Oxford Dictionaries have declared ‘Post-Truth’ as their 2016 International Word of the Year. I find this interesting, and not just because to me it looks suspiciously like two words. Post-truth is an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.
‘What is truth?’ asked Pontius Pilate rhetorically, when at His trial Jesus said His purpose was to testify to the Truth. Pilate clearly believed, 2000 years ago, that he was already living in a post-truth society.
To say that truth is identical with objective fact is only part of the answer to Pilate’s question. Truth undoubtedly concerns facts about the past, but truth is not confined to the past. Truth is also a promise for the future. What is true, is ultimately what will always be. Some things will pass away but truth names those things which will not.
What does it all amount to? What’s the point of it all? Where’s it all going? This goes beyond objective facts into dreams, longings, and ultimate imaginings.
But there is another sense of truth. You get an idea of it if you ask yourself what kind of person Pontius Pilate was, and whether or not you could trust him. What did he really think of a supposedly powerful man brought before him who, when confronted with the question ‘what is truth?’, just shrugs His shoulders. This brings us to a kind of truth which is not just about the past or the future, but something very present.
Truth in the present is essentially about trust. When I wonder whether or not someone is speaking the truth, the issue isn’t about statements I can fact-check, or promises to which I can hold them accountable, but about whether or not I can trust them. Post-truth is really just a euphemism for post-trust.
So for me truth is three-sided. It’s about the past – we could call that ‘faith’ – and about the future – which we might call ‘hope’, and it’s about the present. Perhaps we could call that love.
St. Paul said of these three virtues that love is the greatest of them. Why? Perhaps because in the past and the future senses of truth, we can surround ourselves with people who think like we do, whether politically or religiously. Truth in the present is a lot harder. Love is an ability to learn from, be thankful for, and even cherish, those with whom we profoundly disagree, by whom we’ve been hurt, and with whom we can even get very angry.
If we love only those who love us, what good is that? If we listen only to those with whom we agree, what wisdom is there? Love has to extend even to a befuddled and shambling pumpkin-coloured flounder with tiny, tiny flounder fins.
Finding a way to work with those who don’t trust us is the great challenge of a post-truth culture, but it’s also the truth, that sets us free.