What is truth?

Pilate asked that rhetorical question to Jesus around 2000 years ago (Jn 18:38) and then after telling Jesus’ accusers that their claims were baseless, he executed Jesus anyway. And so the Truth died.

Today, it seems, we’re still asking the same question as Pilate and still, like Pilate not acting in accordance with the facts. We live in a world of fake news, alternative facts and post-truth.

Timothy Pauls says Christians should largely be unimpressed by this revelation.

It’s hardly breaking news that our culture has rejected the idea of objective truth: Look no further than the popular assertion that a man with XY chromosomes and matching anatomy can say, “I’m a woman because I say so.” The statement doesn’t hold water if one believes in objective truth; the problem is that our society has sacrificed objective truth in favor of, “It’s true because I want it to be.”

Yet fake news has caused much hand-wringing and concern in the corridors of power. The UK Parliament has launched an inquiry into the ‘phenomenon of fake news’. What is it? How does it spread? And I guess they will want to know, how do you counter it?

It’s somewhat ironic given politicians are famous for avoiding straight answers, covering up uncomfortable facts or using the government machine to smear, lie and deceive. A democracy is no defence from politicians trying such things but usually in an open and free society with a free press then there is a check. Truth is spoken to power. A scandal erupts and a government falls, leaders resign and the electorate gets to cast it’s judgement. There are good reasons why the press is not free in China, Russia, Turkey or North Korea – well good reasons if you happen to be the government of those countries.

President Trump is not following their rule book by muzzling the press or arresting journalists. He has no need for such strong-arm tactics. He has, we’ve discovered, a much more effective weapon. Trump’s weapon, which he has wielded to great effect, is a complete and total disregard of the facts. He doesn’t care and what’s more, instead of accepting a fact, he straight out denies it. And so do his supporters.

This is freaking out a lot of people. Especially journalists. Donald Trump has declared war on the media or maybe he’s at war with the facts. But Ezra Klein makes an insightful comment

This, along with much else Spicer said, was plainly untrue. But there’s a strategy at work here. The Trump administration is creating a baseline expectation among its loyalists that they can’t trust anything said by the media. The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true.

And there in the middle is the battleground – can you ‘trust anything said by the media’? As Gavin Hewitt said on the BBC, ” trust in the media had fallen to an all-time low in 17 of the 28 countries polled.”

Timothy Pauls, says, what’s new?

In some ways, it’s difficult to me to take the controversy seriously, mostly because the folks who sound angriest are the same who usually “help” the Church celebrate Christmas by running cover stories like, “The Truth about Jesus that the Church Doesn’t Want You to Know,” then presenting a mind-numbing rehash about the Gnostic gospels that everyone has known to be fake for the past, oh, 2,000 years.

That the media has a bias and a worldview that is often anti-Christian is not new or particularly surprising but there is a deeper problem that we should be concerned about. As Gavin Hewitt says,

Democracy can’t function without facts that are widely accepted. It doesn’t mean that facts shouldn’t be disputed or their meaning argued over, but societies need a bedrock of information to inform their decisions. If conspiracies and exaggerations are accepted as alternative realities, then it is much more difficult for a leader to be judged in the court of public opinion.

So is Donald Trump a threat to democracy? Well, he could be. Not in the sense of conspiracy theories about coups but because the possibility of debate is being consistently, intentionally undermined, disregarded and shouted down. This will only increase division and in an already deeply divided country, that is not a good thing.

Our problem, and it’s one that every person is susceptible to, is dealing with a truth that does not fit our beliefs. As this article points out:

The issue is that when it comes to facts, people think more like lawyers than scientists, which means they ‘cherry pick’ the facts and studies that back up what they already believe to be true.

And the problem is that ‘beliefs’ are notoriously difficult to dislodge. If we employ facts we’re likely to come up against the backfire effect.

Neurologist and conspiracy-debunker Steven Novella, who argues ‘believers’ see contradictory evidence as part of the conspiracy and dismiss lack of confirming evidence as part of the cover-up, thus only digging their heels deeper into their position the more counter-evidence they’re presented with.

I’ve recently discovered that some friends of mine hold to, what I consider, deeply disconcerting conspiracy theories and their view of the world is radically different to mine. What was more interesting was when asked if anything could persuade them of the opposite view, they said, ‘no way’. So there we were both entrenched in our convictions and no fact we could present would move us. And when you consider that memories can be unreliable well as the saying goes, ‘Houston we have a problem’.

The problem right now is considerable for Christians in America. It’s widely reported (and it seems everyone agrees) that self-reported evangelicals supported Trump in great numbers and are proving to be extremely reluctant to criticize no matter what the President says and are more likely to distrust the mainstream press.

There is an ‘us vs them’ mentality and not without reason. Just to give one example Denny Burk complains of the double standards and dishonesty of some reporting in the Washington Post and says, “I can hardly believe that these religious freedom stories are so inaccurately portrayed in the press.” The problem is there are millions of people who can’t believe that Denny can’t believe it, because y’know the rotten, dishonest media!

Both Trevin Wax and Ed Stetzer have recently written calling for Christians to be less gullible and more discerning. Ed says, “Gullible or conspiracy-spreading Christians simply do not help these perceptions. Instead, they feed the impression that Evangelicals are simply unwilling to face truth.”

Trevin quotes Sarah Pulliam-Bailey. Her defence of mainstream media is worth considering,

As a reporter who also happens to be a Christian, I believe that truth exists and can be ascertained, even if imperfectly and the fact that we understand it imperfectly heightens our duty to pursue it diligently. And I believe journalism is the one of the best practical pursuits of truth in earthly life, one that allows us to reveal and explain the truth to others. Many religions seek a truth that is beyond the scope of journalism, yet if people of faith no longer accept the veracity of factual truth, then they threaten to undermine their own pursuit of ultimate questions.

Abandoning mainstream media sites for opinion sites you already agree with is not the answer. The “mainstream media” is collectively valuable because it presents a range of information and viewpoints, while the Breitbarts of the world present a singular voice to a targeted group of people.

So what can we do? In Seattle librarians are teaching kids how to tell the difference between news and sponsored content. So teaching how to tell the difference between news and opinion, advert, propaganda is important. If you’ve spread fake news, Ed Stetzer offers some advice but more generally when we consider the news and the, often overwhelming flood of contradiction, Luke Davydaitis offers a few things worth remembering.

  1. Everyone has a bias
  2. Everyone wants your attention
  3. No-one notices God

Lastly, there is the thorny question of how we persuade others of the truth. I did think of putting ‘truth’ in scare quotes but I believe in the truth should not be seen as scary. Anyway, let’s turn to some wisdom from Pascal to conclude:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

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