In 2005 Stephen Colbert launched a new word into the common vocabulary of North America during the premier episode of the Colbert Report. Only one year later this word would be deemed the “Word of the Year” by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. How does a word go from its first utterance on a popular TV show to word of the year that quickly? It must resonate with a large portion of the population, and become used in many different mediums. This word that Colbert created to describe what he saw happening in the world today, is none other than truthiness.
Colbert defined truthiness as the belief that a statement is true based upon the intuition or perceptions of the listener, regardless of any logic, intellectual examination, or facts that are contrary to the statement.
What’s fascinating, is that Colbert accurately recognized and promoted an entirely new ‘third category’ of truth. Now I’m sure we can look back through history and find the concept in many other decades and times, but in our recent memory and current culture, Colbert has the unique distinction of bringing this back into the common vernacular.
Allow me to give a two sentence recap of objective and subjective truth before I make the comparison to truthiness truth. An objective truth is something that is true no matter what a person’s experience is. For example, the statement; “humans need oxygen to survive” is objectively true because it is always true regardless of what we may believe on the subject.
A subjective truth is something that is true based upon one’s personal experience, e.g. “Starbucks is better coffee than Tim Hortons.” Now just take a beat and put down your pitchfork. remember that I said this is subjectively true, not objectively true. This is true for me based on my personal experiences and preferences. But if I try to force my subjective truth onto you as an objective truth, then I’ve crossed the line from truth into falsehood.
Then there’s the third category of what Stephen Colbert called ”truthiness,” a statement that purely feels true, but can have no basis in objective—or even subjective—truth. An example of this would be if I really passionately said to you “Sharks are the most dangerous animal in the world, they’re big, powerful, fast, can sniff out blood from miles away, and have jaws designed to tear flesh apart to maim and kill.” This might feel true, and maybe I’ve convinced you to accept this as true, but in reality the simple mosquito is way more dangerous to human life. (The World Health Organization estimates that 725,000 people per year die of mosquito borne diseases each year, a lot higher than the 6-8 deaths worldwide due to sharks.)
So if our world is constantly shouting a mix of objective, subjective, and truthiness truth at us, how do we figure out the difference so that we can be informed and educated?
I wish there was a simple test that I could give you that would figure it out and give you a green, yellow, or red light answer, but no such thing exists. Instead we have to discern and wrestle through the information we are presented with to decide what is true and what is false.
Discernment (the act of deciding what is true and what is not), can be difficult, but it is vitally important to having a clear understanding of the world. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but the current state of politics and world affairs is certainly bringing it to the forefront.
If we go all the way back in time to the New Testament letter to the Hebrew believers, we see this tension already happening. The recipients of this letter were a group of early Christians who were considering renouncing their faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour, and returning to Judaism. After laying out the initial evidence for why Jesus is the Messiah in chapters 1 to 5, chapter 5 ends with this statement:
There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong. - Hebrews 5:11-14 NLT (emphasis added)
I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to be called “spiritually dull” and told that I “don’t seem to listen.” These words are a harsh rebuke, but the reason for this rebuke is that the recipients have not grown in maturity.
The effect of maturity is plainly laid out in verse 14: Mature believers are ones who have learned the skill of deciding between right and wrong, or in other words, between true and false.
Knowing the differences between what is true and false is not something that instantly happens. Discerning truth takes training and that it needs to be regarded as a skill to be developed with time and practice. We can’t just wake up one day and expect to instantly be able to cut through all the noise, falsehoods, and truthiness in the world to get to truth all by itself.
Part of the process of growing in our discernment of truth, means that we will encounter truth that makes us reevaluate our previously held beliefs and understandings. Sometimes our old view is simply wrong and must be replaced, or maybe it was just incomplete and will become resilient as we learn more about the topic at hand.
So how do we actually take steps to move forward to maturity and growing our skill as people who discern the truth?
I don’t think I have all the answers, but there are some common starting points that I hope you’ll consider acting on in your daily life.
1. If we want to see truth in the world, then we need to be truth.
Instead of starting with other people who may be spreading false content, start with your own actions. Ask this question: When I say something, post something, or write something, am I being truthful?
Take social media for example: We can’t control the actions of other people, nor can we control what other people or organizations say, post, or share. So say this with me: “I am not the internet truth police.”
But what I can do, is make sure that everything I say, write, post, and share online is true. Being an internet truth warrior who calls out and attacks content online, even if it is a blatant lie, rarely gets results. Sharing and promoting truth will always be more effective than attacking and tearing down what is false.
2. When we encounter ‘truth’ that makes us scratch our heads, ask questions that will get us to the truth.
Remember what Hebrews said about discerning right from wrong and true from false; this is a learned skill that is achieved through growing to maturity. When someone makes a statement, (be it in person, a blog, a tweet, or a Facebook post) that you feel unsure about, take the time to research it and get to the bottom of it. Asking questions and seeking out answers is how we learn, and as we learn we grow.
Part of asking questions is considering the source that the information comes from, and looking for collaborating sources. With how vast the internet is, it’s highly unlikely you’re the first person to ever ask this question. And as you dig toward the bottom and find truth, don’t be afraid of nuance. The truth we work toward may not be as simple and catchy as the tweet that gets reshared thousands of times. This means it will take effort to get past the sound bites, and into more thorough treatments of the truth.
If you want to avoid bias, look for multiple sources from different perspectives. If you’re looking into a news item, find multiple sources from different organizations and filter them against each other.
3. When dealing with social media, pause and ask: Does this need to be shared?*
This comes back to my first point about needing to be truthful if we want to see truth in the world. When it comes to social media we can click the share or retweet buttons in a fraction of a second, but if we pause to ask “am I promoting truth by sharing this post?” We could make a huge difference in the content that gets shared to our friends and family each day.
*Editor’s Note: Unless it’s from Bold Cup of Coffee, then it’s always good to share.
4. Don’t be a jerk.
Being a jerk is rarely equated with maturity. Even when someone is completely true and right about what they are saying, if they are offensive and a jerk about it, no one is likely to listen to them.
Now you might want to respond by saying “but isn’t it the most loving and caring thing to point out when other people are wrong?” Well yes, but this is only partially true. The true test of if you are being loving in your actions if the recipient feels loved by your actions. You may have all the best intentions in the world of being loving and honest, but if you’re a jerk about it, then no one will listen.
Remember this: We will have a greater influence in our culture by being truthful, than we will by tearing down untruths.
I hope that this gives you some framework and deciding what is true, and some first steps you can try in your daily life. Discerning what is true and what is false is a skill that is getting increasingly more important in the pace of today’s world. It will take effort on your part, but the result of that work can shape our world for the better.
Brian's whole understanding of faith and Christianity changed when he started to encounter what it means to live life with God instead of for God. One thing that Brian is passionate about is walking with people as they explore their faith in Christ and learning how to honestly seek God in the midst of our doubts and fears. Brian is the Pastor of Grand Valley Community Church in Brandon Manitoba. He is married to Nikki and they have one daughter named Olivia. When Brian isn't working on a sermon at a Starbucks or at home with his family, you can usually find him fly fishing or building model air planes. To read more of Brian's articles, click here.
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