Crisis of Truth: Why Fake News Isn't News in a Post-Truth World

 The following are my prepared remarks for the 2017 Center for Cultural Leadership Symposium on the "Crisis of Responsibility." 

One day in college freshman English I was paired with a young lady for a class exercise. We had each written a short paper on any subject we chose, and we were to exchange papers for mutual critique. One of us would stand and deliver our paper to the class, and the other would then respond.

I have no recollection at all what I wrote, but I have never forgotten her topic. An amateur mishmash of Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault (impressively not stolen from Wikipedia, since it hadn’t been invented), this young lady explained to the class—using well-crafted English—that language has no fixed meaning. She enthusiastically proposed that all propositions were nothing more than pure propaganda, political power plays all the way down. Truth claims, she claimed, are lies and mere tools designed to oppress and marginalize others.

At last the time arrived for my required public response, and I uttered only a single sentence: “Nobody who really believes that language is meaningless would bother writing a paper about it.” The teacher and class roared with laughter and the poor young lady blushed. The year was 1995.

It was easy to not take her seriously. And yet. I wonder if that radical young lady—no doubt now a tenure-track faculty member of a gender-studies department at some university—is having the last laugh.

Another faded memory from those days half a lifetime ago: My philosophy professor inviting me into his office one day and praising my critical thinking and writing abilities. “But,” he said quietly, “You should really try to avoid the ‘T’ word.” T-Word?

He meant “Truth.”

Looking back it seems I lived through times I did not fully comprehend. We were all well-aware of postmodernism, of course. Quintessential postmodernist Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would enjoy fifteen minutes of fame. I don’t think he thought this would be true of postmodernism itself. We were in the midst of its own “fifteen minutes,” a relatively brief moment of time when western culture had a bout of nausea and vomited forth ravings fittingly indistinguishable from Nietzsche’s “Madman.” In the 1990s, it seemed every single book published by Christian outfits was about the dangerous relativism and nihilism of postmodernism or, alternatively, all the exciting and wonderful possibilities of postmodernism. And then:

It was all gone.

In principle, it ended at precisely 8:46 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. At that moment a large airplane filled with people and jet fuel was purposely crashed, followed shortly by more. They crashed not only into high-rise buildings; they also crashed into the pretentious fantasy world where the “T-word” is considered profanity. It seems impossible to overstate the power of this jolt, not just sociopolitically and economically, but intellectually and morally. Nietzsche had dreamed of moving “beyond good and evil,” but even the likes of atheist gadfly Christopher Hitchens suddenly saw this as, well, the madness it is. And he was not alone. What few people realize is that after September 11th, 2001 philosophy departments all across the western world widely rejected postmodernism. It lay smoldering in lower Manhattan.

All those books published by Christian publishing houses? Just the other day I weeded through my book collection and put at least a dozen of them in the Goodwill pile. I will never have use for them.

Then again, viruses are not so easy to eradicate. Postmodernism in its essence is ideological Ebola, a disease whose purpose is to literally deconstruct—liquefy—the fiber and tissue of healthy organs. Viruses move around and adapt. The “true believer” postmodernists lived on in or were shuffled to their numerous “studies” departments—themselves residual artifacts of a breakdown of a unified field of knowledge—and there they remained undeterred.

Viruses also bide their time. On the public intellectual front postmodernism went into a kind of dormancy. These were the years of tedious essays on “Post-postmodernism” and various attempts to create some new philosophy from the ashes of the World Trade Center. Some normalcy returned, creating an illusion that wholesale assault on the very idea of truth is a thing of the past. A brief fit. A mere spasm.

How naive.

Surveying the scene in 2017, it seems clear to me that the virus had, in fact, infected all of the vital organs of our body politic and however much it had been marginalized and pressed to the crackpot fringes of our society, all indications are that, like Queen Jadis of Narnia, the witch is back. Or, if you prefer—and pardon the French—substitute a word that rhymes with “witch.”

Isaiah 59:14-15:

“So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”

We could spend a great deal of time exploring all the ways that truth is stumbling in our streets as the virus of intellectual and moral relativism has metastasized in our every cultural institution: media, entertainment, academia, the courts, and politics. It scarcely needs pointing out that our culture has no broad, shared notion of truth. We are far from the times when everyone could affirm something as “self-evident,” as our nation’s founders did in the Declaration of Independence.

This helps to explain why the all-important thing has become “winning.” Once we have deconstructed the idea of truth as objective and transcendent—something to which we are bound whether we like it or not—and replaced it with identity politics and its liberation/oppression nexus, it should surprise no one that all we are left with is “truths”—as in, “your” truth and “my” truth and “our” truth and “their” truth. And all these “truths” are inevitably locked in a pitched battle to see who “wins.” My fellow student’s laughable words were actually a deadly serious prophecy of what everyone would one day (apparently) believe: all truth claims are propaganda— political power plays all the way down, instruments of manipulation to achieve a self-serving end.

And people really do seem to believe this, even when they vocally deny it. Recently CNN aired an advertisement that goes like this:

“This is an apple.

Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana.

They might scream, ‘Banana, banana, banana,’ over and over and over again.

They might put ‘banana’ in all caps.

You might even start to believe that this is a banana.

But it’s not.

This is an apple.”

It’s a strong and true appeal, to be sure. Alas, it comes from a media outlet that routinely claims that men can have babies and shames anyone who says otherwise. Set in that context, it is difficult to see this as anything but propaganda—a convenient and cynical effort to persuade viewers to believe them, to trust them, that they might thereby exert power and influence over the masses when it comes to more controversial beliefs like their novel ideas about the birds and the bees. Well-intentioned or not, even their truth claims about the nature of truth claims is completely cynical.

Speaking of cynicism, CNNs biggest critic, The President of the United States, also certainly gives the impression of caring about truth. He routinely chastises that very network for broadcasting “fake” news. This, too, might be a strong appeal, were it not for the fact that plenty of what he deems “fake” isn’t fake at all. And, really, are we to believe that the man who believes the National Enquirer “actually [has] a very good record of being right,” and is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize is really concerned about fake news? Seriously? This is feigned concern that is entirely and transparently instrumental to his own political ends.

“All truth claims are political power plays,” she said. Those words haunt me because it appears everyone now believes it, or at least acts like they believe it even in the act of saying they don’t believe it.

In a post-Truth world, all news is fake news.

But I don’t want to talk about the media, even if that is where Pilate’s perennial question, “What is Truth?” crops up most often. I don’t want to talk about the academy, even as hordes of fascist students invent their own truths and violently protest anyone who dares to disagree. I don’t want to talk about the law, even as we have a robed potentate, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who believes and (sadly) rules that “at the heart of liberty” is the right to invent one’s own truth. I don’t want to talk about the entertainment world, where rank hypocrisy is on full display as they are busy tarring and feathering people for actually practicing the alleged truths they’ve long preached—the serpent swallowing its own tail. I don’t want to talk about politics, which—well, let’s be honest: they’ve never been on particularly good terms with honesty and truth.

If only there was something else to talk about! Some other institution, some other group of people, somebody, anywhere who puts a premium on the truth. Oh, I forgot: there is a group of people whose charter it is to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, but in my defense they’re pretty easy to forget these days.

If we do turn our attention to them, it turns out they’re all just as interested in “winning” as the rest of the culture. Many are the court prophets—er, Christian leaders who will morally rationalize absolutely anything, it seems. I mean, what’s a little statutory rape when there’s a Senate seat to protect? I mean, after all, Joseph of Nazareth married a teenager, and, heck, some 14-year olds are pretty hot. I truly wish I was making up this nauseating stuff.

It’s easy to cherry-pick and beat up on the likes of Falwell, Graham, Dobson, Jeffress, and others. Maybe they aren’t really representative of Christians in general. I’m sorry to rain on the parade, but actually the Public Religion Research Institute just rained on the parade. In 2011 they polled America with this question: “Can an elected official who commits an immoral act in their private life still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life?” Now, I must say that I’m not a fan of that question. It needs to be a “should so-and-so be entrusted with public duties,” rather than a “can they?” question. Be that as it may, Americans across the board said, “No,” but evangelicals were the most adamant. 61 percent said, “No!”

When asked the same question six years later 72 percent—seventy-two percent—of evangelical Christians answered, “Yes.”

That certainly sounds like they all changed their minds in a fairly brief period of time. But here is the thing we must—we must—grasp: they didn’t change at all. What changed was that suddenly answering “Yes” to that question was to their perceived political advantage. How clarifying. Ideological Ebola had already liquefied the moral fiber of God’s people, right along with everyone else; it just took an opportune moment to manifest itself. That old chestnut, “American Christianity is 3,000 miles wide and an inch deep” has turned out to be true. I don’t know why that has shocked me, but it has.

In the 2016 election cycle I published my final appeal at The Resurgent. It was entitled, “Freedom or Integrity: Evangelicals, Choose One.” I argued that Hillary Clinton was a direct threat to our freedom. And I argued that Donald Trump was a direct threat to our integrity. I warned that under Clinton, we might be muzzled. But under Trump, we might be free to broadcast from the rooftops, but everyone would ignore us. Rightly ignore us. All of our moral capital will have been squandered. I take no pleasure in being right, but recent events have convinced me more than ever that I was right.

And that means the most pressing “crisis of truth” is not “out there,” among “them.” It is our crisis. This is our problem. Being the light of the world and salt of the earth is our job. Remember: those verses I read from Isaiah were not judgments against pagan nations; they were judgments against God’s people.

Now, I went to great pains in the fall of 2016 to assure people that given the situation I respected them if they decided to vote for Donald Trump. But I took equal pains to remind people that this vote, this choice, was not remotely a mandate to lie—that is, to lionize, cheerlead, rationalize, defend, and walk in lock-step with so lacking a leader. To do so is to embrace the very postmodernist deconstruction we ostensibly oppose; it is to prioritize “winning” over integrity and truth. And I can hear my old classmate’s last laugh: “All truth claims really are just political power plays, all the way down.”

In summary, then: the “crisis of truth” cuts through every institution and every tribe, and we Christians are no exception. This is no “us” versus “them.” Intellectual and moral relativism may have seemed dormant these last fifteen years, but it has been rotting and destroying the fiber and tissue of our society all along.

What must we do? Let me sketch a few things.

1. Repent. Judgment begins with the house of God, and the message of Isaiah is every bit as relevant today as it was then: “Return to me, and I will return to you.”

2. We must stop thinking in purely horizontal terms. Cultural conflict is not a “zero-sum” game. That is precisely what the postmodern denial of transcendence wants you to do. It wants you to live as though God is not acting in the here-and-now. But we must think vertically. When we leave God out of the equation, as though he is not with us, blessing us, ruling us, leading us, that is when we embrace the pragmatism of adopting the enemy’s standards and tactics. That is the root of “whataboutism.” "But they do it; they aren’t going to stop doing it; we must do it, too." This is why the Israelites of Isaiah’s day were tempted to succumb to realpolitik and make allegiances with Egypt rather than trust the power and promises of God. Because, hey, the world’s ways seem to work! The faithless, unspoken assumption is that God’s ways don’t work.

3. Engage the world with integrity. Play by God’s rules. Speak the truth in love, even when it is unpopular, and make the world muzzle you. Stop simply going with the flow of what’s popular in your particular tribe.

4. Cultivate moral fiber in yourself, your home, your church, and in your community. Strengthen the immune system of our civil society—we do not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

5. Deeply absorb this truth, which is perhaps the most obvious thing in the Bible and also the easiest to forget: faithfulness and integrity is infinitely more valuable than winning.

6. Be hopeful. Hopeful people are joyful and winsome people. We have good reason to be hopeful: Intellectual and moral relativism are not true. They are lifeless and barren. They cannot and will not bear fruit.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is not just “the way.” He is also “the truth,” and allegiance to him bears the fruit of eternal life.

My Thoughts on Aquinas Get Critiqued

Recently Adam Tucker of Southern Evangelical Seminary did me the honor of engaging my thoughts on Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law Theory. I thank him for that, as well as for quoting the late Greg Bahnsen in my defense. That's almost the nicest thing anybody's ever done for me.

Because Tucker's article was unfortunately published, I feel some obligation to reply.

At the outset he tackles the "charge" that "there are many interpretations of Aquinas's teachings...and that nearly 1,000 years of thinking about these issues has not settled the matter." Tucker then imagines that my point "is supposed to call into question any particular view of Thomism because, well, there are just so many interpretations of Aquinas." 

Well, no. That isn't the point at all. The point is straightforward and twofold: it signals that my criticisms of Thomism may or may not apply to all versions of it. More importantly, I was speaking at a panel discussion in which one of my interlocutors presented his revisionist version of Thomism (a far more "presuppositional" version, I might add) as "The Classical Natural Law Tradition," and then blithely dismissed any worries about the nature/grace distinction, noetic effects of sin, and so forth, as "embarrassingly misinformed." Since that was designed to "poison the well" of my forthcoming critique, I thought I'd point out that there are plenty of Thomists who would chafe at his revisionist dogmatism. This is all very clear from my remarks. It had nothing whatsoever to do with some kind of shrug-of-the-shoulders relativism about Thomistic interpretation.

Tucker agrees that talking about "intrinsic teleology" or "proper ends" is as unpopular as quoting John 3:16 in our current cultural context because "[o]ur culture has adopted bad philosophical views that have led to our current state of moral relativism and confusion." Then follows this jarring sentence: "Ignoring these erroneous views, however, and jumping straight to God does not help matters."

I don't know anyone who wants to "ignore" these erroneous views, and I'm fairly unsure what "jumping straight to God" means.

The next sentence compounds my confusion: "Most of the time, going straight to God on moral issues improperly grounds the very morality being discussed."

I'm not sure why the focus is suddenly moral issues, since we were just talking about metaphysics and epistemology. Be that as it may, Tucker's sentence literally means that morality is only properly grounded in something other than God. That's so weird a position for a Christian apologist that I assume he must mean something else.

The rest of the paragraph does little to clarify:

"Even if the person with whom we are discussing these matters accepts our appeal to God, he would then be bringing his erroneous views of reality to bear on Christianity. This is precisely what has happened for the last several hundred years, and the current intellectual state of the church is deplorable. If one rejects the ability to know basic things about sensible reality (e.g., the good of an eye is to see well), he has removed any rationally compelling reason for believing in God as well. Thus, the culture (and often times the church) concludes that one must 'presuppose' (i.e., assume) the existence of God, resort to blind faith, or find rest in his own skepticism. I am convinced the presuppositionalist has adopted the fundamental tenants [sic] of the bad philosophy he claims to be combating."

The first half of this paragraph is inscrutable to me (I've never heard the Enlightement described as [precisely!?] a period where people accepted an appeal to God), but his "thus" clarifies a few things. Tucker seems to think that "presuppositionalism" somehow doesn't believe in the ability to know basic things about sensible reality, and it is that kind of skepticism that leads to an embrace of blind fideism. He later claims that I hold the "assumption that man does not directly know sensible reality." And again: "While implicitly denying our ability to know things in themselves, Mattson...."

Here is something that might prove helpful for the reader and, more importantly, for Mr. Tucker: the entire raison d'etre of a presuppositional apologetic is to account for our obvious ability to know things, anything at all, basic or not, about sensible reality.

I honestly wish it gets better, but it doesn't. Tucker writes: "In fact, considering the numerous miracles, appeals to nature, eyewitness testimony, and personal physical appearances, we seem to see some type of empiricism (knowing sensible things) assumed in the pages of Scripture." There is nothing remotely controversial here, and I know of nobody who doesn't believe there is "some type of empiricism" assumed in Scripture. This is just very strange.

Tucker even knows that I believe in our ability to know things! But he thinks this is somehow a grudging admission: "When it comes down to it, Mattson admits that we can actually know things." Like this is an admission against interest, or I don't want it to be true, or something?

He omits my immediately following sentences, which make clear what it is we are even talking about (the entire nature/grace scheme): "I think it makes a difference whether we view this general 'reasonableness' as simply the natural state of affairs (a 'natural law,' perhaps?) or whether we view it as grace. If it is merely the natural order, we can presume upon it--indeed, so much so that we can use it, as Natual Law Theory does, to construct a general, universal epistemology under which to do business with non-believers. But one does not presume upon grace. And grace is what I think it is." This was, of course, the entire point of this section of my remarks, but Tucker seems uninterested in or at least doesn't grasp the import of the epistemic question raised here.

Suffice it to say, I have never "implied" anywhere, at any time in my life (much less in the remarks under discussion), a belief or assumption that human beings do not know things about the sensible world. None of my intellectual mentors, whether Bavinck, Van Til, Bahnsen, or Frame have ever said or implied such a thing. The entire point is one hundred-eighty degrees the opposite. The question has never been whether knowledge is possible; but, rather, how it is possible or justifiable without Christian presuppositions.

I can only suspect that Mr. Tucker's superficial foray into the world of presuppositional apologetics is by way of some unfortunate caricature learned from a very unreliable and/or grossly unsympathetic secondhand source. He certainly did not learn from Greg Bahnsen that human beings do not know things about the sensible world. He might have learned that unbelievers cannot account for or justify their knowledge on non-Christian bases, but that's quite a different claim. One that ought to be taken seriously. Sadly there's certainly no shortage of caricatures, and capable people have answered things like the "fideism" charge again and again and again.

At any rate, Tucker thinks our primary disagreement arises from whether God is what man "foremost knows." On this, I confess he's probably right. With Aquinas, he denies it. And, along with Aquinas, he simply does not even begin to do justice to Paul's seminal discussion in Romans 1:18-32. Paul says no less than five times that human beings know God, primally and inescapably: "Knowledge of God is plain to them;" "God made it plain to them;" "has been clearly seen;" "being understood;" "Although they knew God..." This is not a mere capacity for knowledge; it is actual knowledge.

It may now seem strange that I am emphasizing that human beings primally, naturally, and inescapably know the God they reject, because Tucker then writes: "Mattson lists several Scripture passages to support his view that man cannot naturally know things about God."

Oh dear. Has he forgotten in the space of mere sentences that I am supposed to be someone who thinks, contra Aquinas, that God is what man "foremost knows"? I just don't know what to say, other than to encourage him to learn enough to avoid representing opponents as saying the exact opposite of what they believe. 

Nothing in Mr. Tucker's response leads me to believe he has a firm grasp on that to which he is responding. The empirical evidence (!) points elsewhere.

One last thing. In his conclusion, he asks: "Why do humans exist with the natures they have?"

It's a great question, and I wonder if we can answer it on rational principles without that "jumping straight to God" thing.

Alas, he writes: "The only answer, I am convinced, is because God has created us as a natural kind with our specific human nature."

Well, I'm happy to report that the actual panel discussion was more fruitful and fun.