In John’s Gospel, Pilate’s response to Jesus’ self-identification as the one who “came into the world to testify to the truth” is a simple question: “What is truth?” His question hangs in the air as he moves from that conversation to the throngs he sought to please. Pilate took the temperature of that crowd to decide Jesus’ fate even though he, himself, found no reason to charge Jesus with a crime. Pilate asks the question from a position of power—literally holding life and death in the ambivalence and maybe even in the sincerity of his words.
The “t” word has been center stage in our collective conversation of late with Lance Armstrong’s Oprah-event confession and the Manti Te‘o girlfriend-dying-of-cancer hoax at Notre Dame . The Internet is abuzz with reactions to both confessional moments. Lance Armstrong’s confession apparently didn’t play well with the general public. And people are weighing in about whether Manti Te‘o could really be so naïve or if he just didn’t know how to tell everyone the truth when the story got out of hand.
What is truth? It’s a hard question to answer. It was a strange and oftentimes ineffective trump card in the recent presidential election. Fact checkers developed graphs for how big lies were instead of settling for something being true or not. The Washington Post had its “Pinocchio Scale” and Politifact has their Truth-o-meter and the “pants on fire” label for the most blatant lapses of truth. The truth may not have had the traction we would hope it would have even when the stakes are so high. Many political commentators assert that the work of the fact checkers didn’t really have much of an affect on the election at all.
We believe what we want to believe. Psychologists assert that humans tend to accept information that coheres with our desires and with our assumptions. And we tend to discredit sources that tell us what we do not want to hear.
Is Pilate’s question moot in light of all of these realities? Or does it take on another kind of urgency in our postmodern context where multiple and fragmented truths define our public discourse. I know that word “postmodern” gets thrown around a lot and it can mean a lot of things to different people. I am referring here to the many layers of blurred boundaries and shifting categories that form and feed our interpretations of the complicated tapestry of human life.
There are surely growth pangs in moving from modernity with its assertion of one big human story to postmodern/postcolonial/post-Christian mentalities with narrative fragments that spring from social locations and multiple cultural lenses. But just when we thought we knew who in the human family was having the most trouble with the increasing size of the gray areas in our collective human life (e.g. Fundamentalists of many religious types, etc.), it seems that distortion just isn’t the problem it used to be even for those who fashion themselves as defenders of t/Truth if it gets us to the outcome or outlook we most desire.
Where does postmodernity leave the need for absolutes? Does it create space for standing down from the need to be right? Or does it create a deeper sense of desperation that in turn legitimizes “rightness” by any means necessary? How do we proceed around this question of truth when we are treading on such dangerous territory?
Not withstanding political pragmatics, postmodernity can deeply wound something in our collective conscience when we stop being worried about what “really” happened when it comes to how people in power operate. Postmodernity can become what some have dreaded it would—it can become an absolute free for all if we are blind to abuses of power. If you come in to throw out the good old boys and you just replace them with your own gang of cronies, then you haven’t really changed anything. You just have a new cast of characters who are drunk on power and short on perspective. Abuse of power loses its moral currency if you only care when the abuser isn’t on your team. And, the traction is further eroded if truth is not even an expectation anymore.
I guess what worries me the most about our ambivalent relationship to truth today is not that we’re here in this place where boundaries are blurred and edges are sharp. What worries me the most is that we may be becoming even more comfortable with our own distortions as long as they work for us. Even if truth is often provisional, and even if Truth is elusive, postmodernity doesn’t have to mean we don’t need ways to trouble our own biases and assumptions. And the cacophonous nature of truth must not empty us of the courage to speak truth to power, and to speak truth from our lives. It may mean we need new skill at creating community and life-giving systems in spaces of conflicting and fragmented narratives. Without an interrogation of power, these spaces cannot be life-giving—there is too much to risk for those who have truths to tell that people don’t want to hear.
One of the most potent tools of Christian practice is the invitation in confession to truthfulness around our brokenness and our need for love in our lives. As a feminist I resist the power dynamics of the sin-guilt-confession-forgiveness habit of mind that has so dominated the Christian story through modernity. I want to find space for a more incarnational mode of truth telling—one that speaks from the hard and complicated truths of my life and the snarl of systems and institutions that help define me. And one that speaks truth trusting it will be met with compassion rather than with judgment. The tenuous nature of truth these days makes an incarnational understanding of truth as pressing as it was when Pilate asked his question of Jesus—the difference between life and death rests in our capacity to speak truth from our experience and to bring that truth to bear on systems that oppress, violate, and destroy.
When my daughter was around four years old she went through a pretty intense stage of lying about things that were obviously not true. This kind of “magical thinking” is developmentally normal for someone her age—she wanted it to be true so she tried making it true just by saying it. I explained what a lie is and told her that the consequence of telling lies is that people won’t believe anything you say anymore. Am I giving her the wrong information for how to make it in this world today? Surely the lesson of conflicting discourse and located narratives is not that if you say it enough times you really can make it true. Surely truth means more to us than making sure you are good at hiding the evidence or being convincing enough so that no one cares.
How do I teach her to value honesty even when it doesn’t benefit her? And how do I teach her that she may speak truth and not be believed?
Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian Minister who lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond. She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and a MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School. At www.marciamountshoop.com Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football.