Sunday, 15 January 2017

Wise Men in a Post-Truth Society

by Tom Fairman

My Dad has a saying or his children have a saying for him: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. As the Magi or Wise Men from the East come at the Epiphany to herald the end of Christmas time, self-proclaimed wise men have come and affected elections this year to herald the end of a “truth society” and taken this saying for themselves. If the Magi were in a post-truth world, would they have had much luck in finding Jesus and lifting the veil for the nations to see the truth?
So much has been said about the definition of post-truth that a short reminder from Wikipedia, no irony intended, should suffice. They define post-truth as a culture which appeals more to emotions than to facts, one built upon the aftermath of a bruising EU referendum and US election. Voters were often left scrambling in the dark for the facts that were hidden from them, relying more on the stories they were told than statistics they could compare. How could anyone be expected to find the truth when their searches were deliberately hindered by both sides during the election process?
The Magi searched in a similar fashion: they followed a star to Bethlehem. The star is often visualised as a sat-nav that the Magi had programmed to find the new-born King of the Jews, a notion which says more about our current disposition to rely on instant, internet searches to remove doubt rather than an ability to search through logical trials and errors. However the star provided an anchor, a foundation upon which to build. We all possess a foundation of beliefs that belong to us, sub-consciously held unless challenged, beliefs that guide us through life to an ultimate goal; such things as being comfortable financially, living for today or treating everyone equally. For the Magi, the belief that the star heralded the arrival of a new King, a changing of the world order, drove them to travel great distances to arrive at Jerusalem. The underlying truth for them was to believe a king would be born that was worthy of their gifts and worship; a true king whom the could pay true homage to.
Logically, the Magi went to ask for help on their search from some experts, some guardians of the truth; the current king and his chief priests. Surely they would have seen the signs as well and would have found the new born king already? It is an assumption that is full of logic and although they did not know at first, it did not take long for the chief priests to find the answer. Our own relationship with experts is fraught in our post-truth world and understandably so as we have lost an appreciation for true wisdom. Wisdom was a trait that was earned, the highest measure of respect and usually was attributed to elders in a society and yet the people we turn to for advice are the ones offered to us at the top of some search results or who are popular at the time in our Facebook news feed. Maybe our issue is not with expert advice but with who we call experts in the first place.
The Magi are then left to their own instincts to try and find Jesus and turn back to the star; they rely again upon their own truths to guide them. Eventually they find Him and pay Him homage, the one who calls himself the Way, the Truth and the Life. Their journey has been to find truth itself and is an interesting parallel with Pilate’s discussion with Jesus regarding truth in John’s Gospel. The truth they find leads them to worship, draws an emotional response from them. It is a long journey to finally get to Jesus, but their humble reaction is a true, emotional response. Herod’s response is full of emotion as well when the Magi do not return to him; a genocide ordered out of anger and fear. Truth will always elicit an emotional response from us when we encounter it as, by its nature, it either challenges or supports our existing beliefs, our foundations.
We are hard wired to fit new facts into our existing understanding of the world, to try to make sense of all we see. In this sense, we have always been in a post-truth society, relying on stories and emotions to protect and discover truth. We are constantly trying to establish a narrative for the world, a coherent story and will colour facts and observations to fit the narrative we have chosen. It is one reason why truths were shared in stories, passed on through generations, because people remember stories. Even if the stories weren’t true, we could understand the message through the emotions within it. For example our emotions are used to help us remember the truths our parents want us to know when trying to keep us safe as we grow up.
However truth can elicit different emotions in different people. The truth that is Jesus caused a different response in King Herod to the Magi; it caused them to write different versions of the truth for themselves. Did it cause different truths to exist? No, only their interpretations and their experiences differed. The search to find the truth will continue even in our post-truth society.as it is a search that began in a post-truth society; the real mystery is who has the wisdom to help us on our journey.

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