Our country started imperfectly but idealistically. After an ugly rebellion, bloodshed, heartache, and self-doubt, the founding fathers put forth great effort to sow the seeds of freedom and justice into the very structure of our government.
Over time, through three independent branches of government working towards one unifying end, issues could be confronted thoughtfully, soberly, using wide consultation and often vigorous debate. The hope was that certain unchanging principles coupled with these instruments would allow our beloved country to continuously adjust, improve, and adapt as time marched on. Through our institutions, we could eventually heal ourselves.
Life in America has never been perfect. In every age, there have been injustices, conspiracies, and controversies. This is not unique to America; it is part of the human condition. Yet in America, because we had inherited these noble institutional mechanisms, hope remained. So long as the republic contained within itself a critical mass of virtuous citizens committed more to the common good than to privileging any particular sect, group, or class, then the structures through which we grapple with self-governance could still yield improvement.
Today, I have my doubts. We live in a country that in the span of only a few generations has suddenly lost any kind of right understanding of objective truth – as the founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence, “…of the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Today, the prevailing understanding of truth is that it is something purely subjective. This is no small matter.
Today, there has emerged this new idea that you and I supposedly have some kind of power to create whatever truth we want. This, of course, not only opens the door to logical self-contradictions, it very clearly contradicts objective reality itself. You’re not George Washington even if you think you’re George Washington and “claim this as your truth.” Simple people see this. Grounded people see this. People connected to the earth and nature really see this. Sophisticates, distracted people, and afflicted people often do not.
What we have is a crisis of truth.
In all human communities, freedom is built upon personal and collective responsibilities. These responsibilities always rely upon truth. Our greatest problem today is not simply that we have lost any meaningful concept of truth. No, it’s worse than that. Our greatest problem is that 1) we don’t know that truth is something objective to be discovered; and 2) we no longer have adequate tools to do the work of discovery.
Let that sink in. We don’t understand that truth needs to be discovered… and yet everything of consequence depends on this one thing!
The discovery of truth does not come cheaply. It requires diligence, patience, nuance, thoughtful consideration, and intellectual humility. To actually discover truth and not merely “win” an argument, it is enormously helpful to be able to presume the good will and sincerity of one’s discussion partner. But today our public discourse is largely carried out on Twitter. News and opinion media have become reactionary and overly polemical. Even our so-called presidential debates take on the form of a cheap tv game show. How helpful is that? Complex questions cannot be answerd in one minute sound bytes. It is folly to even try.
A crisis of truth leads to a crisis of love.
The loss of truth has led to the particularly harmful notion that your disagreement with one of my ideas is somehow disrespectful of me as a human being. Tragically, in 2019 America, “disagreement” equals “hate” to a lot of people.
But what if you truly love me?
To love is to will the good of another person. If I hold an opinion that is not rooted in truth, then that opinion can be quite harmful to me and to the people I influence. Isn’t the most loving act to help me discover the truth? Yes, this might require a discussion, debate, or argument. Prudence dictates that such discussions occur at the right time, in the right place, and with appropriate people. But the premise of these kinds of honest disagreements and discussions is love. To neglect such conversations with people you supposedly love (or even with the culture at large) is to not really love and care about them at all.
Where are the tools to fix this?
When I was a young boy, my dad gave me a shovel. Therefore I dug deep holes in the backyard just for fun. It was the natural thing to do with a shovel. When he gave me a golf club I began to strike golf balls. The tools we have readily at hand will almost always determine what we do and how we spend our time. (As MaCluhan and Postman have pointed out, “The medium becomes the message.”)
But where are the tools we need to restore our sanity? Our classrooms have speech codes. Big businesses too. Our porches, pubs, coffee shops – even our kitchen tables – have become overrun with all sorts of electronic devices that impede long and meaningful conversations. Who reads philosophy anymore? Who carefully examines history from multiple perspectives? Who routinely talks about things that truly matter? Where can we turn to do these things without getting sidetracked into vindictive, counterproductive arguments full of slogans and cliches? How can we thoughtfully ground our lives in truth that we discover together?
The air we breathe is so toxic that it overwhelms us. Everyone is worried about being taken down from behind. Say something wrong or imprecise? Get brutally beaten by the social media mob! Yes, there are rare and occasional venues for safe truth seeking, but they are so few and far between that their impact seems minimal. Instead, we mostly avoid talking about important things altogether.
Today is a day for Americans to reflect.
Today I truly wish to celebrate. Deep down, I feel an emotional attachment to the flag, to the stories of our history, to the sacrifices so many people have made for this great and noble 243 year-old project of virtuous self-governance. But as I reflect, mostly I feel sad and disappointed. At this particular moment I’m utterly disgusted by Trump’s detention camp conditions and his ostentatious military parade. I’m horrified by the scary menu of extremist Democrat presidential challengers. I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with family and friends who span the spectrum politically. It just depends on the topic and the nuance of the argument.
What I don’t see is a large enough critical mass of thoughtful and virtuous citizens in our country. (Virtue? What is virtue?) I know many warm and wonderful individual people, but I don’t see much awareness of this profound crisis of truth in our midst. I certainly don’t see much sanity, sincerity, and good will among political opponents. Perhaps most alarmingly, I don’t see the cultural tools we need to have these good things emerge. I don’t see the cultural tools we need to heal ourselves.
We Americans have inherited a great and noble project, but we have squandered our inheritance. America is in a crisis. Acknowledging this truth is the first painful step forward.
Conclusion: On what do I base my hope?
This may sound like a hopeless conclusion. I assure you that it is not. I live today with tremendous hope. But my hope is not rooted in displays of American superiority, or jockeying politicians, or advancing technology, or a healthy economy, or success in my chosen occupation, or even in the good will of my fellow travelers on this journey of life. My hope is solid and unwavering. It brings me joy in the midst of pain. It brings me confidence in the midst of fear because it is greater than all of those things.
It is what it is and it is not myself. It is the Truth.
The Truth will set you free.
(Comments welcome below)