When it comes to news, information, and, you know, the state of the world in general, who do you listen to? Who do you trust?
When I was in high school, I trusted Mr. Fugate. He taught 11th grade American history, and my class was the last to go through before he retired. The class was legendary for its 30+ page written assignment on the 1960’s, which both prepared you for college and opened 1990’s eyes to a more turbulent time.
A year after graduation I started leading a bible study in my parents’ basement, and when the conversation turned to guest teachers Mr. Fugate was the first one nominated. He agreed, and doubled our attendance that night. I still remember him leaning forward – everyone in their seats leaning right back in anticipation – and saying, “Boys and girls, I want to ask you a question: are you a thermostat, or a thermometer?”
Who do you trust? When it comes to news, the list is getting shorter for many. Pew Research Center’s 2014 study on Political Polarization includes a section on media habits, showing just how hard it has become to find sources everyone believes in:
Of these 36 news outlets, only one – The Wall Street Journal – is unanimously more trusted than distrusted across the full political spectrum. But the study also reveals only 10% of Americans actually get some percentage of their news from the WSJ.
Two-thirds of these outlets are more distrusted than trusted by consistent conservatives, including a clean sweep of the mainstream media. And of the seven outlets most trusted by those leaning mostly/consistently conservative, only the WSJ is more trusted than distrusted by those leaning mostly liberal.
And, again, these numbers are from 2014, when a word like “trust” was probably feeling healthier than it is today. In 2016 “post-truth” was the Oxford dictionary word of the year.
You ever drive by one of those digital signs showing the time and temperature and think to yourself, “The sign says it’s 93 degrees but my dashboard says 89, those people at the credit union are liars!” There are more ways than ever for us to consume information, more opportunities than ever for us to learn. But in the midst of all these chances for enlightenment, distrust is on the rise, with mainstream institutions not spared a sideways glance. More and more people are talking about the temperature, many of them with sound and fury, but it seems to be doing less and less to make it more pleasant.
How do we speak of faith in such a time as this?
Over in church world, institutional distrust is nothing new. This fall will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s hammer meeting the door of a Roman Catholic church. My own first steps as a preacher came as my local church was asking questions about how to share the gospel in a postmodern world; I helped lead a pair of worship services in the early 2000’s designed, we thought, to do just that.
Postmodernism is a close cousin of post-truth. Wikipedia defines the one as:
an attitude of skepticism, irony or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies and various tenets of universalism, including objective notions of reason, human nature, social progress, moral universalism, absolute truth, and objective reality.
…and the other as:
a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance.
The one is skeptical of the thermometer’s reading even and especially if we’ve always gotten it from that thermometer. The other cares less about what the temperature actually is and more about telling you how you should feel about it.
My church’s conversation about postmodernism came at a time when Christian bookstores (of which I worked in two) sold plenty of books bemoaning the loss of a sense of absolute truth; it is, after all, more difficult to believe in an absolutely powerful God if you believe less that some things are absolutely true. But as the years have gone by, the church and its books seem to have drifted away from a conversation about absolute truth and toward one on absolute morality (or blurred the lines between the two; here’s one example from the Barna research group on The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code).
On morality, too, there’s plenty of sound and fury. Things are bad! Definitely worse than when I was your age! Kids today! Dogs and cats living together! And so on! Lots of yelling about the temperature, much of it about how it was better back when.
One, I’m not so sure that’s true. Maybe we’ve always been this way and just have way more opportunities for our crazy to be on display in 2017.
Two, the point of all those books on postmodernism was things tend not to go back. They go forward. And if our answer to, “What’s the best way to go forward?” defaults to, “Go back!”? Then fewer and fewer people are going to listen to our thoughts on the temperature, which means less and less opportunity to actually impact it.
If news is fake, institutions are questioned, and truth seems secondary? I’m not sure framing the conversation about faith in terms of absolute morality is the best idea.
Making absolute morality the starting point will only lead to more shouting. But I might not give up on absolute truth just yet.
Personal experience has become the thermometer of choice, which can cause weeping and gnashing of teeth among those who believe the Bible is a better thermometer (or the only one). But instead of demanding we go back to a time when more people automatically trusted its teachings, what if we were better at using what it has taught us to speak the language of the present?
I don’t mean the yelling and fake news and distrust; we’re already too good at that. But if personal experience has become the thermometer of choice? Alright. How might faith speak to the truths we all experience?
Falling short of who we want to be, for instance, is common ground. Because no matter your code of right and wrong or where it came from, none of us lives up to it all the time. We all know failure and disappointment. Guilt is still among the most universal of all human experiences. We could all use more grace.
What if we just started with opening ourselves up to the possibility there might be something bigger in this universe than you and me? What if we were better at embracing mystery and the common questions everyone has about if there’s something more than this? Better at celebrating the moments, small and significant, that stir our souls?
No matter how you think of yourself as a person of faith, our own guilt is often much more real than our belief in something bigger. We need to communicate a faith that offers less of the one and more of the other. And we need to actually believe it for ourselves: that grace and sin don’t exist in equal portion. That grace abounds.
That might help change the temperature in our own lives. That might help us be better thermostats.
We can believe in our shortcomings. We can open ourselves up to the idea that there might be something bigger than just you and me in this world.
And then we’d have to hope that this something or someone bigger might be able to help us when we fall. Might be not just able but willing. Might be full of grace and truth.
That would be good news.