So, Is Truth Dead?
This week, the weekly news magazine ‘Time’ went with the front page cover caption ‘Is Truth Dead?’ as you can see. Now the story itself is, as you might imagine, all about Donald Trump’s presidency, specifically, his approach to the ‘Truth’. The article outlines a whole string of outright false claims that the president has made, from ‘wire tapping’ accusations, to make-believe terrorist attacks in Sweden, to massive scale voter fraud, to accusing opponents of being behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination… The list goes on and on. A list of groundless inflammatory claims. The reason for all these falsehoods, we might imagine, is misdirection. Could it be intentional misdirection, or could he really believe what he says? After all this strategy of building a haze of falsehoods is outlined in his book published in the 80s called ‘The Art of the Deal’. If you accuse a former president of espionage, the media is going to focus on that, as opposed to the finer details of any policy you’re enacting. It would be quite a clever strategy – each time a provocative claim gets made, you have a group of ill-informed people on one side making a lot of noise, saying it must be true, and another group on the other side, arguing just as ferociously that it’s of course nonsense, while all the while, what really matters, the nitty gritty policy stuff, gets very little attention at all.
Now Time magazine avoids using the word ‘lies’, when talking about Donald Trump’s falsehoods, and there is a reason for that. You see, we cannot know the intentions at play. If indeed there is a smoke and mirrors strategy in play, then they are lies, but if these false claims are actually believed by Trump, then they are not lies, but rather arise from a place of ignorance. The article concludes that the problem with such a Machiavellian strategy, if indeed it is an intentional strategy, is it’s one thing for a businessman to operate in this fashion – he only risks his own credibility. But for the president to do likewise risks the credibility of the United States, and more than that, undermines America’s moral position in the world. It’s difficult for America to trade on its name, as the land of the free, and home of the brave, when the first thing America conjures in our minds is its politics, brimming with falsehoods or lies. So, that’s my outline of the article. Time magazine is, however, doing something much more clever, which it never actually alluded to in the article, and it comes back to this front cover caption ‘Is Truth Dead?’. Note the typeface, the red lettering on the black background. Now, Time magazine rarely deviates from having their front cover be a portrait of someone brilliant, infamous, notable in one way or another, be they a politician, a humanitarian or a celebrity. The magazine has been running since the 1920s, and in that time has featured everyone from Princess Diana to Adolf Hitler, from Einstein to Marilyn Monroe. The very first time the magazine didn’t feature a portrait on the front cover was in April 1966, and instead of going with a portrait, they went with this striking and infamous caption - ‘Is God Dead?’. Note that apart from the word ‘God’ being substituted for ‘Truth’, the front covers are practically identical. Now what does this tell us? One man’s Truth is another man’s lie. One man’s God is another man’s fairy-tale.
In William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ we are given an image of the transcendent Jesus, an image which exceeds, and goes well beyond the Bible. Jesus, in Blake’s poetry, becomes more than a first century man, he becomes a symbol for something far greater, a symbol of the very breadth of the human imagination. Now, this is a very important move that Blake makes. Whenever we as Unitarians talk about Jesus, who was Jesus, we often fall down the rabbit hole of asking very matter of fact questions, affirming the fact that of course he was a man, who lived 2000 years ago, a man who was a great teacher and prophet, a man who lived unselfishly, in a loving and charitable fashion. We naturally get so side-tracked by these types of ‘facts’, that we can miss the poetic significance of Jesus the symbol. For in contrast to Blake’s ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ Jerusalem asks us to beg the question, what if the people of this pleasant land could live into the full breadth of the human imagination, live out of the symbolic significance of Jesus in the here and now, with all the creative, love inspired freedom that image conjures? William Blake’s family were dissenters, and so Blake’s religious views were developed outside the established church, in the far more exciting atmosphere of inspiration and revelation. Out of this context sprung his radical Christian views. Indeed, his views were so radical and revolutionary in tone, he would have certainly gone to prison had he not concealed his opinions cryptically within his poetry and art. It’s with this Blaken perspective, looking through a creative, mythological lens, that we are to approach the question, ‘Is God Dead?’. This hypothetical question is often taken as a shorthand way of saying God does not exist, or as a way to mock the faithful, but really this is missing point.
The Death of God movement of the 1960s, which was principally led by the theologian (who I have mentioned before) Thomas J J Altizer, was not simply dismissing God. Far from it, he was just articulating a fact about the way society at large, and we as individuals, have come to understand God. Many people, maybe even most people, go through an arc in their understanding of God over the course of their lifetime. When they are younger, perhaps in their 20s or 30s, they understand God in quite literal and concrete terms, as an actual being out there, a being that, if you close your eyes and pray, can hear you. A being that maybe even intervenes in the course of human history, standing on the side of the good and the true. As we mature spiritually, for many of us this idea of God in some sense falls away. Either the term broadens considerably, to the point where God becomes a catch all word for our best intentions, or our highest ideals, or, it becomes more mystical, and we become less willing to try and pin it down to any one thing. Or, it simply drops away entirely, and God-language is left completely divorced from supernaturalism. In a sense then, for us as individuals, for us subjectively, God dies. God was once a being that inhabited the skies, and then he does not. To say God dies is not to say that God really did once inhabit the celestial realms, and then he literally died, and now he does not. It’s a poetic way of expressing how we may have experienced God personally being present in our lives, and then, being wrenched away from our lives. I think, in a way, if you haven’t experienced this, it’s almost impossible to explain it. For some of you I’m sure, you may never have entertained the notion of the supernatural God in the sky to begin with. As such, God language has always been metaphorical, and so there has never been any great sense of loss. You have never subjectively or intuitively experienced the death of God. But perhaps for most of us, God has gone through this profound transformation of going from at first something which hangs over us, to a metaphorical way of expressing the love and spirit which dwells within us.
I find Jesus’ death a very interesting topic to ponder. I think, in many ways, Unitarians don’t really know what to do with Jesus’ death. If, in our matter of fact way, we say Jesus was just a man, a good teacher, and so on, his death becomes little more than the tragic end of a good man. And that is slightly odd, as of course Jesus’ death was the driving impetus behind the whole Christian faith, and we’re left being able to say very little about it. I think Blake helps us solve this problem. In Blake, we can take Jesus to be a symbol, a poetic representation of something more than he was, to be a symbol of the divine, or a symbol of truth. In this way, we are no longer really talking about the historical man Jesus who lived 2000 years ago, we’re now thinking of Jesus the symbol, we’re thinking of Jesus in mythological or poetic terms. Through this Blaken lens, then, Jesus’ death can be taken as the death of a symbol. A symbol of truth dying, or a symbol of the divine dying. So, in the same way as we mature spiritually, a traditional supernatural conception of God dies for us. On the cross God dies to himself. We are liberated from the archaic, dictatorial God, which oppressively hangs over us. For this God dies upon the cross
So, Is Truth Dead? Is God Dead? In a certain respect, capital ‘T’ Truth is not dead, because it has never been alive. In the same way, capital ‘G’ God is not dead, because he too has never been alive. But, subjectively or intuitively, at an individual, or at a societal, or even at a geopolitical level we experience their demise afresh. And we certainly experience the death of Truth afresh in Donald Trump. In his baffling, haphazard, and contradictory approach to the presidency, we are reminded that truth is not located in noble offices, it’s not held by politicians, presidents, or monarchs. It’s not even held by God. The spirit of truth, the spirit of love, and the spirit of God is located in one place, and one place alone, within you. By recognising that Truth and God are not in any sense external forces bearing down upon us, we can truly appreciate the freedom our faith affords us. And this is the counter-intuitive point - of course you are free, but it takes the Death of Truth and the Death of God to truly grasp the depth of our freedom.