I’ve been mustering up the courage to write about truth. These days, it matters more than ever.
The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 was “post-truth” — an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The elements at play in this definition — objective facts, emotion and personal belief — are all good and essentially human. A culture of truth requires us to weave together all of these aspects of ourselves. In our post-truth culture, they are coming apart and we seem to be losing the capacity to re-weave them. We may struggle to have conversations about immigration, abortion, guns, climate change or international trade, for example, because we are unable to navigate facts, emotions and beliefs — within ourselves and between ourselves.
At Goshen College, and in our families, churches and communities, one of our highest callings is to restore a shared practice of truth-seeking and truth-speaking.
New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that one of the “Five Lies Our Culture Tells” is that:
“You have to find your own truth. . . . It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. . . . Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!”
And so, even as teachers require that students know the facts for the test, with few exceptions our educational system lacks a robust practice for integrating those facts with the individual versions of truth that shape feelings, relationships and behaviors inside and outside the classroom. It’s just easier to keep that individual and private.
Brooks argues that “values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.”
At its best, Goshen College is such a “strong, self-confident community.” Our faculty are unusually committed and skillful about engaging the “group process” to which Brooks refers. Our faith also calls us to listen with particular attention to truth as expressed by those who are vulnerable or hurt. This can be scary work, and sometimes it falls apart. But when we persevere through these conversations, this is what sticks.
The facts we teach, by themselves, are not what make us a community of truth. Most of the facts are forgotten, or replaced with new data. What educates us most deeply are those moments when we engage in conversations that weave together facts with beliefs, emotions and actions. When we learn how to take part in those conversations, we practice truth.
How are you practicing truth? With whom?