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 understanding something 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 uncritically 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 to be susceptible to 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—all in an effort to advance their own agendas and to the distinct detriment of our democracy.
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. We see the results of this every time we see someone, maybe even one of our friends, post something on Facebook that's obviously not true--and live in fear that we'll do the same one day.
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 entrenched in our ideological ghettos, that winning an argument--or an election—becomes 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 as a country. And a post-truth society presents a distinct challenge to Christians because we believe that Christ is the truth (John 14:6).
So how can we be faithful Christians in a post-truth world?
First, we must maintain a steadfast commitment to truth as an overarching good. We must be THE MOST VOCAL ADVOCATES FOR TRUTH AND HONESTY when those motivated by power, greed or the desire for victory begin to manipulate facts.
Second, we should speak the truth calmly, persistently, intentionally, prayerfully and deliberately--and understand our unwavering commitment to truth as a Christian commitment to God's kingdom--so that we guard ourselves against a drift toward truthiness. We should never forget that we are just as susceptible to truthiness as anyone else.
Third, we shouldn’t preach the truth only reactively—the truth must be more than just a response to every “post-truth” flare up.
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, money, intimidation, religious chest-thumping or political browbeating can keep truth down.
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 news cycle or even every election. Our faith teaches us that it’s already won the war--and it will set us free (John 8:32).
See you Sunday.