‘God is dead’, said Nietzsche. And conservative Christians didn’t like that.
How odd it is, then, to find these same sorts of Christians living out Nietzsche’s second most famous statement that ‘there are no facts, only interpretations.’
I’m talking, of course, about the more general movement in our culture against ‘truth’, ‘facts’ and ‘expertise’. These solid features in our cultural firmament have held for as long as they could, but when the likes of a President Trump comes along and declares the existence of ‘alternative facts’, we have to recognise that the philosophical pillars of our communal sense of ‘truth’ have been in decay for a long time. And Christians have aided the atrophy.
‘People are sick of experts’ said the wonderfully qualified Michael Gove in 2016. Some of the sentiment behind that statement was made tangible in the slight majority the Vote Leave campaign earned in the same year. Certainly there was some anti-expert feeling in the leave vote — it wasn't all fuelled, as some liberals would suggest, by anti-immigration rhetoric and racism. Whether he should have said it or not, Gove was right. Large numbers of people were and are sick of experts. They don’t like being told what is true. And the roots of this scepticism run very deep, reaching back hundred of years. But instead of tracing these intellectual roots (there are books that will do that much better than I can), what I want to do is point out the tragic irony of our contemporary situation in which evangelical Christians number themselves among the radical post-truthers. What we have now in the religious COVID-19 deniers is something that is at once entirely predictable and yet shockingly incoherent.
In a sense what we are encountering now as a culture is the bad fruit of the postmodern tree. Nietzsche, to torture the metaphor further, planted a few of these seeds with his perspectivism (there is no objective truth, only perspectives) and innumerable theorists and university professors tended the branches for decades in lecture theatres and impenetrable books. When the Oxford Dictionary committee chose to make ‘post-truth’ its word of the year in 2016, they seared into popular consciousness what had been going on in drunken discussions at academic conferences for a few decades before: Truth is dead, objectivity is a myth. Yes I will have a top up, Professor.
Postmodernism is not evil, nor is it all wrong (if we can make such a judgement at all, that is). In fact, a healthy postmodernism is one that inspires empathetic engagement and robust questioning. It creates a population that won’t provide blanket support for illegal wars and unethical tax arrangements. If all perspectives are important and revelatory then it is key that I hear from my opposite, or from the person I have nothing in common with. They see the world in a way that I could never. Similarly, it is important to question the tone and bias of a news report: total objectivity really is a dangerous fable. However, when scepticism becomes the driving energy in every judgement I make, I am on a journey towards nihilism, where nothing is true and facts can have alternatives.
Evangelical Christianity is ostensibly obsessed with the Truth. Jesus said he was the way and the truth and the life. It is really quite important, then, that the truth is grasped. This is why postmodernism was roundly rejected by mainline, conservative churches. I sat in many a youth group in which the Manic Street Preachers were condemned for their album ‘This is My Truth Tell Me Yours.’ Postmodernism was an affront to the gospel, so I was told. Truth matters. And it will set you free.