Truthiness isn’t what’s true
“Was Jonathan Edwards a hard-boiled egotist who had all the answers?” a passenger next to me asked as we recently flew from Chicago to Denver. He peered over my shoulder, noting I was reading a biography of 18th-century Puritan revivalist Edwards.This traveler distanced himself from being identified as a Christian, although Christ still appealed to him. He respected Christ but suffered keen embarrassment from Christians who assume they possess the truth, censor others who disagree with them, and bray like mules about how they hold high moral ground. “Their bellicose claims sound moralistic and intolerant,” my seatmate said as his voice trailed off. “So embarrassing is this cant that my wife and I no longer admit we are Christians. We are, but when asked, we say we are spiritual.”This airline passenger had a name on the tip of his tongue but couldn’t remember exactly who the con man for Christ was. He vividly described a charlatan who got caught stashing illegal cash while giving testimony of his love for Jesus. My fellow traveler said, “This guy lost in his bid last month in the Georgia Republican primary for nomination as lieutenant governor. He’s in cahoots with racketeer Jack Abramoff. He unctuously paraded as truth that he was against legalized gambling but under the table he supported the Native Americans lobbyist Abramoff represented who wanted gaming rights.””We are talking about Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, aren’t we?” I responded. Reed served as Pat Robertson’s soapbox, drumming up support among conservative Christians after Robertson’s run for the presidency in 1988.Comic Stephen Colbert puts his finger on what bothered this traveling sidekick and his wife who felt embarrassed about evangelical Christian leaders like Ralph Reed. Colbert uses parody to mock TV’s know-it-all commentators who peddle “truthiness.” Truthiness sounds like the truth but isn’t. Forget facts. Use them only when they support your position. Rely on heartfelt feelings to determine what’s true for you and then rally around only those facts supporting your cause. This is truthiness. Colbert claims it wins a vast audience when people like Bill O’Reilly stare directly into the camera at you, raise their voices to a virtual screech, and thunder how their blend of blind patriotism, trickle-down economics and outrage against immorality is true. Colbert mimics opponents so mercilessly he doesn’t allow his three young children to regularly view his shows. He sounds so sincere, religious and convincing that it’s scary, admits Colbert. He might begin to believe what he knows is crap, as he puts it.Truthiness sells among Christians. Ask Ralph Reed before his religious crusade against gambling foundered because he was on the take.”Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good,” Romans 12:9. Protect a vital balance between standing for convictions and yet being open to new truth. Truthiness constantly parades convictions as the last word on what’s true. When do we ever hear Rush Limbaugh types confess how they need more light to break forth before they can decide?Ambivalence is out; certainty is in. Truthiness can’t stand an inquirer like my airplane buddy who seeks to mull over, search for and wrestle with what’s true.We enjoyed an animated conversation. He reminded me of two of my Christian heroes, Reinhold Niebuhr and Jonathan Edwards.Niebuhr, who taught at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary during the first half of the 20th century, ruthlessly exposed truthiness that pagans and Christians exploited. He used Christian perspectives to inform and judge political policy. Niebuhr wrote that confessors of Christ are not always right in their political stands. All truth is provisional. Only God knows what’s true. Even devout Christians are not privy to divine truth that remains hidden, inscrutable and known only by God. Consequently, Niebuhr warned against equating the American way of life with Christ’s way. Our nation stands under divine judgment, Niebuhr reminded his readers. What we know is contingent, provisional and penultimate. God’s truth stands on its own, can’t be equated with one political party and is ultimate. Demagogues and religious devotees, argued Niebuhr, assume what they believe is true. They sell truthiness.My traveling companion perked up when he discovered I portray Jonathan Edwards. Detractors conjure up a toy Edwards, vilifying him as a curmudgeon who delighted in damning sinners to hell. He saw faith as a journey rather than a destination reached. He questioned some Christians who wept over Christ, concluding their sincerity proved the truth of their faith. Sincerity is not a mark of truth, claimed Edwards. We can be sincerely right or wrong. Sincere, made-up minds practice truthiness.Edwards displayed a profound curiosity about things religious. When he served a largely American Indian congregation on the frontier in Stockbridge, Mass., Edwards had a friend, the Rev. Samuel Hopkins, who wrote about the evangelist’s creativity. In “Life and Character of the Late Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards” (1765), Hopkins wrote, “He had an uncommon thirst for knowledge, in the pursuit of which he spared no cost or pains.” Like my traveling companion, Edwards hated truthiness Stephen Colbert parodies but loved to search for God’s truth.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado
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