Becoming Less Interested in Truth and More Interested in Reality

Truth is a concept that gets thrown around a lot these days. What is the Truth of this political situation? What is the Truth of that famous person’s claim? What is the Truth of this scientific study? On and on it goes.

Much has been written about Absolute Truth versus relative truths. For the record, I believe that there is Truth and there are truths. But how many times have we gotten lost in the search for Truth or truths that are still “out there” and “illusive,” all the while missing “reality” that is right in front of us and needs to be dealt with?

Science is one area where we debate Truth, truths, and “alternative truths.”

Let’s talk Truth in science a bit, and the concept of “what science says” is Truth. What you hear in school or on the news is not necessarily “what science says” in an exact and specific manner. It is usually a condensed, simplified, and amplified version designed to be easily shareable or to gain viewers/readers/etc.

For example, you hear people say that one week that scientific Truth says coffee is bad for you, and the next week science says coffee is good for you, so that means facts and truth are relative and science is not trust-able… right? However, science never really says “Coffee good unga unga!” or “coffee bad unga unga!” What science says is something like “under these circumstances in reality, those that drink this much coffee are 30% more likely to develop these possibly negative factors” or “under these circumstances in reality, people that drink coffee this many times per day are 52% likely to live 4 years longer than those that don’t.” People in the news and media simplify that to “Scientists say coffee may be good for you!” because, well, we have short attention spans and they have to catch our attention quickly. But that is not what “Science says” – it is what a reporter say about a scientific report. To dismiss science because of this is a bad idea, because you are not dismissing scientific Truth but how some report on science.

Or for another example: people say that they were taught in school that scientific Truth says that Saturn was the only planet in the solar system with rings, but that ended up not being true, so scientific facts and Truth must be relative. However, “science” never said Saturn was the only planet with rings. In 1789, William Herschel reported seeing rings around Uranus and got several details about them correct. No one else saw them again for hundreds of years until the 1970s, but the idea that there could be other planets with rings has been a scientific possibility for hundreds of years. A few decades ago, science textbooks said things like “based on our current reality and abilities to view space, Saturn is the only planet that we currently know of that has rings, but it is possible that others will be discovered.” Your teacher might have shortened that to save time to “Saturn is the only planet with rings,” but that does not mean that is fully what science said in Truth.

So in order to critique science, you have to look at what science actually says and not how it has been summarized by non-scientists. To throw out scientific evidence just because you don’t like it is just reckless at best. I mean, really – scientists spend their whole career studying something, using thousands if not millions of dollars in funding and hundreds of full time hours to come up with their science… and you come along with no experience or funding or employment in the field and spend a few minutes or even a few hours reading about their work and just decide “I don’t buy it” and that means science is wrong or relative or whatever? Ummm…. nope.

But if that is the case, then great. We can reject any facts simply because we don’t like them or they don’t add up in our minds. Awesome! I will now call everyone that believes this “She-ra Princess of Power” because the evidence that your name is Jeff or whatever just doesn’t “seem right” to me. Your birth certificate and decades of experience being called your name is now irrelevant to me, She-ra – sorry. I disagree with your name and that is all that matters.

But, of course, the reality is that you are called Jeff at this moment, so the Truth of your name is irrelevant to me at this moment. I have to focus on your name being Jeff because that is what the reality at this moment is.

So that is why I am growing less interested in talking “Truth” and more interested in talking “reality” in most circumstances where practical solutions are needed. Of course, I would be glad to sit over a meal and chat Truth with those that like those kind of deep talks, but those rarely solve the problems in the world. What we need as a country is to face reality.

For example, the Truth about Trump’s involvement with Russia is that we just don’t know for sure what the Truth is. But the reality is that there is a lot of concerning evidence that many laws were broken, so we need to fully investigate those concerns to find out either way.

The Truth about climate change is that there is much we do not know about what is going on on our planet in general. But the reality is that the numbers and signs are not good and pointing towards imminent global catastrophe. So we could argue the Truth about blips and problems with the Science, or live in the reality that we currently have and do something about it.

Truth is something that is always true and any changes to it will cause massive crises of faith, thus revealing it to have never been “True.” But a reality is something that is real right now, but it may change in the future and still be real.

For instance, the Truth about the DNC rigging the Democratic nomination for Clinton is that we just don’t know if that was really true or possible. The reality is that the evidence for that idea that we currently have was mostly fabricated by WikiLeaks. I can’t say that is a Truth either way right now because something could be released tomorrow either way to prove me a liar. But I can say that the reality right now is that we have no credible evidence that the DNC rigged anything. That reality might change either way in the future, but all we have to act on at this moment is reality.

There are, of course, historical, scientific, and political issues that we do know the Truth about. Or at least parts of it. Time, investigation, and research have provided a solid foundation of Truth. In other cases, it depends on what you are talking about. Do you want to know the final Truth about every aspect of climate change? Can’t give you that. But we can give you a whole ton of concerning current realities. For instance, do you want to know the Truth about whether humans have caused some problematic climate change? We can provide you with that – that part of Truth is also a current reality for the bigger issue of climate change. It’s all inter-related in some ways. A bit fuzzy and hard to pinpoint depending on the angle you take, but clearer and clearer from another angle. Kind of like, well… metamodernism

metamodern-faith-avatarBut so often we are arguing current realities as if they are already settled Truth. Or arguing against current realities because they lack the ability to reach the level of settled Truth (yet). So I prefer to keep the arguments about current realities and leave the discussions of Truth to be with those that can handle that conversation without all the drama.

Relativism and Socially Constructed Morals

Okay, Okay… put the pitch forks down. I know that “relativism” is one of the most evil words to use in Church circles. Satanism is one thing, moral depravity another… but relativists? Burn them at the stakes! I’m not going to come out as a “relativist” or “universalist.” But I do think there are things that the Church is generally missing when it comes to the concepts of relativism and social constructivism. What most of us think about when we think of relativism is some “hardened sinner” replying to our witnessing spiel with the old hippie cliche of “all truths are relative, man.” While this is the core of what relativism is to most people, it is not really all there is to the subject. Relativism is really a broad category with many shades and tangents, many of which make concessions for the possibility of absolute truth.

Add to that that there is also relative and absolute morality. People can be all over the map with those also – and they might not even match up with their beliefs on truth. For example, someone might believe that truth is relative but that absolute morals do exist. Then throw in the mix that there is some relativism in the Bible – read Romans 14 for example. But that is all really a bunch of subjects for scholars to dissect. What Christians need to realize is that the existence of Absolute Truth or Morality does not mean that we interact with the world as if relativism is evil and that all views that are different than yours are horribly satanic.

What I mean is this: many Christians seem to think that most non-Christians woke up one day and decided that God is real, but they want to be in rebellion to him. So they are living this miserable life actively trying to deny the Truth of the Gospel at every turn. But the reality is that every person out there makes an effort to live by what they think is true and moral. They are happy with their beliefs and morals (in general) and think they have a pretty good line on the “truth.”

Some are not happy of course – and they end up on quests to find something “deeper” (or whatever the case may be). We like to latch on to their testimonies of how they knew they had a hole in their heart, how they discovered they had been miserable without God, etc. Then we turn around and try to save the rest of the world based on thinking this must be the case for everyone.

But the problem is… that isn’t the case for everyone. Many people lead quite happy lives without every thinking twice about God. We like to treat them like they are in denial and that we need to convince them of how miserable they really are. But the truth is, they are living with a completely different paradigm. This is where relativism comes in.

Whether we like it or not, truth and morality are relative in our society. We are not forced to believe only one view of either, so people are free to choose what they want to believe. We may feel that our Truth is the only real one, but so does everyone else out there. Therefore, we are not trying to convince people to “fess up” to being in denial – we are trying to convince them to trade out one “truth” for another. Yes, we know that often times they have bought into a lie…. but they don’t see it that way. People don’t intentionally follow lies. So, you don’t have to change your views on relativism or truth or morality… you just have to be careful how you approach people, how you engage them, how you debate or discuss with them. You are not trying to capture them in a gotcha or in denial; you are opening their mind to a different truth. One that, to them, could be just as valid as any other.

In the bigger picture, this all comes to a head when determining laws for society to follow. Christians usually make the mistake in believing that laws are based on absolute morality…. when in reality, this is not the case. Laws are socially constructed agreements. Because we live in a relativistic society, morals and religion are seen as “relative” and are therefore all relegated to equal status. Society is not trying to figure out which religious moral code is the “best” or “most true.” Society is tying to strike a common middle ground that respects all and allows for freedom of all. There is a big difference there.

Making laws on what is considered the “correct” religious beliefs is theocracy. That is really cool when your beliefs match up with the ruling class, but not so cool if you disagree with all or even (in some cases) a small part. Historical and even current event stories are full of tales of what happens to groups that disagree with the ruling class in a theocracy. So, in realizing the dangers that theocracy presents, we have to recognize that we are not trying to make laws based on who has the greatest or most true “morality.” We are working towards a socially constructed system of laws that respects the rights of everyone they affect.

When I talk about social constructivism, I know that there are as many shades and sides of that as there is of relativism. But I am really referring to the basic idea here. To borrow an illustration from one of my professors, think of a chair that is sitting in a room. When asked what color it is, we all would name the color – for example, blue. But we don’t call it blue because that is it’s absolute color. We call it blue because what ever color it is, our ancestors created a social agreement hundreds of years ago that this color will be called “blue” in the English language. Before “blue” was labeled “blue,” it was not right or wrong to call it whatever color you wanted. It is only wrong now to call it “red” because of the social agreement to call it “blue.”

This is the crux of law in our democracy. We are not setting out to make laws that are based on absolute morality. We are setting out to socially construct a set of laws that respect everyone.

This is hard for Christians because we have confused personal morality or congregational morality with civic morality. And possibly have also confused America for Israel. The Bible is full of stories of men and women that lived for God despite living in cultures that completely ignored Him. In fact, if you really dig into the dark corners of the Bible, you will see that no country or government ever achieved the lofty goal of being completely perfect before God. Every single King, kingdom, council, judge, or culture mentioned anywhere in the Bible had at least a few – if not many – glaring problems. But no matter what the society  around followers of God was doing, God was always clear that they could still choose to follow Him.

The other issue that makes this hard for Christians is that we have typically had it our way for centuries in America. Christians have been the majority and have forced their morals on everyone else. Maybe this is why the Church has shrunk so much. Currently, we have lost the “big brother” status we enjoyed for so long.

I’m not saying you have to like any of this. I am just saying this is the way it is.

Laws in America are no longer based on Absolute Morality. They were never meant to be. They were always meant to be socially constructed agreements that come to respect all people’s freedoms. They are not there yet – but they are working that direction. And at this point, it seems that the Christians ultra-right wingers are acting like the pouting big brother that is no longer getting his way, but refuses to back down and play nicely with others.

So, take any issue – contraception, gun control, gay marriage, abortion, you name it. We are not in a position to tell people what is the one “right” view to have on those issues. Our society is relativistic. Sorry if you don’t like that, but it is what we have. Your views on those topics are no more correct to everyone else out there than anyone else’s are in most people’s eyes. If you bring a view to the table that stops other people from enjoying the freedoms that you do, you will lose your voice. Period. You will have to realize that laws are not the same as truths. We can not turn our view of Truth into law for a land that sees truth as relative. It just won’t work. In fact, it will just be legalism.

In fact, let’s ponder that last thought for a second. Think of all the issues where people are fighting to change laws that are based on traditional Christian morality rather than socially constructed agreements that honors all beliefs. Why are people following those laws now? Because they really believe? No – because they are forced to. They are forced into legalism by our insistence that they follow our view of Absolute Morality. No matter how True you know this Truth to be – you also know that the Truth sets people free from legalism. So by forcing people to follow your beliefs, you are clasping down chains of legalism on them and forcing them to follow God against their will.

This is not what God intended. He wants people to follow His commands out of a heart overflowing with joy and a desire to obey. Not because they are forced by the laws of the land.

So remember that laws are not truths or morals. They are socially constructed agreements designed to create a society of mutual respect and freedoms. Individuals are still free to follow their own morals codes and beliefs and even teach others about them, as long as they don’t violate the agreed upon laws.

I know that it is not always as simple as that, but that is what our society is working towards. It is not there yet. But Christians will no longer find themselves invited to the conversation if they keep on confusing laws with morals.

metamodern-faith-avatarThe biggest question I know that will arise is with businesses and some of these issues. Should a Christian business owner be forced to provide certain accommodations for employees that goes against their personal beliefs  That is a whole other subject, but once again I feel that businesses that want to hire people of differing beliefs should operate more like a democratic society than a theocracy. But for a more in-depth exploration of that subject, I would suggest reading “Why Christian Companies’ Corporate Conscience Should be Clear.”