It doesn’t take a lot of research to discover that some subtle shifts are taking place in our society with regard to Truth. Having lived through the moral and political interregnum of postmodernism during the past twenty years, it appears that there is an increasing appetite for certainty, for verifiable facts, for bedrock ideas on which one can build one’s life. Political leaders and newspaper columnists appear to be leading the charge towards a world where we can say definitive things, where every claim and counter claim is not up for grabs. Postmodernism appears to have bled itself to death and, with neither funeral nor eulogy, we are moving towards a different way of thinking and believing. In the wake of a US election whose results depend on which side of the divide one stands on, and in the midst of a virus around which fake and dubious news is on the rise, people increasingly find themselves hungering for words which carry weight and merit on their own.
As Christians, having contended for absolute Truth throughout this period, it could be tempting to view this as an upturn, an outcome in favour of what we have been saying all along, and to rejoice that the best ideas of the best minds in the past half-generation have come up short. We might imagine that the move toward bedrock beliefs might open the doors of people’s hearts and homes to hear about the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life. In this post I want to probe and gently contest that idea, suggesting that the tidal change we are witnessing in our culture could damage the Truth at least as much as postmodernism has.
between the Theatre and the temple
Resorting to the writings of a fourth century African bishop might seem like a strange move when assessing our present cultural moment, but Augustine of Hippo’s thought is more relevant to twenty-first century dilemmas than we might first imagine. In City of God Augustine devotes extended and nuanced thought to the nature of idolatry in the Roman Empire, and its relationship to Christianity. His arguments are complex, sarcastic, and caustic, but they are dead on target in terms of the issues and demands of his day. In assessing the moral and spiritual life of pagan Roman practices Augustine casts aspersions on their viability as a way of seeing the world, showing the inconsistency that marked the pre-Christian Empire.
One of the points which Augustine repeats and constantly bolsters is the disconnect between civic religion, and the depictions of the gods in the theatre. In the theatre, in ‘scenic plays’, the gods are portrayed as being as deviant and defiled as human beings, with a casual promiscuity and propensity for violence which could have shocked even the most licentious of audiences. The theatre was the realm where fantasies could run riot, where deities could ride roughshod, where the full implications of the pantheon could be unashamedly placed on display. When it came to the temple, however, to the civic religion which was linked to the ‘real’ life of the Empire, then things were more morally tempered and politically tethered. The riot of the theatre was restrained by the social centrality of the temple, with the excesses airbrushed, and the dignity of the gods adulated.
Augustine exploits this disparity to powerful effect, showing that the descent into chaos which the stage facilitated was in no way mirrored by the hard reality of political and civil necessity. The foment of the theatre could not be allowed to transgress into concrete reality, a fact which excluded actors from holding public office. The theatre was the arena for flights of fancy and sin’s full tyranny, but once it imperilled the true social order, its boundaries were fixed and policed.
This has a bearing on our culture’s current swing back towards a desire for Truth. The theatres of academia and the arts have provided fertile soil for an imagined postmodernism in which all ideas and no ideas carry valency, in which the concept of larger or grander narratives are notional and hopelessly implicated in the desires and biases of the subject. This has allowed for imaginative and intellectual movements that have systematically dismantled structures of authority, categories of Truth, and the classification of manners and behaviours. Left in the theatre these ideas are entertaining, liberating, and daring, and Western society has been content for that to be the case.
2020, and the years leading up to it, however, have witnessed the theatre invade the temple. The certainty of uncertainty, the insistence on relativism, has moved from academic speculation to the conversations of ordinary people, and the decisions they make. The Covid-19 epidemic in which facts are fundamentally important to public health, the contesting of cast ballots in which not just the result of an election but the mechanisms of democracy are undermined, means that the actors have stormed the altars, and few are content to let that be so. Public individuals and celebrated intellectuals are now querying our jettisoning of Truth, and are desperately looking for an anchor point which might provide some purchase against society’s inexorable slide towards madness and decimation.
What is at stake here, though, is not Truth, but its trappings which have meant that the basic units of meaning have been immune to the theatrics of academia and modern art. What will be salvaged may not necessarily be Truth as it should be cherished, but another form of certainty which could in itself be dangerous.
It is no small thing for a society to set aside its certainties, and its subsequent rehabilitation is a precarious process. The theatre of academia has not merely dismantled absolute Truth, but has negotiated away many of the traditions, values, texts, and linguistics which underpinned it. The great debunking of authoritative Scripture, of moral and spiritual ‘meta-narratives’, was root and branch, a purge of epic proportions which has divested most individuals, communities and public sphere of measures and manners of meaning. A rush back to certainty, a desire for Truth among the relativism, may not see that its reconstruction is perishingly difficult, and is only possible via repentance.
The rush to new absolutes will not carry the historic, civil, or Scriptural assumptions which informed the ideas of our forebears. Recovery of meaning will not be interested in the rehabilitation of the mind as much as it is concerned for the recovery of meaning as a storm-defence against anarchy. When fragmented ideas impinge on liberty, identity, and civic solidarity, a sense of emergency could sign into our intellectual legislation something which looks like Truth, but that might more properly be labelled (T)ruth. This is a superficial substitute for recognised and shared values which once found their footing in transcendent textual truth, and which saw the divine as the root from which the fruit of social and moral mores grew.
The risk in substituting (T)ruth for Truth is that it will require some degree of coercion to establish itself, and may begin to see the diversity nurtured by postmodernism as its greatest enemy. In these terms (T)ruth would become a means of control, a suppressive rather than expressive force, an enforced ideology which will go to any lengths in order to stop the Vandals from invading the city. The outcome of this would be to harness the power of absolutes in order to maintain absolute power, turning the marketplace of ideas into a kangaroo court where disagreement and divergence are summarily executed. The tragedy in all of this is that Truth could fall prey to (T)ruth in much the same way as it did to relativism.
It would be too easy for Christians who have fought pitch battles against relativism for half a generation to feel relief at a new hunger for Truth, to mistake its social expression for its spiritual realities, and in the process fail to recognise that an appetite for superficial certainty can be morally and spiritually genocidal. Our calling, as always, is to cling to the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life, to resolutely hold that he is not just the centre of our soteriology, but the source and ground of our epistemology. We should refuse to be seduced by an apparent swing towards absolutes which in effect calls us to lose Truth all over again, this time by imitation rather than repudiation.