Jesus said to early Jewish believers, “If you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32). In these words, Jesus teaches that freedom flows from knowledge of the truth of which he is the source.
The Oxford English Dictionaries defines ’truth’ as ‘the quality or state of being true’, ‘that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality, and ‘a fact or belief that is accepted as true’. Yet in 2016, they announced that “after much discussion, debate and research the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth”, describing it as “an adjective relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’”.
One wonders how a judge in a court of law or a manager in a bank would react to any suggestion of post-truth claims in their respective fields. Yet when it comes to beliefs about morals or values in the public square there is a growing trend to marginalise truth or even deny its very existence altogether.
To those wishing to change society and the way it thinks, objective truth can be an obstacle. Prior to post-truth the debate was centred on whether truth was absolute or relative. Relativism says that ‘truth and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute’. With post-truth, however, objective facts are side-lined altogether and in their place personal preferences, emotions and beliefs are elevated and made preeminent. Evidence for this is all too prevalent on social media which allows people to attract vast numbers of ‘followers’ to their beliefs about particular issues, people or events.
Truth is linked to what is ultimately real. If ultimate reality is either uncertain, unknowable or non-existent then truth will no longer be attainable or even exist at all. Truth loses its meaning and we run the risk of believing what is not true or real – even a lie.
Yet where does a post-truth mind-set lead us and does it produce freedom?
In his book “Orthodoxy”, GK Chesterton illustrated the importance of truth and the link with freedom beautifully in the context of art when he said: “If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.” He viewed artistic creation as ‘the most decisive example of pure will’ but warned ‘The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing’.
Another illustration would be of a family home with a garden which backs on to a busy road. In order to protect the children and pets from danger of harm fences need to be erected and maintained. These boundaries are not intended to limit freedom or pleasure but, to the contrary, to create the environment where the true purpose of the garden can be freely discovered and enjoyed.
The Bible is often misunderstood as a book of rules and limits that is anti-freedom when in fact it is a book of freedom which allows us to explore and enjoy life to the full for the true purposes for which it has been given to us. These rules are not arbitrary but are those which relate to reality and flow from the nature of things as they truly are – ultimately the expression of the nature and character of God.
The pursuit of freedom in a post-truth culture produces autonomy instead. Freedom and autonomy are very different. Autonomy comes from two Greek words: ‘auto’, meaning ‘self’ and ‘nomos’ meaning ‘law’ – literally ‘law unto self’. In a society without a clear sense of truth autonomy will produce conflict as different people or groups vie for their personal beliefs, preferences and emotions to be accepted and to ultimately influence and control others. It produces a power-struggle in which the strongest will dominate and survive the weaker, rather like classical Darwinian natural selection in biology. We have seen this playing out in the courts in cases where bakers are expected to use their artistic talent to express beliefs with which they do not hold on cakes or employees are not allowed to wear certain symbols or express their personal convictions and beliefs in the workplace. On the one hand, faith beliefs are being dictated to and, on the other, they are being privatised and marginalised.
Far from delivering the true freedom which is desired, when freedom becomes disjointed from truth, autonomy produces at least three negative consequences:
- We lose our ability to reason – reason is sacrificed on the altar of our preferences which are inherently different and impossible to fully reconcile;
- We lose our sense of moral accountability – since there is no truth or God to be accountable to why should we be accountable to people and why should their preferences get in the way of ours?;
- We lose sight of human value – the value of life, whether of the un-born (even new-born) babies, the elderly or those with certain conditions, becomes the subject of preferences and subjective beliefs.
Ultimately, unfettered autonomy produces bondage – bondage to self, the god of ‘me, myself and I’. In contrast, Jesus said that if we abide in his word we become disciples who know the truth that brings true freedom.
For further reading, please see “Saving Truth – Finding Meaning & Clarity in a Post-Truth World”, by Abdu Murray, North American Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.