post-truth” flare up.
Instead, with courage and dignity and diligence we should preach proactively that humility is a virtue and meekness a strength, that looking out for the little guy and caring for the downtrodden are their own rewards. That all of God’s children are equal in the eyes of God.
In a post-truth world we should confidently proclaim that there is such a thing as truth, that it has a unique and unrivaled power, and that it wins in the end.
No amount of post-truth yelling or anger or violence or money or intimidation or religious chest-thumping or political browbeating can keep truth down. The truth will come out. It will come to light.
Truth is like yeast in the dough or the faith of a mustard seed—and, like Shakespeare’s Hermia, though it be but little, it is fierce! So truth doesn’t need us to defend it, but it does need us to let it out into the world. It does need to be insistently and persistently proclaimed.
The truth doesn’t have to “feel” right. It is right. It doesn’t have to shout to win an argument. And, as hard as it may be for us to understand, it doesn’t have to win every day, every battle, every election or even every decade. Our faith teaches us that it’s already won the war.
There’s another thing truth has done. It has set us free (John 8:32)—free to be right, even if it doesn’t always “feel” right.