Today’s guest post comes to us from my good friend, Matthew Simpson. Matthew, a life-long Episcopalian, is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg , Virginia, (B.A in Religious Studies), with a focus in various topics such as Qur’anic Studies, Confucian Thought, Post-Holocaust Jewish Theodicy, and Christian Existentialism. He is currently a student at in the Diaconal Studies Program at General Theological Seminary in New York City, and in the four-year process to be ordained in the Sacred Order of Deacons in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He is currently a member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New Hope, Pennsylvania. If you like what you read here, check out his earlier guest series, Reflections on Theodicy, and especially his blog, Sermons from a Postulant.
Alright, let’s get into it then.
Part I: Identifying a Problem
In The Gospel according to John, chapter 18 verse 38, Pilate asks Jesus of Nazareth, who is standing trial before him: “What is truth?” The question would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. A man who has the power to decide whether to sentence an innocent man to death or not asks the question, “what is truth?” The question itself oozes both cynicism and innocence. There are many in our society that are convinced that they know the truth; many who are convicted in the certainty of their own hubris. Such people are the cause for the downfall of every society, and they are the greatest threat to our society today. The salvation of any society are the minds willing and courageous enough to ask “What is truth?” And it is to such people I address this difficult question in this difficult time.
Where do we begin? We can begin with the context of our problem: Post-modernism. We live in a post-modern world. While there have been many benefits from post-modernism and existential thought, such as the concept of “truth in context” and the ability to understand the fluidity of custom and worldviews, there have also been inevitable backlashes and damage done by post-modernism. One is the abandonment of objective truth; the belief that all truth is subjective. A key phrase in this thinking is “my truth is my truth; your truth is your truth.” Such a phrase, of course is never used in discussion over arsenic consumption, or whether airplane pilots need training before flying passengers across the country. So clearly there is no “my truth vs. your truth” when comes to issues that put persons in clear mortal danger. But that argument is completely acceptable when it comes to opinions on policy, morals, news sources and values. Why? Post-modernism’s damage is that it has poisoned our cultural psyche into believing “what I feel is right for me is right for me; what I feel is wrong for you is wrong for you.”
The root of “subjective truth” is based on feelings. In this context, feelings are a phenomenon to be obeyed by the self and others. And this belief molds itself into socially accepted madness. For example, there was a recent popular fad that taught if you just felt and dreamed of a positive future outcome, it would happen. And without evidence, people believed it?!?! Sadly, many were disenfranchised while one charismatic writer got very rich. As absurd as this may sound, this is precisely the same philosophy (or epistemology) that people use when they determine their sources of news and information, as well as their most sacred values.
I have a project for you: on the same day read Fox News, CNN, Breitbart and Huffington Post…and then read their comments section. Then observe, if possible, how different people react to news stories on various social media feeds. It is a very troubling and revealing social experiment. For example: when people in a mosque were victims of a shooting in Quebec from a suspected white supremacist, people who typically side with the Democrats were commenting and sharing the story avidly; in Conservative or Alt-Right news outlets the story was quieted and in social media the silence was deafening. When liberal rioters burned parts of Berkley Campus in protest of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking, Conservative and Alt-Right media and social media went crazy; while liberal news outlets had a hushed tone, with little to no comments from the liberal contingent of social media. To an outside observer the hypocrisy would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.
What is happening here? People are shopping for the news they want to hear. They are using information as a type of commercial product that can be advertised and consumed at will; or rejected at will. What matters are not facts, but congruence. In general, people are looking for data to support their view of others, the nation, the world, the universe. Sources of data that support a certain worldview are consumed, advertised and praised; while data that contradicts a worldview are ignored, evaded, or outright destroyed by being called lies without investigation. Sources of worldview-supporting data are praised; sources producing data challenging or contradicting one’s worldview are demonized. Another observation I think is important is attributed to Walter Wink and his idea “Salvation through Identification”:
“People today no longer are bound together by the values, rites, and customs that gave a sense of belonging in traditional cultures. Without these moorings, they are easy victims of the fads of style, opinion, and prejudice fostered by the communications media. At once isolated and yet absorbed in the masses, people live under that illusion that the views and feelings they have acquired by listening to the media are their own. Overwhelmed by the incomprehensible size of corporations, bureaucracies, universities, the military, and media icons, individuals sense that their only escape from utter insignificance lies in identifying with these giants and idolizing them as the true bearers of their own identity.
Salvation through identification; whether it be in cartoon shows or westerns or confrontations with foreign powers, one’s personal well-being is tied inextricably to the fortunes of the hero-leader. Right and wrong scarcely enter the picture. Everything depends on victory, where one has the thrill of belonging to a nation capable of imposing its will on other nations.” (emphasis mine)1
Again, this quote brings up the situation of post-modernism, and how media relates to our identity. Without our usual customs, rituals, and rites, humans are looking for significance, for ego-validation; in the media they find it. In attaching their value to their political-hero-god, or their political party, they substitute their own authentic identity for something easy and pre-packaged. People willingly surrender their mind and souls, being terrified of the other option. The greatest threat to the Powers that Be, are a critical thinking mind, and a self-reflective soul.
In the end it all comes back to ego, and intellectual laziness. In our postmodern world and in our technological world, we can seemingly create our own truth, but that is an illusion. We cannot create truth; in reality, we are simply validating our own viewpoints. We quickly cling and parade around data that supports our view, or to our hero-guy/gal; as if they have any real bearing on who we are as a person. And if our hero does lose, then we revolt and despair… and how could we not? The universe as we know it has been upturned. Our perspective rules our reality. And postmodernists and subjectivists would say: “of course it does.” But I believe there is a different perspective on truth that must be identified and reiterated: Truth is something that is outside the self; it is discoverable, it is knowable (but only in part), and its nature is completely independent of any human wish, feeling, or desire. We do not create Truth!
We will explore the nature of Truth, and how to engage it from a spiritual and intellectual position in the next blog.
1: Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a new millennium, (Doubleday Publishing. New York, NY. 1998), 60.