Fifth Sunday of Lent 2 April 2017
On both sides of the Atlantic it appears that an increasing number of people are obsessed with proclaiming their own homespun “truth.” The phenomenon is often rooted in ignorance and proclaimed with a kind of self-righteous arrogance. It can also be a convenient deception, as we see in contemporary political discourse. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence will soon be re-written from “we hold these truths to be self-evident” to “we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true.”
An acquaintance, who should know better, told me a few days ago that the sun revolves around the earth. I asked him if he had any other medieval beliefs and he told me, with a bit of dismissive annoyance, that he had “found Jesus” and now doubted “a lot of that modern science stuff.” I did some checking and discovered that about 79% of Americans believe the earth revolves around the sun; and 18% say it is obvious that the sun revolves around the earth. In Germany, 74% believe the earth goes around the sun; but in Great Britain, only 67% believe that. (Perhaps that helps explain Brexit?)
When it comes to theology, the early medieval mentality seems to still attract many followers, who adamantly refuse to accept “a lot of that modern science stuff.” Just about 42 % of contemporary Americans believe that God created human beings, in their present form, less than 10,000 years ago. They believe as well that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. I know I look like an old fossil, but I told one of my fundamentalist friends that, based on fossil remains, the current scientific consensus places the origin of dinosaurs between 231 and 243 million years ago and that the dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago. He said “that nonsense is not science but the work of the devil.”
What is the basis for our truth statements? How do we verify? Is personal opinion becoming more reliable than factual verification?
Last semester, when discussing the U.S. Civil War (the “War Between the States” if you are from the South) I told my university students that all the churches – even Roman Catholic – in the North supported the Union and all the same churches in the South supported the Confederacy. Even Pope Pius IX encouraged and supported the Confederacy. I asked my students how God could have actively supported both the Union and the Confederate causes. Two young men from the USA said it was simply a matter of personal opinion and that Union and Confederate opinions should have been and should still be respected. “So God battled against God?” I asked. They replied that I had a right to express my opinion……I then jumped to the Shoah and the Nazi extermination of Jews. “Was that right or wrong” I asked, “or a matter of opinion,” One student, who told the class her grandparents were Jewish, said she had serious thoughts about the whole thing today. She said perhaps, if she had lived back then she would have seen things differently and supported the Nazis. The fellow sitting next to her shouted out that the whole Nazi thing was a hoax and Jews were not gassed in Nazi concentration camps. I said that I have been to Auschwitz. He replied that Auschwitz looks very realistic, like a Hollywood film creation; but that Nazi Germany’s Final Solution was aimed only at deporting Jews not exterminating them.
More homespun truth…..Contemporary examples are abundant. Many Christian leaders in my tradition, for instance, still view sexuality as simply a matter of genital activity geared to procreation and consider contraception immoral and gay people innately disordered.
Sometimes I fear we are quickly moving from people being uninformed and misinformed to being proudly and aggressively wrong. What we see is not just a rejection of existing knowledge. It is a rejection of historical-critical rationality. Knowledge is becoming a do-it-self creation. If it feels good, it must be right.
These days it is not Islamic fundamentalism that I fear but a growing obsession with self-fabricated truth. It is sometimes self-created and affirmed because if feels good. It is also being mass produced by people adept at developing attractive arguments and using their skills to mislead and exploit fearful and gullible people.
What do we do?
We need to become actively engaged in educational reform. We need to evaluate, and reform where appropriate, the curricula in public and private schools. Some principles to guide curricular planning and evaluartion:
(1) Science is neither diabolic nor the enemy. Good science and healthy faith do not contradict each other. When apparent contradictions appear, these are red flags indicating the presence of either poor science or shaky religion.
(2) Currently accepted facts – the substance of contemporary knowledge — are based on empirical evidence and deductive reasoning not personal opinion.
(3) Historical-critical thinking is neither “critical” nor negative. Perhaps a more accurate term we should use is evaluative thinking. We examine and evaluate various statements and viewpoints in terms of factual reality: when statements were made, what they were based on, what kinds of language were used, etc. Dinosaurs were long, long gone from our earthly scene, more than ten thousand years ago. This is not theory but fact. The biblical account of Adam and Eve, right from the beginning of the narration, was biblical mythology and not historic fact. Biblical mythology, properly understood, communicates important religious truths
(4) We ought to be greatly concerned about the survival of the humanities, now being unfunded and pushed to the side. The humanities insure and safeguard how we process and document the human experience. We desperately need literature, art, music, and history to truly be human and to understand who we are as human beings.
(5) Most importantly, we need the humanities to experience and relate to the sacred….the very essence of humanity and reality…the Divine. God has not abandoned us but far too many people have lost touch with artistic, musical, and symbolic avenues to the Divine. Education is more than AbCs, math, and athletics.
(6) At all levels in the educational process, we need to maintain a global awareness and stress global responsibilities. This touches on climate change of course; but I am thinking right now about a global reality that is minimally stressed in the news, hardly discussed in political circles, and has not even been the subject of a presidential tweet: famine in Africa which is an appalling failure of the world system. Today in Ethiopia and its neighbors in East Africa 16 million people are on the brink of starvation and desperately in need of food, water, and medical treatment.
The danger of homespun truth is that it easily mutates into a deadly virus that destroys the heart and soul of humanity. Fact-based knowledge, critical thinking skills, historical awareness, and anchors in art, music, and literature are essential elements in maintaining a humane and humanizing life and culture. Otherwise we risk becoming thoughtlessly-muted but violently xenophobic……….and narcissistic anthropological aberrations.