Nearly all of us have heard the saying, “Most people would rather hear a good lie over the truth any day.” When people hear this, they laugh and nod in agreement. Yet, though we acknowledge the human tendency to believe what makes us feel better, how many of us actually do something about it?
This inclination to comfort ourselves with misinformation is even more serious when we consider another well-known saying ascribed to Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union: “A lie, told often enough, becomes the truth.” Think about the implications of the statement: lies that go unchallenged will eventually cause us to lose our ability to perceive truth, at least with regard to that subject.
We just happen to be living in a time when tens of millions of Westerners have ceased to believe in absolute truth. The implications of that trend don’t hit immediately. It started with the notion, “Who are you to tell me what is true?” That morphed into, “What’s true for you is not necessarily true for me.” Imagine 7 billion independent arbiters of truth across the planet, and the implication is that there are many truths, one for each person on earth. This is paradoxical enough. But in addition to this, there seem to be no rules for how one goes about ascertaining his own personal truth (rules, after all, imply a singular truth). Each of us decides how we will identify our “truth.” To put it more bluntly, each of us has the sovereign ability to re-create the universe according to his own preferences.
Interestingly, this principle, which has fueled the cultural de-evolution of the West during the last two or three generations, has persisted in spite of how it flies in the face of the simplest logic. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that these billions of variable universes will inevitably crash into each other. We can’t all be right. Take the issue of the afterlife: is there one or isn’t there? Put a “yay” next to a “nay” and one of them will be right and the other will be wrong. It can’t be both ways.
I discussed all this with a colleague of mine, who related how he had debated the issue of truth with a stranger on social media. Bill said his opponent insisted that there were, indeed, multiple truths, all of them equally valid. Bill then asked him, “So what if my truth is that your truth is wrong?” He didn’t get an answer.
The concept of multiple truths is the product of postmodernism, a movement of skepticism that emerged in the late 19th century in the wake of Darwinism and has influenced nearly everything since — culture, art, literature, education and philosophy. Ironically, the movement came almost on the heels of the greatest expansion of scientific knowledge in history. Science is (or at least used to be) an enterprise that upholds order and singularity of fact, which goes against the free-form spirit of postmodernism. Nevertheless, once Western society began to unravel many of the mysteries of the universe, God began to seem like a quaint, backward concept, and we declared ourselves free to wipe the blackboard clean and start over. Emancipated man wanted to stretch his legs now that the fetters of religion had been lifted from him.
But 19th-century postmodernism was a work in progress, and it had much more sense than its great-grandchildren of today. One early architect of the movement was Freidrich Nietzsche, the famous “God is dead” philosopher. He proposed something called “perspectivism,” which held that no one way of viewing the world can be seen as being definitively true. Nietzsche didn’t believe that all ways of viewing the world were equally valid, but society was on its way nonetheless. It’s simple, really: if you take the Creator out of the picture, there is no longer an authorized set of governing principles in place. Humans were free to carve out their own reality, as it were. As time went on, free thinkers managed to erase logic, epistemology (the study of how knowledge is gathered) and everything else that constrained their ability to build their own self-styled universe.
Of course, no postmodernist has ever proposed that we can make our own rules when it comes to the physical world. We all seem to recognize the immutability (and the universality) of physics and mathematics. But many reject the idea of spiritual laws, even as we dabble in occult activities and New Age enchantments. In all this, we have woven for ourselves a rich fantasy world, and our whimsy has bled into every part of society to our detriment.
I recently watched Cloud Atlas, a 2012 film in the postmodernist vein. The film was co-written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, who also produced the 1999 film The Matrix. In spite of its radical underpinnings, the movie features excellent writing, top-notch actors (including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry), strong direction and a compelling story. The plot is intriguing: a reincarnated soul travels through time, landing in the bodies of various people in various times: an abolitionist lawyer who voyages across the Pacific in 1849; a talented composer writing letters to his lover in 1930s Britain; a reporter investigating corruption at a US nuclear power plant during the 1970s; a publisher trapped in a nursing home in 2012; a clone’s thrilling escape and rebellion in Korea during the year 2144; and finally, a tribesman fighting Hawaiian cannibals in post-apocalyptic 2300. The hero of each story challenges the corrupt norms of the time and changes the course of history through acts of kindness, big and small.
Who could object to kindness? Ditto to the film’s condemnation of slavery, oppression and corruption. Early on, we seem to be moving back to a more level-headed age when one of the protagonists makes the following statement:
“Truth is singular. Variations are mistruths.” This sounds promising, but the script writers don’t follow through, and it turns out to be a tease when another protagonist states, “All boundaries are conventions.” This second statement seems to be saying that boundaries are social constructs, determined through consensus by society. But
this would seem to cause the writers’ objection to slavery to evaporate, since many societies have accepted slavery in the past. Hence, the boundary prohibiting slavery cannot be considered inviolate. Ironically, the heroine who utters the line about the fluidity of boundaries asks in bewilderment just a few minutes later, “Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over?”
The writers’ statement about truth sets up another contradiction. Truth, by definition, imposes boundaries that cut across all geographical, cultural and temporal lines.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “truth” as follows:
1 archaic: fidelity, constancy
2 a (1): the state of being the case: fact 2): the body of real things, events, and facts: actuality 3) often capitalized: a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality
The writers recognize truth, judging by the first statement above, and also judging by their condemnation of slavery, which is pronounced in spite of the implicit contradiction. Whatever the writer’s imagined source of truth is, it is almost sure to be something that was conceived by humans, since no God is mentioned or implied.
Nevertheless, some wrongs are deemed universal, as when another character states, “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” Here is acknowledgement that right and wrong exist, that we have a responsibility to others and that actions have eternal consequences. It is an eloquent proclamation, and the writers may well have thought they had come up with an original thought. To be sure, the statement is refreshing given the no-account cultural climate of our time. But the Apostle Paul said it more simply: “Whoever sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction. But whoever sows to please the Spirit from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:8) Not that the writers of Cloud Atlas would acknowledge human accountability to God, nor suggest limitations on the pursuit of sensual pleasure. One of the co-writers, Lana Wachowski, used to be Larry Wachowski until a few years ago.
Still, we are encouraged to see certain transcendental truths and to identify some acts as crimes. However, the “all boundaries are conventions” comment seems to discourage the naming of actual crimes. Apparently, the script writers are enlightened enough to identify them for us. In language and symbolism that comes across with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, oppression is implied to be any limitation of individual autonomy. The slave trade is waved about as a symbol to convey the monstrosity of external constraints on personal freedoms. It is implied that people are good; that we possess moral compasses that are internal, true and trustworthy; and that we have sufficient strength to live morally upstanding lives. Here is another colossal irony that goes over the Wachowski’s heads: everyone should have personal autonomy…except for evil people. Never mind that “evil” people might call their predilections “good.” With no transcendent principles, “good” and “evil” come down to a difference of opinion. No relationship is recognized between the human desire to make our own rules and the depravity of the criminal.
Naturally, if we were ever to identify a transcendent Order that governs everything in the universe, we would be back on the hook. Truth is inconvenient. It is uncomfortable. Pursuing it requires effort, patience — and most of all, courage. What we discover will demand change from us. Most sobering of all, the choice before us isn’t a matter of if, but of when. We can postpone our reckoning with truth, but we can’t avoid it forever.
Alas, the enchantment of this age defies reason and is impervious to the strongest argument. Only the grace of God can break up this daydreamers convention. I have to remind myself regularly that I have only dodged the soporific bullet through God’s revelation to me, not because of any virtue of my own. The order of the day is to pray for friends, neighbors and family members who still slumber. For as much as they fancy themselves to be individuals, each one of them is a conformist, marching to the beat of a single dark drum.
But though Lucifer has the world under his thumb for now, we know the end of the story. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness, but he is longsuffering toward you, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (1 Pet. 3:9)