In Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too, I rebut Alisa Childers’ erroneous attempt to claim that progressive Christians widely embrace a radical voluntarist relativism about truth according to which people can make claims true simply by willing that they be true. The example Childers cites is a person who wants bacon to be healthy by declaring “Bacon is healthy!” Childers is certainly correct to note that wanting bacon to be healthy doesn’t make it healthy. But her claim that this describes the way leading progressive Christians think about truth is simply absurd. And I illustrate that fact by considering what individuals like John Pavlovitz, Peter Enns, and Rob Bell actually say about truth.
While many conservative evangelicals continue to repeat the claim that progressive Christians reject “objective truth” and that we are in a “post-truth” culture, the truth is, ironically enough, quite the opposite. For more of my general analysis on this point, you can watch my recent video on the subject.
That said, in this article I want to address one specific line of evidence that conservatives often cite in favor of the claim that we are in a post-truth culture. I speak here of the rise of the personalized language about truth i.e. “speaking your truth”. As the common retort goes, there is no such thing as your truth and my truth. There is only the truth. Thus, the popularization of the language of speaking your truth provides evidence for an incipient relativism about truth.
Is that correct? When people say they are speaking their truth, are they thereby endorsing relativism about truth? I don’t deny that there could be such people who endorse relativism about truth when they use that language. Instead, my burden here is to undercut the plausibility of the claim that this is generally what people mean when they use this language.
The first thing to note is that the expression “speaking your truth” does not have a generalized function in mundane discourse. For example, Evelyn says, “We can’t have a picnic: it is raining outside!” You look out the window and see it is sunny with not a cloud in the sky. You do not then say “Well, Evelyn is speaking her truth!” Nor would we expect Evelyn herself to defend the claim by saying she is speaking her truth. Rather, we would say that Evelyn is incorrect: it is raining. And we would expect Evelyn to concede as much as well. So we can picnic tomorrow.
Instead, the expression “speaking your truth” is commonly invoked in regard to discourse which includes the following specific hallmarks:
- recollections of past events and/or interpretations of present circumstances: you “speak your truth” when you are providing your understanding of a particular experience you have had in the past and/or your understanding of an ongoing situation;
- recognition of the role of subjective interpretation and the primacy of experience: you “speak your truth” when you recognize that the experiences you are recounting/analyzing involve an experiential, interpretive dimension;
- acknowledging the importance of validating underrepresented and/or historically marginalized individuals/perspectives: one is generally motivated to say you “speak your truth” when there is a history of the being underrepresented and/or devalued as a witness to personal experience.
For example, as noted above, one would not say Evelyn is “speaking her truth” when she falsely says it is raining outside. But one might say Evelyn is speaking her truth if she recounts an incident of alleged sexual harassment in the workplace.
There is much else we could say about this topic. For example, when there are conflicting analyses of personal experience, how does one assess which perspective is to be prioritized? If Evelyn says that Alfred sexually harassed her in the workplace, how should we proceed to evaluate the available evidence?
That’s a great question, and as a licensed professional investigator I could say much more about it. For example, I could explain the means by which an investigator undertakes credibility assessments of witnesses. However, while that would be an important conversation, it would bring us beyond the purview of the current topic. Suffice it to say, the phrase “speaking your truth” does not provide evidence for the rise of a general relativism about truth.