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What It Means When You Live in Post-Truth Culture

It took a newspaper’s syndicated cartoon (“Non Sequitur”) to inform me that the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language now recognizes “post-truth” as a real English word.

It means “an adjective defined as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Long before discovering that “post-truth” is an actual English word, I had begun to suspect that the condition it names is becoming extremely prevalent in American culture.

In my opinion, many Americans simply do not care about “objective facts” as much as they care about feelings when it comes to forming their beliefs.

This cultural condition causes me – and should cause you – no end of consternation.

I think it is evident in politics; many people are more interested in what their favorite radio, podcast or television political talk show host says than in actual truth, facts, what is really the case.

As a theologian and an ethicist, I am especially concerned about American Christians’ seeming lack of interest in truth in my fields of study, research, writing and teaching.

Ultimate authority is truth – what is actually the case – whether we are capable of knowing it perfectly or not.

I am a critical realist who believes no human being is infallible. What I meant and I mean is, to use a cliché, “truth is out there” – to be searched for and discovered to the best of our ability even if our claims about truth must remain open to correction.

The example of what I now know as post-truth was self-help guru Ashleigh Brilliant’s book title, “I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy.”

He may have meant this tongue-in-cheek, but I think the book title well describes the attitude of many Americans, including religious ones and including among them Christians.

For many years, I taught a course about America’s “new” or “alternative” religions and was especially fascinated by what I call “invented religions.”

Those are religious movements and organizations not based on a reform of some older tradition but apparently simply invented by a founder considered a prophet or guru or whatever.

Sometimes the basis of such a religion seems to be science fiction or a desire to gain wealth by deceiving followers into thinking some new spiritual technique is the key to happiness, wealth, power or “burning off karmic debt.”

But please don’t think I’m just pointing an accusing finger at so-called “cults and new religions.”

I also point an accusing finger at many Christians who, so it seems to me, simply don’t care about truth as much as they care about feelings.

If a doctrine, for example, doesn’t feel right, then it is at best unimportant. If an ethical stance seems hurtful (for example, “not nice” or “intolerant”), it must be wrong.

In my opinion, outside of Reformed and fundamentalist circles, and even in some of those, truth is taking a backseat to post-truth in preaching, teaching, discussion, deliberation.

Increasingly, doctrine and ethics are treated as opinion at best – even in relatively conservative, traditionally orthodox Christian contexts. Except when being nice is in view; then opinion is irrelevant even if it is well-grounded and reasonably articulated.

Therefore, what living in a post-truth culture means for Christians is renewing our commitment to truth regardless of feelings.

In the search for truth, feelings such as desire to feel nice, desire to feel comfortable, desire to be affirmed, desire to be included, desire to feel warm and cozy, desire to be wealthy and powerful and so on, all must take a back seat to reasonable decision-making based on something recognized as authoritative that is believed to be true (meaning consistent with what is actually real and the case).

For all his faults and flaws, and I know many of them, Francis Schaeffer was something of a prophet in this regard.

He saw what was happening in American religious life – the devolving of Christianity into a folk religion. That’s why he made the helpful distinction between truth with a small “t” and truth with a capital “T.”

Some years ago, I gave a public talk to an educated audience of people all of whom consider themselves Christians.

It was titled, “Whatever Happened to Truth?” and I spoke about the lack of interest in what Schaeffer called “Truth” even among many Christians.

Somewhere in my talk I mentioned Shirley MacLaine and the New Age Movement, which was then all the rage.

I talked about Christians, in particular, who simply choose to believe in reincarnation without regard to whether that is consistent with Christian sources and norms.

After my talk, a Christian educator and intellectual came up to me and said, “You know, Roger, reincarnation can be true for Shirley MacLaine even if not for you.”

I was speechless, and he walked away without giving me any real opportunity to think about what he said and respond.

I consider what he said simply absurd unless what he meant was “truth” in Schaeffer’s sense of truth with a small “t” instead of “Truth.”

I can only suspect he was caught up in the sweep of what is now known as post-truth culture.

The problem with a post-truth culture is, of course, that there is no way to adjudicate between conflicting claims.

When “Truth” disappears or is simply brushed away and ignored, anything is possible.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.