Truth and the Theological Learning Community in a “Post-Truth” Culture

Convocation Address, Spring 2017
by Dr. Robert Johson, Provost and Dean of the Seminary

 

The book 1177B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric Cline,  professor of Anthropology at George Washington University, is dedicated to surveying archaeological findings connected to the end of the Late Bronze Age.  The fact that a surprisingly globalized economy and its constituent civilizations abruptly ended is clear, but the cause of their demise is far from certain.  For many decades ancient documentary evidence seemed to indicate that a mysterious amalgam of invaders referred to as “the Sea People” was the culprit.  However, ongoing archaeological digs have discredited that theory and instead support the view that the so-called Sea People were likely a collection of transient victims of other disrupted cultures rather than the principal cause of the demise of Bronze Age civilization.

Following several chapters that explore in detail the widely varying causes for the collapse of these previously thriving kingdoms and cities, Cline arrives at the concluding thesis of his book – that the decades-long attempts to identify a singular or a simple causality fails to hold water in the face of growing archaeological evidence.  He then makes his case for employing complexity science or theory as a more reliable approach to understanding why Late Bronze Age civilization collapsed so suddenly.

The goal of complexity theory is to explain the phenomena which emerge from a collection of interacting objects, entities, and/or systems.  In the case of Late Bronze Age civilizations, no one event or single agent caused the collapse.  Neither was there an inevitable pathway of actions that produced this outcome.  The consensus of archaeology suggests that as Late Bronze Age civilizations became increasingly dependent upon each other for goods and services, disjunctive change to any one of the relevant kingdoms (such as the Mycenaeans or the Hittites) could potentially affect and destabilize them all.  The more complex a system becomes, the more susceptible it becomes to collapse from sources outside its immediate purview.

I open with this overview from the ancient past because this monumental and extended work of archaeological sciences and scholarship offers important insight into some qualities we as a community of theological scholars need to value and protect in our own day.  By the book’s close, I had developed deep appreciation for the long-term and undaunted dedication of these archaeologists to uncover the truth in spite of repeated setbacks, dead ends, and shortages of resources.

Reminiscent of the Late Bronze Age civilizations we, too, live in an increasingly complex and interdependent world.  Yet, as M. Scott Peck illustrates in The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, the human mind continues its proclivity for simplistic answers and explanations.  We prefer simple, quick, singular, and “common sense” solutions to the problems generated by very complex systems of relationships, economics, politics, religion, and more.  We want to identify and address the one thing that, if corrected or changed, would solve the complex array of world problems. Furthermore, in a society increasingly fragmented by competing concerns and interests, agreement on even simplistic solutions across the many interest groups becomes less tenable.  Consequently, in the process of posing and then discrediting each possible solution for building a better, more caring world, we fail to notice or effectively address complex and festering dysfunctions in areas of interdependence.  Most recently this neglect has been manifest in the emergence of what has come to be called the “post-truth” culture.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016 was “post-truth.”  OED defines “Post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  In more popular lingo Steven Colbert calls it “truthiness,” meaning an argument or assertion made by a person who claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.  If we weren’t convinced already, our recent presidential election has brought us face-to-face with the reality that we live in an age of “truthiness”, or of “alternate-facts” as others choose to label it.  Philosopher Michael Lynch writes that the pathway to “truthiness” (not his term) begins with a culture of doubting every bit of information that comes across our path.  In a New York Times column he writes, “When everything could be fiction, we follow our so-called gut and pick, almost at random, certain stories in which we choose to believe” and the resultant assemblage of thought, motivation, and action constitutes post-truth.  Lucy Ferriss of Trinity College, Connecticut, describes this growing practice as an attempt to make normative a cultural development that is “Not Normal” and should not be accepted as normative. (The Chronicle Review, Dec. 9, 2017)

Post-truth thinking has become so pandemic in American society that growing segments of the population consider this way of deciding truth to be normative – “It’s just common sense.”  Nothing more is needed to demonstrate its truth.  At its core, post-truth thinking is simplistic thinking.  Our society often employs subtle methods to discourage complex thinking because simplistic thinking better serves the interests of power holders, profit seekers, those who just don’t want the discomfort of ambiguity, and those who want to avoid the work required to uncover the truth for themselves.  Through carefully selected social media we refine the information we receive to the point that it reflects only the perspectives we like or with which we agree – a phenomenon called “limited cognitive resourcing.”   The result is the promotion of one-dimensional, simplistic thinking as the “normal” way of functioning.

Society’s institutions of greatest influence, when they fail to teach and demonstrate complex thinking (i.e. developing use of the frontal lobes of the brain), set people up to think simplistically.  They set people up to conceive that what other people like me think is normative and therefore correct.  Among the institutions too often failing in this task are religious institutions, political institutions, the family, and mass media.  Even educational institutions — whose primary goal has long been considered that of developing better processes and habits of thinking — too often succumb to practices that indoctrinate rather than teach people to think for themselves in responsible and complex ways.

Institutions heavily engaged in the transmission of ideas are especially important in our world because they are the leaders and influencers in demonstrating modes of thought and conduct that multitudes trust as the “right ways.”  These institutions have great power both to guide and misguide, to lead and to manipulate people.  Too often they do misguide and manipulate, possibly with sincere intentions and under the guise of tradition, truth, and conventional wisdom, but the result is passive followers rather than responsible and engaged thinkers and researchers.  By teaching and/or demonstrating simplistic thinking those institutions foster the transmission of half-truths and even blatant lies as “normal” to unsuspecting members of the population.  “If everyone is thinking this or doing that, then it must be correct.”  This means that we as students and faculty of Central Seminary share an extra burden of responsibility to learn, teach, and demonstrate for others how to think well.  Thinking well means pressing beyond simple dogma, single issue causality, and exclusivist thinking.  The institutions, persons, and faith communities we are training to lead and serve need for us to learn how to teach and demonstrate the value and skills of complex thinking.  They need us to teach and demonstrate how to think in the responsible pursuit of truth and how to advance beyond the prison of simplistic thinking.

A few contemporary interpreters harken back to the Romantic Era of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and its appeal to emotion as corollary to the current cultural climate in America.  Overburdened by the demands of German rationalism and neoclassicism, the Romantics sought solace in the arts, in nature, and in poetic expression.  Similar to the Romantic poets of the past, today’s theological disciplines depend significantly on artistic expression in exercising their craft.  So, the question arises ought we to resort to post-truth thinking as a guiding standard for our work?  Is there no difference between poetic and artistic expression and “truthiness”?  What is the relationship between creative expression and truth?

Albert Camus provides us with a clue for thinking through these questions.  He writes that, “[literary] fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  Applying the same idea to the Arts, Picasso wrote, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” (“Picasso Speaks,” 1923)  Theologians and preachers, like poets, fiction writers, and painters, all attempt (or at least they should attempt) to harness emotion and imagination in the service of truth.  “Truth is the end goal ….”  In other words, truth is a provable hypothesis, a conclusion based on evidence, a deduction achieved through processes of reason and repeatable observation, an insight to which the perception of beauty can guide us.  In contrast, “post-truth” is a strategy that seeks to exploit emotion for purposes of self-interested gain – whether for political, economic, personal, or other profit. (Ferriss, “Post-Truth and Chaos,” The Chronicle Review, Dec. 16,2016)

Amid the tendencies, pressures, and temptations to do otherwise, our learning community must resist selling out to simplistic thinking in our work, methods, and scholarly pursuits. I am convinced that we can never build a healthy and sustainable community of theological scholars on the foundations of post-truth assumptions and methodologies.  The pursuit of truth must be a cornerstone of our endeavor, as over against the use of “truth” as a strategy to be manipulated in order to achieve some ulterior goal.  As both seekers of and bearers of truth, the Central community must practice integrity, inclusion, innovation, and excellence.

While we must learn to recognize, relate to, and deal with post-truth elements in society, there is no place for post-truth values as standards for our work as scholars, ministers, service providers, and community leaders. The search for truth is at the heart of who we are and what we do.  Regardless of how elusive the truth might be, or how difficult it might be to approximate, truth must be our goal.  Truth must be our standard.  To that end we must never give up on efforts to teach and demonstrate the complex thinking skills and disciplines necessary for correctly pursuing truth.

As faculty, we are challenged to demonstrate and teach the demanding skills of complex thinking and the practices that sustain it.

As students, we must challenge ourselves to the high standards of exploration and discovery that doesn’t settle for easy, safe, and comfortable answers, but press on to attainment of the harder insights that foster integrity, inclusion, new configurations of community and ministry, and greater excellence.

During the years ahead, we likely will find ourselves challenged by increased and ever more subtle uses of post-truth thinking and its methods of reasoning and justification.  It is important that we learn to recognize such thinking for what it is.  It is equally important that we determine to hold ourselves and our ministries to the higher standards of truth.  The struggle in which we are engaged will not be easily won, nor will it be of short duration.  However, we must comprehend that the minds and souls of our world and its people are at stake.  We must always hold sacred our responsibility to both teach and demonstrate to our world the skills needed for exposing lies and half-truths and for the discovery and illumination of that which is true.