“Alternative Facts” and Christian Truth

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.

16 thoughts on ““Alternative Facts” and Christian Truth

  1. The controversy over “alternative facts” is about truth, not Truth.

    A fact is true because it exists independent of our belief. If someone tells me that the United States was part of the British Empire in 1834, I can say he’s wrong, and point to the Declaration of Independence and other historical documents as proof. If this person shows me other documents, I would not accept these “alternative facts,” but dismiss them as fakes.

    However, a statement like “all men are created equal” is different from a fact. It is impossible to verify; we have to choose whether to believe it is self-evident. But since this statement is a foundational concept for democracy, we elevate these words to the status of Truth — much more important than a fact.

    When people talk about “what’s real to me,” they’re talking about their opinion about Truths, which are by nature not provable. Jesus said he was the Messiah — that is a fact. But the validity of his claim can be neither proved nor refuted, so individuals must decide if they accept his claim as Truth.

    The problem with “alternative facts” is that they ask us to reject the evidence of our own senses and intellect. If we accept that 2 + 2 = 5, we abdicate our freedom, and lose our ability to determine what is True.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I would just respond that there can be truths that are not empirically verifiable or verifiable in principle. I would not demote these to the level of opinion. “All men are created equal” is an important one. Though not verifiable, it nonetheless shapes out policies and ideals (or should). Christians believe that our claims about Jesus are true. I hope I have understood your argument correctly.

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  3. David, I appreciate your willingness to write this up, to frame the problem for us. But having served in a progressive annual conference that has redefined obedience as disobedience (and does so with relentless pride and advocacy and chicanery), I don’t see a way forward on this issue. The subordination of truth in the service of new doctrine infests the church at the highest intellectual levels. Of course, this suborning of truth conceals itself behind a mask of Christian similitude and many are deceived.

    • I might add that Galileo had, what was many years ago, thought as an “alternate truth,” when he told people that the Earth orbited the Sun. It was “known, of course,” that the Sun orbited the Earth. For his “alternate truth” he was excommunicated. Only to find that Galileo’s “alternate truth,” was, indeed, The Truth.
      It was once “known” that seizures were caused by Demons. Of course, they are not, they are misfiring of the brain, and medication or surgical intervention prevent seizures.
      Many Biblical “truths” have been proven to be untrue, or as you put it “Alternate Truths.”‘
      Since 1976, science has showed us that being LBGTAQI is not a mental defect, nor is it a choice, it is how a person was born. There should be no discrimination against our LBGQAI sisters and brothers.
      Remember once our African American sisters and brothers were enslaved, as this was right and good, according to the Bible, later our A. A. sisters and brothers were made to be a part of the Central Jurisdiction, no matter what African American UMC they attended or where it was located. If the church was in Delaware, it was in the Central Jurisdiction, or if it was in California, it was in the C. J., and this was so, until the late 1960s.
      Change happens, and the only constant, is change.
      I am proud of the annual conferences and jurisdictions that are in non compliance and there will be more and more as time goes on.

  4. Dr. Watson,
    Your post reminded me of something the late Bishop Lesslie Newbigen recalled. An Indian Hindu approached him about the way Christians misrepresent the Bible: “As I read the Bible I find in it a quite unique interpretation of universal history and, therefore, a unique understanding of the human person as a responsible actor in history. You missionaries have talked about the Bible as it were simply another book of religion. We have plenty of these already in India and we do not need another to add to our supply.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 89). Sadly, within Western culture we do the same.

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