I was driving yesterday, Valentine’s Day, and I came up close enough to the car in front of me to read its rear bumper sticker that read, “No to Truth Decay.” Bemused with the play on words, I thought it was an interesting slogan. Within those seconds my brain played along and asked, “What field of moral dentistry handles this disease?” But then, as slogans tend to do, it pointed to a more serious theme: that our society has become unmoored from a moral center that up until now – and despite our diversity – has given us a sense of common citizenship founded on a shared understanding of basic decency, of public good, and bedrock American virtues. There is now a profound craving to reclaim that moral center.
In one of the blogs I have written in my previous ministry, I have indicated that we now find ourselves living in a hyper-partisan, ideologically polarized, and adversarial discursive political environment where objective facts no longer necessarily determine the validity of truth claims. It is a time when it seems that a malignant ideological tribalism has spread in our public life where differences in perspectives or opinions have constructed an ideological arena where the rules of discourse is zero-sum: which means, in Game Theory, that whatever is gained by one side is – and must be – lost by the other. This toxic conversational environment now permeates every level of discourse in our society. As an avid student of politics and a curious social observer, I find myself in these days making intentional efforts each day when I wake up to stay centered and grounded so that I do not unwittingly allow myself to get unmoored and be forcibly drawn into the vortex of this centrifugal counterfeit discourse that robs life of its inner harmony and beautiful complexity.
Is truth really hard to find? It has occurred to me, more acutely than it has at any other time that I can remember, that in this post-truth season of alternative and contrived realities in which we live – when the notion of truth has been rendered as a mere figment of casuistic tautology – people are being cast adrift from the moorings of a moral center.
Jesus spoke of “truth” many times. In John’s gospel in particular, chapter 8: 31-32, Jesus is heard saying to those who believed in him, “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will will make you free.” (NRSV). In the Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word from whence “truth” is translated is aletheia – literally, the “absence of walls.”
So what does Jesus mean about knowing the “truth” that sets free? What does this place – where walls are absent and “unconcealed” – look like, and where the very essence of being alive and human is not hidden? Is there such a place? Consider the antecedent to Jesus’ statement, which qualifies what “knowing the truth” entails: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples…” The truth that Jesus speaks about is not accumulation of more knowledge or information. He speaks about saving truth that is rooted in obedience to the concrete ethical demands of his teachings and instructions. In submitting ourselves to the practice and appropriation of his ethical demands through obedience, our lives are thrust into the possibility of entering the presence and reign of God on earth and in that, and through that, we are made free. Wherever God is present truth, aletheia, inhabits and indwells.
As a follower of Jesus, I believe that beyond our political allegiances and ideologies is our mandate to be the presence of Christ in every space we occupy. And so in a time when the winds of hate, fear, bigotry, and racism are again fanning the flames of division and strife in our society we must be mindful that these winds are also wafting into the pews of our churches.
The faithful church is a discerning community. It is called to resist the seduction of the “Father of Lies” that the evangelist John talks about. It is always tasked to be vigilant at the orchards of life, to stand watch over the fruit that the trees bear, and to always point others to the good fruit. Yes, as followers of Jesus we must have a sound and healthy Christian theology of politics that is grounded in the cruciform Christ, and not – even never – conflated with any other earthly ideology. The gospel proclamation is not neutral. Its proclamation is grounded in a God whose very nature is love, and that love issues forth in an indefatigable holy desire to protect the poor, the suffering and the oppressed. And so Jesus’ social vision is unequivocally articulated in concrete political terms at the beginning of his ministry in Luke chapter 4. And while the realization of that vision is ultimately eschatological, it lays out the political agenda of Jesus and the kingdom.
So what or where is the cure to “truth decay?” We find it where we find God’s reign being present. The gospel proclaims that in Jesus “The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The bewildered disciple, Thomas, asked Jesus, “How do we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NRSV). So how do we know when we are in the presence of God’s reign? Look to Jesus.