Lately I have been thinking a lot about the matter of “alternative facts.” While it hasn’t been named in exactly this way before, the phenomenon of “alternative facts” is nothing new. People have always attempted to shape the interpretation of the world around them to their own advantage.
The rise of postmodernity and deconstructionism has gone a long way toward legitimizing alternative facts. The very concept of “truth” has become suspect. (Witness Stephen Colbert’s wonderful term, “truthiness”). What is true for one person may not be so for another. Years ago, when I was teaching in a community college, I was shocked at how readily my students simply accepted this understanding of truth. Since that time, the idea that truth is culturally determined has become ever more atomistic. Put differently, truth is not now simply determined by one’s culture; it is determined on an individual level. The truth about my life and the way I see the world are first and foremost located within myself. From this perspective, it is more accurate to speak of “truths,” in the plural.
Various theologians and philosophers have attempted over the years to discern the ways in which postmodernity relates to Christian theology. I’m not a philosopher, but I can’t see a productive way in which the deconstruction of the concept of truth can be particularly helpful to Christian theologians. I am reminded of Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Truth was standing right in front of him, and he did not know it.
The Gospel of John (1:1-3) shows us a picture of Jesus not just as teacher, Messiah, and Son of God, but as the divine logos—the word, wisdom, reason, and creative order of God. Jesus is literally the enfleshment of truth, so to know Jesus is to know truth. When Jesus left, he gave us the Holy Spirit, who would continue his teaching. Jesus in fact calls the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of truth” (John 15:26).
Christians are necessarily committed to the idea of truth. Yes, the way in which we interpret our experiences can be to some extent culturally determined, but this is quite different from saying that there is no truth. If you and I are standing on opposite sides of a valley, looking down at a cabin below us, we will perceive different aspects of the cabin, but we are undeniably looking at the same building. Perhaps in conversation with one another we will develop a fuller account of what it is we saw.
As Christians, we seek truth because we believe that truth is inherently good. All truth is ultimately the product of God’s creative divine Word, who was made flesh in Jesus Christ. Whether we are talking about the crowd size at the presidential inauguration, a mathematical equation, the inherent value of human lives, or the saving work of Jesus Christ, truth matters.
Truth matters. Once we lose sight of this idea, we are not simply lost, but much worse: we’ve given up hope of finding our way.