There’s truth, and then there’s truthiness. At least that’s what we learned from Stephen Colbert in the days of yore when he came to us on TV via “The Colbert Report.”
“Truthiness” is that kind of information that sounds like a rock-solid truth or is proclaimed like a rock-solid truth but in reality is not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And we all perpetuate truthiness from time to time because we just can’t bring ourselves to admit that we were flat-out wrong or even sort-of wrong.
Recently while traveling out of town, I was supposed to meet a group for dinner at the Bonefish Grill, which was located near our hotel. Problem was, I didn’t pay full attention to the name of the restaurant, yet thought I had. Earlier that morning while on a run, I had noticed another nearby restaurant named Smokey Bones. When I was told where to meet for dinner that night, I heard the word “bone” in the name and immediately thought I was supposed to go to Smokey Bones, the place I had seen that morning. I heard information through the filter of my recent experience and didn’t consider any alternatives. What I thought was truth turned out to be a big dose of truthiness.
So when I showed up at the barbeque restaurant instead of the seafood restaurant, I was the only one there. I was so certain of my version of the truth that I had given someone else directions on how to get to the wrong restaurant too. Thankfully, they didn’t listen to me.
Humility calls us to consider that we might be wrong. That’s not an immediate statement that we are wrong, only a concession that we are willing to evaluate our understanding against new or different information. When we are the only ones showing up at the wrong restaurant, we are forced to consider the possibility that we are wrong.
But in real life, sometimes other people show up with us at the wrong place and together we assume we must be in the right and everyone else is misguided. Our first inclination is to assume someone else is wrong and we are right.
An utter unwillingness to separate truth from truthiness plagues America today. It plagues our religion and our politics, our social media conversations and our go-to speeches. We are shouting well-worn sound bites at each other from opposing platforms. Precious few of us are willing to step in the middle and facilitate dialogue, and those poor souls who do often get shot down from both sides.
Nowhere is this more evident than in our national debate — or lack of debate — about the Second Amendment and guns. The conversation has been so polarized for so long that it’s locked down. We have no ability to separate the truth from the truthiness. “Facts” fly around with authority, but they aren’t always real facts.
Sadly, not enough people — from either the left or the right — have had the courage to demand more information, to trade truthiness for real truths. For example, Congress has denied funding — and threatened retribution — for any government-sanctioned research on the pros and cons of guns and violence. Should gaining more factual information really be that threatening? Should we be more afraid of researched truth than feel-good truthiness?
Since Orlando — and since Newtown and San Bernardino and so many others — I’ve been wondering what might be the role of the faith community in this dialogue. What can we do beyond prayers and picking up the broken pieces?
You can’t make a biblical case for or against owning guns, and the Second Amendment doesn’t bear the religious focus of the First Amendment. So this is not a matter of biblical interpretation. And yet, there is a case to be made for faith communities to facilitate community dialogue, to value open inquiry, to seek the truth. There is a case to be made for faith communities speaking in favor of life, of peace, of freedom as concurrent ideals. And we ought to be able to treasure these ideals regardless of political affiliation.
I don’t know the answer to the problem. But I do know that those who are shouting the loudest don’t know the full answer to the problem either. We haven’t even been able to have an informed conversation.
What role might our faith communities play in bringing America to open dialogue? How might we model civil discourse on matters of life and death? How might we offer a platform for separating truth from truthiness? Could it begin with us? After all, Jesus didn’t promise us that “truthiness” would set us free.