‘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.
If we fast forward just fifteen years we can see quite clearly that evangelical Christianity never really rejected postmodernism. They had no interest in genuinely criticising its approach to infinite truths and plural perspectives, and why? Because it means that their stubborn denial of reality can be granted the same status as everyone else’s acceptance of reality. There is no doubt that evangelicals make up a substantial portion of COVD denial. Check the articles from as early as March last year — even at that early stage, commentators had noticed that one of the most resistant groups to public health measures would be right-wing Christians. And these are the exact same groups that preached truth with a capital T to their young people, to their congregations.
There are hosts of Christian leaders, teachers and practitioners in NI alone who are guilty of sharing conspiracy theories about the pandemic. Outright lies. This is worrying enough, but what is even more terrifying is the realisation that if direct evidence of the truth was brought to their attention, they would disregard it. They have, to misquote St Paul, "exchanged the truth about reality for a lie and worshiped and served created things.”
So where did the rejection of postmodernism go? Well it was never really there. When mainline conservative churches criticised postmodernism, what they were rejecting were the unappetising (to them) results of it. That our culture here in NI is getting on board with LGBTQ+ inclusion, reproductive justice and recognising the effects of inter-generational trauma is, in part, down the the ethical intervention of postmodernism. So when evangelicals criticise it, what they really are objecting to is social reform, not the foundations of postmodernism itself. In short, postmodernism is good only when it suits. But you can't have your gay cake and eat it. And the evangelical post-truth movement is a tragic demonstration of a deep, long-standing dishonesty. It was never about truth, it was always about power.
So where are we? At the time of writing we have a health service on its knees like never before. There are genuine worries about its survival. And yet the myths, the lies and the denials persist. Many evangelicals want their church to be open despite the circulation of a highly-transmissible, highly-dangerous virus. And many of them pass on conspiracy theories about aborted foetus cells and the mark of the beast. I realise it is easier to live in a world in which the lizard people are seeking to control us — at least then we can fight it. But it is is more honest and authentic to face up to reality, to front the essential facts of life. There is no alternative narrative here. We are really struggling with this. Myths wont’s save us. Conspiracy theories are not an acceptable comfort blanket. Our only solace is one another.
Andrew Cunning is a theologian and co-founder of Left Side Up. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.