The Search for Certainty: Truth and Reality in a Post-Truth World

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“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” – Longfellow

In 2016 the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” to be its word of the year.[1] Their web site defines “post-truth” as, “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential n shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.'” Have we arrived at a cultural moment that can be realistically described as “post-truth?” What has happened to the truth?

What is truth, anyway?

Any answer to this question must be based on faith in the reality of the inquisitor’s worldview. Truth, therefore, resists a fixed and universal definition. Yet we may approach a generalized idea about truth and reality by considering changes in the way truth has historically been determined.

The term post-truth implies that there once was agreement about what was true and real but that it is no longer the case. Was there ever really a “truth” that accurately represented reality to all or even most, or are our efforts to define the truth merely ways of trying to stabilize our own flawed vision? The specific truth we assume when we say we are past it is in fact the monolithic metanarrative of the modern era. The passage we perceive from truth to post-truth is the failure of that metanarrative. In order to understand what has happened to the truth we need to consider the metanarrative and its demise.

We will begin by noting that living in a condition of “post-truth” does not indicate that there are no objective facts at all. There are things that all, or almost all, people believe in regardless of any other difference of opinion. For example, declaring that one does not believe in gravity would indicate not one’s ideology but the state of one’s sanity. Whether one believes in gravity or not, the consequence of ignoring it are inevitable. And most of us know that. In contrast, the idea of post truth comes in the context of a communal agreement to believe things true that are verifiably false.

One finds reference to the concept of post-truth most often in the context of politics: either UK politics relating to Brexit, or US politics relating to Donald Trump and the 2016 election. In both cases the space of public dialog has been overwhelmed by blatant falsehoods that large numbers of people who seemingly should know better choose to believe.

Truth and Reality

We are left to our own devices in attempting to define what truth is. We might begin by saying that truth is a representation of reality. But what does it mean to say something is real?

Given our dependence upon science to give us answers relating to the world around us, we would expect to be able to find a definitive answer to that question somewhere in the hard sciences. This turns out to be problematic however because science exists in the realm of what can be observed, and many things that are real are not measurable by scientific means. The science magazine New Scientist published a special edition in 2012 attempting to quantify reality. It is telling that the task of defining reality in introducing the topic was left to a philosopher, Jan Westerhoff,

A straightforward answer is that it means everything that appears to our five senses – everything that we can see, smell, touch and so forth. Yet this answer ignores such problematic entities as electrons, the recession and the number 5, which we cannot sense but which are very real. It also ignores phantom limbs and illusory smells. Both can appear vividly real, but we would like to say that these are not part of reality.[2]

Westerhoff noted the difficulty of pinning down any precise conclusion and settled, for the purposes of scientific speculation, on two possible definitions, each of which he admitted was flawed.[3] Our concern here however is not in the measurement of physical reality, but in ethos. The truths that give our life meaning cannot be measured in a scale. Concepts like love, fidelity, justice, righteousness, even truth itself lay outside the realm of the physical sciences.

What about the Social Sciences? Psychologist Dr. Pamela Peresky, commenting on brain research conducted by Dr. David Eagleman, points out that our brains don’t have any direct access to physical reality at all. The brain exists in darkness tucked away in our skulls and receives information from receptors connecting us to the outside world. We believe that what our brain perceives from this input is reality, but in fact it is only a biologically restricted picture of the outside world. The content of physical reality is far larger than we can perceive.

There is every indication, however, that all human beings are equipped with receptors that allow a somewhat shared sense of what exists in the real world. That sense is enhanced by a complex reaction between individuals, resulting in basic agreement about what is real. Somehow, we can communicate perceptions to and from those we interact with. The implication is that if there were no others to interact with, we would in a sense create our own reality. Our reality is created by and maintained by our common perception of the world. Reality is a communal undertaking.[4]

This is helpful because it explains our ability to agree on things that aren’t physical. If everyone agrees that the stove is hot, and I disagree, I’m still going to get burned if I put my hand on the stove. But if everyone agrees that betrayal of your country is bad except you, and you act on your belief, the sanction, if there is one, will come from those whose reality you have challenged, but not from nature.

Somewhere in here we can find an explanation for ideology, including religious and political affinities. If everyone with whom I interact believes a certain thing to be true, it is likely that I will perceive truth the same as my peers. But if I am presented with alternative information, I will have to take that into consideration when I decide what I am going to consider true. If I come to a different conclusion than everyone around me, is my idea true? Or is the commonly held belief true? How do we decide?

A recent article by Jonathan Rauch offers a compelling explanation for how we come to agreement on what is true. Rauch begins by giving a working definition of objective reality: “It is a set of propositions: propositions that have been validated in some way, and have thereby been shown to be at least conditionally true — true, that is, unless debunked.” It is as good a definition as any, but it contains a caveat. If reality is “validated in some way,” who does the validating?

The answer, according to Rauch, is that we collectively agree on a certain authority that can be trusted for validation. Historically these authorities have consisted of oracles, priests, religious texts, or totalitarian states. Rauch observes:

There are many other ways to settle questions about reality. Most of them are terrible because they rely on authoritarianism, violence, or, usually, both. As the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said in 1877, “When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.”[5]

This is where we find our current dilemma of social epistemology: not only do we disagree about what is true, there is no common agreement on who gets to decide what is true.

It has not always been so. The things we considered to be true in the modern era were contained in what Rauch calls our “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch argues that the Constitution still exists but that it is currently stressed, but I think the Constitution itself is fading along with the totalizing modernism that produced it.

Foucault and the Episteme

In what is probably his most famous work The Order of Things French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault sought to identify modes of thought that characterized historical ages and made each intellectually and culturally distinct from others. The term he used to describe this was episteme. An episteme contains the sum of all knowledge and at the same time defines the limits of knowledge. The episteme is represented by language; thus it is characteristic of a culture. An episteme is in a sense self-contained and isolated, meaning that in theory there can be only one episteme in a historical age. He believed that the truth and the basis for truth undergo periodic revolutions, periods when the current episteme is replaced by a new one.

In using this term [episteme], Foucault refers to the stable ensemble of unspoken rules that governs knowledge, which is itself susceptible to historical breaks. The book [The Order of Things] tracks two major changes in the Western episteme, the first being at the beginning of the “Classical” age during the seventeenth century, and the second being at the beginning of a modern era at the turn of the nineteenth.[6]

Foucault marks epistemological shifts in the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries as what he calls the “Classical” and the “Modern” epistemes. What interests us here is the shift to the Modern episteme. We need to understand what the modern episteme, or modernism, is, so we can see how it transforms into what we are experiencing now: post-modernism expressed by the condition of post-truth.

 

It will be well to begin with some definitions. Postmodernity is defined in contrast to modernity. The relationship between the two can be expressed for the purposes of this study in a formula that goes “Modernity is defined as the age of metanarrative legitimation, and postmodernity as the age in which metanarratives have become bankrupt.”[7] The term itself was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 book The Condition of Postmodernity. There he argued that:

metanarratives are understood as totalising stories about history and the goals of the human race that ground and legitimise knowledges and cultural practises. The two metanarratives that Lyotard sees as having been most important in the past are (1) history as progressing towards social enlightenment and emancipation, and (2) knowledge as progressing towards totalisation.[8]

In sum: The Modern (or Enlightenment) metanarrative insists that mankind will inevitably achieve liberation, enlightenment and omnipotence through science, technology and education. It is a proposition that arises from the Age of European Enlightenment, which sought to understand and explain the world without religion. Its foundation is the proposition that truth can be discerned through the observation of nature. There is no need for supernatural explanations. What is important for our understanding is the idea that modernism represents a worldview in which truth is monolithic and can be objectified.

Thus, for example, modernism could give rise to Marxism, which can be summarized as the idea that the fulfillment of man’s progress could be reduced to a scientific formula. Marx’s mentor Georg Hegel proposed a dialectic that consisted of a cycle of conflict between a dominant idea in a given historical age (thesis) and an opposing idea that arose to challenge it (antithesis). The conflict between the two would result in the synthesis of the two, which would then become the new dominant idea (thesis) of a new historical age. Hegel proposed that this cycle would continue until there would arise a final conflict, the outcome of which was to be the end of history, where mankind had achieved total fulfillment.

Marx adapted Hegel’s dialectic by reimagining the nature of the conflict from one of spirit to a conflict between material “modes of production” played out in the form of class conflict. In Marx’s formulation the final conflict would be a struggle between economic classes after which mankind would achieve material fulfillment, by his own effort and without God. In Marx’s mind the dialectic was a scientific formula that would lead to a specific and predictable end. Marx did not propose that a worldwide revolution of the proletariat would bring about this ultimate historical fulfillment, he predicted it, based upon his confidence in science and the dialectic formula.

Fatal weaknesses in his theory include that humanity cannot be collected into a predictable mass and that history does not proceed along rational lines. We may be able to understand events after the fact, but we cannot predict them with certainty. It is one of the great ironies of intellectual history that even though Marx’s bold prediction of the advent of this new world order never materialized, intelligent people still believe it will. The irony lies in the fact that some tenaciously cling to the inevitability of this material paradise created by human effort alone based on no other evidence than their belief that Marx was correct in his overall philosophy even though incorrect in the details. In other words, they have faith.

The great conflicts of the twentieth century called into question confidence in the metanarrative that envisioned the inevitability of human progress like Marxism or even Classical Liberalism, which predated Marxism and upon which the Western Democracies were founded. If mankind was progressing toward emancipation and enlightenment through science and technology, how could the horrors of the Western Front, the Nazi concentration camps, and the dropping of the atomic bombs, all of which were made possible by advances in science, be explained? Postmodernists rejected the metanarrative. Postmodernism has been described by a contemporary theologian as a “cry of the human spirit against the dehumanizing effects of modernity.”[9]

Like Derrida’s concept of différance, that posits an irreducible distance between the linguistic sign and what it signifies, there appears to be an unbridgeable chasm between the academic understanding of postmodernism and how it is experienced in contemporary society. The former consists of an almost incomprehensible and thus almost irrefutable intellectual edifice that ultimately condenses to the proposition that if there is truth, it cannot be known. The latter is the experiential desolation that results from the epistemological atmosphere created by the former´s rejection of the accessibility of objective truth. To consider at length the former can be mind-numbing.

But the latter is unavoidable. The contemporary frustration with the confident gospel of enlightened modernity leaves the world crying for an answer. The failure of the promises of modernity leaves a sense of emptiness and futility that is both individual and communal. Consequently, there is a universal longing for wholeness and meaning that can only be satisfied by an encounter with “the Truth.” The irony is that the condition of post-truth defies the existence of any universal truth.

Postmodernists argue that to posit a truth and predict its consequence is intellectually untenable, and instead propose postmodernity as an “age of fragmentation and pluralism.”[10] Because postmodernism rejects monolithic truth, it by nature defies a solid definition. This leads to a bewildering and I think in the end pointless arena of philosophical pursuit in which whatever is proposed as true is ultimately discounted by the fact, not that there is no truth, but that truth can only be locally valid. There is and can be no ultimate truth. But that to engage postmodern philosophical speculation is essentially to set oneself running on a wheel in a philosophical hamster cage does not mean that these ideas do not have consequence in the world.

Theologian Robert Jensen considers how the modern world came to be postmodern and then describes its consequence. Postmodernism became an experimental “attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller” and concludes,

The experiment has failed. It is, after the fact, obvious that it had to: If there is no universal storyteller, then the universe can have no story line. Neither you nor I nor all of us together can so shape the world that it can make narrative sense; if God does not invent the world’s story, then it has none, then the world has no narrative that is its own. If there is no God… there is no narratable world.[11]

Jensen goes on to show how this lack of both narrator and narrative affects the lives of individuals. To see it, we need only to look at the world around us:

There we will find folk who simply do not apprehend or inhabit a narratable world. Indeed, many do not know that anyone ever did. The reason so many now cannot “find their place” is that they are unaware of the possibility of a kind of world or society that could have such things as places, though they may recite, as a sort of mantra, memorized phrases about “getting my life together” and the like. There are now many who do not and cannot understand their lives as realistic narrative. John Cage or Frank Stella; one of my suburban Minnesota students whose reality is rock music, his penis, and at the very fringes some awareness that to support both of these medical school might be nice; a New York street dude; the pillar of her congregation who one day casually reveals that of course she believes none of it, that her Christianity is a relativistic game that could easily be replaced altogether by some other religion or yoga—all inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.[12]

It would be difficult to find a better description of the condition of postmodernity as it is experienced by individuals in contemporary society. The postmodern soul senses dissatisfaction but appears to be alienated from any traditional solutions because those solutions rely on what postmodernism denies: that there is a universal story within which one can find meaning. Instead people must seek out a narrative that satisfies their need to belong to something. What the condition of post-truth creates is an array of narratives, each based upon its own truth that does not need outside validation to be considered true. This is the condition of post-truth: what is true is what I believe to be true, and the fact that I and the other characters in my narrative believe it is enough to satisfy any challenge to its validity.

Jensen is a Christian theologian and he posits that the storyteller of the modern metanarrative was the God of the Bible. In other words, that the standard of truth is ultimately represented in him alone. But the storyteller ceased being God in Western society much earlier than Jensen assumes – during the shift from what Foucault calls the Classical to the Modern episteme. Before the Classical era society was ordered around the Church as a unifying institution. It was in the Church that truth was to be found, and it was a role of the Church to protect and extend knowledge of the truth. The beginning of Foucault’s Classical episteme coincides with the Reformation, after which the Church became fragmented and the truth with it. It was with the re-imagining of truth as located in nature by those who rejected the religious worldview, Enlightenment Philosophes, that the modern era took shape. The storyteller in the modern episteme was not God but Reason.

The Philosophes did not reject God altogether, but they rejected that God made himself known through scriptural and ecclesiastical revelation. Instead, they held that God had created the world and had given humans the ability to know him through the observation of nature. Science became the primary arbiter of truth, and the Enlightenment project ultimately sought to explain not only the physical universe but everything in it, including social relations, using the same measure that allows people to know that what one observes is true. The weakness of this method is that one can use scientific instruments to prove physical data. We can measure length, weigh density, and our measurements will hold true throughout the physical universe.

But how can love, justice, righteousness, and equity be measured? Not by any scientific means. So when the American Declaration of Independence calls upon the “Laws of Nature” it means the law “which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…”[13]  [emphasis mine]. What scientific measurement can validate that statement?

The French revolutionaries went so far as to essentially deify reason in its Cult of Reason, practiced, for example, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris which was rededicated the Temple of Reason. But what was scientific, measurable, or even reasonable about paying homage to an actress dressed in blue, white and red to represent Lady Liberty? The concept of reason came to support whatever its proponents wanted it to. Science and reason have been used to justify atrocities great and small, from the Terror of the French Revolution to the massacre of Rohingya. So it could be said that humans should live in democracies rather than monarchies because reason so indicated and that all men are equal and should live in brotherhood. But it could also be said that “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” as Diderot is reputed to have remarked. How can that be proven mathematically?

It is true that certain scientific observations seem to be beyond argument. As we imagine it adding two and two will always equal four, no matter where or in what language we do it. But when placing our trust in mathematical proofs we might recall that Ptolemy once proved mathematically that the sun orbited the Earth. In the end our faith in science, and by extension in reason, is just that: faith.

This obviously relates directly to our collective agreement about what is true. If the Enlightenment did nothing else, it put forth a set of social ideals that a large segment of humanity could agree upon at the most basic level. The brotherhood of man, popular sovereignty, freedom of speech, religion, and the press. Freedom of conscience. Equal and fair justice and due process. We can disagree vehemently about what these things mean or how they should be applied, but in some formulation most of us believe in them.

Postmodernity

In modernity, as Rauch observes, as Jensen suggests, there was a voice, a narrator, an expert determination to decide what was true and what was not. But in postmodernity there cannot be.

Rauch imagines the Constitution of Knowledge as the narrow end of a filtering funnel. At the wide end all sorts of ideas are input, but the funnel itself is the vetting process that filters out what is not true and results in the tiny output of true knowledge at the narrow end. The filtering process is a testing by experts of the ideas that enter the funnel: scientists, professors, lawyers, who can debunk those ideas that are not true. Rauch’s argument is, essentially, that there is now so much falsehood entering the funnel that the filter is clogged and the system cannot catch up to the influx of falsehood. But he optimistically suggests that the system will eventually right itself, and the societal bewilderment resulting from a lack of certainty (truth as certified by experts) will dissipate.

I am not so sure. I question it because the narrow end of Rauch’s filter funnel is the monolithic truth of the modern age. We are again, or still, left with a definition of truth imposed by so-called experts whose authority arises from consensus among themselves. Yet even when a majority were willing to allow reality to be defined by a few there were always dissenters. Americans are notorious for rejecting academic expertise.[14] The breakdown in what Rauch calls the Constitution of Knowledge is not caused by the inability of experts to sift through falsehood quickly enough to validate reality. It is that large segments of society fundamentally reject the filtered output of the funnel, the stuff that is based on “reason,” as fake news. “Reasonable” people smugly assure themselves of the folly of such a rejection by those who think differently, but given that “reason” remains a matter of faith the dissenters are less foolish than they appear. All sides can assure themselves that it is the others who are unreasonable.

What replaces the Constitution of Knowledge is tribal affinity – tribes created by the fragmentation of truth – and in recent years our understanding of how we experience truth, referred to as “cognitive bias,” has been the subject of academic investigation. In a recent book titled Post-Truth author Lee McIntyre offers a summary of current research on the topic. He defines three aspects of cognitive bias: cognitive dissonance, social conformity, and confirmation bias.[15]

We believe the things we do because we identify ourselves in groups who share like understanding of reality: tribes. Cognitive dissonance describes a situation where something we believe is refuted by factual evidence to the contrary. The rational way to resolve the conflict between what we believe and what we know is to adjust what we believe. But research has shown that often, because our membership in the tribe and thus our sense of self-worth is involved, we find irrational ways to resolve the tension. Essentially, we invent explanations for why what we empirically know not to be true is true and vice versa. This tendency is amplified when in the company of others who also hold the challenged belief, resulting in a tendency to accept the challenged belief in order to maintain one’s standing in a community: social conformity. And finally, confirmation bias causes us to only consider evidence that supports our beliefs, dismissing other evidence as false (fake news).[16]

In today’s media environment we are constantly presented with false information, often, we imagine, in order to accomplish some deep, perhaps sinister goal. Not everyone spreading falsehoods is guilty of subterfuge; some spread false information because they believe it to be true. But there are also many who deliberately spread information they know is false.

There are several reasons why people might be motivated to spread falsehoods. News that is salacious is more likely to draw greater attention. Greater attention in traditional media (print, radio, and television) can lead to greater viewership and hence more advertising dollars, and on social media can lead to more clicks resulting in greater profits. So greed is definitely a motivator.

But it is not the only one. More recently malevolent actors have used media, especially social media, to spread false information for the purpose of influencing society at large, including the outcome of elections. These actors include foreign as well as domestic interests. Sometimes those who produce the ideas do so in the name of satire, but when satire becomes indistinguishable from “news” the result is confusion. Media outlets that provide contrary evidence to the made-up news are often not taken seriously because of the cognitive biases that are supported by the false information. This tactic has become so successful that many doubt any media outlet can be trusted. Absent that, one may as well pay attention to the sources that support what you already are inclined to believe, or are at least entertaining.

Which leads us then to the question of whether it is possible for a nation or a global community to settle on a definition of reality, or whether future generations will be forced to live out their lives in imposed exclusive reality bubbles.

I recently encountered a video of an event that happened in Washington, D.C. in 2017. The event was a planned rally in support of Donald Trump. It was in reaction to many protests against the President. In the state of our political discourse, which many see as a war of ideas (i.e., Culture Wars), it is natural to assume that if you are pro-Trump any anti-Trump people or organizations are your enemy. The problem with this characterization is that this level of conflict leads to dehumanization and demonization of those who disagree with you. There is ample historical evidence of portraying the “enemy” as some monstrous beast. This makes it easier to kill them and at the same time maintain some kind of moral integrity.

But the reality is that human conflict is always accomplished by humans. Despite the propaganda we allow ourselves to believe, those whose humanity we deny are motivated by much the same needs and wants as ourselves. I am encouraged by a constant theme in the teachings of Buddhism, as articulated by the Dalai Lama, that addresses this as a universal truth of humanity.

I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affect this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this Earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves….[17]

The acceptance of this truth then become a means of overcoming difference:

Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one’s own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them.[18]

In the intensely logical Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Dalai Lama here points out that our dilemma, and the solution to that dilemma, are to be found not in convincing each other with reason, but counter-intuitively in compassionate action.

Consider the roots of the word: passion (from the Latin passionem, to suffer; associated with Christ’s suffering on the cross) and com (also from the Latin with). To suffer with. If we recognize the humanity of the one we have considered enemy, as we see ourselves in them, we will be moved to compassion. As Longfellow noted “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” When we see them as brothers and sisters, we will see that their suffering is as painful as ours, and we will no longer want to harm them. In fact, we will want to have fellowship with them.

What Happens when we Listen from Keith Cox on Vimeo.

The video I mentioned above illustrates this. At the beginning of the demonstration the actors act in categorical terms we have unfortunately come to expect. The pro-Trump participants are gathered around a stage and Black Lives Matter members arrive and begin to verbally challenge them. There are angry exchanges of insults and threats of violence. But in this instance something completely unexpected occurs. The leader of the pro-Trump rally invites the leader of the Black Lives Matter protesters to speak. The Black Lives Matter spokesman declares to the crowd that they are not enemies, that they are all Americans, and that they want essentially the same things. They are not a threat.

What happened next is almost miraculous given our current political atmosphere. The wall of difference between the two groups dissolved, and what followed was a celebration of their common humanity. White Trump supporters having their kids’ pictures taken with Black Lives Matter members. Handshakes and hugs. Recognition of a common bond. The reality of peace and fraternity. It may have been only a moment, but the incident illustrates a model for how we as a people can arrive at a new basis for truth. These people did not have to be convinced of anything, in fact could not be convinced of anything, until they saw each other as fellow sufferers.

In the modern era truth came to be associated with what could be seen and measured: science. In the post-Modern era truth became untethered from any common understanding and is increasingly expressed in tribal dogma. We have reached a condition where one’s truth can neither be proven nor disproven rationally to the satisfaction of those who think differently. But I think in spite of our deeply rooted tribal ontologies, if we concede our common humanity we can learn to love and support each other. The truth is that we are all human beings who desire happiness.

The Beloved Community

One aspect of modernism, especially as experienced in the United States, is the phenomenon of radical individualism. Traditional societies throughout the world were built upon interdependence between family members and communities. But in the modern era every aspect of life is considered within the contextual framework of individual rights and responsibilities. Everyone has their own vote and their own voice, and in theory no one can dictate either. People may join in factions to support one or another issue, but they do not act as a complementary body. It is, rather, an alliance based on mutual self-interest. What is missing from this alliance is any real sense of community or selfless sacrifice. When I refer to tribalism in this discussion, I mean this kind of association.

In contrast, a true community is more intimately interconnected than most can even imagine in the modern and post-modern era. It is a family. Not a family like we think of family in 21st century America, but a traditional family of interconnected people who together form a single organism. In communal societies grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, all lived together in close proximity. Members of the family worked to support the family first, and self second if at all. One married to support the family. One’s livelihood was for the benefit of the family. In contrast, today we are convinced the focus of our life should be on our own individual well-being. If our marriage or job situation isn’t working out, they are expendable in pursuit of our own happiness. In our therapeutic culture, the gurus of well-being (psychiatrists and psychologists) prescribe abandonment of any communal responsibility in order to achieve individual “wellness.”

What binds us to one another, then, ultimately resolves to self-interest, even in our tribal affiliations. We work together because we want the same things for ourselves or our nuclear families. We work together because together we are stronger than if we stood alone. But in the end, I don’t really care if you get yours as long as I get mine.

Our tribal relationships differ from community. In a community the well-being of the community depends upon the well-being of every member of the community. What comes to one comes to all. Members of a community are not valued simply by what they can contribute but by the mere fact that they are members of the community. A community works for the benefit of every member, even the weakest. Especially the weakest. It is really this mutual interdependence that leads to community. Without the community, members would die.

Contemporary society has lost not only life in community, we have lost the concept of interdependence. Even in groups that do demonstrate some measure of communalism the community is always juxtaposed against the other. The other community. The other people who are not like us. A reality that few in history have ever been able to enact is that at the deepest level there is no other. We share a common humanity.

The dilemma of postmodernity is that we live with neither narrative nor narrator. Collectively we are disconnected, rudderless, and without purpose. We can’t see the end (purpose) of our life because there is no end other than to muddle along trying to eke as much satisfaction as can be obtained by whatever means we choose to attain it: wealth, power, prestige, sensual pleasure, even “spirituality.”

We gravitate to tribes because at least the tribe gives us a purpose. We are “winning America back for Christ,” or “saving white civilization,” or working for recognition and equality for whatever group we identify with. But again, these tribes can only exist in contrast to other tribes. The meaning of our lives comes from preventing the other from enacting their meaning. Meaning becomes a finite commodity. “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”

Is there a way to learn to live together as brothers and sisters? The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was in large part driven by this vision. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the best known of the Civil Rights leaders, saw that the only way equality and justice could be achieved for black people in America was to ensure that everyone enjoyed the same freedom and opportunity. Historical memory mostly associates King with the struggle for the rights of black people, but his vision was always broader than that.

One central idea that drove Dr. King was the concept of “The Beloved Community.” We find this idea throughout his speeches and writings. Essentially, the Beloved Community is a society of “persons-in-community” living in cooperation and harmony and reflecting the image of God.  One aspect of King’s life and work that is not given due weight in contemporary culture is that he was a Christian minister and saw the world through a Christian lens. In Christian theology, all people bear the image of God, therefore the Beloved Community consists of all people. King saw that racial peace and peace in general could only be achieved by bringing all people into fellowship.

The force that King envisioned bringing about and sustaining the “Beloved Community” was what he called agape, essentially understood as the love of God. In an early speech describing nonviolence as a tool for building community King says:

In speaking of love at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental or affectionate emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. Love in this connection means understanding, redemptive good will. When we speak of loving those who oppose us, we refer to neither eros nor philia; we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart.[19]

King declared that agape is the force that creates, restores, and sustains the Beloved Community.

The Beloved Community, is a vision for all humanity, not just for a chosen few. One of the most tragic characteristics of contemporary practicing Christians is the tendency to exclusion. Justification is reserved for those who meet certain man-made conditions. Accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, indicated by some sort of public demonstration. One can find support for this in the Bible, but in practice the enactment of this idea is often confined to superficiality. One can become very emotional and dramatically devote oneself to Christ, and at the same time largely or completely ignore the teachings of Christ.

Jesus said the way his followers would be identified was by love (John 13:34-35). Not just love, but love as he loves. In Christian theology, Jesus’ love is represented in the cross. Jesus, one who owed nothing to anyone, who deserved no sanction, took on the guilt of humanity and suffered a humiliating punishment for all people, some of whom despised him, and most of whom could never know him in his incarnation. This is the enactment of agape. It is a complete, self-forgetting, self-giving for the benefit of the other, deserving or not, that expects no reciprocation.

The demonstrations and rituals employed by organizations calling themselves Christian churches rarely acknowledge this mark of Christian discipleship or do more than give it lip service. Many believe that simply saying one believes in Jesus is enough to be called his follower. Others think discipleship is determined by adopting or denouncing certain cultural ideas, by performing certain rituals, by certain political actions, and by encouraging as many others as possible to do the same. But that’s not what Jesus said. He said the way the world would know who his disciples are is by the extent to which they give themselves up for the benefit of the other. This is the basis for the Beloved Community. Because all people are capable of self-giving love – agape – all people can be included.

The video described above offers a vague image of this community-building in action. It is entirely unlikely that anyone participating in that event changed their mind about Trump. Nevertheless, they left the demonstration with a different idea about each other. They still disagreed with each other, but by recognizing their common humanity – their desire to be happy and avoid suffering – they realized they loved each other. This is the Beloved Community.

What about the truth? Loving each other doesn’t seem to solve the problem of what is true or false. But the idea that we can solidify what we consider true in monolithic terms like problems in arithmetic is a relic of modernism. Postmodernism denies that there can be any monolithic truth and places truth essentially in the eye of the beholder. What King proposed leads to a post-postmodernism wherein ideological truth may define the individual but the truth of agape defines the community.

The highest truth is self-sacrificing love. It is made real by selfless compassionate action toward the other. All of us are capable of it, and in the end, counter-intuitively, its practice may be the only thing that leads to what we all desire.

[1] Allison Flood, “’post-Truth’ Named Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries,” Guardian, November 15, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/15/post-truth-named-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries.

[2] Jan Westerhoff, “02 DEFINING REALITY. (Cover Story),” New Scientist 215, no. 2884 (September 29, 2012): 35–35.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “What Is Reality?,” Psychology Today, accessed October 31, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-and-the-pursuit-leadership/201510/what-is-reality.

[5] Jonalthan Rauch, “The Constitution of Knowledge,” National Affairs, no. 38 (Fall 2018), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-constitution-of-knowledge.

[6] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Michel Foucault (1926–1984),” https://www.iep.utm.edu/foucault/.

[7] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Jean-François Lyotard (1924—1998),” http://www.iep.utm.edu/ (accessed May 21, 2012).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Glen Scorgie, “Lecture 1: The Rise and Progress of Modernity” (lecture, Unpublished notes.).

[10] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Jean-François Lyotard (1924—1998).”

[11] Robert Jensen, “How the World Lost Its Story,” First Things no. 201 (March 2010): 33.

[12]  Ibid., 34.

[13] John Locke, The Second Treatise On Civil Government (Great Books in Philosophy), (New York: Prometheus Books, 1986), 9.

[14] Hence the classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

[15] Lee McIntyre, The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series: Post-Truth (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2018), under “727,” Amazon Kindle.

[16] Ibid., under “643ff.”

[17] Dalai Lama, “Dalai Lama: What Is the Purpose of Life?,” Uplift, February 6, 2018, https://upliftconnect.com/dalai-lama-what-is-the-purpose-of-life/.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Martin Luther King, Jr., “An Experiment in Love,” 1958, in James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 19.