Tuesday, January 5, 2021

What is truth?


As I write this post people in Georgia are casting their votes for two Senate seats. From a political perspective, this run-off election will make a difference for the newly elected Biden administration. For example, if the Republicans hold the Senate, they can block legislation Democrats hope to pass and protect some of President Trump’s deregulation and possibly begin a congressional investigation into Hunter Biden’s financial dealings. For the Democrats, however, winning control of the Senate, allows them to decide which bills come up for a vote, make judicial nominations, and pass many tax and spending measures on items, such as climate and healthcare.

It is also a crucial election, since once again the American people are choosing truth over lies. This is not to say that one political party prefers lies over truth. All political parties twist the truth to some degree. What is at stake here is democracy. As Mary Beard, a distinguished British academic, argued in one of her articles on political spin, a democratic vote swayed by lies is not democracy. By the time this post is read by anyone, the Georgian election will have been decided. I wonder whether anyone will ask whether those who cast their votes did so based on accurate information, political spin or belief in outright lies. I ask this since authentic democracy is more than casting a vote. Democracy is compromised when voters make decisions based on false premises. The need for accurate information in a democracy raises the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus: What is truth? In a democracy it is accurate to acknowledge that party loyalties, campaign themes, clever advertising and political spin are factors that will influence the way we vote. It is correct that most voters are aware of political spin and accept the way truth can be shaped to support one parties position on a matter. The danger, of course, is when outright lies form the basis of information to guide a voter.

Now President Donald Trump is not a candidate in this run-off election in Georgia, but his rallies in support of the Republican candidates have largely been variations on his claim that the November 3rd election was rigged against him. Despite numerous recounts and court challenges which have disproved Trump’s claim that the Presidential election was rigged, he has continued to repeat this fact. Sadly, he has repeated this claim so often, especially in his rallies in Georgia, for some it sounds like a settled fact. But as Franklin Roosevelt warned the American people, “Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.”  

Now I am not here to complain about President Trump nor am I seeking to dismiss his entire record, but I am worried how outright lies that shaped his political strategies might become the norm.  As Fox News host Neil Cavuto complained in his 2018 commentary directed to President Trump: "How can you drain the swamp if you're the one who keeps muddying the waters?" What I am interested in is how lies shape our own responses. When Pilate asked, what is truth, he did so in response to Jesus’ claim that he came into the world to testify to the truth. As a Christian, and I would think this would apply to any human person, truth does matter. I say this even though it can be successfully argued that truthful statements are often flawed and compromised, it should never give us an excuse to purposely lie. When the German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz proposed that God did not make the best of all possible universes, he understood our planet. His remarks acknowledge that the world we live is not perfect. We know, as history has demonstrated, that we exist in a world steeped in compromise, betrayal, dysfunction and abuse. Nevertheless, I believe those who choose the truth will find freedom. However, as the 20th President James Garfield once said: “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

When Jesus said he came to testify to the truth, he is telling us that only those who are pure of heart can see the world accurately. Now, don’t dismiss this idea as a simple religious idea, it is not. Purity of heart is more than one of the eight beatitudes. It is, rather, a necessary condition in order to see clearly in every way, whether it is religiously, politically, morally or scientifically. This means avoid looking at issues from our built-in biases. As a Christians, this means I should not hastily dismiss scientists, academics, and technological experts who disagree with scripture. Listening to what they have to say is not dismissing the truth proclaimed in scripture. Rather it is acknowledging that God, who is the source of all truth, gives us both the bible and the findings of various scientist, academics and even politicians. But, at the same time, be wary of those who claim to have all the answers, particularly when their truth touches questions of health, morality, meaning of life and happiness. Pure of heart are those who seek the truth beyond their narrow perspectives; it means choosing the path of truth which begins by opening our eyes to all the possibilities.  The choice can be a source of great pain and misery for those who seek it, but as Barrack Obama offered: “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”


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