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Exit Truth, Enter Tyranny

Os Guinness, speaker of international renown, was born in China, educated in England, graduated from Oxford University, and authored several books, one of the most recent being a brief but lucid and powerful meditation on the crisis of truth in our contemporary Western world. The book is entitled Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin (Baker Books, 2000). Guinness' central thesis is that “truth matters supremely because in the end, without truth there is no freedom . . . not only for individuals who would live a good life but for free societies that would remain free.” Indeed, “truth . . . is freedom,” Guinness adds, “and the only way to a free life lies in becoming a person of truth and learning to live in truth.” Nowadays the belief in objective truth is dead, argues Guinness. Truth is historically, culturally, or individually relative, all a matter of interpretation and perspective, or so some claim, and truth has nothing to do with the notion of an objective reality that determines the truth or falsity of belief. What is the nature and extent of this crisis of truth in the Western world that has undermined one of its most vital foundations? What are its consequences for us, for Western civilization, especially the United States, and for human freedom?

In reply to the first question, Guinness argues that the crisis of truth has caused two companion crises-the crisis of ethics and the crisis of character. For all the scientific and technological advances of the Western world, ethically we have regressed. This regression is not marked simply by the moral gap between knowing the good, but knowingly doing what is bad. That has been going on since the Fall. Also, this crisis is not only marked by the gradual loss of a common, shared understanding of what is right or wrong. Worse, it is the crisis of doubt as to whether there even is a moral right or wrong at all, an objective truth about the moral good, knowable by human reason. This crisis strikes at the very heart of moral responsibility because we now seem to have arrived at the point where no one seems to know whether anyone has done anything wrong. Instead, people are charged with “judgmentalism,” which amounts to the view that it is wrong to say that anyone is wrong or holds false beliefs. As Guinness says, “When nothing can be judged except judgment itself— 'judgmentalism'—the barriers between the unthinkable, acceptable, and doable collapse entirely.”

Regarding the crisis of character, Guinness especially highlights the rise in the modern world of a “culture of image.” A person's whole moral identity or character now seems unimportant. Rather, the “striking personality” is all-important, says Guinness, “and the door is opened to the 'makeover era' of spin doctors and plastic surgeons. Image makeovers through lifestyle changes, face lifts, hair implants, creative resumes, and stage-managed confessions are all minted from the same coin.” Impression management and the glamour of surfaces are our all-important preoccupations because we all live for effect. In short, with the death of truth and character and with the newly won freedom of self-invention, says Guinness, “we're all actors and spinmeisters now.”

Yet, there is more to this crisis of truth. The very foundation of the American experiment that the framers laid has been radically shaken. The framers believed that liberty requires virtue and virtue requires faith. They held that a moral order supports the possibility of free government because they understood well the ethical nature of self-governance. They understood, in Lord Acton's phrase, that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Essentially, they didn't confound authentic liberty, what George Washington called “ordered liberty,” and license. As John Paul II has said, “The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain 'self-evident' truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by 'nature's God'.” This ordered freedom is, argued the Founders, endangered when a nation loses its moorings in these moral and religious truths, because it is the shared possession of these truths upon which the interior self-discipline and governance of a free people rests.

By contrast, for many in the modern world, “there is no need for order, only liberty. Experiment therefore means open-ended experimentation. Nothing is fixed, everything is fluid and free; nothing is given, everything is up for grabs . . . [But] if everything is endlessly open to question and change, then everything is permitted, nothing is forbidden, and literally nothing is unthinkable.” Thus, when moral freedom is untethered from truth, freedom degenerates into license, becoming debased. Guinness is right to argue that the greatest threat to human freedom is a relativist view of truth because it sabotages our ability to discern right from wrong, making it more likely that we will abuse our freedom.

Os Guinness defends the practical importance of a high view of truth. This contemporary crisis is not simply of academic interest. “Truth,” says Guinness, “because it is our basic human handle on reality, is vital to us all—teenagers as well as teachers, mothers as much as judges, cab drivers and school janitors no less than journalists and university professors.” In what sense does truth consist in our basic grasp on reality? Quite simply, if what I believe is true, then what makes it true is that objective reality is the way that the belief says it is; otherwise, the belief is false. And if I believe something that is false, then I have lost my basic grasp on reality, and this has practical consequences.

For example, you may know someone who believes that we live in a world without God and without objective meaning. Perhaps he is a naturalist, believing that God doesn't exist, nature is all there is, basically just matter-in-motion, indeed the entire universe, man included, is the product of this matter plus time plus chance. But if man is the chance product of matter-in-motion, then his moral aspirations, his aspirations for significance, communication, love, beauty, truth, righteousness, mercy, and justice make no sense in this ultimately impersonal and indifferent universe. “For those who find themselves without faith in God and who conclude that the world they desire does not fit with the world they discover,” says Guinness, “life is fundamentally deaf to their aspirations. And in fact, it is literally absurd.” In other words, we are a queer entity in this world. Francis Schaeffer, Guinness' mentor, put it this way, “By chance, man has become a being with aspirations, including moral motions for which there is no ultimate fulfillment in the universe as it is . . . Here is the ultimate cosmic alienation, the dilemma of our generation.”

Some have sought to avoid this dilemma by claiming that whatever meaning things have, including people, is up to us to find it—implying that we determine what is significant, either by choice, or perhaps just by feeling that way. On this view man can define reality for himself. Rather than resolve the dilemma of cosmic alienation, however, this view has brought anguish, a boundless bewilderment, as human beings individually confront the enigma of their personal destiny. Thrown back upon himself, he experiences ethical despair, indeed, a spiritual sickness, which is an awful loneliness because there is no final purpose to his existence. This is the consequence of the doctrine that the self is the measure of all things. “If man is the measure of all things,” Giussani adds, “he is alone, like some friendless god.”

Guinness says that the alternative to this meaningless, indeed, literally absurd, view of the universe is to hold that “truth, like meaning as a whole, is not for us to create but for us to discover.” This is a high view of objective, nonrelativist truth, and Guinness offers several arguments in its support.

The first set of two arguments is addressed to the adherents of biblical religion—traditional Jews and Christians who hold assumptions about truth but are careless or reluctant to defend them. In the first place, the orthodox Christian, limiting myself to him, is intellectually committed to the truth of certain beliefs, and the reason why he believes them is because they are true. Of course his believing them is not what makes them true. Says Guinness, “We can say that a . . . belief is true if what it is about is as it is presented in the statement. Belief in something doesn't make it true; only truth makes it true.” In other words, a belief is true if and only if objective reality is the way that the belief says it is; otherwise, the belief is false. Without this understanding of what it means to believe the Christian cannot answer the fundamental objection that faith in God is untrue, irrational, and illegitimate. “With such a rock-like view of truth, the Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true. It is not true because we experience it; we experience it—deeply and gloriously—because it is true. It is not simply 'true for us'; it is true for any who seek in order to find, because truth is true even if nobody believes it and falsehood is false even if everybody believes it.”

In the second place, truth matters infinitely and ultimately for biblical religion because it is a matter of the trustworthiness of God himself. The biblical view of things frees us from the lack of confidence in the truth-attaining powers of human beings because “we know that our intellectual powers and our very disposition as truth-seekers are underwritten by the truthfulness of the Creator of the universe.” Our truth-seeking desire fits the world and life is not fundamentally deaf to its aspiration all because “truth is that which is ultimately, finally, and absolutely real, or the 'way it is', and therefore is utterly trustworthy and dependable, [is] grounded and anchored in God's own reality and truthfulness.”

There is also a whole group of people who do not embrace biblical religion with its assumptions about truth. Guinness has arguments showing the importance of a high view of truth for them too.

Some of these people claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism about truth best protects human freedom. If we can't be sure of the truth or if truth is culturally, socially, and individually relative, nothing but a matter of interpretation and perspective, then everyone's freedom is best protected from manipulation, coercion, and deception. The very opposite is true, according to Guinness. In a world without truth in the objective sense, might makes right. Without transcendent truth, which provides a foundation for human rights and basic freedoms, we actually open the door to totalitarianism, and man is vulnerable to the violence of manipulation, coercion, and deception. In short, argues Guinness, the dignity of the human person cannot be inviolable unless it is objectively grounded in truth about human nature.

Our culture is in a severe crisis of truth. This is at root a rejection of an objective vision of the truth. But this view ultimately clashes with reality, because it cannot be lived consistently. Consider the charge of judgmentalism, which amounts to the view that it is wrong to say that anyone is wrong. A moment's reflection can show that this idea is not livable. Suppose I hold the belief that racism is wrong. To hold this to be true implies also believing that its denial is false. This is no more than simple logic, because this proposition cannot be both truth and false. I think the absurdity of denying this point becomes clearer by considering the following. Suppose I said, “I think it's wrong to be a racist (torture children, own slaves, beat my wife, etc.), but then went on to say, ”but each of us should decide for himself as to whether he agrees, according to his own personal morality, because I can't force my personal view on others.“ The presupposition here is that each individual sets the standards of right and wrong for himself, and hence he is obliged to be true only to the standard that he has set for himself.

If this view made sense, we should have to cease making moral judgments. Indeed, living consistently with this view would mean to cease showing moral outrage about the smallest wrongdoings like being cheated at the grocers to the most massive evils like state-sanctioned racism, genocide, torture, religious persecution, forced abortions, and so forth. Of course we would instinctively retreat from such a conclusion, and thus from the logic of our presupposition that morality is a subjective matter. Says Guinness, “When heads collide with the wall they will have reached the limits of their position and will be open to reconsider. In this sense, reality is what we run into when we are wrong, for when we are right, we don't run into it.” Thus, reality forces us to reconsider the truth claim that there are moral absolutes founded in the objective order of truth, because denying this removes the basis for making moral judgments about things that are objectively and universally good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. We must bring the standard of absolute truth back into the picture.

Finally, Guinness points out that human beings are by nature truth-seekers, but they are also truth-twisters. Human reason as it actually functions in a fallen state causes this duplicity within us. At the root of our truth-twisting nature is the desire to be autonomous; we seek to be the sole arbiter of life and truth. The human mind wants to set itself up as the measure of truth. Guinness' biblical solution to our truth-twisting nature is the same as that of John Paul II's, who writes: “The coming of Christ [is] the saving event that redeemed reason from its weakness, setting it free from the shackles in which it had imprisoned itself.” God wants to restore our human nature, and thus our human reason, to its proper functioning state. Thus, we are called to the strenuous discipline of “living in the light that is God.” This involves two things: first, “living in truth as 'living in the light' is the secret of the deepest integrity that seeks to overcome the personal distortions in our dealings with the truth”; and second, “we face the challenge of practicing the truth before God. To become true we must live bathed in the full floodlight of the one Who is the Light of the world—Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth and the life.” Or as the Fathers of Vatican II incisively stated: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 22). Guinness' lucid and compelling meditation on the contemporary crisis of truth should help us to live a transformed life in Christ.