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Post-factual, pre-factual and truth


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This article was first published on SpokaneFāVS in December.

Guest column by Bill Ellis

In the wake of the recent presidential election, a new term has been coined. I do not know where it arose or for what purpose, but today we are said to have entered a “post-factual” era. I don’t know for sure what the term means in the minds of those who invented it, but roughly it seems to suggest that there is no longer much concern for whether what is being reported is true; what matters is whether or not a large number of people are apt to believe it to be true. Whether this remarkably cynical shift has truly occurred is subject to debate. I continue to believe that we have not yet reached this point. Nevertheless I want to contrast this concept with what I am going to call a “pre-factual” era, which began when human beings first started telling stories and has lasted until perhaps a few hundred years ago or so when historiography began to develop into a rigorous discipline.
In the “pre-factual” era as I am calling it, historical study as we now understand it, did not exist; culture, mores, values, ethos, were transmitted within cultures through stories passed down from generation to generation. These stories were not “history” in the modern sense; even though they were presented as great and heroic events from the past, there was no attempt to document them, and no thought to investigating these events to check for their historical accuracy, for they were not historically accurate. There was in this no attempt to deceive, for the task was not to present history as we understand it today, that was not even a possibility; the task was to convey values, to establish cultural identity, and to describe the people to themselves in their relationship to the world and to God. The “pre-factual” era was, in other words, deeply concerned with the truth. Stories, legends, myths, sagas, were all designed to convey the truth about God and the culture out of which they came.

The Bible in its entirety is the product of this “pre-factual” era. The stories we have from Scripture are not history and they are not science. Both those disciplines were more than a millennium away from even beginning to be developed as the canon of Scripture was being compiled. But the stories in Scripture are deeply steeped in the human struggle to convey the truth about the human situation and the relationship of God to the world.

What I am calling the “pre-factual” era has a great deal in common with the era of science and history that arose after it. Both were concerned with telling the truth about the human situation, and both strove to describe life correctly. Their methods differed because they came from very different cultural milieus, but their concerns were the same.
If we have entered a “post-factual” era in which what is true about us no longer matters, and the only concern is with what people can be persuaded to believe, then we have made a radical departure not just with the recent past, but with the whole human enterprise of using story, study, inquiry, imagination, to describe our world, and ourselves, honestly and truthfully. If we are entering a “post-factual” era, then it becomes our duty to resist this trend. Though the stories of the Bible are not history in the modern sense, they are the product of the deepest commitment to truth. We who find the inspiration for our faith in those stories need to maintain that same commitment.
This year, let’s renew the commitment to the truth about us, about the world, about God who became incarnate in our lord Jesus Christ.   I do not know if — indeed still do not believe that — we have entered an era in which the truth no longer matters. What I do know is that the best way to prevent that possibility from becoming a reality is to commit ourselves ever more surely to the truth.

“The Nature of Truth” is the topic of the April 1 SpokaneFāVS Coffee Talk, which will take place at 10 a.m. at Liberty Park United Methodist Church, 1426 E. 11th Ave. All are invited to participate in this community discussion. Ellis is a guest panelist.

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Bill Ellis
Bill Ellis
Rev. Bill Ellis is dean of St. John’s Cathedral. He has a bachelor’s degree in history, a Master of Divinity and holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

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