The Death of Truth and a Postmortem

Posted by Ravi Zacharias, on December 20, 2016
Topic: Blog

Topic: Cultural IssuesTopic: Post-ModernismTopic: Truth

I happened to be in India following the week a stunning decision was made by the country’s leader. On November 8, 2016, the nation’s leading bankers were called to an 8 PM meeting after the banks were all closed for the day. They were not alerted to the reason for the meeting. So it began with casual chit chat and then a television was turned on to tell them the prime minister was going to address the nation. Totally unprepared for what was coming but wondering what this was all about, they began to watch. They heard the announcement made live to the nation that all 500 rupee and one thousand rupee notes would be rendered nonnegotiable by midnight that same night. (Those are the biggest notes of currency and used for most daily expenses and all major purchases.) All kinds of rules were set in motion for exchange, each rule dying the death of a thousand qualifications.

They were stunned, as was the nation. The demonetization was a financial earthquake that plunged millions into chaos and confusion. Some claimed they had witnessed suicides and sudden deaths as a result. I am in India again as I write. My colleague and I have spent two days in our rooms as we can’t change our foreign currency anywhere because the available cash flow is unable to meet the need.

The reasons given for this decision are varied, mainly that in order to undermine what is called “black money,” which ranges from tax evasion to stacking mounds of cash used by terrorists. Political opponents have a different take of course, saying that it is to restrict the financial resources of the opposition parties in the run-up to state elections. Whatever the truth, it’s something I have never witnessed in four decades of travel, a legal tender suddenly becoming non-legal and valueless, with very little recourse. Like on the Titanic, when those rescued on the lifeboats considered oranges more precious than diamonds, small tenders are worth more than the larger tenders that have become just pieces of paper.
The next morning before dawn the lines in front of every shuttered bank and ATM machines told the story in human fears.

What happened in fiscal terms is a grim reminder that value has to have a referent and that at the whim of a man, everything that purportedly points to high value can be suddenly reduced to nothing. So much for the statement of assurance, “You can take that to the bank.” In fact, having the larger bills became a possible indication of guilt, especially if possessed in large amounts. In a strange twist, what was once “true” was now “untrue,” and it was all done to expose a lie that was masquerading as true.

Demonetization is one thing. Devaluing of truth and truthfulness is another thing and is systemically unlivable. Just a few days before demonetization in India another announcement was made. The world probably yawned its way through it but if what was stated is true, demonetization will literally be a vacation compared to the capsizing ship of the other pronouncement. Oxford Dictionary compilers gave “post-truth” the honor of being the new word of the year.
It is interesting that the media, which flirts with untruths, and the academy, which never hesitates to replace absolutes by postmodern relativism, have come together to give our culture a new word. Their explanation was not so much that they were coining a new word as that they were affirming a reality—a truth about the way we coddle the lie, the ultimate self-defeating statement. It’s a little bit like the famous baseball player who gave conflicting statements about his drug use and defended himself with another new phrase, “I misremembered.”

So we now live in a “post-truth” culture where misremembering is normal. It is not surprising that within hours of the American elections, a French television network reporting on it baptized our culture as “post logic.” Coming from the French, that is quite ironic as it was their philosophers that birthed the postmodern mindset that has jeopardized truth, meaning, and certainty and proceeded to deconstruct literature and give the reader the authority of interpretation rather than allowing the author the privilege of intent.

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These two bastions of values, the academy and the media—where relativism flows in their veins—have become the town criers of this new word. Castigating the politicians, they untruthfully predicted the destination of the untruthful. Excoriating an electorate gone amuck, they wondered how people could be duped into a lie. Having themselves swallowed a camel, they were now straining at a gnat. They are the primary carriers of manipulation with words and repeating distortions often enough to make them into truths. They are the origin of this reality of caring not for truth but for impact and for the manipulation of all thinking. Their victory is pyrrhic.

For what it’s worth, let’s get to the definition of post-truth. There is a soft side to the meaning that suggests that objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief. Well, that is hardly new. But the hard meaning being smuggled in here tells us that in this culture we willfully and justifiably convey something false because it accomplishes a personal or end goal. The end justifies the means and the means, in effect, do not need to justify themselves.

But here is the post-mortem. Really, post-truth as a phenomenon is not new. If indeed “post-truth” is the new word of the year in our postmodern lexicon, we might well say that it all depends on what “is” means. Just as postmodern is neither post nor modern but existed in the first conversation at creation’s dawn—“Has God spoken?”—so also post-truth is actually rebellion right from the beginning. That was the mother of all questions in search of anarchy. “Has God given us His word?” The answer to that question spelled life or death.

You see, truth is primarily a property of propositions where words present reality as it really is. Even manipulators of the truth know that truth as an objective assertion is assumed when one is the victim of a lie. It is only subjective when one has victimized others in the process and needs a fabrication. Once we remove God and decide instead to play God, truth gives way to fiction. It used to be said, “If a Cretan tells you all Cretans are liars, can you believe him?” Now we have to ask ourselves if we can believe it when a post-truth culture tells us it is a post-truth culture.

We could see this day coming. Remember in the 1960s a leading magazine cover that proclaimed “God Is Dead”? In the 1970s the same magazine said, “Marx is dead.” One cynic quipped, “God is dead and Marx is dead. Actually, I’m not feeling too well myself.”

Well, that feeling has now resulted in another fatality. We now dig the final grave by burying ourselves. Truth is dead. We have killed it. Nietzsche thought God was dead and went with a lantern looking for Him. But he got it wrong. God was not dead, Truth was dead. We have extinguished the lantern in our halls of learning so that it is possible for a Harvard student to say, “I can believe anything I want, so long as I don’t claim it to be true.”

Think of this irony and a series of ironies. The motto of Harvard is “Veritas,” meaning truth. The trustees of Harvard might want to meet and put a “post” before it. With the death of truth, the unique capability of Homo sapiens for abstract reasoning and language is now taken to the morgue and all language is meaningless, reflective of one lie after another.

Ironically, the media used this term with the hope of silencing a political candidate. Ironically, too, he called their bluff and won. He won, voted in by an electorate that said they were tired of being lied to, they were financially in dire straits, they were consistently told that the enemy that had no name was attacking them, and that their founding values were gone. They wanted change. Everybody had rights but nobody was defining what was right. A frustrated population stormed the bastille of media and power structures that housed a vocabulary of pretense.

This day was envisioned by the ones who gave the news half a century ago. It was a media star, Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a cynic by seeing how the news was awash with lies and ultimately made his own journey to the truth in his Jesus Rediscovered. The first volume of his autobiography was well subtitled A Chronicle of Wasted Years. Having lived through political lie after lie and writing to cater to the masses, he said it powerfully: “Yet even so, truth is very beautiful: more so I consider than justice—today’s pursuit—which easily puts on a false face…. [W]herever two or more are gathered to exercise authority, it is truth that has died, not God.”[1]

Enter the big names of our own newspapers and television networks and read the convoluted stuff peddled day after day. After the death of Fidel Castro, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared him to have been a leader who “served his own people.” Those same people who were stomped under his feet were waving flags in Miami celebrating his demise. I suppose the prime minister meant that he served his people the way Stalin “served his own people.”

Listen to the nonsense disseminated by our academics. The more bizarre the statement, the more the possibility that it came from a so-called “intellectual.” We are immersed in the news at the mercy of ideologues masquerading as reporters. We are turning out intellectuals brainwashed by ideologues who use the academy to ultimately spread the lie that all truth is relative. As we see religions represented falsely because it suits the politician, so we see life devalued because it suits our comfort. As we see definitions once held dear erased, so we see truth mangled at the altar of our proclivities. We see cherished values and institutions destroyed with new meanings given by our post-truth culture. What option do we have but to say “Truth is dead”?

And yet! And yet! The tug of reality is ultimately unbreakable.

Churchill said it well: “Truth is the most valuable thing in the world, so valuable it is often protected by a bodyguard of lies.”

Andrei Sakharov, who gave the Soviets the atomic bomb, said before he died: “I always thought the most powerful weapon in the world was the bomb. I have changed my mind. The most powerful weapon in the world is not the bomb. It is the truth.”

Just think about this. Who are the heroes of our time? Mainly our entertainers. They who play parts and act out roles. Their lives become so bifurcated that art no longer imitates life; life now imitates art. Art is the one discipline that claims to have no boundaries.

So here we are in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. The German philosopher Nietzsche warned us that since God had died in the nineteenth century, the twentieth century would become the bloodiest century and a universal madness would break out. He went on to say that the time had not yet come but one day that time would be here when lanterns would have to be lit in the morning hours. That day is here: the year 2016 when the dictionary tells us that it can be truthfully stated that we are a post-truth culture.

The formal announcement of a new word has shown the Bible to be true and that is the incredible unintended consequence. The Scriptures tell us that professing ourselves to be wise we have actually become fools; that the lie by which we live, in turn, lands us in death.

But Nietzsche himself conceded that his unwilling piety would withstand his strident philosophy. Here’s what he said:

“The real truth about ‘objective truth’ is that the latter is a fiction. Every candidate for truth must first be expressed in language, and language is notoriously unable to get us to reality.

Words, like a hall of mirrors, reflect only each other and in the end point to the condition of their users, without having established anything about the way things really are. Truth is the name we give to that which agrees with our own instinctive preferences. It is what we call our interpretation of the world, especially when we want to foist it upon others.”[2]

All this sounds like good philosophy of language, albeit self-defeating. Hence his confession: “I am still too pious that even I worship at the altar where God’s name is truth.”[3]

The long arm of truth has a reach beyond our will to outrun it. There is an ultimate cry for justice in every heart when wronged. Justice counts on the truth. Without those two realities, civilization will die. It is fascinating what the Bible says: “The law came through Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Both were needed; the law, and therefore grace and truth. But for the follower of Jesus, there is also hope; it is that hope expressed in the verse known by more people than any other verse but not believed by all: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

When you unpack that simple verse you find that it incorporates everything we need by which to live:

The starting point is filial

The giving is unconditional

The reception is volitional

The range is eternal

The core is judicial

There is at the heart of existence a moral law. That law had dare not be violated. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

True freedom is not the liberty to do as we please; rather, it is to do as we ought. For that we need the truth. The grace of God is our only hope to invite us and enable us to live by the truth. No new leader can take us there unless he or she recognizes this. No culture can survive without this. “Thy word is truth and abides forever.”

 

 

[1] Malcolm Muggeridge, The Green Stick: A Chronicle of Wasted Years, (Glasgow: William Collins & Sons, 1972), 16-17.

[2] Philip Novak, The Vision of Nietzsche (Vega, 2003), 8-11.

[3] Novak, 11.