From Post-Truth to Post-Nous

A Reflection on the Incarnation (Mt. 2)

One of the more positive elements of the Enlightenment was its insistence that we are free to use our minds. Immanuel Kant, for example, encouraged every individual to have the courage to use their own understanding, that is to freely apply reason publicly and in all matters. From a biblical and theological perspective, there is, of course, nothing wrong with that idea, since the mind/thinking is a constitutive aspect of human being as created by God. The basic idea is captured in the Greek noun, νοῦς, which refers to the human ‘power of perception,’ or ‘mode of thought.’ It is, so to speak, the God-given instrument of reason. The act of using the nous is called φρονέω (thinking), which is expressed in the form of words (ῥῆμα).

Now, while every human being can and should use this innate ability, it should be noted that thinking is not something that is done just for the fun of it, just for its own sake, but rather to achieve specific purposes.  According to Aristotle the νοῦς is the power of logical thought and it sets goals for or controls the will. In other words, the mind does not exist for itself, but rather to guide and direct the other elements of human existence, the will, and the emotions toward some specific end.[1] Philo suggests we are, above all, to use the mind to serve God and one’s neighbor.[2] Similarly, St. Paul teaches that (Rom. 7:23-25) the νοῦς is to affirm divine law and actively serve God and neighbor by allowing the mind to be renewed (Rom. 12:2), that is, brought into conformity with the mind of Christ. If the information being processed by the mind is sound (true), then its conclusions (what the mind knows) will be valid and will lead the whole being to sound action. So, the mind is an instrument of reason given to all human beings qua creation. It is to be used to produce intelligible words (ῥῆμα) and clear thoughts (1 Cor. 14:14-15, 19), which can direct desires, behavior, and emotions toward some higher end. This lends added insight into Descartes’s famous dictum, Cogito, ergo sum,[3] since thinking not only helps us know that we exist but is to determine how we exist.

 

But there is the rub. As brilliant as this divine scheme is, it will only work (as intended) if certain conditions are achieved. In other words, there are any number of ways to distort or even short-circuit the process and generate bad outcomes. If, for example, you feed the mind bad or false information, it cannot know truth and will not be able to act appropriately. You can see this at work in the dissemination of misinformation about the current public health crisis. If the mind is told the virus is harmless, then it cannot be expected to know the true danger or raise adequate defenses. Another way of distorting mind-action interaction is to redefine the object, that is, the purpose of thinking. If, instead of using it to seek the greater good (service of neighbor) one focuses on achieving personal desires (supposed rights, reelection changes), then the thoughts, sound or not, will lead to faulty behavior.

But, in what may be the most troubling turn, another way of weakening the intended benefits of thinking, many have simply decoupled thinking and action or knowledge and belief. I have recently heard a number of individuals say things along the lines of “I know…” but “I am going to do… anyway.” One parishioner told me “I know that this candidate is corrupt, immoral, and inept, but I am going to vote for him anyway.”  Another person said, “I know that Christ forbids it, but I am still going to cheat you and ruin your reputation.” In this situation, thinking was still being done. I may have even been informed by true information and led to actual knowledge. But, it is as if that knowledge had or was not allowed to have any bearing on subsequent actions.

With apologies to the Oxford Dictionary, I would like to refer to this decupling of thought and belief as post-thought or perhaps post-mind. In 2016 The dictionary announced that its word of the year was post-truth.[4]According to Oxford this is “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. It is not that we have entirely lost the concept of truth. We still have some idea of what is and is not true. But it seems that truth has little bearing on the conclusions we draw and the behaviors we base on those conclusions. Recently a well know public figure made a statement that was obviously false. So a reporter asked one of this person’s colleagues “Can you provide any evidence to back up that statement?” In answer the colleague said “Well, look, I think he’s expressed his opinion on that. And he’s entitled to express his opinion on that.” To which the startled reported said “… whether it’s true or not?”

We have, it seems, progressed beyond the point where truth is irrelevant. We now behave as if the very process that enables us to hold certain things to be true is inconsequential. We find ourselves asking, why don’t our somnolent leaders do the right things? Don’t they know what is right, what needs to be done? Don’t they know that Christ requires humility and modesty? If so, why do they proceed to build and live in mansions erected to their own egos? Why do they stand silent in the face of historic corruption? The answer is, of course, that these intelligent, well educated, and capable leaders have thought and do know. It is not necessarily a case of having come to the wrong conclusion based on false information, but rather that they operate in a post-mind environment in which action is not related to knowledge, that is, to thinking in any way.

If this is true, then we are in deep trouble. On the one hand it legitimizes lying on any occasion, since the act of lying has been divorced from thought, truth, and knowledge.  It means we cannot ever trust anything anyone says, but more concretely, nothing they do. You will never be able to tell if what they say or do is true, connected to sound thought, or if it is simply an opinion designed to support a personal desire. Under these conditions, no teacher, no parent, no politician, no priest, no Church member could be trusted because they would each be, as the pastor of one mega church said, “creating their own reality…” expressed in actions decupled from whatever thought they might have engaged in. So we have not only become slaves to lying and to being lied to, but also to the unpredictable whims of desire fueled post-thought actions shaped, not by clear thinking, but by personal ambition. As I said, we are in trouble, and I don’t think there is anything that can save us… outside of some kind of divine intervention.

As it happens, that is exactly what God has done. He has directly intervened in the affairs of this world by sending his Son, in part, to dispel the lies and the dishonesty that have engulfed the world. The amazing thing about God’s approach to our having crippled the nous is not that he simply sends us more information, a new set of propositions that are true, but he sends us a person who is the truth, who demonstrably brings together thought and belief. Jesus says, “I am the truth, the way, the life.” So in his person there is perfect harmony between what is said, taught, and done and the reality of our world.

To the extent that we are in communion with him, following his teachings, bringing life and reality into harmony in our lives, we will become persons who embody the unity of thought and action. We act, keep his commandments, reject being angry with one another, refusing to spread gossip about others, laying down slander, resisting materialism and greed by basing our actions on the living in the spirit of the Incarnation, the spirit of truth.

It is kind of interesting that right smack dab in the middle of St. Matthew’s description of the Nativity (Mt 2:7) that story of eternity and truth, there is one big fat lie. It is as if God is showing us the very discrepancy, lie as opposed to truth, that he is going to overcome. Herod says to the wise men, find out where Jesus is and let me know so I can go and worship him as well. This is obviously false, because there is no correspondence between his thoughts/words and his true intention. But in spite of the decupling, he presents his proposed action as if it were true or based on sound thinking. But again God intervenes in order to protect his primary intervention on behalf of the truth. He gives the wise men a dream exposing Herod’s post-thought action, and the ultimate bond between speaking, behaving, and reality is preserved in the person of Christ.

So Is there any going back? Have we crossed some kind of irreversible threshold? Maybe, maybe not, but I think that the followers of Christ can, at least, create zones of truth in an otherwise post-truth, post-thought environment. We can seek and practice a harmony between life and reality, between action and sound thought as shown in the person of Christ.

 

 

 

 

[1] Article on “neus” in  G. W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.,: Eerdmans, 1964).

[2] Bromiley and Friedrich, Theological dictionary of the New Testament.

[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/cogito-ergo-sum.

[4] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

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