A key dynamic in our present epistemological crisis is the way truth has moved from being a matter of reason to a matter of feeling. Rather than something discovered through logical discourse in community, truth is now—to many people—discovered primarily through felt experience as individuals. What matters most is whether I feel something to be true for me, and this only has implications for others insofar as they must respect the viability of “my truth” and not threaten it with “their truth.”
It used to be that if another’s understanding of truth conflicted with yours, you could engage with and entertain their view, potentially letting it challenge and adjust your own view (and vice versa). Not anymore. Now, if another’s understanding of truth challenges yours, you mute them, cancel them, accuse them of bigotry, or—as President Trump is prone to do—resort to childish name-calling on Twitter.
Spend any amount of time on social media and you’ll see this in action. Recently, for example, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling shared a few tweets that asserted the biological reality of sex (male and female) and made the modest argument that, “Erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.” She added, “It isn’t hate to speak the truth,” and “My life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.” But the social media mob disagreed, finding Rowling’s grasp of truth hateful and “transphobic.” Rather than engage the substance of Rowling’s reasoning, critics demonized the author or simply replied with their own assertion that “trans women are women,” as if saying it enough times made it true and automatically refuted Rowling’s logic.
Whether on Twitter or in The New York Times newsroom, we are increasingly prone to want to shut down debate or silence ideas when they make us uncomfortable. This shift is a powerful dynamic in our post-truth trajectory, and one that Christians—who of all people should care about contending for and preserving truth—should be careful to navigate.
Evangelicals have been complicit in this trajectory. It isn’t just secular progressives who tend to mute differing voices or avoid encountering “threatening” ideas. Many conservative Christians do the same thing. In the 20th century, fundamentalist fears of “worldly” ideas led many evangelical parents, pastors, and institutions to shield their children, parishioners, and students from wide swaths of potentially hazardous influences. To be sure, we’ve cultivated our own “safe spaces.” Accusations of evangelical anti-intellectualism are thus often—though not always—warranted.
Meanwhile, much of evangelical Christianity has emphasized the therapeutic and emotive experience of faith above the theological ideas that undergird it. Poor catechesis and avoidance of difficult doctrine means that for many Christians, religious identity is only as secure as the feelings that accompany it—which is to say, not secure at all. When difficult questions arise and one is forced to wrestle with the intellectual scaffolding of belief, the house of cards collapses, as we see often in deconversion accounts. Untrained in the art of logic, reasonable discourse, and articulating what they believe, many evangelicals turn out to be just as fragile as the secular “snowflakes” they critique.
The allure of “safetyism” and assumption of fragility tempts both the secular left and also the religious right. We all tend to prefer the comfort of bubbles and echo chambers to the oft-chaotic, exhausting heterodoxy of the village green. Further, the glut of bad news and anger that bombards us each day online makes it reasonable for people to want to avoid additional triggers—especially minorities whose lives in majority spaces are already traumatic enough. Sometimes it’s easier to just mute the voices that make our blood boil.
But if we are going to make progress as a society—and for Christians, as missionaries and advocates for the capital “t” Truth—we can’t avoid discomfort. Truth must be contended for, and that process will inevitably be contentious.
Three Ways to Gently Contend for Truth
Even as we admit that the pursuit of truth will not be comfortable, Christians should be mindful of not causing unnecessary discomfort in how we contend for truth. There has to be a middle ground between being an online jerk on one side—only interested in “owning” an opposing voice—or a hyper-sensitive snowflake on the other, with no tolerance for their views being challenged.
Here are three ways Christians can be both bold and also gentle in how we speak and seek the truth.
1. Watch your tone.
Some truths will be traumatic to certain people regardless of how they are presented. The most winsome, loving presentation of a biblical sex ethic, for example, will still be accused of being hateful, bigoted, and threatening by many. Still, one’s tone can go a long way toward creating space for difficult ideas to be heard and rationally engaged. An aggressive delivery will naturally be met with a defensive response. But a logical and loving delivery, couched in empathetic understanding, gentleness, and respect (1 Pet. 3:15), might be met with an openness to dialogue.
Tone can go a long way toward creating space for difficult ideas to be heard and rationally engaged.
Imagine if Jesus, in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, led with “you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18). The conversation might have ended there, putting her on the immediate defensive. Jesus didn’t shy away from that hard stuff, but he didn’t start there. He began with a tone of invitation, not accusation. His tone made it possible for her to receive his truth.
2. Don’t just teach. Be teachable.
Part of why so much truth-telling goes nowhere in contemporary debates is because the truth-tellers are only telling. They are teachers who refuse to be teachable. In the chorus of loud, proud, confident commentary from self-proclaimed “experts,” a person who speaks truth with a posture of humility, listening, and learning stands out. The “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19) approach doesn’t mean we never speak or become angry. It just means we are quicker to listen—even when what we are listening to is hard to hear.
It’s crucial that Christians don’t fall into the worldly trap of ignoring or silencing facts or arguments simply because they challenge our paradigm. “In a post-truth age,” Abdu Murray writes, “if the evidence fits our preferences and opinions, then all is well and good. If it doesn’t, then the evidence is deemed inadmissible or offensive, with offense being a kind of solvent against otherwise sound arguments.” When Christians are faced with sound arguments on another side of a contested issue—even if those arguments trigger us and cause emotional strain—we ought not avoid or attack. We ought to listen and engage. This is part of what it means both to love God with all our minds, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).
3. Remember, you can disagree on some things without disagreeing on everything.
There is a weird instinct in today’s debates to respond to any critique with some combination of (1) thinking the absolute worst about someone, (2) labeling them hateful, (3) assuming that because they differ with you on this thing, there can be no common ground at all. But this symptom of our fragility only amplifies society’s prevailing climate of defensiveness and distrust. Did you know it’s actually possible to read something and agree with some, but not all, of it? That it’s possible to listen to someone and entertain their ideas without assenting to all of them? That it’s possible to stand side-by-side with a person on behalf of some cause, without seeing eye-to-eye on every cause?
It’s possible to stand side-by-side with a person on behalf of some cause, without seeing eye-to-eye on every cause.
Reformed Christians of all people should recognize the reality of common grace—that people who are quite wrong about some things can be right about other things. Loving our neighbors well means we seek areas of agreement, even as we don’t downplay our areas of disagreement. Christians should resist the partisan extremism that says you’re either with us on everything or totally anathema. We of all people need to model a more nuanced approach, where we can, for example, advocate for both free speech and also a legitimate care for social justice.
Make Persuasion Great Again
Society is nearing a frightening tipping point. We have all but given up on the possibility of persuasion—the idea that logical reasoning can actually lead someone to change their mind; that we can collectively discover the truth, not just your truth and my truth. But if we give up on persuasion, all that’s left is power. This is why politics has become a new religion. Having given up on the prospect of transcendent truth, we pin our hopes on political power. Everything hinges on getting our leader or party in power, so people are forced to affirm or live according to our truth. Sadly, many Christians are functionally atheists in this regard; they’ve thrown in the towel on contending for truth, opting instead to just claw for power.
But this approach doesn’t change minds. It doesn’t lead anyone to the freedom that comes from knowing the truth (John 8:32). It’s nihilistic and dangerous, and it will only escalate the violence of our culture wars. Far more important than making America—or any nation or regime or movement—“great” again is the task of making gentle persuasion great again, for what’s at stake is bigger than any temporary political gain. What’s at stake is truth itself.