Theology in a “Post-Truth” Landscape

by Jack Louis Pappas

The last year has seen an overwhelming number of think-pieces and public reflections on the collapse of facts. Indeed, even for the most casually engaged individual, the term “post-truth” has gained an undeniable familiarity within the collective lexicon. We have been reminded with ever-increasing frequency that despite legions of assembled “fact checkers,” the public seems all too willing to give “[itself] over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us.”

While much of this analysis has focused upon the populist and ideological reasons for the embrace of post-truth in the political arena, few seem to have noticed the ways in which our “post-truth” reality has disrupted our religious communities and the very act of thinking theologically.

This is hardly coincidental, for, in large part, much of what often passes for “truth” in many of these public discussions are not “truth” in the sense which would be most familiar within the context of religious language. That is, the collapse of “truth” in question is not “revealed truth,” but is instead the empirically produced “truth” of “facts.” Facts are, of course, central to the whole Enlightenment project, which produced our modern world and laid the very foundations of liberal democracy. Yet, curiously, this growing concern over “relativism” among secular liberals bears an odd (and rather unmistakable) family resemblance to the dire warning issued by a whole host of religious authorities over the past several decades.

Consider, for instance, the following remarks from Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, which rather ironically form the basis of a polemical attack against secular liberalism: “It is most unfortunate that the response to the problem of secularism has been a gradual break with the fundamental theological and moral norms of Christianity, the erosion of doctrinal and moral principles, and adaptation to the secular world view.” Though apparently in utter contradiction, liberal and illiberal voices alike proclaim similar stories centered around a catastrophic erosion of central “truths” that have long provided coherence to our social and cultural fabric.

To the more ponderous academic class, this state of affairs has long been described by the (often misunderstood and wrongly employed) term “post-modernism.” Associated primarily a rather diverse group of rather distinct French thinkers such as Jean-François Lyotard, who defined the term as an “incredulity toward meta-narratives.” This means, quite simply, nothing other than the collapse of “a common center” or “point of view,” which in turn becomes replaced by competing and contradicting perspectives on fundamental questions of meaning and yes—truth. It is precisely this very condition in which we now find ourselves.

The traditional narratives of truth both in their “revealed” (i.e., religious) and “empirically verifiable” (i.e., scientific) forms, are quite evidently ill-equipped for communicating their meanings to the broader public. Metropolitan Hilarion’s eulogy for the diminished status of religious dogma and the ongoing tsunami of liberal op-ed pieces decrying the dissipation of facts are in reality deeply related. Despite the clear difference in “content” there is a remarkable kinship between the religious dogmatism and the “fact-checking” industry of journalists and social scientists. This kinship becomes clear in the transparent self-confidence and self-referential manner in which the messengers of these communities deliver the truths that they proclaim. The theologian declares the “truth” as matter of fact, while the social scientist declares his “fact” as a matter of truth.

While it was the supposed discrediting of dogmatic “truths” by the verifiable claims of “fact” that heralded the advent of secularity, it seems that the deluge of facts which confront us in our information age offer us little outlet for synthesis and meaning. “Facts” were always a poor substitute for truth, and our so-called “post-truth,” culture is perhaps better described as “post-fact.” However, the alternative for many has become nothing other than a hackneyed dogmatism which perceives little besides its own victimization.

As both “sides” bemoan the absence of a public cohering around their own respective truth claims, they reveal the underlying commonality between their conceptions of truth: truth is an objective of mastery. Though the dogmatist can claim mastery of this truth by way of his devotion to tradition and fidelity to what has been “revealed,” the fact-checker can assert with confidence the objectivity of evidence. For the theologian, this two-fold danger can become easily internalized. That is, theology becomes susceptible either to adopting a kind of scientific “objectivity,” which examines religion as a phenomenon from the outside and maintains a critical distance as though it were something which has already “past.”

But perhaps even more dangerously (particularly for the Orthodox theologian), the content of theology itself becomes a static object delivered with a pre-packaged coherence, articulated in modes of expression (patristic or otherwise) which are at once perhaps too familiar and increasingly unintelligible. In so doing, not only does the “truth” become trivialized but, for the believer, it also becomes affixed into what Nietzsche calls “a conceptual idol.”

Though this does not mean that our dogmas and traditions must be discarded, this image of idolatry reveals to us the real danger of reducing the truth to an object. Rather than coming to understand our traditions or doctrines as things which point toward a truth which surpasses every attempt we make to express it, we come to identify the great mystery of faith with our own finite efforts to express it.

To articulate “truth,” we must thus turn away from any sense of “truth” as a determined object or a mere product of evidence. We must instead seek out new expressions of truth (as well as renewing others) above all, toward the disclosure of the sacred as something utterly mysterious and irreducible. In so doing, a sense of “truth” is recovered as something fragmented and fragile, for such is the language of poetry and prayer.

The challenge set before the theologian is not one of gaining mastery over the incongruous narratives of our age, but is above all a task of embracing the challenges of ambiguity and difference. It is only in casting the task of theology within the contemporary torrent of contradiction and uncertainty that theology can serve as a site of genuine charity—perpetually open to the task of becoming hospitable those within our midst, despite possibility or impossibility of finding agreement. It is through this same embrace that theology can become a site of genuine faith, open to the inexhaustible mystery where “deep calls unto deep” (Psalm 42:7).

Jack Louis Pappas is a PhD student in Systematic Theology at Fordham University whose primary interests lie at the intersection of continental philosophy of religion and theological aesthetics.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.