How did we get here and what do we do about it?
Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about the role of the Church in a “post-truth” world. Two questions keep coming up; how did we get here? And what do we do about it?
Brave New Age
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor diagnosed our time as a “secular age.” At first glance that’s not a novel diagnosis, but that’s because Christians tend to think of “secular” as culture that isn’t Christian. There’s Kanye West and some Christian guy trying to be Kanye. Which is one way to think about it. But Taylor has a different thing in mind, he’s concerned with what he calls a shifting in the “conditions of belief.”
Once upon a time belief in God was assumed, built into the conditions of society. Most people believed in God and based their answers to deep questions on that belief, but in a secular age conditions have shifted and belief is contested. That doesn’t mean people aren’t religious or that they don’t believe in God, it means that belief in God is one of many options. Secularism has democratized belief.
Secularism has democratized of belief.
What happens when the conditions change and belief is democratized? In a recent Pew Study, researchers found that while millennials are identifying less as Christian they are not identifying more as atheist. Instead, millennials are claiming nothing. It’s what researchers have creatively dubbed, “the rise of the nones,” and it means that people aren’t wholesale rejecting belief; they’re doubting it.
A secular age is chiefly a doubting age, a time where truth claims are subjected to the pressures of doubt and called into question. And here’s where this matters, it began with religious claims but it doesn’t stop there. Doubt knocks at the door of every person and institution playing the truth game.
People still make claims, obviously, but doubt undermines our ability to evaluate them. With no agreed upon epistemology truth becomes tribal. Look at our political climate. Each tribe has their news sources, talking heads, and facts (or alt facts). And it seems, regardless of the “facts,” that the dial isn’t moving one way or another.
With no agreed upon epistemology truth becomes tribal.
So, as Christians, what we do with this? How do we navigate a post-truth world and deal with the shifting conditions of belief?
If I’m honest, it looks like we’ve already picked a tribe and jumped in. I get it and I’m guilty of it but I don’t think it’s the way forward, at least not for us. I believe the way of Jesus offers something better, but it requires we become a different kind of people.
What does that mean?
A Different Kind of People
First, it means we need to be a people whose imaginations are shaped by the story of Jesus. This is about more than “knowing” truth, it’s about saturating ourselves in it, lingering long enough that we start to see and live differently. Stanley Hauerwas says it this way,
It is Jesus story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.
A recent study found that people in America identify more by their political affiliation than their faith. I think, in large, part that’s because their politics offer them a story to live into, answers to hard questions, and a hope to believe in. I totally get it, and in certain moments am drawn to it. But, at the end of the day it’s shallow.
This is why we need to have an imagination shaped by Jesus’ story. It’s bigger than our politics and offers us and the world a better way forward.
Second, we need to be a people of love. It’s so easy to be critical of other tribes and their “truth claims” especially when those claims verge on conspiracy. But most conspiracy theories come from a place of fear and confusion. Our world is complicated and it’s easier to explain the things we don’t understand with simple answers. That doesn’t make it right or true, fear is rarely rational, but it should give us pause.
How do we deal with fear? With truth yes, but truth in love. Love dispels all fear, and it rarely lectures. We need to confront fear with mercy. Which means we need to be a people of love and a sound mind who are not driven by a “spirit of fear.”
We need to confront fear with mercy.
Third, we need to be a people of the Kingdom. The New York Times recently published an article about how Democrats are becoming an “oppositional party,” defining themselves in protest. It’s a nice sentiment, but the Church doesn’t have that luxury. Are there things Jesus was against? Yes. But Jesus was chiefly defined by His mission to reconcile all things. As His people following His way we are to be the same. Instead of being against, reconciliation means moving towards. Moving towards fear in mercy, hate in love.
We embody reconciliation in the practice of hospitality. Opening our homes and lives to the other providing spaces of safety, understanding, and love amid fear and confusion (even when its irrational).
Politics of Jesus
How do we live and move in a post truth world? There’s a lot more that could be said but it begins with having our imaginations shaped by the story of Jesus. Without it, we will never see the fullness of our practice. Hospitality will seem shallow because we wont recognize that there is always more going on than meets the eye. Without a storied imagination we wont see that our spaces are becoming sacred and our tables sacramental.
A storied imagination transforms our fear into love and our lives and homes into spaces of reconciliation.
In a post-truth world, like in every world before, Jesus is inviting us to be His people. It’s an invitation to leave behind the politics of tribes and enter into the political imagination of the Kingdom.
For More, Check Out:
How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas
Faithful Presence by David Fitch