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Why Seminaries Must Pursue Truth in Post-Truth Culture

We live in an increasingly complex and interdependent world.

Yet, as M. Scott Peck illustrates in “The Road Less Traveled and Beyond,” the human mind continues its proclivity for simplistic answers and explanations.

In the process of posing and then discrediting each possible solution for building a better, more caring world, we fail to notice or effectively address complex and festering dysfunctions in areas of interdependence.

Most recently, this neglect has been manifest in the emergence of what has come to be called the “post-truth” culture.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2016 was “post-truth” ’ “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In more popular lingo, Steven Colbert calls it “truthiness,” meaning an argument or assertion made by a person who claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts.

If we weren’t convinced already, our recent presidential election has brought us face to face with the reality that we live in an age of “truthiness,” or of “alternate-facts” as others choose to label it.

At its core, post-truth thinking is simplistic thinking.

Our society often employs subtle methods to discourage complex thinking because simplistic thinking better serves the interests of power holders, profit seekers, those who just don’t want the discomfort of ambiguity and those who want to avoid the work required to uncover the truth for themselves.

Through carefully selected social media, we refine the information we receive to the point that it reflects only the perspectives we like or with which we agree.

Society’s institutions of greatest influence, when they fail to teach and demonstrate complex thinking, set people up to think simplistically. Among the institutions too often failing in this task are religious institutions, political institutions, the family and mass media.

Even educational institutions ’ whose primary goal has long been considered that of developing better processes and habits of thinking ’ too often succumb to practices that indoctrinate rather than teach people to think for themselves in responsible and complex ways.

The result is passive followers rather than responsible and engaged thinkers and researchers.

Seminaries and seminarians, then, share an extra burden of responsibility to learn, teach and demonstrate for others how to press beyond simple dogma, single-issue causality and exclusivist thinking.

A few contemporary interpreters harken back to the Romantic Era of the 18th and early 19th centuries and its appeal to emotion as corollary to the current cultural climate in America.

Overburdened by the demands of German rationalism and neoclassicism, the Romantics sought solace in the arts, in nature and in poetic expression.

Similarly, today’s theological disciplines depend significantly on artistic expression. So, what is the relationship between creative expression and truth?

Albert Camus wrote, “[literary] fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Picasso mused, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”

Theologians and preachers – like poets, fiction writers and artists – all attempt (or at least they should attempt) to harness emotion and imagination in the service of truth. “Truth is the end goal.”

In contrast, “post-truth” is a strategy that seeks to exploit emotion for purposes of self-interested gain – whether for political, economic, personal or other profit, observed Lucy Ferriss in her essay, “Post-Truth and Chaos.”

Amid the tendencies, pressures and temptations to do otherwise, seminary communities must resist selling out to simplistic thinking in their work, methods and scholarly pursuits.

A healthy and sustainable community of theological scholars cannot be built upon the foundations of post-truth assumptions and methodologies.

The pursuit of truth must be a cornerstone of the theological community’s endeavor, as over against the use of “truth” as a strategy to be manipulated to achieve some ulterior goal.

As both seekers of and bearers of truth, seminaries must practice integrity, inclusion, innovation and excellence.

While learning to recognize, relate to and deal with post-truth elements in society is a must, there is no place for post-truth values as standards for the work of scholars, ministers, service providers and community leaders.

The search for truth is at the heart of who these groups are and what they do. Regardless of how elusive the truth might be, or how difficult it might be to approximate, truth must be both the goal and the standard.

To that end, efforts to teach and demonstrate the complex thinking skills and disciplines necessary for correctly pursuing truth should be ongoing.

The struggle in which the theological community is engaged will not be easily won, nor will it be of short duration. However, the minds and souls of people are at stake.

It is a sacred responsibility to both teach and demonstrate to the world the skills needed for exposing lies and half-truths and for the discovery and illumination of that which is true.

Robert E. Johnson is provost and dean of the faculty at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.

Editor’s note: This article is a revised (shortened) version of Johnson’s Spring 2017 CBTS convocation address.