The first story I ever learned about George Washington ended with “I cannot tell a lie.” He had chopped down a cherry tree, the story goes, and when his father confronted him, he told the truth. The first story I ever learned about Abraham Lincoln ended with him chasing down a customer whom he had accidentally short-changed, so that he could pay her what he owed, thus earning the name “Honest Abe.” These stories, whether true in detail or not, reflect an important value: Presidents who tell the truth, Presidents who are honest, are to be honored.
On this day when the U.S. celebrates Presidents’ Day, honoring Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I find myself musing on Presidents and truth. In this “post-truth” era, with a current President who offers “alternative facts,” I’m reflecting on how we got to where we are now.
Our Presidents reflect who we are. The “post-truth” era started long before the campaign and election of the current U.S. President. Ken Wilber’s excellent analysis in “Trump and a Post-Truth World” traces the development of post-modernism, pointing out its important strengths, as well as pointing to how its shadow, narcissism and nihilism, has led us to where we are today.
If our Presidents reflect who we are, how can we more fully become who we want to be? Where do we go from here? I believe that the philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan can provide us help. Lonergan calls humans to “authenticity,” which he defines as openness, questioning, honesty, and good will. He unpacks those elements of authenticity by focusing on the operations of consciousness within us that result in our knowing what we know, and the inherent norms accompanying those operations. Lonergan demonstrates how the fruit of authenticity is objectivity. He agrees with post-modernists that there are no “already-out-there-now” facts that we can simply take a look at and know. Rather, all information that comes to us is interpreted through the lens of our identity and experience, in other words, through who we are. However, Lonergan believes that this reality doesn’t imply relativism and nihilism. As we move closer to becoming authentic subjects, objectivity results. Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.
If we want our leaders to be authentic human beings who honor truth-telling, we can begin by becoming more authentic ourselves. Furthermore, we can create communities of authenticity that call our institutions and our leaders to higher standards.
The hard work of moving out of narcissism and nihilism begins with us. And when we have blazed a trail and created a path, others will follow. People yearn for authenticity. Let us take the lead and challenge our leaders to follow.