The long-gestating epistemological crisis in the west is escalating rapidly. Who or what can be trusted? Is objectivity possible? Are there authorities uncorrupted by power? Sources of truth untainted by the stains of bias and ideology?
Though they are not new, these are increasingly vexing questions in today's world, which is nearing a tipping point moment in "what is real?" confusion. Back in the early Internet days of The Matrix it was a quaintly postmodern, Cartesian thought experiment to question the realness of reality. Now it is our daily experience as we watch the news or scroll our social media feeds.
"Post-truth" is our paradigm. "Alternative facts" is our parlance. "Fake news" has become a partisan weapon that has quickly lost any meaning.
My generation loves authenticity and hates anything "fake" (was it Coldplay's Chris Martin who once crooned, "Give me real, don't give me fake"?). But what does that even mean where there are no agreed upon definitions of "fake," where one man's trusted news is another man's fake news, and each of us selects for ourselves the facts we believe and the ones we dismiss?
If to be "authentic" is simply to be "real" or "true" to oneself, what happens when one person's authenticity directly confronts or contradicts another's, as in a gay couple who is authentically seeking to be married, and the elderly florist whose authentic self cannot in good conscience make floral arrangements for their wedding?
"Authenticity" is word that is inherently opposed to objective meaning, and thus surely ill-equipped to be a sufficient answer to the crisis we now face.
Meanwhile, words like "gender," "male," and "female" are also losing any reliable or agreed-upon meaning.
Words like "news," "opinion," "entertainment" and "information" have blurred together into one amorphous idea ("media") that feeds us an assembly line of disconnected fragments, headlines, rants and cat videos that only reinforce the apparent absurdity of metanarratives or truth ties that bind.
Notions of human knowledge and learning are also changing, in the era when Google does much of our thinking for us and artificial intelligence grows increasingly sophisticated.
The pace of everything is such that even if we needed to think we wouldn't want to spend the time doing it. There are far too many things to be amused by and aware of. Who has time to truly get to know something? There are too many Important Issues about which we are beckoned to be #woke. The urgent thing is that we speak out and share our opinions about as much as possible. Less important is the slog of learning about complicated things in a patient and curious manner.
So, what are we to do about all this? How can we resist the entropy of truth and discover the real in this wasteland of unreality? I have three general suggestions:
1) Focus on time-tested authorities.
A fundamental cause of our current epistemological crisis is the speed and glut of information. The news cycle is relentless and the amount of information each day is far more than we could ever sufficiently sift through. Combat this by giving preference to time-tested wisdom and authorities. For example:
- Read the Bible. It's the best selling, most-read book in history, by far. Read it more than you read anything else.
- If you believe Jesus Christ is God, and the perfect human, focus on him as the authority of reference. Learn as much about him as you can (again: Bible!), model your life on him, commune with him, rest in his grace, proclaim him as Lord of all. This will be your sanity.
- Read other old books, especially the "Great Books" that are consistently considered great, generation after generation. Read a great book twice rather than 10 mediocre books once.
- Trust people whose wisdom is time-tested and whose expertise is proven by practice: pastors who have pastored in the same church for 30 years; couples who have been faithfully married for 50 years; professors who have spent their careers trying to learn everything they can about a subject.
- Don't let the allure of novelty and trendiness dictate whose ideas you pay attention to. Minimize your exposure to hot takes on the Internet and maximize your exposure to wise people, living or dead.
2) Value community.
Another fundamental cause of our current epistemological crisis is the hyper-individuation of our technological age, in which each of us has significant power to build isolated iWorlds and subsequently define reality on our own terms. Combat this by cultivating and committing to community: physical, local, long-lasting community. For example:
- Stay in one place long enough to know and grow alongside others in profound ways, letting others speak truth into your life on a sustained basis, even when it's hard.
- Be open to the idea that the consensus of your community is a more trustworthy source than you are on a) who you are and b) what you should choose in important life decisions.
- Value the consensus of communities of experts (e.g. scientists, critics, theologians). There are exceptions to this, of course (groupthink, echo chamber communities, etc.), but often consensus is a good guide to filter through the glut of information. Use critics' lists of "best movies of all time" to help you decide which films to spend time watching. Choose a book based on the reviews and the caliber of its endorsements.
3) Establish rhythms.
One way to thrive in the chaos of a post-truth world is to root yourself in habits and rhythms that transcend the ups, downs and unpredictability of the mediated world. Ordering our lives with rhythms helps us simplify the chaos and survive the barrage of possibility by submitting ourselves to limitation. For example:
- Prioritize sleep, silence, listening, quietness. Have set-aside spaces every day, or entire days of the week (e.g. Sabbath), where you have no commitments, where media is turned off and where you can simply rest, be still and listen. Purge your life of FOMO paralysis. It's liberating to miss out on things!
- Commit to rhythms of community (book clubs, Bible studies, discussion groups, etc.) where you can process complexity in more manageable ways, among trusted others on a regular basis.
- Go outside. Contemplating the rhythms of God's created world (weather, seasons, plants, animals) has a way of cutting through the clutter and illuminating goodness, truth and beauty in ways that the buzziest Medium article never could.
- Let embodied rhythms reveal truth. Some of the most profound truths are not cerebral; they're embodied. This is especially true of Christian liturgical rhythms: prayer, fasting, singing, taking communion, baptism, Scripture reading, the rhythms of the church calendar. The most important truths are sometimes practiced before they are understood. Showing up at boring old church, Sunday after Sunday, and "going through the motions" (a dreaded notion for us Millennials) is a pilgrim's sanity in an insane world.