Post-Truth is not so new

Post-truth has been declared word of the year, by the Oxford Dictionary.

I have to confess, I can’t recall ever hearing of the word prior to the announcement, but rarely have I been confused with owning hip, cool, and trendy oratory. I have no doubt though, our cultural frontline linguists know what they are talking about!

The Dons of the Oxford Dictionary define post-truth as, ‘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’.’

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Oxford Dictionary website

There is a drop of irony here, post-truth’s rise to the top coincided with Donald Trump’s victory in the Presidential election. Apparently, the  Presidential campaigns were responsible for a spike in world-wide usage of post-truth, as was the Brexit campaign earlier in the year.

According to the official website, post-truth first appeared in 1992, in an essay written by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich. In 2016 there has been an observed 2000% increase in its usage, thus warranting the title of Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year.

The word may be new, but the concept has had a long run through history.

In the 4th Century BC Aristotle pre-empted post-truth when he spoke of the tripartite art of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Jesus Christ spoke of post-truth. In the parable Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus makes the point, that should a man rise from dead, people will not believe the evidence if they are not also prepared to believe God at his word. In other words, empirical demonstration is important but it is not suffice to persuade a person of what is true and good.

Accordingly, the Bible adds a fourth category to Aristotle’s tripartite art of persuasion: pnevmatikós (or spiritual). Ardent rationalists may scoff at this notion, but perhaps it is the case that their post-truth commitment to naturalism denies them the reasonable conclusion of accepting the reality of Christ, including the overwhelming evidence of his resurrection from the dead.

Post-truth is a word that carries with it an air of elitism and superiority. It is used to denigrate those whom we deem are less rational and intelligent.

In a documentary series marking a trip across the United States, Stephen Fry visited Los Alamos, the place where the first hydrogen bomb was developed. While exploring this once secret location, Fry made this remark,

“some people would think this is a grizzly place, a place of death, but to me I see nothing but optimism, and that’s because I believe in science. Many people today don’t.”

Stephen Fry is an example of a generation who credit science and rationalism as being security for human progress. Indeed, in the recent election a wave political experts and pollsters proclaimed the moral high ground on the basis of their education and they decried the uneducated who followed Donald Trump.

Whether we believe ourselves intelligent or not, and whether we have letters running after our name or not, we have always been post-truth, at least part-time.

The reality is we all need facts and truth to live well, and we adhere to these when these thing conform to our likes and wants. But rarely, are our ethical positions and personal decisions determined solely or even primarily because of what is true.

Today I was reminded of a classic post-truth moment in Victoria this year. Roz Ward has found herself in the media’s eye once again, with a photograph capturing the Safe Schools architect bullying a bystander during an anti-Trump demonstration in Melbourne yesterday. As I saw the photograph I was reminded of Roz Ward’s now infamous declaration, that the Safe Schools program is not primarily about creating Safe Schools but is designed to teach children Marxist values. Despite the repeated admission by this key designer of the curriculum, many politicians and social commentators have glued blue tac to their ears, and pretended the truth had never been leaked. Why? Political and social ideology trumps a confession.

Post-truth is not a 2016 problem, it is a human problem. Our word of the year communicates something about the proclivity of the human heart. Searching for truth is a noble task; as Jesus himself said, ‘the truth will set you free’. But knowing what is true and listening to it requires more than simple assent to objective facts. It requires a posture of humility, whereby we allow truth, especially God’s truth, to penetrate and challenge and restore.

Christians are to blame for Climate Change Inaction

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Michael Pascoe wants to throw much of the blame for Australia’s apathy on climate change at the feet of those who believe in God. I share his frustration at the lack of action Australia has taken, but his account of the Christian view carries with it the flair of a Donald Trump argument, vociferous but empty.

No one doubts there are climate change skeptics among theists, but evidence suggests that they are few.

Let’s leave aside the cascade of “Christian” figures whom Pascoe names and shames (none of whom are practicing evangelicals, and seriously, would Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt consider themselves anything more than agnostic?), does the evidence stack up? Is the Christian ‘right’ somehow to blame? Does Australia even have a Christian ‘right’?

Long before Paris 2015, and prior to Copenhagen, Poznan, and Bali, Churches in Australia were vocal advocates for taking Climate Change Science seriously.

In 2006, the Baptist Union of Victoria called the Federal Government to take more action on Climate Change. Included in the resolution was the following:

“Commit to a target of 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and develop policies towards this goal, such as:

  • Funding significant research and development in renewable energy sources;
  • Introducing a carbon-trading scheme in which reduced carbon emissions are rewarded financially;
  • Promoting much greater use of public transport and fuel-efficient vehicles”

Similarly, in 2007 the Anglican Diocese of Sydney accepted the emerging scientific consensus and called for action from both Governments and from Diocesan parishes.

The reality is, Christian leaders and denominations have readily accepted scientific consensus and have been calling Government to account for a decade or longer. If anything, the issue is that no one has been listening.

Perhaps though these Christians are acting despite their biblical convictions, preferring the light of science rather than the darkened halls of faith. After all, science and faith oppose each other like the positive and negative forces of magnets. Michael Pascoe adopts this now popular myth when he says,

“Religious faith, by definition, is a matter of faith – not evidence.” 

This may be true for some religions, but it certainly not true of Christianity, which is the group Pascoe targets.

Faith is not the exercise of belief where evidence is absent; the word used in the Bible means belief or trust. What (in)validates faith is the object in which the person puts their trust. Reason is an aspect of faith, as are ethos and pathos, as was notably argued by Aristotle. What forms our beliefs is a combination of truth, social and ethical influences, and desire.

I accept the science of climate change, not because I am a qualified scientist who grasps all the data, but because I am trusting the scientific community of whom the vast majority  have reached consensus (having a climate change scientist in my church hasn’t hurt either!). Unless Michael Pascoe is himself a scientific expert, he too is trusting the information being presented, and with warrant. Christianity is not dissimilar in that demands scrutiny, it anticipates verifiability. The Apostle Paul wrote of the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

“if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

Perhaps then, the problem is the Bible itself. Far from inciting rubbishing the environment, the Bible reference that Michael Pascoe quotes, Genesis 1:28, is in fact about responsibility. When read in its context, this is an important verse that calls for humanity to care for creation.

“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28)

I suspect this is a case of reading meaning into the text, which is somewhat understandable given how the language of ‘subdue’ and ‘rule’ hold negative connotations in our minds. But if one allows the text to speak for itself, we discover that the responsibility to oversee creation is given a framework; humanity was to rule in a manner similar to God himself. Genesis ch.1 demonstrates a God who blessed the cosmos through his creative and caring power. So too, humanity was to rule under God by looking after the world he had made. The positive language of blessing, being fruitful and increasing, suggests this, and it is further demonstrated by the following chapter of Genesis where man and woman cultivate the garden, giving names to the animals, and bringing order and beauty to this astonishing world. Perhaps the closest analogy we can have is that of a gardener. In the same way a gardener works his garden, she/he does not destroy or harm it, but cultivates it so that it grows in its beauty. That is the mandate given in Genesis 1:28, but sadly we have failed miserably.

Michael Pascoe, you may lay blame at the feet of the Republicans, an absent Cardinal, Tony Abbott, Aussie shock jocks, and poor biblical exegesis, but your hypothesis is evidence light.

If there is a difference between Christians and other members of the community on this issue, it is not about agreeing with the science or with proposed action, but with the question of hope. For the God-skeptic this world is all there is, and so it makes sense that they would invest so much effort into minimising rising temperatures. Christians on the other hand, while valuing creation and seeking to obey the mandate of Genesis 1:28, believe with reason that the one day there will be a new creation; the resurrection of Jesus Christ being the guarantor of this event. Christian hope does not diminish the responsibility that lays before us, but it offers a perspective that humanity needs. Imagine a world without pain and suffering, without disaster and death? For all our science and genius, we have not achieved these things, and most often we lack the resolve to do so. It is wise to take action on climate change, but it is foolish to bank all our hope in the endeavour.