The Truth About Truth Projects

Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. Mike. Great post. Never realized how far back the entitlement culture went. Do you also find it strange that in making home ownership the mark of a real man, and inflating that economic engine of our GDP, we have caused many to delay the inevitable task of finding or creating another industry that would lift our country out of this recession, or have negated it entirely?

    We might already be further down the road to a “green economy” if the government that now wants to artificially give meaning to that sector had realized it’s missteps with Fannie and Freddie and taken definitive action to remove itself from that market sector.

    How can we re-imagine government other than a leech that continues to grow as it drains one host until it finds another? I know this is a grim metaphor, but it seems the most relevant in the financial sense. In other senses, certainly government is a great ally and more symbiotic than parasitic, but in the realm of finance, it is hard to see it as anything other than a system of the popular class voting itself largesse for any number of tax benefits.

    I wrote a blog a while back featuring one of Lewis’ great works, “The Magician’s Nephew” on meaning preceding truth in our post-modern approach to religion. Check it out if you have a minute:

  2. -Hey Mike –

    I agree with some of the premises here that you have stated and some of the thesis you are working to convey… a better appreciation of our imagination, taking more stock in meaning. I agree that imagination plays a significant role in grasping meaning within the reality humanity functions in. These have been shy in the church; the result is in some ways a dry and out-of-touch institution.

    But I do have some issue with why imagination needs to precede truth. Imagination is the “to get a sense for” or “to conceptualize” in other words by definition, imagination is to be able to conceptualize what something would look like. This presupposes information, unstructured information at that. If we place imagination before truth, then what something “ought” to be is an invalid proposition; simply, “oughts” would not existence. To verify that, imagination can go either way depending on the information it is receiving, it can catapult either truth or false ideas.

    Imagination it is not by nature objective or exclusive – but truth does have by nature those characteristics therefore having the “right” to determine information going to the imagination helping to reveal meaning because truth prevailed. This is why C.S. Lewis said that imagination is not the organ of truth but of meaning. I think that by saying C.S. Lewis would say imagination precedes truth would be to disregard his life’s work in apologetics – defending the truth.

    Truth by definition is “that which corresponds to the way reality is”. I wouldn’t divorce the two quite the way you did, I think that good Christian Philosophy shows a strong relationship and that together they are complimentarian aspects of our soul/self, however truth must be the lighthouse and imagination maybe part of the light.


  3. Imagination is the spyglass by which we can see the rock upon which the lighthouse is placed. Without this ‘lens’, we will only be annoyed by the light an likely wind up shipwrecked on the shoals. Imagination precedes truth our approach to God, which even his scripture ratifies insaying that we cannot accept the good news unless the spirit first regenerates our hearts

  4. Hey Mark:

    I’m with you. Of course truth has to do with reason and imagination – both. In some ways, it might be better to distinguish between data and what it means. For example, I say to you: “gay.” What do you imagine? The fact is, your imagination beat reason to the punch. You probably imagined something quite different than what people 50 years ago would have imagined.

    On small point: I recommend Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence” for your consideration. He would say our distinction between things being “objective” or “subjective” is an European Enlightenment notion. I’d be interested in your take on this.

  5. Thanks for pointing out the intersection of imagination, plausibility and financial choices. At Georgia Tech, I work with an emerging generation of practical and scientfic minds that take a lot of what was discused here for granted.

    I completely agree we need to engage in efforts to create and sustain plausibility structures for knowing the truth and living consistently with it.

  6. I find it interesting that ideas (compilation of data) have to be given for the ignition of my imagination – “when I say”… My imagination has to be given something to conceptualize. So philosophically, truth’s position is that it has been maturing my worldview (the way I judge reality) with reason so that when a word like “gay” is given to my cognitive faculties I process the information truthfully. My imagination can then help me conceptualize this information into a bigger picture or to a specific time frame.

    I wonder if people 50 year ago imagined the anti-intellectualism that would first moral and epistemological suicide of the term “gay”.

    I have only read some articles from Lesslie Newbigin, not read “Proper Confidence” so I can’t comment on his book, however it would seem to me that concerns for objective and subjective have been around much longer than the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, or for that matter the didactic American Enlightenment. I do wonder if this era (and still currently) didn’t demand a heightened awareness of the importance of objectivity and subjectivity due to a push on science and “mans” ability to reason. Defining and arguing (reasoning) for objectivity of truth, morality, laws of logic, the existence of God, etc have been going on since the fall of man.


  7. “sorry, supposed to read”
    I wonder if people 50 years ago imagined the anti-intellectualism that would commit moral and epistemological suicide of the term “gay”.

  8. I have 2 heroes that I let disciple me via proxy: Mike Metzger and Roy H. Williams.

    One of the greatest things I’ve learned from Roy is his mantra:

    “People only do what they first imagine themselves doing.”

    As we seek to ask people (and ourselves) to change, there often have to be several conditions:
    •relevance (i.e. “meaningfulness”)
    •the summoning of new metaphors

    I wouldn’t be dreaming of a white Christmas if a song didn’t tell me so…

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