A year ago, as President Trump launched yet another salvo of tweets whose express purpose was to correct allegedly “false news” with a new variety of confirmedly false news, Time Magazine ran a cover that asked “Is Truth Dead?” in the same typeface and red/black coloring scheme that graced its famous April 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover. Occasioned not only by Trump but also by the OED’s recent selection of “post-truth” as “2016 word of the year,” Time’s latest move was a safe, therefore smart, publicity feat, and, as was the case in 1966, Time’s editors were careful to take out extra insurance by making sure the accompanying story was a rallying cry for the absolute in question. Need they have? Probably not, given that conventional so-called correspondence theories of truth have in practice remained completely unchallenged by everyone except professional philosophers. Steelworkers, CEOs, shopkeepers, novelists, Nobel Prize-winning physicists, rock climbers, con artists—all these people would be stopped dead in their tracks and unable to function in their chosen fields without compass bearings that allow them to recognize truth. Sure, truth has come up as a subject for public debate. When it has, though, it has been in the context of Orwellian doublespeak or the growing power of the advertising industry or a collectively willed decision to ignore reality, and in these cases the inflammatory issue is not whether truth is a provisional construction underwritten by human hopes rather than God or some other sort of foundational equivalent. The issue has been epistemological rather than ontological.
Nevertheless, one can’t help but continue to think about Time’s stunt, and that fact suggests to me that Time’s editors may have brought more to the surface than one would initially think. What does it mean to link truth to God? And: might it not be possible that Truth with a capital “T” is being sidelined in a post-Christian West? Civilizations have defining moments just as persons do, and it is entirely plausible, let alone possible, that a key passage from scripture is coming true in a cultural sense before our eyes with an intensity and telling power not seen since Rene Descartes inaugurated the scientific revolution on the heels of his famous dream on that winter’s eve in the Bavarian town of Ulm, four centuries ago. Back in 1619, when Descartes dreamily visualized what it might be like to trade in the apprehension of being, as a civilizational telos, for a “scientia mirabilis” that promised predictive power, it was the Book of Genesis that came into view—specifically, the story of Adam and Eve opting to become “as gods” by categorically distrusting appearances and presuming to define for themselves what was good. And now? At this point on our civilizational trajectory, it could be Christ’s Passion as told in the Gospel according to John—the part where Jesus tells Pontius Pilate that his mission is to testify to the truth and Pilate, accustomed to power, dismissively asks, “What is truth?”
The OED defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” and the immediate occasion for the coining of this new compound word is without a doubt the displacement of traditional news sites by social media platforms that use algorithms to determine which news feeds a consumer is most likely to read, and too the related displacement of “facts” by large numbers of Facebook “likes.” But there are also other reasons for the new word’s sudden arrival, not least among them (a) the exaltation of egalitarianism as the ruling first principle in our academies, (b) the perceived intractability of disagreements between Islamic, Christian, and secular viewpoints, (c) the intensifying devaluation of religion that derives from post-Kantian confinement in subjectively ordered belief systems, and, last but not least, (d) the demonstrable loss of interest in what used to be known as the real owing to the displacement of signs by simulacra which replace the thing they allegedly re-present.
I hesitate to use the word “simulacra” because it was popularized by Jean Baudrillard, the Nanterre-based sociologist who handily converted academic interest in deconstruction into a springboard for the launching of more than a few self-serving conferences, one or two of which inspired writers developing the film, The Matrix. But the word, “simulacra,” is apposite, and Baudrillard deserves credit for predicting its growing importance. “Something has disappeared,” he wrote in 1981 in Simulacra and Simulation, the same year that Alasdair MacIntyre published his equally prescient, if decidedly more magisterial After Virtue:
No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept… Rather, the real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks, and command models—and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. It is the hyper-real.
So begins an age of “simulation”—which is to say, an age of “pretend representations” that ensure the erasure of whatever they purport to represent, and, possibly, the erasure of the entire “theology of truth” on which representation, as a project, depends.
It was a rather startling claim, this, yet (like Time‘s sensationalistic question) not easy to dismiss, and now it is even harder to dismiss because currently we are standing face-to-face not just with exemplary simulacra like Disney World and porn, but, as well, with the safety-ensuring ideals of diversity, inclusion, and non-judgmental tolerance that have definitively arrived to replace and ultimately erase the freedom-generating ideals of color-blind societal articulation, communion, and person-based respect. Inclusion, as an integrative strategy, appears welcoming. It looks and sounds rather like Christ opening the banquet hall to all who dare to enter. But in fact inclusion is very different, for—as is clear from the term’s meaning in the context of chemistry—it involves neither personal transformation nor incorporation into a larger body politic. Also, it tends in practice to become an absolute that overrules truth.
Does this matter?
In order to determine what is at stake should traditional conceptions of truth recede, let us, just for a moment, take Pilate’s question seriously. What is truth, if it is bigger and more important than its various substitutes, be that substitute a practically useful fiction that enables acts of good will, “a worn-out metaphor” (Nietzsche’s phrase) that is maintained to protect an imbalance of power, or an irrational religious concept whose main importance is to certify membership in a certain tribe of churchgoers? Is it sufficient to always and everywhere employ the long-standing commonsensical definition of truth as what-is-really-there, whether or not we want it to be there?
Paul Ricoeur … called truth “the lighted place in which it is possible to live and think.”
The definition I am drawn to most often is the one Paul Ricoeur provided when he called truth “the lighted place in which it is possible to live and think.” I respect Paul Ricoeur because he was derided as “a clown” when he served as an administrator for Universite Paris Nanterre during the May 1968 student strike, and his phrase sticks with me because it suggests not only that truth is a climate, but, as well, that truth is not of our making. Someone might object that places can be lit by manufactured societal goals as well as truth, and that thinking can occur and even flourish within parameters set by artificially installed light. After all, such lights can conceivably be big enough to facilitate coherence and therefore narrative. I would counter, though, that one certainly can’t live in such a location. Life involves freedom rather than pre-engineered responses to stimuli otherwise known as re-education seminars, and the only way freedom can occur is if one is oriented at each and every moment to a reality that enables traction, ensures risk, and makes possible sacrifice to the exact same degree that it does not answer to our wishes. That is why Sir Francis Bacon called truth “a hill not to be commanded” and it is also why we inscribe “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” above the door to every courthouse. Truth is the lighted place in which it is possible to live and think precisely because it is a kind of spatial equivalent to Judgment Day, a kind of—referencing Wallace Stevens here—illumined large where the air is always clear and everything is what it is “called” to be.
Alternatively, one could define truth as revealment. This, of course, is the argument Heidegger tried to put forward in Being and Time (1927), and one still reads Heidegger’s argument hungrily owing to the plausibility of his premise and the patience with which he builds his case. Nevertheless, I think it fair to say that, owing to an insistence that revealment has less to do with discursive speaking and naming than with disclosing or “dis-covering” things that are essentially belied by appearances or conceptual architecture, Heidegger cannot (if you think the Incarnation matters) be trusted as a guide. If we want to think of truth as revealment, we should follow other leads. John Paul II, following Johannine and Pauline logic, says in Veritatis Splendor that truth is a light which “shines forth in the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God,” and though light in this sense is of course revelation and thus a kind of proof that shining is itself a ruling interpretive key, one should also note that this kind of revealment occurs by virtue of a word sign, rather than in spite of it.
The surest approach, no doubt, is to steer clear of impressionistic accounts altogether and define truth as the condition of agreement between a statement, on the one hand, and reality on the other, or between acts, on the one hand, and a declared or proper end, on the other. This is the definition Aquinas provided when he called truth the equation (adequatio) of thing and intellect, and it remains the least troublesome.
When we define truth as agreement, in other words, we are reminded that truth is orientation toward what is.
For example, appearances suggest a certain reality and we judge those projections true to the extent that they faithfully point to what they in fact sign. Alternatively, an arrow flies “true” or not so true to its intended mark. Middle English “trouthe” means contract, or vow, and that etymological sense holds regardless of whether we’re talking about being-toward-an-end, a logical certainty, a statement issued by us, or (to use a concept that now sounds rather quaint) a statement written by God in the book of nature. Note too that the spot-on commonsensical definition of truth as reality turns out to be underwritten by this principle of agreement and even elevated (as it were) into strong ontological significance because things are to the extent that they are in agreement with, and conform to, their final (teleological) end. When we define truth as agreement, in other words, we are reminded that truth is orientation toward what is, and this fact, in turn, gives us the answer to our earlier question about whether its gradual disappearance from the public square matters. Yes, we can say. That disappearance matters hugely, and it cannot be accepted on any terms whatsoever.
What, then, to do? How can things be righted so that truth is at least valued as a commonly held hope?
Right now, there are just two institutional places left where traditional conceptions of truth, along with skill in traversing and climbing its rocky aspects, are on display—the hard sciences, so called, and the Roman Catholic Church.This is, all by itself, an intriguing, even wonderfully thought-provoking development that features all kinds of silver linings which promise a nearly complete rapprochement between these two mistakenly opposed, and in fact closely aligned, camps. Yet it should also be said that both these institutions are oddly unsuited at the present time to serve as guides, given current navigational challenges. Scientists for their part tend to exhibit an overly zealous belief in the “objectivity” of supposedly inductive research that is in fact selective, not to speak of a flat-out mistaken belief in the superiority of empirically-based knowledge to the faith-based kind. And despite extraordinary advances in apologetic power secured by the Christological principle enunciated in paragraph 22 of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the Catholic Church has for its part remained stuck in long-established defensive postures that still to this day compromise what ought to be a built-in ability to defend the existence of truth before hostile progressivist interlocutors.
Will the Church eventually break free of reactionary tendencies that impede its ability to summarily critique postmodern insights?
I see no reason why it shouldn’t, given that the Christological principle posited in Gaudium et Spes paragraph 22 has been confirmed by John Paul II. That transformational principle (“only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light”) figures as an absolutely crucial key, should anyone attempt to counter or argue against modernity-defining sunderments of “is” from “ought,” let alone nature from grace, and thankfully John Paul II assiduously and irreversibly confirmed the principle, in encyclical after encyclical. Moreover, as Prefect and then as Pope, Ratzinger/Benedict followed through on this achievement by significantly nuancing the official Catholic position on the Kantian Enlightenment so that the Church can now enable nimble-footed critiques of modernity rather than across-the-board condemnations. At the same time, however, one can’t help but notice that two sentences in Gaudium et Spes are a relatively small ledge to be standing on, while trying to access creedal incarnational logic that must be ready-to-hand if one is to persuasively engage postmodern positions deriving from existentialist thought. This means that a definitive break with reactionary positions regarding the power of natural reason unleavened by faith to conclude with certainty that God exists, as on view in Vatican I’s Dei Filius, Pius X’s Pascendi Domenici Gregis (1907), and (as late as 1950) Pius XII’s Humani Generis, won’t happen overnight. Rather, it will take time—time enough, at any rate, for some new Aquinas to come along and properly integrate historicist/existentialist insights without ceding ground to progressivist forces or weakening the Church’s commitment to scholastic methods that continue to safeguard perennial philosophy and its deposit of sapiential wisdom.
Which means: when it comes to defending commitments to the existence of truth (as opposed to “the” truth) we are pretty much on our own.
Thinkers have of course been building the foundation for such a defense for over a hundred years—not a few of them the very same scholars who painstakingly laid the groundwork for Gaudium et Spes paragraph 22 before being censured by Pius XII. Henri de Lubac’s insight regarding the ways in which a rich plurality of viewpoints and universally applicable truth reinforce one another remains important, as does Yves Congar’s argument that “monuments” of tradition allow for the appearance, over time, of formerly hidden aspects to revealed truth. And, post-liberal Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck’s theses on doctrine continue to invite reflection regarding the extent to which Aquinas’ logical speculations are enabled by “rules” and narrative-based “domains of meaning” that developed entirely within liturgical communities that were themselves marked by Judaic, Greek, and Roman cultural and linguistic worldviews. On the philosophical front, Charles Taylor’s postulation that there is a community-derived “background” enabling rational choice comes to mind, as does the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, who has almost singlehandedly created the concept of “tradition-dependent rationality” by definitively distinguishing it from “encyclopaedic” and “genealogical” modes of inquiry.
But one need not exhaustively read thinkers like these to put across at least the outline of a credible defense. For that to happen we need grasp just one key point, which is that it isn’t arguments which give the relativistic movement credibility and momentum. Rather, it is the failure of the modernity-defining Enlightenment to deliver on its promise that transcendental, universally available, Archimedean leverage points can be found through the use of natural reason alone and then used to determine, once and for all, the nature of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Given that failure—and it demonstrably was a failure, given the subsequent arrival of modern epistemological crises—it has been assumed by Nietzschean thinkers that goodness, truth, and beauty do not in an ideal sense exist, thus giving steam to the popular Western liberal mind’s decision to accept the allegedly ultimate incompatibility of culturally specific viewpoints, and—through the privatization of religion—agree to disagree. Why though (we can ask) should one succumb to extrinsic logic and assume that glimpses of universally applicable truths on the one hand and indebtedness to tradition on the other are mutually exclusive events? In point of fact, these two events reinforce one another, and that fact, in turn, suggests that traditional conceptions of truth are tenable in ways that nihilistic postmodernists have not yet admitted.
Yes, modernity is problematic, and aptly named post-modernists have performed a great service by demonstrating the impossibility of value-free inquiry and in that way corroborating the Catholic Church’s longstanding linkage of faith to reason. That done, however, the real work can begin, which is to 1) demonstrate the ways in which universally applicable, “certain and unchangeable” truth comes into view through tradition and bias-specific viewpoints rather than in spite of them, and 2) initiate a study to determine which cultures best enable a person to get a read on truth, and thereby see the continent on whose shores most of us still benightedly wander. Might not one of those cultures be what is now derisively called Western Civilization?
Plato, as viewers of The Matrix may or may not remember, said that we live for all intents and purposes in a cave. The sun shines, the universe beckons with intelligibility, but we prefer darkness. Not for us, the light of truth shining over our shoulder. Not for us, the invitation to re-cognize and re-present things made by God so that those same things can exist like Rilke believed they could one day exist. Rather than walk out into the light of things glowing with there-ness, we prefer to gaze at a fire lit by self-appointed jailers who entertain us with shadow plays (simulacra!) projected onto a laptop’s wall, and in consequence, we are slowly but steadily turning into shades whose real presence gets dimmer by the day.
Had enough? It is our moment of truth. We can either stay right where we are in the safety of “democratic free speech environments,” or acknowledge our indebtedness to the Judaeo-Graeco-Christian tradition and walk out into light—the light of what is.