Our crisis of truth in society and church

As I have said before, events around us in American society over the last several years have completely flummoxed me. I am left wondering whether and how we know what we think we know. How does anyone know anything? Is it possible to know anything?

Anyone who wants to answer that last question affirmatively is going to have to explain also how it is possible to think that one knows something when that something is false. Whether and how knowledge is possible is a hard question. But whether deception and delusion are possible is not a hard question: Both are most certainly possible. Both are actual. In full measure, pressed down, and running over. All around us.

The title Andrew Lincoln chose for his book on “the lawsuit motif in the Fourth Gospel” (that’s the subtitle) was: Truth on Trial. (This book was originally published by Hendrickson Publishers, then passed to Baker Academic, and is back in print as of last year with Wipf & Stock. I have used the Wipf & Stock cover as the illustration for this post.)

And boy, is truth on trial. Always. Certainly now. And as Lincoln’s neat play on words signals, and as James Russell Lowell’s poem-turned-hymn asserts, generally speaking that trial does not go well for truth, if one is going to evaluate the outcome in the usual human terms. Lowell: “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne.”

In fact, as a prudential principle—not as an flat empirical judgment based on tons of data, and and not as an a priori assertion of what always and everywhere must be the case, but as a kind of proverb which if kept in mind will help you from falling into and suffocating in all kinds of doodoo—I suggest the following rule: The moment you look up and see that the political or spiritual truth that is central to your life, the truth for which you have been contending, is now seated on the throne, as earthly eyes perceive thrones, is the moment when you had better throw yourself wholeheartedly and determinedly into the excruciating work of determining whether somehow you have been seeing Wrong as Truth. Because “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne” is a pretty good summing up of life under the sun. Better yet: when you see your truth enthroned go ahead and assume that your truth is in fact wrong, and start figuring out how you got fooled, and how to get yourself free.

The first—the one undoubtedly true and abidingly indispensable—thesis of Doctor Martin Luther (the original 16th century Martin Luther):

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance

You and I are never done with metanoia. It is not a one-time thing. Changing your mind, and changing your heart, is necessary not just once but again, and again, and again, because truth is not simple, reducible to one simple incantation that one can say once and then from that point on be forever always right about everything; and also because falsehood is a shape-shifter, always assuming a new form, and it’s always an attractive form, and we never stop falling for it.

For a Christian, truth is from God, truth is God, God’s word is truth, the truth is also the way and the life, and truth is the laying down of one’s life, because The Truth laid down his life.

We can fall into thinking we have captured and encapsulated truth in a formula, especially a political formula but even also in a religious formula. In a slogan. Whatever and whoever is currently seated on the earthly throne is going to notice our dogmatic commitment to that slogan, and is going to be very cunning about using our self-satisfied commitment to that slogan as a handle for grabbing us and coopting our help, suborning or loyalty. The Wrong that is enthroned will pose as our Truth because that Wrong wants to preserve its life, and it will promise to preserve our life if we throw in our lot with it.

Here is what The Truth says:

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, opening sentence of The Cost of Discipleship

But the false truth that mounts the throne in this world says: You will not surely die; here, eat some nice fruit.

And we hear that false promise, and believe it, and eat the fruit, and settle into an untruth, a new untruth that is—surprise!—the same old untruth. And thus we abandon the one who invites us to come and die, even while we protest loudly and self-confidently that he is the one we are following. But his truth is marching on, while we have settled.

This got kind of poetical and allusive and elusive, didn’t it? And I wanted to say something practical. I will try again another day, and maybe over a series of days.

I am approaching the age at which Eric Erickson said the task becomes: integrity versus despair. The age at which one makes sense of the whole course of one’s life, or else gives up on making sense. Does it all make sense, or is it a sham?

And I think this becomes a question not only for an individual but for a community, and for an entire nation, and it seems to me that just as I am coming to the point in my own life when it is necessary for me to do this reckoning, I see the American evangelical Christianity in which I was raised at a point where such a reckoning is going on, and it is not going well; and I see that the nation in which I was raised is at a point where such a reckoning is necessary, and that is not going well either.

What is it going to be: integrity or despair? (And we know that despair loves to masquerade as brittle, angry certainty, do we not?)

I have some questions, and some observations.

It’s all about truth. What is truth?

More another day.

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