Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Truthiness

Allow me to appropriate the national pastime (no, not shopping; baseball) to illustrate a point about how “the way we think” has changed over the centuries. In pre-modern times, an umpire would say, “I call ‘em as they are.” In other words, there is objective truth that can only be labeled such. It either is or isn’t a strike, and that’s the way I call them. In modern times (Enlightenment through late 20th century), an umpire would say, “I call ‘em as I see ‘em.” Which is to say, I try to call it a strike when it’s in the strike zone but sometimes my own preferences and biases play a role and in that sense the strike zone is, admittedly, a little bit subjective. In post-modern times, the umpire says “It ain’t nothin’ till I call ‘em.” Meaning, there is really no objective strike zone (truth); it all depends on what the umpire decides is a strike. Each umpire has his own personal strike zone, and it’s not a ball or a strike until he calls it.”

Keep this analogy in mind as we skip on over to a recent news item (“‘Truthiness’ is word of the year,” AP/Cnn.com; 1/7/06). The American Dialect Society (full disclosure: I am not a member) appoints a panel of linguists each year to choose a word that “best reflects” that particular year. And the winner for 2005 was … “truthiness,” defined as “the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.”

Notes Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology (full disclosure: I once owned a Toyota, parent company of Lexicology): “truthiness” means “truthy, not facty.” “The national argument right now is, one, who’s got the truth and, two, who’s got the facts. Until we can manage to get the two of them back together again, we’re not going to make much progress.”

I am glad this august group has given a name to a phenomenon that, frankly, I began to observe in the 1990’s, when I noticed that advocates for certain causes would quote statistics that, later, they admitted were false, but for which they did not apologize because their cause is a “just” one. For example, remember the “fact” that more wives are beaten by their husbands on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year? Complete myth. But this “truth” was propagated because the “cause” of preventing spouse abuse is a just one (and indeed it is). And the statistic that second-hand smoke causes 400,000 deaths per year. Completely ridiculous. But anti-smoking advocates feel so strongly about their cause that the accuracy of the “facts” they quote to further it is almost incidental, i.e., they ain’t nothin’ ‘till I call ‘em.

So, what does all this have to do with the Christian life? Simply this: The Christian faith makes a number of concrete, objective faith claims (e.g., God created the universe, Jesus is God’s Son who lived in human form, he died on the Cross and was raised from the dead, etc.). We do not need to apologize for that, although we do need to be humble in admitting the subjectivity of how we understand and appropriate those claims. Pontius Pilate’s question indeed is one for the ages: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). And let it be noted that Jesus did not say “Truthiness will set you free” (John 8:32).

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