Thursday, January 6, 2022

Living in a Post-Truth World

It is a strange world we live in. In recent years it has gotten a lot stranger a lot quicker. People used to talk about “the new normal.” Now nothing seems normal. The hardest thing for me is the loss of any commonly accepted standard of truth or fact.

People use to disagree over interpretations of facts. Now people have different facts. People create their own “alternative facts” that confirm their beliefs. Evidence be damned. It doesn’t matter what really happened. All that matters is what we believe happened. Truth is in the mind of the beholder.

I can’t help but think of Pontius Pilate interrogating Jesus. Jesus said to him, “For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate responded, “What is truth?” I imagine Pilate throwing up his hands in exasperation as he said those words. It sounds strangely modern or - to be more precise - post-modern.

As a young evangelical in the 1970’s and 80’s I used to warn my parishioners of the dangers of a society drifting into relativism. People talked about what is “true for me” and “true for you.” I predicted that without any common standard of truth, society would fall apart. My prophecy has come true … so to speak.

The scientific method used to be accepted as a discipline to arrive at facts. Now we live in an age of science denial. Doctors used to be respected. Now they are suspected … of trying to kill us and our children with vaccines and masks. Journalists used to be viewed as independent investigators who uncovered truth. Now journalists are vilified as propagandists spreading lies.

We live in a post-truth era. People no longer even search for truth. They think it is a lost cause. If we found it, no one would believe it anyway. So why even try? How would people even know if they found it? Disinformation and misinformation are so rampant that people can no longer distinguish fact from fantasy. They have not been trained how to reason, so they will believe anything. Even the concept of “fact” seems quaint. There is only “us versus them.” Information is ammunition.

For me as a pastor this attitude is particularly troubling within Christianity. I went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky back when Baptists were in the mainstream of biblical and theological scholarship. Science was considered a gift of God. History was seen as the arena of God. To deny science or history was to deny God. The gold standard for biblical studies in my seminary was the historical critical method. My professors sought to recover actual historical events from beneath the layers of literary traditions in the Bible.

Then the fundamentalists took over the denomination and the seminary. Historical science was abandoned in favor of doctrinal purity. The Bible was announced to be inerrant in all matters, including history and science. The universe was created in six days six thousand years ago. Adam and Eve were declared to be real persons. The Garden of Eden was a real place, complete with a real talking snake. Noah’s Flood really happened.  Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. The sun stood still for nearly a day in order to give Joshua time to take revenge on the Amorites. Sarah gave birth at age 90.

To think otherwise is the devil’s lie, they say. That is why Southern Baptists and other evangelicals have embraced post-truth politics so readily. They have lived in fantasyland for a hundred years, since fundamentalism was formed in response to modernism in the 1920’s.

In the name of God they have fought against historical and scientific truth. They have insisted on interpreting biblical stories literally and rejected any historical and scientific evidence to the contrary. They have fought against evolution. They have championed creationism, intelligent design, prayer and Bible reading in schools. They are very used to distrusting scientists and historians.

They have built temples to their literalism, such as the Creation Museum and Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. They have led the way in creating their own set of “facts.” Anything that does not conform to their worldview is nonfactual. They have constructed an alternate reality, complete with Christian schools and home schooling curriculum to perpetuate it.

These anti-science, anti-history Christians were ripe for the picking by the conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and political operatives who recruited them. It is one thing to have an evangelical subculture as an alternative to mainstream culture. It is another thing to try to remake American culture in that image.  Yet that is what is happening today. Democracy is of no value to those who see theocracy as God’s perfect will for planet earth. Like God in the Book of Revelation, they are willing to burn down the house to bring it about.

No longer is the old hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” just a metaphor. Now Christian culture warriors buy semi-automatic weapons, wear camo, and form militias in the name of Jesus. Among the conspiracists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were evangelicals, who waved flags that proclaimed "Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President," "Jesus saves," and "Jesus 2020."

After seizing the Capitol building they offered a prayer to Jesus from the podium of the Senate chamber, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” All the people responded “Amen!” These are the new Christian Crusaders. As a Christian shaped by Enlightenment and democratic values, this feels like a return to the Dark Ages. God help us all.