“What is truth?” Pilate asks Jesus in the Gospel of John. Was it a sincere question or a snarky one? No one really knows. One Christian tradition, which tried to redeem Pilate in the years after the resurrection, argues that it was a sincere inquiry. But historians, who have found evidence that Pilate was a violent and vengeful man, would argue that the idea that he was having a meaningful philosophical conversation with Jesus right before he had him crucified strains credulity. One could argue, of course, that it doesn’t matter either way because regardless of Pilate’s musings and motives, he did have Jesus killed. But I have been hearing his question in my head lately, nevertheless, because I keep reading online and in the news that we are now living in a “post-truth” society. “Who declared this?” I want to demand. “And why on earth is anyone going along with it?”
Maybe it was only a matter of time. Supposedly truth has been on the chopping block since the arrival of our Post-Modern age. One of the defining characteristics of the Post-Modern era is that truth is perceived as relative instead of absolute. What is true for me is not true for you. But that statement equates truth with belief, when they really are two different things. What I believe may be different from what you believe. That’s not a bad thing to recognize. At times, we all need to be snapped out of our self-centeredness and reminded of how much our experience informs what we believe. But even while Post-Modernism insisted that we recognize that a person from South Sudan believes something different about the world from what a person from Anne Arundel County believes, it never argued that it was untrue to say that the sky over both of their heads was blue. Post-modernism was never against the truth of facts, just against the absolutizing of beliefs based upon those facts.
But now, according to the papers, we live in a “post-truth” age in the post-fact sense. As this past election year illustrated, people in the United States and other places around the world no longer feel constrained either to base their beliefs and opinions upon facts, or to acknowledge the truth of certain facts when confronted by them. Now you can present people with reams of objective data which demonstrates that their opinions are not grounded in fact, and they will simply disregard the data. As a result, fake news has as much or more power to influence as real news, and science is as easily dismissed by some as the tenets of a strange religion are. This is both incomprehensible to me and profoundly troubling.
My first intellectual love was science. I spent my childhood dreaming of being a molecular biologist and using microscopes, chemistry sets and every other scientific tool I could lay my hands on trying to understand the facts of how the world worked. After the challenges of advanced mathematics forced me to change directions in college, I never abandoned my love of facts. I worked first as a fact-checker for a publishing company, and then as lawyer, where I knew as well as the other lawyers that our arguments were only good if we could provide the facts to support them. Even now that I am in ministry, my faith is grounded as much in facts as it is in belief. I come to understand the word of God by exploring the literary, social, and historical context of biblical texts, not treating the Bible as a magic book. I study history, and accept that as our understanding of the world changes based upon scientific studies, my faith must incorporate that knowledge, or risk becoming little more than an escape or delusion.
I cannot imagine trying to navigate a world in which facts do not matter. But more importantly, I cannot imagine how we can ever hope to heal our world without facts mattering. Facts are essential to reconciliation. If you are trying to make peace between two very different people with very different beliefs—say someone who worships trees and live in a tent and someone who is an atheist who lives in a high rise – facts help you to move out of the contentiousness of different relative perspectives and into the realm of concrete negotiation. “We have only this much of X resource. The temperature today is 20 degrees hotter than it was this day last year.” The parties may disagree about the significance of the facts. But if you can at least start with an agreement about what they are, you have a foundation upon which to build. But if one person says “This person lied” and can prove it with objective evidence, and the other person say, “No he/she didn’t” despite that evidence, then we will find ourselves suddenly transported into the realm of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which a knight whose arms and legs have been cut off can still shout, “It’s only a flesh wound.” In other words, we will be dancing in fantasy land oblivious to the fact that we are bleeding out, or worse yet, watching while someone else does and we do nothing.
Some things are true whether we believe them or not. Theologically speaking, I count the affirmation that God is love and wants us to love all people among those truths. I believe that Jesus embodied God’s truth. But even if you do not, we still need each other. If we cannot even agree about objective facts about our bodies, our world, our universe, how can we ever hope to reach the point when you and I, despite our vast differences, agree on how to build a future with hope for us all together? So now is the time for us to come together around this one need before it is too late. Regardless of your background, regardless of your beliefs, join me please in insisting that the policies and practices of our nation are grounded in fact. If the majority refuses to allow these to be shaped by innuendo, speculation, and deliberate rejection of reality, then we won’t be stuck in a post-fact age for long.
What is truth? The truth is that we share a common humanity, have limited resources, and can destroy our world forever if we do not learn to work together for peace. Aren’t these facts we all can get behind? I pray that by the grace of God, the answer will be “yes.”