Truth vs. Consensus 

Postmodernism has produced an heir, and its name is Consensus. Four years ago, the Oxford Dictionary announced that “post-truth” was its word of the year. Post-truth refers to our contemporary sense of justice, in which objective reality and facts bow the knee to personal emotions and beliefs.

Ravi Zacharais and others have responded to this concept by underscoring the fact that we cannot jettison truth and hope to retain order or even meaningful dialogue.[1] Although the effort to protect feelings may prevail on the interpersonal level, we must be aware that few people—except for perhaps the most ardent and brave relativists (typically those shielded from its effects within the fortresses of academia)—remain faithful to a completely relativistic standard when the stakes rise to high-level morality.

When questions of morality become more pointed, more sweeping, and more extreme, post-truthers reveal that, for the sake of pragmatism, they must use some sort of guiding star. Are ethnic cleansings justified by someone’s strong feelings? What about sex-trafficking, or domestic abuse? No, as it turns out, such behaviors are unilaterally wrong, for all people, in all places, at all times. “Why?” one might ask, do these particular moral commitments stand above reproach. Why are these moral positions (for now) beyond the reach of debate, beyond the rescue of emotional rationalization?

The answer is: “Because, naturally, we all know those things are terrible.”

Functionally, truth by consensus has stepped up to fill the void left when we, in annoyance, bade objective truth to find quarters somewhere else. How did we get here? To orient ourselves in the current climate of moral reasoning, we need a quick refresher on philosophical developments, starting with the Enlightenment.

Prior to the Enlightenment, people assumed truth was located in the Divine. There was a divine standard of truth we needed to rise toward, comprehend, and appropriate for our lives. The Enlightenment relocated that final source of truth within man’s ability to reason. Reason itself, and one’s ability to rationally connect observable facts in a deductive chain, was now the ultimate standard of truth. This appeared to adequately dispose of the need for the Divine until the mid 20th century, when deconstruction emerged. Deconstruction recognized that pure, unadulterated, unbiased “reason” simply did not exist—in fact, it could not exist. Deconstruction observed that every person’s approach to truth was impacted by his or her culture, background, and personal desires.

Deconstruction, in essence, unearthed and repackaged Proverbs 18:17:

 “The one who states his case first seems right...
until the other comes and examines him.”

This leaves us at a little bit of an impasse. Critics of Deconstruction saw this problem. They complained that Deconstruction’s name was all too fitting: It tore apart our certainty in reason and in man’s mind, but then offered nothing to replace it. Unfortunately, what often comes in its place, whether literally or metaphorically, is what we find in the very next verse, Proverbs 18:18:

“The lot puts an end to quarrels and decides between powerful contenders.”

This explains in part some of the radical polarization of our world today. Our loss of an ability to assume, or to speak from, or to operate from some common ground, unstained by bias, means that people of differing viewpoints stand on opposing sides of a great chasm. They can see each other; they can dislike each other; they may even hear snatches of what the other side is yelling... but there is no chance of meeting.

Postmodernism Birthed the Age of Consensus

How is one to adjudicate truth on such a terrain? Is the answer to cast lots? Or perhaps the answer is the cold Nietzschean mantra of “might makes right”? Or perhaps there is a third way?

Secular humanists promise there is a third way, and that it comes through thoughtful, respectful dialogue. Our ability to discover the truth comes from our collective efforts to reach compromise, consensus, and cooperation. The promise is that we, as a whole community, united in our humanity—that we, as we communicate, and come together, are able to find a unifying truth which transcends our individual blind spots.

The Humanist Manifesto III, published in 2003, sees its own version of the truth in precisely such terms. The humanist worldview...

“...evolved through the ages, and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.”[2]  

But this raises a question: "Who, precisely, are these thoughtful people?" The hidden, implicit answer is that thoughtful people can be recognized by their ability to express what is already the consensus of the majority.

Make no mistake, by tethering absolute truth to the foresail of consensus, we have not thereby matured beyond the chaos of relativism. Rather, we are resigning ourselves to perpetual uncertainty—a life driven and tossed by the wind (Jas 1:6). Remember that truth by consensus is what requested amnesty for a robber over Jesus (Jn 18:40). Consensus approved of the rule of the people in the brutality of the French Revolution. Consensus is what created Nazi Germany, smiled on the Salem witch trials, and sanctioned slavery. Truth by consensus proves itself a fickle moral compass.

In this atmosphere, the Church has often responded by one of two extremes, both of which miss the fullness of the Gospel message. On one extreme, we simply attempt to affirm and redirect the world’s consensus-crafted moral intuitions. On the other extreme, we draw our circle of truth tighter and tighter, until we’re lucky if we find 144,000 faithful still left. The Gospel rebalances both extremes.

The Gospel Affirms Antithesis

Jesus, in His teaching, explicitly corrects a mistaken notion He knows is circulating about Him: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Lk 12:51) Jesus is not saying that His purpose is to be divisive, but He is acknowledging that truth divides. If you come up with a statement of belief that everyone, or even a vast majority of people can agree with, then it is a good indication that you haven’t really said anything. As one moves closer to the core of what is most important in life, statements become more likely to bring division, not less.

When Jesus says that He will divide families, it isn’t because He expects his followers to be disrespectful, or close-minded, or antagonistic. It’s because Jesus is saying something very foundational about the nature of truth. Jesus is Himself truth incarnate. We either believe or accept Him as our Savior and Lord, or we do not. There is no retreat to the middle. Since the Fall, our hearts are naturally in rebellion against this truth, and so we should expect that all of us will struggle with, and want to push back against the Gospel at various points.

The Gospel Brings Unity

Although Jesus divides, He also unites. Faith in Jesus ushers in the real, deep, stable unity that we long for. In Jesus, we all come into one family. All families of the earth can be blessed under the blessing and lineage of Abraham (Gen 12:3). This was God’s plan before the world began: To offer the only reliable path to unity.

True, substantive unity is costly. It’s the kind of unity that emerges out of the trenches and foxholes, out of boot camps and two-a-days, out of sharing a near-death experience or surviving trauma. It is the deep sort of unity born out of suffering, which, for that reason, can not conscience denial. This is the unity which Christ purchased on the cross.

It is the “mystery of God’s will...which he set forth in Christ...to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10). All believers are united in having crucified Jesus, and then having been saved by Him from death and punishment. In Christ, not only will we finally reach a full consensus of truth, but we increasingly discover harmony and unity with God and fellow believers.

In light of this reality, we should adopt a posture of gentleness and patience, eager to both create and maintain the bond of unity that comes through Jesus (Eph 4:2-3).


Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor of Student Ministry at Christ Community Church in Carmel, Indiana. 


Related Links

"The Twilight of the American Enlightenment", review by R. R. Reno

"Plastic People in a Liquid World" by Carl Trueman [ Part 1  |  Part 2 ]

"Postmodernism: Gagging of God" by D.A. Carson

"Dealing with Postmodernism and Gender Confusion" by Derek Thomas

C.S. Lewis: Apologetics for a Postmodern World by Andrew Hoffecker


Notes

[1]  https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-oxford-dictionarys-2016-word-of-the-year-matters/

[2] https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/  (emphasis my own)