To be human means to recognize the truth, but also to want things that are at least not yet true. When we have a need, or a desire, it means that the truth is different from what we want it to be. But what happens when we confuse the two? Our wants can be very strong and clear to us, but the truth is not always clear: it can be confusing, or poorly known. Sometimes it is not obvious, it needs to be uncovered. When the truth is unclear and what is wanted is strong and clear, it can become a real temptation to pretend that the truth is what we want it to be, rather than put in the effort to find out what it is. For some of us, with perhaps a less optimistic view on life, the temptation can instead be believing what we fear rather than what we want, but similar principles hold. Either way, because of this temptation, we need ways to help ensure that we keep seeking until we uncover the actual truth, rather than settling for believing what we want to believe. One way of doing this is to check with our community. If we think it is true, and the community think it is true, it is probably true. Or is it?
Sometimes this is right, but not always. It depends on the community. If the community is wise, diverse, and committed to truth, yes, the community will be helpful in uncovering the truth. Such communities have many different people with many different wants, and when we have the temptation to believe what we want rather than what is true, there will often be wise people in those communities who will not be subject to temptation for that particular thing, and will better be able to see and accept the truth about it.
However, some communities are built around shared wants. Social media, where internet platforms try to connect people with similar wants and views, can support and amplify such communities. Communities built around shared wants may well have most if not all of its members subject to the temptation to believe the “want”, rather than the truth. Often instead of correcting the temptation, the community reinforces it, creating a fiction as a substitute for the truth. Worse, it may well turn those fictions into badges of membership: those who do not accept these things as if they were truth cannot be part of the community. The community may create new language that describes the things that are wanted as if they were true. Use of that language may be strictly required, and use of reality-based language may be punished. A community like this, when it is built around shared wants that conflict with reality, will not be a good guide to the truth: quite the contrary. It may become a tribe, warring with other tribes for dominance, and in so doing, actively go to war against the truth.
Sometimes people describe situations like this using terms like “conflicting truths”. When describing the point of view of conflicting tribes, this language is perhaps acceptable when used to mean “what each conflicting tribe claims is true”, but it is a bit slippery, because it pretends that all the claims are “truths”. But a truth is a truth not because it is believed as if it were true, but because it is actually true. For instance, I can have a belief about a door being open, someone else can have a belief about that door being closed, but the actual state of the door is what matters when it comes time to walk through it. If the door is really open, the person believing it is open is stating a fact. If the door is really closed, the person believing it is open is stating a fiction. Of course the door could be ajar, which would make things a bit more complicated, but the principle holds: the actual state of the door matters. To pretend it doesn’t matter whether things are fact or fiction is foolishness: of course it matters, sometimes very much, even “life or death”.
This is not to say that fictions are always bad and facts are always better. There are places where fictions belong: when everyone understands that they are fictions and relies on them to explore possibilities or to entertain, there are times when we embrace small fictions to smooth over social interactions, and there are also times when peoples’ weaknesses make it impossible for them to fully embrace the truth in some difficult area of their lives: for their own safety, there are situations where some limited fiction may need to be maintained. But none of these things mean that fact and fiction are the same; they are very different.
This becomes even more complicated when we consider Christianity. Christians know that Jesus and his life, death and resurrection are facts, not fictions: they happened in an actual time and place, with many witnesses and world-transforming effects. But many human beings in the world do not accept this, and to such people, Christians are just another tribe. Because of this, there are two dangers that need to be avoided.
The first danger comes from recognizing the risks of behaving like a tribe and overcompensating, pretending that some (perhaps difficult) aspects of the Christian faith are really useful fictions rather than fact. This has perhaps been the approach of some Christians in modern times, in an attempt to build common ground with the modern non-Christian world. But the result is that Christianity withers away entirely. In my view, if the good news about Jesus is not fact, then Christianity is a fiction, and not even a useful one: without Jesus rising from the dead, it’s just a failed movement with a defeated leader: it is a mistake. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” [1 Cor 15:17] But if it is fact, it is transformative fact, the most important fact in human history, it is life and death.
The second danger is to act like a tribe. When Christians realize the importance of the gospel, it leads to mostly good things: commitment, devotion, joy, and clarity. But sometimes it leads to some bad things too. The importance of the Christian message can sometimes lead to zeal overcoming wisdom. After all, it is urgent and important, so slow and patient seems inadequate. But hasty and rash can be far worse, because that is typical tribal behavior, shown when tribes war with opposing tribes, trying to assert their dominance. It risks becoming all about winning, not about truth.
Because the truth is important, and the Christian truth is especially important, it is exactly the reason to be careful, to be prayerful, to rely on Jesus’ guidance and not our own sense of urgency or anxiety. Yes, Christianity is true, so each of us should live out its truth in our lives. But how we communicate is important, if we want others to realize the truth. We cannot be a tribe, warring with other tribes to impose our view. It cannot be about winning. Instead, we need a Christian community that lives and shares the truth, one full of wisdom, one that welcomes those who seek the truth. This is the sort of Christian community we should strive to build. Such a community can be relied upon to be a good check against the temptation we all face, the temptation of believing what we want instead of believing what is true.