Truth and Our Experience - James May


Philippians 4 verse 8 


We are now in the second part of two weeks of thematic talks, reflecting on the question, ‘What is Truth?’ Last week we looked a bit at the nature of Truth, and then also at how it came to be that our culture is suspicious of Truth claims, particularly as a result of the influence of Post modern ideas and beliefs. Today the aim is to see what sort of impact this has on our lives. 


In our reading from Philippians the apostle Paul points us to what we should spend our time thinking about, and the first on his list is truth. It is clear that the nature of truth is of first importance in the thinking of Jesus, and of Paul. I remember being advised by one wise old man, that what matters in life is not what I feel is true about myself at any given moment in time, but what I know is true about God at every moment. However, it is clear that our culture seriously doubts whether truth is important and far prefers to think about what I feel is true about myself, than what I know is true about God.


So today we will explore whether this radical difference in our beliefs about reality actually have radically different effects on the way we live. 


Last week I mentioned that the leader article in the Economist was called, “Post-Truth Politics and the Art of the Lie”. The article suggests that the lies of today’s Politics are worse than the past, because there seems to be no attempt even to give the impression of telling the truth. One commentator says that the aim is ‘truthiness’, which is to say the sort of things that sound like they should be true, whether or not they actually are. This is supported by social media where it is always possible to find people as weird as yourself to confirm your wacky ideas. Of course this is a kind of populist politics. Rather than trying to justify what they say as true, what politicians are increasingly doing is tapping into the word on the street, or the memes that go viral on social media. 


The article points out that our natural human tendency is to prefer lies to the truth. It says we prefer what is called, ‘cognitive ease’ – that is we like things not to disrupt our cherished beliefs, and try and make things fit into our framework, whether or not they actually do. In other words, when Paul exhorts us to think about what is true, and noble and admirable, he is doing this because he knows it is not our natural inclination and we need encouraging to pursue what does not come easily to us. Pursuing our instinctive desires is less like hard work. 


Some Post modern thinkers have said that one reason we are unable to know truth, is because we are born into a particular social context which colours the way we look at the world so much that we cannot see it as it really is, and we are never able to see beyond this context. There is something to be said for this view, particularly if we prefer the easy route of just going with the flow. We are often like fish who don’t know what water is, because we live in it all the time. We are Postmodern people, even if we don’t realise it.


I work in North Lambeth, and on my way to work I cycle past London South Bank University. On Friday I noticed they have a new slogan, which reads, ‘Become who you want to be.’ I imagine it is quite effective advertising – since universities try to offer opportunities for us to develop the knowledge and skills we believe we want for later life. But there may be more to this than meets the eye.


Last week we looked at the ideas of the 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche, who anticipated post-modern ideas, and who has had a vast influence on the way we see the world today. The catchphrase, ‘Become who you want to be’, could almost be lifted straight out of Nietzsche’s writings. For example he said, ‘Dare to believe only in yourself’, which has a very similar feel.


Well, the thing about Nietzsche, is that he was one of those radical and controversial thinkers who didn’t only upset Apple carts, but turned them completely upside down, and probably then swapped the apples for oranges, as well as rearranging the furniture whilst he was at it. I mean, he wasn’t the sort of guy who stated the downright obvious as if it was clever. ‘Become who you want to be’ for Nietzsche would be an upsetting the apple cart sort of statement, and yet it doesn’t seem radical or odd to us at all today.


As we saw last week, Nietzsche rejected the old authorities, Christianity in particular, which informed the way we live our lives, and said, that we are on our own, making decisions for ourselves and creating our own meanings. He says that God is dead, and instead we become gods ourselves, determining good and evil for ourselves. It is dramatic stuff, ripping up the rule book and turning reality inside out. And yet, for us, it has become part of the air we breathe, so much so, that when we read, ‘Become who you want to be’ we don’t give it a second thought, except perhaps to be impressed by the positive vision of life that this university seems to promote. 


These ideas are very radical, and deeply disturbing, paradoxically undermining our very sense of who we are. It is said that in our modern world we often use words and phrases which sound impressive, butare actually hard to pin down, words and catchphrases of indeterminate meaning. This has been called, the ‘Jargon of Authenticity’ by Theodore Adorno. It sounds profound and good, until you try and look at it closely. 


A core belief today is the idea of ‘freedom’. It is used very powerfully in support of all sorts of campaigns for individual rights, and our desire to become what we want to be. We want to be ‘free’. It is related to other popular words, like autonomy, or self-determination. Freedom and autonomy have good and important meanings, but in our culture we don’t attempt to give any definition to freedom, and it sort of runs riot in our lives causing huge problems. 


Freedom has traditionally been freedom from something, and freedom for something. It used to mean that we have been released from something bad, and have the opportunity for something good. But in Nietzsche’s vision, what we have freed ourselves from is the belief that there is good or bad. We create our own moralities. There is no true moral order, only relativism. 


As a result we say, ‘it is my body, and my life, and I can do what I want with it’, we tell ourselves, that our highest aim is, ‘be true to yourself’, and we defend our beliefs by saying, ‘it feels true to me’. A recent slogan I saw said, ‘Have faith, believe in yourself’. The catchphrases which express this today are often from advertisers who like politicians try to capture the spirit of the times such as Nike’s ‘Just Do It’, or Dior, ‘Because you Are Worth it’

Nietzsche’s ‘Dare to believe only in yourself’, doesn’t feel radical anymore simply because it is how we think today. 


But what are we free from, and what are we free for? Last week I read a passage from Nietzsche’s madman which vividly describes how we are freed from our foundations in God. In case you missed this amazing passage he asks, ‘What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?  Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?’ 

Nietzsche’s freedom seems like the freedom of an astronaut drifting in space, unattached to anything. This is absolute freedom on one level since there are no constraints or limitations, just empty space. But actually this is a prison. What we really need to be free is gravity to hold us to the surface of a planet, which has places to explore. We could then propel ourselves by walking, and we would be silly to complain the gravity holds us back.


So what does this mean for the way we live?

Clearly this impacts how we live sexually. There seems to be no sense of moral taboos with sexuality any more. We simply experiment with experiences in the pursuit of personal happiness because we believe our bodies are our own to do with as we wish. In the Bible Paul teaches exactly the opposite, saying you are not your own, therefore honour God with your bodies. For Christians there is a moral landscape for all of life including sexuality. We are free to use our bodies within this framework which is there to protect us and bring good, but because we are under the influence of our culture, it is easy to be tempted to feel we are missing out on sexual experiences.


Post modernism also changes the way we think about money and possessions. It is a remarkable coincidence that Postmodernism coincided with large scale consumerism and advertising. They seem odd companions in one sense because Postmodernism has a very dark European sense of scepticism and emptiness, whereas consumerism seems to have a kind of bouncy American optimism. However, they complement each other as ways of trying to find personal fulfilment. Consumerism offers the accumulation of possessions as a way of defining ourselves in what we call lifestyle choices. Shopping gives us the illusion of buying our way out of meaninglessness; we even call it retail therapy, as if it heals a kind of sickness in our souls. There are seemingly infinite possibilities, and as many promises of perpetual happiness as advertising executives can think of. Today we can buy gadgets which themselves offer the promise of untold possibilities – tablets and phones whose potential are only limited by the power of our imagination, which is probably why I find myself constantly flicking between my email inbox and the BBC news website. 


Experiences are as as prized as possessions as ways of pursuing significance in our lives, and today we feel the need to authenticate our experiences by taking selfies and posting them on social media. In doing so we often seem to be bragging about how amazing our experiences are, and how unique and remarkable our lives are in comparison to others. Which is fine except that we cannot stop comparing our lives to those of our neighbours. We don’t learn of the mundane realities of day to day life of most of them, although some people do insist on sharing these too, and so we compare ourselves to sort of composite realities of thousands of people doing extraordinary things, and imagine that our own lives are pale and boring in comparison. Celebrity culture has the same effect on us, showing us lives we find more exciting than our own. So we aim to accumulate possessions and experiences in order to feel our lives are meaningful.


But Postmodernism keeps driving us inwards to find answers, and it is no surprise to find that identity has become a huge question in our day. If seems that the European referendum was won in part because the leave campaign correctly realised that identity was a bigger issue than the economy. We don’t like being defined by external forces we can’t control, and instead we want to define our identities in our own ways, according to our own preferences. ‘Become who you want to be’, no longer seems just like a piece of careers advice for those heading off to university, but a statement of our absolute freedom. Not only are we free to do what we wish with our own bodies, but we are free to think that what we are is whatever we feel like we want to be. 


Gender identity has rapidly become the most important area in campaigning for human rights and freedoms in recent times. But identity as a concept has exploded far beyond gender. We are told that who we are is who we feel ourselves to be by an inner exploration, rather than by reference to external realities. But it is very difficult by looking inwards to work out what our true self is, and we always look outwards at the world around us to create our identities. There is an increasing trend in America to self identify as animals such as cats or horses. If we are so free that gravity doesn’t hold us down, then anything seems possible.  


But there is reason to think that all is not well in our unconstrained inner worlds of absolute freedom. Earlier we read the writer of Ecclesiastes who tells us the truth about our attempts to make our lives meaningful. He says, ‘I denied myself nothing my eye desired; I refused my heart no pleasure’ and yet in chapter one verse 8 he realises, ‘all things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear it’s fill of hearing. He concludes everything is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.’


These are not words that a Post-modern society which seeks cognitive ease want to hear, and yet they fit reality rather better than our delusion that our freedom makes us happy.   


In the 1990s people talked of Generation X, who were often described as being bored and indifferent. They had been entertained to death, and some like Kurt Cobain seemed genuinely angry about it.


200 years ago a Frenchman called Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and noticed that despite increasing wealth, there was a sense of what he called ‘melancholy’. He put this down to social inequality, where everyone knew someone more wealthy than themselves, and therefore felt that things could be better than they were. The 10th commandment is that we should not covet our neighbours lives, and yet we do. Envy doesn’t make us happy, and yet in trying to work out how to measure the value of our lives in the absence of God, we end up comparing ourselves to others and envying all the more. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’. 


Today perhaps young people seem rather filled with anxiety. There is not the same sense of rebellion that consumed their parents generation, partly because reality has begun to bite. There seems to be a more sensible approach to education and trying to get a good job, but it seems to be driven by anxiety rather than hope. Bookshops are bursting with self-help books, and there are more and more programmes designed to boost what is called ‘self-esteem’. We can’t seem to stop thinking about ourselves, but it no longer seems to have the courageous sense of Nietzsche’s ‘Dare to believe only in yourself’. Instead it feels more like a timid, ‘dare not believe in anything other than yourself’ because reality has a nasty habit of hurting our self-esteem.  


If we follow Paul’s advice and think about what is true, noble and admirable, we might think about what sort of things our society needs, what good can be done for the benefit of others, we might reflect on what we are good at as well as what we enjoy, and think how we can best use our abilities in the service of other people. However, we often worry about how we feel, and whether we are fulfilled and happy, whether our lives are meaningful enough. So we turn inwards and become anxious and fearful rather than turning outwards and being bold and courageous.


Another result of postmodern freedom, is to undermine our beliefs. The desire for freedom of belief, has meant that we insist on tolerating all beliefs as equally valid. Tolerance used to mean that we tolerate things that we disagree with, but has come to mean that we do not allow disagreement, but insist that every belief has the same validity. This seems respectful, but is actually disrespectful, since it doesn’t really take any beliefs seriously, since it doesn’t let anyone believe that their belief is actually true. 


But we give tolerance such an optimistic spin, that we pretend to approve or admire the things we disagree with and therefore we no longer discuss what our disagreements are. This ends up paradoxically decreasing mutual understanding and increasing resentment for the views of the others which seem increasingly alien and incomprehensible to us. Instead of explaining why we disagree, we are more likely to retreat behind a relativist statement such as ‘well, it’s true for me’. 


There is a strong sense in society that there are certain things that we just can’t say for fear of offending others. We often call this political correctness. Sexuality, Identity, and Religion are all areas in which it is almost impossible to even raise questions without risking disapproval. Beliefs are therefore marginalised, and not listened to.


As well as the pressure to be tolerant, we also find we know longer know why we believe things, because we are told that there is no such thing as truth. If we feel passionate about our beliefs, we find it difficult to justify them or explain them. Instead we just feel them to be true, and we assert our beliefs, sometimes with an aggressive or insistent tone. As time passes and our rationalisations fall upon deaf ears, we find no-one listens to our outbursts, and we fade away into silence. Our beliefs become fully private. As a result we either simply hold onto the beliefs whatever anyone else might say, or give them up in favour of some more popularly acceptable beliefs.


We have lost any confidence to discuss religion publicly anyway, because we don’t believe that there is any independent reality which we can point to as a ground for the truth of what we believe. We fear that presenting reasons for our belief is the same as argument or confrontation, but in fact failing to talk about our private beliefs actually increases the possibility of misunderstanding.  


If truth is not hidden in my private experience, but is out there, shared by all of us, then we have something to talk about. We can look out at our shared reality of this world, and instead of arguing face to face, or retreating and hiding, we can stand shoulder to shoulder with other people and compare notes. It is not my truth that I am trying to foist on you, it is truth that is publicly available, that we all have access to. That is after all what truth is. It is not just my opinion, but the way things actually are. Postmodernism has therefore done enormous harm to public discussion and mutual understanding both by denying that there is such a thing as truth, and insisting our beliefs should be kept private in the name of tolerance and freedom.


But there are other consequences for religious faith than the pressure to privatise our beliefs. Nietzsche declared that God is dead, and it often seems to be true even for apparent believers in God, this nevertheless seems to be functionally true.


The God of the Bible is a God who stands before us, or beyond us, and transcends our experience and our universe. However, in our post-modern world, even if we pay lip service to that idea, we cannot stop thinking about God as the product of our internal worlds. A few observations may help see how this happens. 


Firstly, we believe God exists to make us feel happy.  The Health and Wealth gospel, which has considerable influence around the world, suggests that God’s main interest is our own personal happiness, measured primarily in materialistic terms. To many of us, this may seem obviously mistaken, but it actually feeds directly from our consumer culture which strongly influences how we all make sense of our lives, and we cannot help measuring our experience of life against these materialistic markers of happiness. In less extreme forms it is easy for us to see Gods purpose is to make life work for us somehow, that he owes us something for the faith and trust we place in him. Our faith can then easily be shaken when life doesn’t go the way we think it should. The problem is really that our final reference point becomes ourselves and our experience, and we expect God to conform to us, rather than us conforming to God. Some have observed how this might be reflected in the content of our songs of worship which use words referring to the self, such as I, me, and my, far more than more songs in the past.


Secondly many people who self identify as Christians are sceptical of Christianity’s institutionalforms. For this reason many people describe themselves as spiritual, but are fiercely opposed to ‘religion’. Many Christians whose final court of appeal is their individual experience of faith, no longer see being a part of a community of believers as essential, and prefer to explore faith on their own. Faith becomes internalised and individualised, and privatised to our own experience.


Thirdly, even believers who participate in institutional Christianity, often no longer have a strong sense that their faith impacts their day to day lives. This seems partly because we don’t have a sense of God being really there in an objective sense, and so our day to day decisions are determined in much the same way as those of non-believers, by our personal preferences and choices. When this happens, we cannot avoid a sense of alienation which comes with modern life, and so our religious faith turns into a sort of retreat or refuge on Sundays. We look to experience God if we can find the time away from the hustle and bustle, in order to settle our troubled minds, but faith no longer serves us in the day to day grind of life which carries on as if God is not really there, a sort of functional atheism. This contrasts with the view of the writer CS Lewis who says that true faith is when what is believed on a Sunday is put into practice in the challenges of the week on a Monday.


These are a few examples of how Postmodern rejection of Truth impacts our lives negatively, and I am aware this seems a bleak picture of our society. The reality is that every society in history has had huge blind spots. Last week the historian Tom Holland wrote in the New Statesman of how he came to realise that the good morality in our society today is mainly derived from Christianity. But there does seem to be a trajectory of abandoning Truth in our society which makes it increasingly difficult to live as Christians, and there is a worrying sense of personal and social fragmentation as a result. 


Currently we do seem to be profoundly attached to the Jargon of Authenticity. We can’t stop ourselves being impressed by catchphrases like ‘Become who you want to be’, and these conceal from us the the tremendous harm that happens as a result of these feeble and unexamined beliefs which promise us everything and give us nothing. The writer of Ecclesiastes warned us about these misguided experiments we make with our lives, and reminds us that for all our excitement at promised possibilities in the future, there is nothing new under the sun. Paul on the other hand pulls us back to reality, to the more difficult, but more infinitely rewarding work or pursuing what is true, what is noble and what is admirable. Despite everything that we are told to the contrary, what really matters in life is not what we feel is true about ourselves at any given moment, but what we know is true about God at every moment.


The tragedy is, that whilst we believe that we live freer and more exciting lives because we have been freed from oppressive beliefs in God, that our lives become more superficial and more uncertain and anxiety filled as if we have lost the ground beneath our feet.


Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we struggle to admit that there is nothing that we have received that we haven’t been given by you. We confess that we are not our own even though we think and act as if we are, and we pray that you would help us ask for forgiveness for living as if you are not really there. We acknowledge that our lives become more selfish, and more wearisome, frustrating and fear filled when we reject you. We pray that you would give us courage to speak about your truth in our world which needs to hear good news of hope, and to have a foundation for deciding what to do with the lives we are given. We praise you for being the source of all that is true, noble and admirable in our world. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.