The Oxford Dictionaries’ Word Of 2016: “Post-Truth”

The BBC reports that the word of the year for 2016 the compound “post-truth.” Oddly, however, there is no entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for “post-truth.” It does not occur in my computer’s Oxford American Dictionary. Nevertheless, apparently, in some of Oxford’s several English dictionaries, this term occurs. According to the news report, the word first appears c. 1992 but it has gained momentum recently, propelled by the American 2016 presidential campaign. The BBC story features an image on the American president-elect, Donald Trump. The implication seems to be that the Trump candidacy is an exemplar of the reality of the “post-truth” world in which we live. The report says, “It is defined as an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.”

Whatever the relations be between “post-truth” and the recent campaign—after all I recall a presidential candidate who said that he was opposed to same-sex marriage because of his Christian convictions and that if Americans liked their health plan and/or their physician, they could keep the same. Indeed, this candidate repeated that promise 37 times—it is evident that we do, in fact, live in a “post-truth” culture.

In Christian history there was always a deep concern for objective truth. Jesus claimed that he was “the truth” (John 14:6). He said “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). I have read Vos. I am well aware that “true” and “truth” in the Johannine literature refers to more than truth as distinct from falsehood but they do include the idea of truth as distinct from falsehood. Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again” (John 2:19). That was a verifiable claim. That was not a claim about Jesus’ subjective experience. He was not saying, “the temple is (figuratively) destroyed for me and will be (figuratively) raised in me.” He was claiming that a temple, namely his body, would be killed and that he would be raised bodily on the third day. The gospel accounts are at pains to assure us that Jesus was not raised in the hearts of the apostles (subjectively) but that he was objectively, really, actually raised bodily from the grave (Matt 28:1–9; Mark 16:1–7) and that he was seen—not subjectively encountered or experienced figuratively—by 500 (1 Cor 15:56).

The pre-modern world was convinced that is such a thing as objective truth. The Christians believed that it is grounded in the nature of God and revealed both in creation (law) and in Scripture (law and gospel). The Protestants rejoiced in the recovery of the final authority of Scripture (sola scriptura) and biblical distinction between law and gospel but those truths evaporate if they are not objectively true. If truth is completely subjective it is not. It is not logically coherent to speak of “your truth” and “my truth.” To say, “you need to speak your truth” is a kind of subjectivist, therapeutic insanity. Jesus cannot be raised for me but not for you. Hence the Apostle Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). Paul could not have said that On the subjectivist model, because on the subjectivist model if Christ has been raised (figuratively) “in my heart” or subjectively “for me” or if his resurrection is “my truth” then, in some sense, he has been raised. For Paul, old-fashioned guy that he was, Jesus was either raised objectively or not. If he was not, it is just futile to speak of his (figurative) resurrection. Paul was not beaten, stoned, nearly drowned, bit by a snake, and jailed for a figure of speech. He met the objectively risen and ascended Christ on the road to Damascus. Others saw the phenomenon (see Acts 9).

The assertion of the existence of “post-truth” is a distinctly late modern (or as Mike Horton says, “most modern”) phenomenon. It is not as if no one has ever asserted that there is no truth. We have always had skeptics. Even Pilate said, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) but rarely in human history has an entire culture bought into such foolishness on such a widespread scale. Further, we do not even buy it with conviction. At one moment we deny the existence of objective truth and at the next, we obey STOP signs. Anyone who obeys traffic signs or who steps back from the edge of a cliff believes in objective reality and whatever else they say is just a bluff, a dodge, denial, and self-deception. Those who reject objective reality, the objective existence of other cars or that cliff proceed fearlessly. If what you experience with your senses is really just an illusion, why not?

The evangelical world is deeply infected with “post-truth.” More than once in the last year Christian people have asserted to me that objective facts have no meaning to them because of their experience or that they cannot “hear” them because of their experience. The Duke rape case is perhaps the classic example of the triumph of subjective and therapeutic over the objective. The entire story was fabricated. The magazine has admitted that it was never true but there are those who continue to defend the story on basis that it signaled a reality even though the claims were false. Never mind that reputations were damaged and lives were ruined by fabrications and shoddy journalism, the greater point still stands. No it does not. The greater point is dependent upon actual facts. Without the existence of those facts, there is no “narrative” (e.g., a larger story about an alleged social ill).

We are so confused we no longer even know or agree as to what a fact is. A fact is something that is. We get our English word from the Latin factum, a thing that is or has been done. Behind that is the verb facio, to do. One regularly sees the expression, “your facts are wrong.” By definition a fact cannot be wrong. A claim can be wrong but a fact is. There are true claims and false claims. True claims accord with the facts, with what is. To be sure, as someone said, the facts are not what they used to be. With the onset of late/liquid modernity, the very existence of facts has been called into question. After all, someone must adjudicate what is and is not a fact. That is certainly true but if we give up on the existence facts (objective reality) then we are committing intellectual and social suicide.

All this talk about facts might make the reader nervous. Let me assure you that your feelings and experiences are real but they are not the ultimate arbiter of what is or can be true. You have suffered because of sin. This is not the pagan doctrine of Karma but the truth that we live in a fallen world. Grace, however, is also real. God really is favorable to sinners. He sovereignly, freely gives them new life and true faith in Jesus Christ. In Christ there is a new, objective reality of free acceptance with God and fellowship with other sinners who have also been redeemed by Christ. Without those objective truths we are doomed to walk the earth alone, headed nowhere.

The triumph of therapeutic-subjectivism over objective reality is not a social or spiritual good. It is bad news. It is law for which there is no gospel. It is a trap. The truth is that sin is an objective reality. In Adam, we all sinned. In Christ, believers are redeemed from sin and judgment.

The loss of objective reality has, for several years, been a source of concern and reflection in this space. Today I tried to gather up other posts on this topic to form a new category/library “subjectivism.”

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  1. This post could lead into a whole field of discourse. However, sadly, there seem to be few Christians thinking about these matters. I, of course, believe in objective facts. However, we do need to be careful that we don’t use ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ as exact synonyms. The resurrection of the just and the unjust is a truth, but it is not yet a fact. We believe it and we hope for it as truth, but we do not hope for what we know (facts).

    The Christian analysis of postmodernism has not, to my mind, been handled well at all. If we live in a ‘post-truth’ society it is, in my opinion, because of the supremacy and tyranny of ‘facts’, not the loss of them. It is truth that has fallen in the streets, but ‘facts’ are in robust health. Jesus said that the truth will set us free, but an identical claim cannot be made of the facts. ‘Because thou hast seen me [fact] thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed’. The truth about God and man’s salvation emerges from the word – preaching, discourse etc – not from an assemblage of ‘facts’. We believe the truth, not simply facts, to the saving of our soul. Many modern people will not sit through the truth preached, but they will spend any amount of time in front of the TV or internet videos being presented with ‘facts’, no matter that the ‘facts’ are propaganda and biassed journalism.

    One of the reasons why elections and referendums are so polarized and sterile is because campaigning is done on the basis of ‘facts’ shown on television, with no real concern for truth. The ‘fact’ that someone said something stupid ten years ago off the record is of more campaign value than the truth that a person currently believes. This is all leading to the demise of critical thinking.

    There was a picture shown on the BBC of some graffiti above a urinal in Kansas that had the word ‘Trump’ above the letters ‘KKK’. That is a ‘fact’, but is there ANY underlying truth whatsoever? Were they written by one person, or different persons at different times? Did the persons associate them, were they drunk at the time, etc? Did an anti-Trump person scratch his name above a pre-existent KKK, or did he scratch KKK under a pre-existent ‘Trump’ to discredit his campaign? We may never know, but we can be pretty sure that those who broadcast such ephemera to millions from the wall of a men’s room are doing so to make a certain association independent of critical thinking. People are investing images, mere facts, with meaning (i.e. truth claims) that they cannot bear: ‘we enclose within the image everything that belongs to the order of truth’ (Ellul). Such is the power of malignant propaganda. But truth operates through the word: the word preached and heard, and understood through dialogue, discourse, debate and critical thinking based on words.

  2. This discussion of “post-truth” rings a bell with me. A few months ago, a PCA minister relayed to me the comments of another minister’s evaluation of some of the actions of the 2016 General Assembly. This brother, who is greatly respected and influential as a churchman, said that GA has become lawless and completely subjective, willing to ignore its own rules to accomplish the desire of the moment. Or, to quote my now hoary-headed generation, “If if feels good, do it.”

    “Post-truth” is a step beyond the recent favorite “truthiness.” While not nearly as catchy, “post-truth” is far more dangerous.

  3. “Post-truth,” huh? Sounds like the emotionalism and “subjective truth” that’s been espoused by elites for decades (generations?) now. Even the OED definition says this.

    So, if I read this rightly, all post-truth is is another way to say emotionalistic or subjective truth? Maybe it’s a combination of the two ideas? The idea that what’s true for me is based on my emotions, thus it might not be true for you?

    Ironic that they used a picture of Trump… it seems to me that the Left has been using this for years.

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