Posted by guest blogger Clark Whitney
The headline in the London Times went something like this: “Abbey snubs Queen — displaces Royal tree.” The piece by the Times columnist was critiquing the actions of the Dean of Westminster Abbey who, at the beginning of this particular Christmas season, had determined that unfortunately, the Christmas tree—an annual gift to the Abbey from the Queen—would not be situated quite so centrally as it had in previous seasons. While the column castigated the Abbey for its thoughtless snub to Her Majesty the piece neglected to mention some key details, specifically the reforms that had been implemented at the Abbey that resulted in a sustained increase in attendance at worship services—a quadrupling of worshippers in fact—thereby necessitating a reconfiguring of the space to accommodate additional seating. The reason behind moving the tree was substantively ignored and a whole new spin given to the story.
We are all familiar with and even expect journalistic spin and we are not surprised when the ‘facts’ get interpreted and sometimes the ‘real’ story is obscured altogether as was the case in the saga of the royal evergreen above. But we don’t have to stop with the media. If we move to the world of government we might be forgiven for a certain amount of cynicism towards statements issued by our political bodies: we suspect that those in positions of power decide what “facts” are released to the public—think of the recent attempts at the federal level to determine what was known when and by whom with regards to the Afghan detainees. And to cite an example from the world of commerce, major credit rating agencies looked at the “facts” and gave their blessing to financial investments dependent on sub-prime mortgage returns only to have those same products collapse and trigger one of the most significant economic downturns in recent memory.
I’m using the term “facts” on purpose, of course, because I suspect that for most of us, knowing the ‘real facts’—whether they are about Christmas trees, Afghan detainees or mortgages—means that we understand how to negotiate our lives and the world around us. We may take as fact, for example, that the bible is essentially a collection of materials authored by human beings; or, we may take as fact that the authorship of those documents is both human and divine. Some may argue that the latter statement is more a matter of ‘faith:’ you can’t prove divine authorship, you have to ‘just’ believe it. Notice, however, that when we say something like this, we implicitly acknowledge our ‘faith,’ our ‘trust’ in the ‘facts’ that we have committed ourselves to believing: namely, that we trust in our abilities to reason our way to the facts, to what is right, to how we might live our lives. To put it another way: we will only ‘believe’ in or commit ourselves to something that we deem we can ‘reasonably’ understand.
I’m also using the term ‘facts’ as a proxy for the word ‘truth.’ You might have suspected this; here’s why. Without going into a long historical overview, I have had to acknowledge, over the past year, that much of what I say I believe to be TRUE, I believe to be TRUE because I can find somehow, somewhere, some verifiable ‘fact’ to back up my belief. Granted, as a person of faith, I might have said that I believe in God, or the Bible, or in the Resurrection because I have very carefully (and maybe prayerfully) considered the evidence and I believe it to be true. The question then becomes, I think: is my faith in God, or, do I place my faith in my ability to reason myself into faith? If this is the case I could just as easily reason myself into ‘faithlessness’ but this is just another example of a default to placing ‘faith’ in reason. Remember, lots of reasonable people work in the media, or government, and even corporations, but given that we haven’t yet conquered famine, learned how to leave peacefully with each other or with our created world, we might conclude that there are deep commitments that drive what we conclude is ‘true’ or ‘right’ or even ‘a fact.’ Did the managers at BP have data and scientific proof for drilling their way into the sea for oil, or, does the belief in economic progress perhaps help them determine what is, in fact, reasonable or true?
I should make it clear that I do not believe that there is no such thing as a ‘fact’ or something that is ‘true.’ But, I should also make it clear that as enlightened as we all might be, we all ‘interpret’ facts and we do that from places of commitment—which may or may not be recognized as ‘religious’ or not. Some time ago I had a conversation with a friend who was lamenting some lack of hope in her life. We knew one another well enough to be able to speak frankly. Her assessment of me was that I had hope because I am religious. What was she to have hope in? (In other words, what works for me would not work for her.). I responded by observing that I thought she was, in fact, more religious than I was. When she objected, I lamented that I wished that I was as committed to my faith as she was in her faith in the power of her paycheque—and all that the purchasing freedom provided her. She actually agreed that economic freedom was paramount in her life; the obvious question then became: so why the lack of hope?
I am beginning to understand, to believe, that knowing what is true is not about discovering and believing in some abstract set of ‘facts’ dangling in the universe. I think this approach has had a significant impact on how the church, for example, has often viewed the bible: as a dispensary of ‘facts’ that needs only to be mined for ‘truth’ and once we ‘know’ this, we can know what path to follows, what decisions to make and the difference between right and wrong. Rather, I am beginning to understand that truth, even Big T Truth, has to be embodied. (I am thankful to Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat in their book Colossians Remixed for addressing this.) A church, for example, may say all the right things, and deliver all the right ‘moral’ messages, but if the stranger is not welcomed, the lonely not embraced, justice ignored and mercy forgotten, then any claims of ‘good news,’ of ‘gospel,’ are empty. There is no credibility. If our faith communities mirror the strife in the world—without any credible acts of forgiveness and reconciliation—then we may have to pack up and go home. On the other hand, if we wrestle with and live out together what it means to love as Jesus loved then any ‘words of truth’ we speak become the helpful subtitles that explain why we live the way that we live, why we make the decisions that we make, why we treat the earth as gift and not as resource, and why we might forgive rather than hold grudges. Unless truth takes on flesh then it is likely not true at all. I confess that I believe it’s been done once before which gives me hope that it is still possible today.