Wednesday, 18 November 2020

What is Truth?


“What is truth?”, Pilate famously asked Jesus. It has, perhaps, become one of the really pressing questions of our age, particularly as we see so many politicians openly lying. On becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was asked about the critical problem of Social Care. He replied with great confidence that he ‘had a plan’ yet, even as he said it, it was obvious that no such plan exists. In the USA, President Trump is infamous for his take on the truth, whilst dismissing everything he does not agree with as ‘fake news’. Even as he lost the recent election, it came naturally to him to lie and say that he won.

Last night I was privileged to attend a meeting on American politics, given by an expert in political communication and delivered from New York via Zoom. It was a private meeting arranged by my old school. The lecturer said that America is deeply divided, with each side following its own version of the truth. Each side has its own media, which feeds, reinforces and shapes what is seen as truth. He said that we all have the ability to filter out what does not conform to our world view. In passing, let me note that this might well be the reason why some bishops were not able to see what was wrong with such a person as Peter Ball. So, to go back to American politics, neither side can see the value of the other side. Neither side sees truth in the same way. They do not just disagree over things; they live with different world views. American is split down the middle in this way, with only a small proportion of people who are open minded and prepared to come to a view, only after weighing up the facts of any issue. Our lecturer said that it is this small group who are the key to election success. Persuade them of the truth of your cause and the election will swing your way. It is this group who determines the result of the election, for the majority of the population, divided into two camps, are unlikely ever to see the truth in the opposite point of view. Their positions are fixed. Our lecturer continued by saying that the way to win over this group is by emotional argument, not by cold facts. Political decisions, he said, are primarily a matter of emotional response.

All this made a lot of sense. It reminded me of the TV film, The Uncivil War, in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays the part of Dominic Cummings, the mastermind behind the Brexit Leave Campaign. Cummings tells his group to forget about winning a majority. All that is needed is to win over the small, centre group and the vote will be theirs. They set about winning this group, not by telling the truth, but by appealing to the emotions. An example of this is the bus with a slogan about diverting £350m a week from the EU into the NHS, as well as ridiculing the opposition by calling it ‘Project Fear’. The truth of the matter is that this is how elections are won in these times. The use of modern social media not only provides the means of discerning what emotional slogan with touch the heart of the target group, but also the means of delivering the message to that group in a way that will win them over.

I could not help also reflecting that such a deep divide over truth is what faces the Church at this moment in time. It is said that the argument about same-sex relationships is about more than what the Church’s stance should be on this issue. Looked at from the point of view of the political analysis that we have just considered, that must be right. Two sides of an argument about sexuality come from two different world views. It is not just a matter about how you interpret scripture, it is about what is fundamental to what forms and sustains my view of who I am and how truth is perceived, interpreted and expressed in my world. If that is a fair assessment of the situation, then it means that this issue will never be resolved by rational engagement of the issues or an emerging consensus on the matter. Yet I think there is a huge difference between the current dispute within the Church and the reality of politics in the USA or the UK. The difference lies in the fact that the middle ground has grown very large and is populated by people who, on emotional grounds, have moved on. Having gay children, or gay friends of your children, or gay children of friends, and so on, has led to the emotional response that all this is just the way the world is. If two people are happy together, then what is the problem? It is no longer an issue. The world has moved on. All of which leaves the two different world views in the Church at odds with each other, without any prospect of finding a resolution. And for what is probably a majority in the middle ground, the constant arguing over these matters simply serves to make the Church look both irrelevant and out of touch with the reality of people’s lives. As each side protects its own truth, the power of the gospel message sputters and fades. We end up making gods out of what defines our different world views, rather than allowing the Spirit of the risen Christ flood through us as a community that finds its unity, not in agreement over what divides, but in the shared joy of transformation and renewal.