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The postfactual world in which we now live presents particular challenges to the theologian, writes James Harding.
In the world we currently live in, truth, and the patient search for it, don’t seem to matter very much.
Political events in the United States and the United Kingdom in the past few months starkly bear this out. There are important differences between the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and the recent presidential election, but they have one important thing in common. The campaigns for Brexit and Donald Trump were marked by nothing so much as a decidedly cavalier attitude to truth. In both cases, truth gave way to populism, which in a democracy is never more dangerous than when it feeds off the sordid prejudices of racism and misogyny.
Troubling though this is, it is hardly surprising. In the recent words of Adrian Daub in Die Welt, ours is a "postfactual world, in which only feeling still counts: anger, belonging, hostility".
But this fact about the world does not belong only to the exalted sphere of world politics. It has seeped into the cracks of all of our everyday lives, controlled as they are by feeling and instinct. So much of ourselves is reduced to the facade of Facebook updates, our attention limited to the length of tweets, our curiosity piqued and perverted by clickbait, our focus distracted by facile videos uploaded to YouTube.
The dark side of these modern media has rarely been revealed with such insight as in the television series Black Mirror, where in one episode a young woman’s life is wholly dictated, and eventually destroyed, by her status on social media, which has entirely crushed her personhood. This postfactual world presents particular challenges to the theologian, who has the solemn task of discerning how the riches of the Christian scriptures and tradition might give us the wisdom to live in such a world with faith and integrity. Few things about the presidential election were so disheartening for me as a Christian than to see the very public endorsement of Donald Trump by Christian leaders, my own brothers and sisters, such was their desperation to avoid a Clinton White House. Yet the Christian message is about nothing if it is not about truth, and this alone is what must determine how far it is morally permissible to compromise.
This is, of course, because the fount of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ, who is revealed to us as "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). I am, though, thinking more of the book of Job, the richest and most difficult book in the Old Testament, which is too rarely read even by the faithful, and understood by very few. On the surface, the book of Job is about a rich and pious man who suffers at the hands of God, and after enduring great suffering is restored to prosperity and wellbeing. But the book is not really about suffering as such. It is about what it means to speak truthfully before God.
In the book, Job takes the astonishing step of calling God to account for the way He has treated him. Job is not the only person in the scriptures to confront God like this, Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah being three others. Yet this is too much for his friends, who accuse him of being impious. He is suffering, therefore he must have sinned, and should turn to God in humility and penitence. Yet for Job, to do so would have been false. He knows that this would not be true to who he knows himself to be before God, and would be a severe affront both to his own integrity, and to God Himself. This leads to the irony of Job accusing his friends of speaking wickedly precisely by speaking in God’s defence (Job 13:7-9).
Why is this relevant to our situation? It is relevant because the meaning of the book of Job depends on the patient and passionate search for the real truth of things. It is morally impermissible to be content with simple or popular claims that, when examined, turn out not to be true. What is necessary is to see falsehood for what it is and to resist it. But this requires a degree of patience and honesty that we are in grave danger of losing in a world of tweets and clickbait.
Also at stake is our very personhood, which is at risk of vanishing behind the carefully constructed facade of our Facebook profiles. When Job’s friends look at him, they do not see the real Job, but a facade constructed out of the broken shards of their tradition. Twice in the book, Job demands that they "face" him (Job 6:28; 21:5). They need both the patience and the empathy to look beneath the surface of things and see their friend for who he really is, instead of being content with their prejudice.
I can think of no message more urgently needed in a world increasingly marked by superficial divisions and hatreds that many of us are only too willing to accept.
- The Rev Dr James Harding is a senior lecturer in the department of theology and religion at the University of Otago.