The primary problem with “truth projects” is that truth is not the primary problem.
Let’s be clear, we’re all for truth. Yet for many faith communities, “truth projects” have become the primary vehicle for growing in faith and engaging the wider world. But “truth projects” overlook two ever-present realities in the Western world today—realities that are at the root of the current housing crisis.
We all see the ruinous results of the housing crisis. In 2009, the home financing giant Fannie Mae alone held an estimated $230 billion in toxic assets. Analysts like Yale’s Robert Shiller expect that housing prices will remain level for the next five years. But our current housing crisis isn’t due to any lack of truth. It goes much deeper than that.
The reality is, most of the truth regarding housing and mortgages didn’t mean much to most Americans. We’ve forgotten that meaning is more a product of the imagination. Truth is more a matter of information. Giving people more information does not make anything more meaningful. C.S. Lewis understood this critical distinction.
Lewis believed the imaginative man in him was more basic than any other aspect of his being.1 He was all for truth but distinguished between reason (truth) and imagination (meaning). Reason has to do with theoretical truths; imagination has to do with the conditions of truth. We use reason in presenting truth, but imagination precedes it in preparing the mind to receive truth as meaningful. Lewis wrote:
It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.2
This is why truth is not the primary problem in America’s housing collapse. The bigger problem is a lack of meaning—mortgages and debt not meaning what they ought to. This lack of meaning is the product of a malformed imagination. A malformed imagination is the product of many influences, including the arts, our educational experiences, family, gender, race, and so on. In a word, culture. If you want to see how our cultural imagination precedes truth, consider our housing debacle.
For several centuries in our history, only a small percentage of Americans owned homes. Americans weren’t against home ownership. But there was a cultural consensus against debt. In the 1800s, that began to erode as the Judeo-Christian definition of reality went into eclipse. “A man is not a whole and complete man,” wrote Walt Whitman, “unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on.”
The 1940s is the last decade when fewer than half of all Americans owned their own homes. From that point forward, the percentage of Americans living in owner-occupied homes marched steadily upward according to Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Sugrue is writing a history of real estate in modern America—a sobering tale of excess, entitlement, and government largess. But it’s not a story about any absence of truth.
“Until the early 20th century, holding a mortgage came with a stigma,” Sugrue writes. “You were a debtor, and chronic indebtedness was a problem to be avoided like too much drinking or gambling. The four words “keep out of debt” or “pay as you go” appeared in countless advice books. As the YMCA told its young charges, “If you can’t pay, don’t buy. Go without. Keep on going without.” Because of that, many middle-class Americans—even those with a taste for single-family houses—rented. Home Sweet Home didn’t lose its sweetness because someone else held the title.”3
Home Sweet Home became sweeter with the 1913 federal tax code designating a deduction for home mortgage interest payments. But financial lenders still feared debt, so down payments remained high—50 percent or more of the purchase price. Interest rates were also high and terms were short, usually just three to five years. This led to many of the richest renting. They had better places to invest than in the housing market.
Those who followed this wisdom dodged a bullet in the Great Depression. Half of all mortgages went into default. To shore up the market, Herbert Hoover signed the Federal Home Loan Bank Act in 1932, laying the groundwork for government largess in the housing market, including Franklin Roosevelt’s administration creating Fannie Mae in 1938. This created the secondary market in mortgages and started the speculative purchases of real estate. It also changed the way Americans imagined debt.
The idea of “easy credit,” underwritten by federal housing programs, encouraged excessive borrowing and a sense of entitlement. By 1950, 55 percent of Americans owned a home. By 1970, the figure was 63 percent. Federal intervention unleashed vast amounts of capital that turned home construction and real estate into critical economic sectors. During the late 1990s, “the dream of home ownership turned hallucinogenic,” Sugrue argues. With HUD and government-supported financiers like Fannie Mae serving as the mostly silent partners in a rapidly metastasizing mortgage market, more Americans than ever imagined—and recklessly gambled—that someone else down the line would pay them more than they originally did for their house. Flipping became a fad. House-as-investment replaced home-as-haven.
The truth is America’s housing collapse is not due to an absence of truth. It’s more a case of the presence of a culture of entitlement that is cavalier about debt. The consequences reach even into the church, with a chronic lack of stewardship. The plain truth is that the average churchgoer tithes between two and three percent of their income. The plain truth is that God demands something north of 10 percent. The plain truth is that, on average, 98 percent of an American’s income is already spoken for before tithing—in car payments, mortgages, cable, dining out, you name it. No one can tithe 10 percent when 98 percent of their income is already spoken for. This is why Iris Murdoch noted that, at the moment of choosing, most of the business of choosing is already done. Meaning and imagination precede reason and truth.
This is also why the millions of dollars raised for “truth projects” might be better spent on “meaning projects.” Meaning is a matter of plausibility. In To Change the World, James Hunter says we live with two ever-present realities, dissolution and difference. Dissolution is a lack of a collective grasp of reality—no meaningful connection between the church’s rendition of truth and how others see it. The truth the church presents sounds implausible to others, just as not owning a home seems implausible to many Americans.
“Meaning projects” on the other hand would equip faith communities in getting their foot in the door and a place at the table of leading financial institutions. This is the solution for dissolution—a strengthening of our collective grasp of reality. This means assisting institutions in becoming plausibility structures for the truth, so that wise stewardship and sober borrowing becomes plausible to the general public. Otherwise, all the truth in the world is unlikely to make the implausible plausible, since plausibility is the primary problem and not truth.
1 Rob Moll, “C.S. Lewis, the Sneaky Pagan,” interview of Colin Duriez, Christianity Today June 28, 2004.
2 C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 265.
3 Thomas J. Sugrue, “The New American Dream: Renting” Wall Street Journal, August 15-16, 2009, W1.