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True Lies?

9 - 6

We live in a world of “alternative facts”, a “post-truth” culture. No questions are silly. Every opinion is of equal value. There has been a clever sleight of hand: we have turned valuing every person whatever their opinion into valuing every opinion.

People, in this new world, don’t do wrong, certainly they don’t sin – people in this world make “errors of judgment”. People don’t lie – they “misspeak”. There are no facts – just “my truth” and “your truth”. “This is true for me.”

This attitude is present in educational theories: curriculums shy away from a canon of agreed content. This culture is present in art and architecture theory and practice – beauty is understood as totally in the eye of the beholder.

I’m as post-modern as the next person. Certainly, “where you stand determines what you see”. And, with my science degree, I understand that light is both waves and particles.

But I’m going to be old-fashioned about this: either humans have landed on the Moon, or we have not. Events happened or they did not happen. The world is flat or not. The universe is just over 6,000 years old, or it is not. Either President Trump’s inaugural ceremony had the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration” or it did not. Either humans evolved, or we did not.

And read my lips: believing something does not make it true. Lots of people believing something still does not make it true. The President of the United States of America believing something does not make it true.

Sure, some things we cannot verify; we may not be able to work out if something happened or not. But it did happen or not happen.

Sure, with some things, we can view them from different perspectives. God, for example, can be described in a variety of ways. I treasure the apophatic tradition which challenges definitions of God. There is value in the story of the elephant and the blind people. But, even with “life after death”, either death is the end, or death is not the end.

The image at the top of this post is thought-provoking. But let us not too quickly oversimplify, or press the ideas too hard. Whoever painted the image on the ground had an intention for what it would signify – a 6 or a 9. If it is part of a sequence of numerals (say, on the ground, in car park), we can work it out by the orientation of the other numerals. Or we can ask the person who put it there what s/he intended (even if they intended that it be a discussion-starter like the image at the top). To say that we can no longer work out what was originally intended is one thing. To say that it means whatever I want it to mean is quite another. To press this further: there is an objective elephant for people to have limited subjective experiences and descriptions of.

What do you think?

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12 Responses to True Lies?

  1. I wonder whether it is a case of people saying “that which is right in their own eyes” or a case of people finding they can say whatever they can get away with – which is a great deal because all their world’s social media reinforces their assertions, while society in general is being conditioned to feel “inconvenient truths” are much more inconvenient, and much less truths, than ever before.

    What I am chewing over in my mind, and would appreciate feedback on, is that gateway in society that lets through ideas from people who know what they are saying is a big lie, and lets it flow on to many others who, through whatever flaw in reasoning or attitude, passes it on and amplifies it with at least some feeling it is the truth. The two groups – the liars and the “lie-ees” – have always existed but there is something now that makes it far to easy for the process to happen. Rather than spend all the time arguing truth-vs-lie with people, at least some effort is needed to understand why the gateway has become so large now. It is not just the addition of something high-tech, but the subtraction of something vital for life.

    • Thanks, Mark. I’m trying to think through your point also. And I hope others might also… Are you referring, for example, to companies that pay (“donate”?) so that research advantages them? Blessings.

  2. It is a wake up call for Western academic discourse which has made a virtue of disbelief in objective truth.

    Trump is the wake up call: objective truth matters!

    PS Just as the count matters at inaugurations, so it matters for church attendance registers 🙂

    • Yes, Peter! We can be, with post-modernism, more nuanced about “objective truth”, but I sincerely hope you are correct – that “objective truth” returns to our academic discourse. Blessings.

  3. I have issues with the intellectual dishonesty of the press, for some time now. The press in the US seems to think that everything has two equal sides and they they need to give equal time to both. Global Warming, for instance. The press thinks that it has to give equal time to the nut case GW deniers, that is given to the thousands of legitimate scientists, from many different fields, with evidence that the Earth is warming, that the warming will have catastrophic consequences and that we humans are the cause of it. That’s bunk.

    • I agree, David. Two opposing positions (evolution, creationism) does not merit equal time in a science curriculum, as another example. Blessings.

  4. I feel that we are like kites with our controlling strings cut. We are now blown where the winds of change take us.
    The guiding strings are the stories and structures that tide us down to the basic truths. Without those guides there is nothing to balance us and we are always on the verge of falling, being caught or being carried away. We have no control so can achieve little.

  5. David’s point about the media is very important. I have become more and more aware of how stories are told with a result in mind. I saw a press conference the other day given by Donald Trump, and I later saw a newspaper article about the press conference. I’m no Trump partisan, but it was blatantly obvious that the article, through its inclusions and omissions, was either a deliberate distortion intended to affirm a particular narrative, or was the product of a mind so captivated by that narrative that it could no longer even recognize anything that would contradict it. (Is that what they call “cognitive dissonance”?)

    What I think is the crucial issue in our time is not so much “subjective vs. objective” as whether we are willing to pursue a truth outside ourselves at all, and to commit ourselves to the effort of clear communication so that others in search of the truth can understand what we are trying to say.

    A friend of mine who is an art historian was showing to her class an image of a Virgin and Child by a Renaissance master. One student kept objecting: “That’s not what I see there! I see a woman with a baby.” Despite my friend’s best efforts, this student persistently refused to accept that she needed to be educated about one of the classic conventions of western Christian iconography in order to understand the painting.

    By contrast, when my university roommate (a fine arts major) painted the Virgin and Child as Koreans in traditional Korean dress, I could understand exactly what he was trying to say, because we both knew the iconographical code. And what he was saying was interesting!

    Then again, just to complicate matters, I have a student who queries whether it’s ever appropriate to speak of “objective truth,” not because he’s a relativist, but because he questions whether anything can ever be known except subjectively. I’ve found our conversations very stimulating, particularly when we have talked about whether God can be “known,” when he is entirely transcendent of any human knowledge. We cannot know him as we know that the sun has risen—and we only know the sun has risen as observers of the sun (though we are happy to make pretty firm predictions about what it will do tomorrow, too). God too is a knowing subject, but with perfect knowledge. On that view, “objectivity” can only be understood to pertain to what is known with God’s knowledge. (Cf. 1 Cor. 2:16.)

    When I took “Moral Existence” with Prof. Kenneth Melchin, there was a student in the class who would get very frustrated with the approach of Bernard Lonergan (which informed Melchin’s), which is basically epistemological and phenomenological. We attain moral knowledge through experience (direct and learned from others), and as experience accumulates, and we are able to see the trends to which certain decisions lead (positive or negative), our moral knowledge can become more precise. The student kept protesting, “But surely there must be some objective morality!” To which Prof. Melchin would calmly respond, “I agree with you. How do you know what it is?”

    • Yes, Jesse – pressing your point about the “sun has risen”: that is a subjective statement. In one sense, of course, the sun has done nothing. The earth has rotated so that the observer can now see the sun. Blessings.

      • Indeed! I confess I had in the back of my mind Lewis’s remark about believing in Christianity as he believed that the sun had risen: not so much because he saw the sun, as because by it he could see everything else.

  6. I’ve lived in America for a few years and US politics and US Christianity can distort reality yes.

    A very lovely colleague asked me yesterday ‘are you a Christian?’ I respect her too much to play semantic games but I responded in my head ‘how do I seem to you?’! because a lot of people say ‘I’m a Christian’.

    In the Bible Jesus says not everyone who calls him Lord is destined for His Kingdom…it’s the kind people he singles out as His own.

    With the rise in hate groups and prejudice in America ( worldwide? ) I think a lot of people will be practically tested as to where their truth lies and especially what it means to be a Christian.

    ‘Where the truth lies…’ what a poignant pointed phrase that is!

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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