“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
-John 14:15-17 (NIV)
Every year, Oxford Dictionaries designates a “word of the year.” This year’s is an interesting one: post-truth. The dictionary defines it as referring to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
“Post-truth” is the word of the year because Oxford is acknowledging something about the world we live in now. To make your case and win agreement in this time, you have to push buttons. You have to provoke, inflame, and arouse, not so much with facts and figures, but by tapping in to fear, anger, grievance. And what taps into those passions will be considered true. A cynic might say that we’re not really interested in truth.
But it’s not that simple, I think. All you have to do is see how people react when they’re lied to, and you have to recognize that truth still matters. The problem is deeper: We don’t know how to recognize truth. What’s happened, I think, is not that people don’t care about truth. It’s that our world has become so much larger, and the voices we hear so much more diverse, that competing versions of truth slip and intertwine and collide around us in ways that would have been impossible a generation or two ago. And with so many competing opinions of truth in world, we see little hope of untangling it.
So we choose to find clarity in feeling, in our personal belief systems, in the little shortcuts and crutches that help us navigate the confusion of so many “truths” trying to shout each other down. We adopt as truth what feels right. What works for us. We call “truth” what answers our questions or scratches our itches.
That’s why we don’t listen to each other well. That’s why we can end up in shouting matches with the people we love most over what is true. That’s why our latest election has left us so divided, why social media is filled with angst and argument, why universities that once were driven by a search for knowledge and understanding now offer safe spaces where a student’s personal understanding of truth won’t be challenged. When what you call truth and what I call truth seem so incompatible, it’s no wonder we have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on, well, anything. And when we demonize each other and question each others’ characters and motives instead of trying to understand how truth can take on different shapes to different people, it’s no wonder we can literally or figuratively go to war.
No wonder so many of us would like to think of ourselves as “post-truth.” It’s easier. Less confrontational.
So what does it mean, in a world that considers itself “post-truth,” that Jesus promises that his followers will receive “the Spirit of truth” to be with us forever?
For one thing, it means that God is about truth, that whatever our world may think of the subject, however human beings might doubt the existence of some objective truth, for God truth is not an outdated notion. God is about truth, and intends for human beings to at least begin to grasp it.
It means that this truth is outside myself. I don’t invent it, and it isn’t supposed to be for my benefit. If truth lives in me, it’s because I have received it, nothing more. Truth isn’t given as a textbook for me to memorize and understand. It’s not a badge of honor I receive for maintaining the proper orthodoxy. If the Spirit of truth lives in me, it’s only because God has reorganized and renovated my heart to make room for it.
This means, in turn, that truth isn't a weapon given to me to serve my own ends. It isn’t for the defense of my way of life or my vision of America, or to give advantage to those most like me, or to reinforce my own prejudices. In fact, if I find truth at all comfortable, it’s probably because what I’m calling truth is simply my own feelings and preconceptions talking. Truth is an equal-opportunity offender, and if it isn’t doing a number on my own heart then it probably isn’t truth at all. Even if I’m using God’s name on it. While we sometimes seem to think that being Christians means we get to speak authoritatively about everything, truth doesn't work like that. You don’t need to take everyone’s view of truth at face value. But don't mistake your own assumptions and prejudices for unvarnished truth, either.
It means, too, that truth is relational. It has its origin in the relationship between God and Jesus, Father and Son. It’s received relationally, as Jesus gives it to those who live with him. And as we live in relationship with others, in justice and righteousness, we discover its nuances. If you’re white, for instance, don’t say you know the truth about racism unless you know the experience of people who have suffered it. Don’t pretend you know the truth about the poor without being friends with and walking with some folks who are poor. Don’t write off Muslims as extremists without first getting to know some Muslims. You get the point, right? Truth works in relationship. In good, right relationships, with him and with those around you, the Spirit of God will lead you into truth. And it will probably take a while, and subject you to your own internal struggles.
“Truth” isn’t exactly synonymous with “facts,” either. They’re just close enough that we can make that dangerous assumption. Facts, in our world, can be and are easily manipulated by those with an agenda. Truth isn’t necessarily known in the recitation of facts. Truth — the Spirit of truth that Jesus promised — is known in him, and is known in relationship with those around us as we treat them with the love and justice and grace that he showed. Facts require no love, no grace, no concern, no involvement. Truth, by definition, does.
But don’t be surprised when the world doesn’t genuflect to you. “The world cannot accept” the Spirit of truth, says Jesus, “because it neither sees him nor knows him.” Fact is, your job is not to convince all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers that you know the truth and they don’t, like some God-ordained conspiracy theorist out to expose all their misconceptions. Remember, it’s God’s work to reveal truth. It’s ours to proclaim the good news of Jesus, in word and action, and invite those with whom we have connections to submerge and even lose their own “truths” in his. But that isn’t an easy message, and sometimes people will react the way, well, the way you and I often react when our own understandings of truth are threatened: with defensiveness, anger, and outright hostility. Don’t be shocked, and don’t react in kind.
Hear me, now: none of this is to disparage truth, or to drink in our “post-truth” culture’s assumption that objective truth is nothing but a narrative used by the powerful to control the powerless. Fact is, the One who embodied truth did not use it for his own advantage. And that’s who we follow.
We’re not post-truth, not really. Those who want to follow Jesus cannot be. We can, though, and should, acknowledge the damage done in our world by those who have come in the name of some truth or the other. And we must shine with the light of the Spirit of truth, given by the One who laid down his life for the world to those who would follow in his footsteps.