Much has been made recently of Oxford Dictionary’s announcement of “Post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year, and the implication paired with it that we are living in a “post-truth culture”; that is, a culture that is more concerned with subjective experiences and feelings than facts or truth. How accurate this label really is can be debated. Personally, I think that, while people give lip service to concepts like postmodernism and a post-truth culture, when the rubber hits the road we find that people are very, very concerned with facts and truth. People don’t actually believe these concepts, they simply revert to them when it’s convenient.
However, I do think it’s clear that subjective feelings and emotional responses are being given more credence than are warranted when discussing sensitive issues, both inside and outside of the church. This comes in two forms.
The primary example of this in our day is the issue of Christianity’s position on homosexual behavior (or sexual immorality as a whole), with secondary focus on religious exclusivism and hell. Consider this argument:
Now, this entire argument is logically valid. (1) is easily defended and leads naturally to (2). (3) and (4) are also easily defended, which lead to a very reasonable conclusion of (5). The problem here is not that there is a mistake in the reasoning and it is certainly not an argument born of hatred of bigotry, but rather the problem here is that twenty-first-century westerners simply do not like the conclusion. In a society that has replaced “God is love” with “love is god”, any loving relationship should be affirmed, supported and celebrated and the idea that someone would reject certain types of relationships is horribly offensive. In response, religions that hold to ancient values and concepts of what marriage should be – such as Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, or Mormonism – are rejected outright before any further discussion or investigation can take place.
Another example, I think, is displayed in the aversion that most Muslims have to the idea that Jesus (as God) would have entered the world through natural means*. Former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi expresses this aversion in the opening to his book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus:
I have seen similar complaints from Muslims about sexual content in the bible (Song of Solomon), Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, the unrecorded but very reasonable assumption that Jesus had bodily functions and bowel movements, and others. Even second-generation Muslims who have grown up in Western culture have had their minds and thinking shaped by Middle-Eastern taboos more than the average American Christian realizes. To the Muslim, these physical processes of the human body are low, dirty, and shameful. To simultaneously assert that Jesus was both human and divine and that Jesus (being God) went to the bathroom is on par with suggesting that God sinned – even if we assume a correct understanding of these doctrines, which most Muslims do not have.
But why should we expect God to be offended or shamed by these things? If someone working on a car needs to get inside the trunk or under the hood to deal with a wiring issue, is he shaming himself? Does he find it disgusting to open up the differential and change out the gears? Of course, not. God, being the creator and designer of all human life is intimately acquainted with every facet and function of the human body and will find nothing more surprising or disgusting inside it than a watchmaker finds inside a watch. Instead, I would suggest that God sees these systems and functions of the human body in light of their purpose. We may see something smelly or unpleasant to look at, but God sees something he designed working out the purpose for which it was intended. I imagine that what we see as gross, God sees as beautiful.
The problem with both of these examples is that objective reasoning and well-grounded theology (which are true everywhere) are being rejected in favor of inherited cultural norms which are isolated to a specific geography, people, or time.
Not many people realize that Oprah Winfrey, the self-appointed spiritual leader of America’s women and purveyor of salad-bar theology, was once a committed Christian of a Pentecostal upbringing. In fact, one of her nicknames as a child was “little Jesus” due to her passion for her faith. However, later in her life she was reading the bible and came to a passage where God is described as jealous. As the story goes, that was all it took. She was out. I have no doubt that her de-conversion was more complex and longer in coming than that one moment, but it’s clear that moment was a turning point for her. She walked away from her faith because God describes himself in a way that we universally understand to be negative.
Oprah is not alone in this. I’ve heard and read many de-conversion stories by people who were once professing Christians but couldn’t reconcile themselves with the capital punishment and wars in the Old Testament. For the sake of time, I simply cannot address the accusations of God’s supposedly immoral behavior and commands here, but suffice to say that, at the end of the day, this is just as flawed an approach as the Muslim rejecting Christianity because Jesus being God means that God needed his diaper changed.
The primary reason that this is flawed is because it assumes that the person investigating is a perfect judge or standard of morality and that is clearly never the case. It takes a fair amount of intellectual humility to admit that not only are moral dilemmas often deeply complex with no clear “right choice”, but also that making the right choice requires having absolutely all of the facts surrounding the situation. By definition, this is something no human can do. One needs to realize that I might be wrong. In short, to reject a faith system because it teaches something that you find objectionable is to put God on trial with yourself as the judge. To come to God is, by its very nature, to say that you don’t have all the answers. To do this and then criticize God for what you perceive as immoral behavior is absurd.
The evidence, teachings and coherence of a worldview must come first. As a Christian, I believe that polygamy is sexist and immoral, but if Joseph Smith could be proven to be a true prophet of God and the Book of Mormon ancient scripture, then I would have to accept it as a practice, regardless of my distaste for it. I would be forced into that position based on the teachings and example of LDS prophets. Similarly, one’s desire to affirm the loving and exclusive same-sex relationship of a friend/neighbor/cousin/coworker is irrelevant if the bible is true.
Moral right and wrong, good and evil are understood to be objective things by most rational people, but those people will disagree on what qualifies as right or wrong, good or evil. This requires anyone with even a tiny amount of intellectual humility to recognize the possibility that they are wrong about some things. God – by nature of being God – knows all things. We should therefore expect that there are some things on which we will disagree with God and that sometimes these things may be very near and dear to our heart or painful to confront.
Many Christian theologians have stated that if you find yourself worshipping a god that never says or does anything you disagree with; you may be worshipping a god made after your own image in the buffet style rather than the real thing. If you find some things that a faith system says or does to be offensive or uncomfortable, then we must examine why we are opposed to that. It does not mean that we are on the wrong track, it may even mean we are on the right track; that we are being challenged by a God whose standards we do not live up to. What you “like” or “don’t like” doesn’t matter. Truth matters and the onus is on you to reconcile yourself to that truth, because ignoring, denying or attempting to redefine it will not make it go away any more than shaking your fist at the sun will keep it from rising in the morning.
*I’m not denying the Virgin Conception, rather I mean that the gestational and birthing period that followed was not supernatural in any sense. Jesus went through the same zygote-to-infant process inside Mary that everyone else goes through. Mary pushed. Jesus cried. There was afterbirth and an umbilical cord, etc.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.