The Church and the post-truth world: a better way forward
by Abdu Murray
Today’s post-truth mindset has made it far more challenging to share the objective truth of the gospel. The reason is that a post-truth mindset elevates feelings and preference above facts and truth. Ironically, what has brought this new post-truth mindset about is something as old as humanity. The fundamental problem of humanity – our original sin – is not our desire to be free, but to be autonomous.
We often think of freedom and autonomy as synonyms. But they are not. Autonomy comes from two Greek roots, autos (self) and nomos (law). Thus, to be autonomous is to be a “law unto one’s self.” Autonomy knows no boundaries. We can act, say, think, or even be whatever we want in any way we want. The result of such a pursuit is chaos. If one person is a law unto himself and his preferences happen to clash with those of another person who is also a law unto himself, who is decide which preference wins? In a post-truth world, it won’t be truth that decides, it will be power.
Freedom, on the other hand, is different. Freedom isn’t merely the absence of any restrictions. Freedom necessarily has boundaries. G. K. Chesterton pointed out that even artistic freedom has boundaries. “The essence of every picture is the frame,” he says. In other words, freedom must be linked to truth, which necessarily has boundaries that keep out falsehood. That’s why Jesus said in John 8:32 “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” For Jesus, truth is inextricably linked to freedom.
What is that truth that leads to freedom? A student at Yale University asked me something similar during an open forum. The truths we need to understand are these: (1) We are beings made in God’s image for communion with him, not mere flotsam of jetsam of an indifferent universe; (2) we have forsaken that communion and have thus broken the transcendent moral law; and (3) Jesus died and rose again to restore our communion. When we understand this, then we can enjoy freedom because freedom isn’t the ability to do or be whatever we want. It’s the ability to do what we want, in accordance with what we should, based on what we are.
That message is increasingly difficult to deliver to a world that revels in its preference for autonomy. The culture’s negative attitude toward the church has made it even more difficult. That’s why it’s critical that Christians take a look inward, to get the post-truth log out of our own eye before we try to remove the post-truth speck from the culture’s eye (Matt. 7:3-4). All this is to say that the church, sometimes with good intentions, has contributed to the post-truth culture of confusion.
Contributing to the confusion
First, the church has succumbed to the pressure to be liked by the broader culture and to make the gospel easier to accept. Rather than deal with difficult and challenging passages in the Bible that stand against certain behaviours or preferences, some in the church have shied away from the hard work of remaining faithful to Scripture while explaining the hard truths with an attitude of love. Some Christians half-quote Jesus as saying “Judge not” (Matt. 7:1) to support their position that Christians ought not to judge others’ behavior. In so doing, their preference for comfort overrides the truth of the very next verses in which Jesus tells us to judge, but to do so without hypocrisy (Matt. 7:2-5).
But the pendulum swing the other way can be just as damaging. Some Christians see the outside culture as enemies to be vanquished rather than souls to be won. And so, like the current divisive culture, some bearing the name ‘Christian’ have spread what amounts to fake news that makes the opponents of the gospel look as evil as possible.
How to respond
Neither the preference to be liked nor the desire to vilify our enemies ought to control how we act in these post-truth times. Jesus demands that we love our enemies (Matt. 5:44-45). Paul tells us to let our speech be gracious and seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6). I’ve had the great privilege of seeing the church act in accordance with such teachings. And I’ve had the even greater privilege of seeing people sit across a table and have their post-truth assumptions changed. I’ve seen thousands of people fill auditoriums for open forums to get their skepticism about the gospel answered. Historically, the church has been a balm of mercy and truth to a chaffed and parched world. It can be so again. I know it can, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
The truth of the message is always measured by the integrity of the messenger. May we be messengers who point the world to the truth that can set it free.
Abdu Murray is the North American Director with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and the author of three books, including his latest, Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World.