Someone somewhere is lying
Friday, 14 July 2023 4:12 pm
Climate change, pandemic management, government regulation, Robodebt, the Voice referendum. All it seems are in dispute. Among the common threads is the all-important truth question. Someone's lying. The question is who.
How is any mug punter to answer that question? How in particular is a Christian mug punter to answer? I say "in particular" of Christians because truth is a fundamental for us who follow Jesus. It certainly means having honest dealings; but it's about much more than that. It's about reality itself. Christians, that is people who've accepted the claims of Jesus Christ and the gospel message centred on him, are committed to a claim of absolute reality. We are they who confess Jesus as the ultimate benchmark of what's true and real in the world created by "the one true God" (Isa 65:16) through the unique eternal Word. See John 1:1-18, especially John 1:17. In that true and real world, truth is not only a moral standard. It's a mark of the very character of the One we follow (John 14:6). We confess and follow the true One, who speaks only truth.
This should mean that Christians at a fundamental level are truth people. We should want to know what's true, and what's not. For us, truth can only be that which is absolute and "public", regardless of preference or opinion, however confident. And once satisfied as to truth on any given matter, Christians more than anyone would want the truth to prevail over mere opinion or half-truth, and certainly over outright falsehood and deception.
What then might disciples of Jesus make of those times and circumstances when sisters and brothers are aligned on opposite sides of a public dispute over public truth; each side invested in a "truth" or set of "facts" the other side calls a "lie"? Such has been much the case on several matters of public governance this century, including those named in the first paragraph above. How might the Christian community best navigate this reality? And how might conflicted disciples navigate it with one another? In attempting answers, let me propose two foundational standards immediately, followed by a range of wider reflections on what I’ll call “truth claims”.
- Agree that definitionally one of the two positions must be false. Either X is true or it is not. It can't be both; not where public truth is concerned. So our stance must be one of mutual humility, recognising our common finiteness, even in certainty.
- Agree that as "truth people" - all of us, both of us - we ultimately want the same thing. We're all invested in the same ultimate value. We all want to see falsehood exposed, repented and rooted out. And we all want to see truth prevailing.
Some biblical thoughts on truth claims:
- Rom 12:2. Far from being either reactionaries or easy recruits to novelty, historically mature Christians have been critical thinkers. They've believed that the mind matters not less than the heart. And so like the "noble Bereans" (Ac 17:11) they've wanted to investigate truth claims with care. To that end they've harnessed their own and others' intellectual skills, and wider sources of knowledge, to test and verify what's presented to them. That's why, contrary to some flippant claims, Christians have been numbered among history's finest minds.
- Consequently it's appropriate to be cautious where a truth claim can't be verified independently of the source or of others who believe the source. If the informed mind can't be applied, that's at least a red flag at the start
- Similarly, if other mature believers whose counsel has proven trustworthy before reject or are wary of a truth claim, a wise enquirer will take extra caution
- Prov 18:17. In the digital age, a shortage of information is not among our challenges. What is very much a challenge is sifting the exponential volumes of information that flood our consciousness and certainly our devices. Particularly where disputed subjects are concerned, it's clear that there's at least as much misinformation as genuine fact. I say "clear" simply because so much of what's "out there" to be found is contradictory of other information that's also there waiting to be read.
- Let me suggest that primacy is one factor that may be determinative of what we take to heart. In other words the perspective I meet first in exploring a subject new to me has a good chance of grabbing my attention and forming my perception of reality; the more so if it's expressed eloquently and persuasively and/or if it touches on subjects I care deeply about (e.g. the welfare of children)
- The Bible's tested wisdom about life speaks to us at just this point. In this case it reminds us that what first compels us may in the end prove flawed, when cross-examined or pitted against another perspective; the more so where the latter speaker brings relevant expertise to bear.
- So let us agree to be cautious with new information that claims authority or revelation. Let us wait to consider other insights, especially from sources or people with a track record of trust and wisdom.
- Rumours, gossip, slander. 1 Pet 2:1 (cf Rom 1:29; 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; Titus 3:2; Jas 4:11). We've spoken of being "truth people" patterned on the One who is truth, and having a right desire to see truth prevail over falsehood. A common theme in many of those alternative perspectives that clamour for our adherence is allegations that people with power or influence (government and/or private) are manipulating the public world for selfish ends, to the detriment of the public good. If such is indeed the case anywhere, then it's unsurprising for God's servants, the "truth people", to take up the truth cause in defence of themselves, those they love or care about, and the welfare of all.
- Yet the truth cause itself also demands caution of us, even here. Through the ethical teaching of the New Testament epistles especially, truth warns us against allowing sinful behaviours like gossip, slander and rumour mongering to have undue influence. Slander especially is deadly and warned against often.
- So dear Christian sister or brother, if you're minded for truth's sake to warn others of the evil or corrupt actions of people in authority that mean them harm, then please first apply much wisdom (e.g. as outlined above) to verifying the allegations you're about to broadcast. Be very sure that it is the truth as you've been led to believe. Be especially careful if the only sources of confirmation you have are from the same circle of information as the claim itself, that is if there is no external verifying source. You won't glorify your Father in Heaven (Matt 5:16) by spreading what in truth is slander, however 'righteous' it feels. (And incidentally, please remember that some of those you would accuse may be Christian brothers or sisters, fellow "truth people").
Some truth claims from modern history:
Apart from the Bible itself, are there lessons from human history that may guide us? I believe there are many, too many to cover here. But I want to at least mention the perplexing history of cult groups or sects, and draw a lesson or two from them. A read or scan say of a Wikipedia article about 'Cult' or 'Cults' will yield a mind-blowing array of movements, mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries. Religious cults, political cults, Domesday cults, terrorist sects, suicide pacts, and so on. Themes typically canvassed in common folklore and academic analysis alike would include a charismatic leader, sometimes with messianic self-belief, claims to special knowledge, prophecy or insight, believed by a small or medium sized group of adherents, occasionally even involving brainwashing or mind-control techniques.
But in recent decades, again perhaps a digital age phenomenon, those broad kinds of themes have been noted less in charismatic "messiahs" and more in shared theories about the world or world events. Examples include conspiracy theories about a global socialist agenda, 'chemtrails' emitted from aircraft, "false flags" such as 9/11, the moon landing and school shootings (that is, a belief that these were 'faked' by the government or others), and even the flat earth theory. (No it isn't purely a joke. There are genuine adherents even still). And in such vein let's not forget the QAnon phenomenon, centred on Donald Trump's "mission" to "drain the swamp", and a raft of heinous evils being perpetrated by Democrat politicians.
To me, the significant common threads between cult groups, sects, conspiracy theories, QAnon and other sometimes nebulous shared political narratives, are:
- a set of beliefs now shared by a minority
- about plans, agendas or destinies now hidden from most people
- within a closed trusted information circle (self-verifying)
- "Everyone else is lying to you"
- and (often) expecting a soon-coming general 'awakening' when the hidden plans and their perpetrators will be unmasked and plain to all
"Everyone else is lying to you"
If your worldview assumes a large scale perpetuated lie ...
If you've come to believe and trust only the shared wisdom of a closed information circle ...
If you've come to believe that the information shared within the circle, though hidden to most, is revelatory of human evil ...
If what your circle believes fundamentally cannot be externally or objectively verified ...
If you've come to regard external (i.e. from outside the circle) evidence as fundamentally untrustworthy ...
If the circle is becoming your social world, or at least its core ...
If you're coming to evaluate the world around in increasingly circular ways (B confirms C and C confirms B, but there's no A to verify either) ...
If any or all of these patterns of thought are germane to beliefs you've come to own regarding current real world political events or processes, then please consider carefully:
- That's a dangerous place to be spiritually, however persuasive it may seem. Historically that's the place where gnostic or other heresies, sects and cults have been born and nurtured. Such movements have lured among others highly intelligent people and also deeply caring people. So a human who submits to the Lordship of the One who alone knows and sees all ought to approach unverifiable claims to truth with much prayerful caution.
- It's logically possible you've truly uncovered grave wickedness, which will one day be exposed to all. In that case you would have a prophetic call, to which you must remain faithful to the end, whatever the cost.
- That can't be ruled out from the start. And minorities can be holders of truth. (Just ask any Christian believer in say North Korea or Iraq).
- Yet history would suggest it's rather more likely you've become a cultist or something similar, unawares.
- Either way, it's likely you're losing friends, some of them precious and long-standing.
- If your pursuit of your passion is the former, a prophetic call to expose real evil, then lost friendships will likely go with the territory. A few of your friends may understand or at least accept; most likely will not. The loss will be painful, even heartbreaking, but necessary. And God will compensate you and also vindicate you, in this life or the next. That hope has sustained the prophets of the Bible and of history since.
- If what you're pursuing is in reality the counterfeit claim of either an actual cult, sect or some cult-like movement, the losses of connection will be the same. But they are reversible. With fresh insight on where truth lies, you can choose to recentre your world and your sources of trust, as before. That may be a humbling and even humiliating experience, and would require a voluntary change of heart. But it is well and truly possible for those who believe the Gospel and so know who God is and who they are before Him. Indeed it would be a moment for the Gospel to shine in all its brilliance.
Given the frequency with which impassioned circles of information have proven to be cultic more than prophetic, please let me suggest that investigating the possibility that the privileged information you've come to trust is not as sound as it seems, will certainly not do harm, may encourage others around you, and may even bring restoration.