Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent One: Post-Truth?

On November 8 the Oxford Dictionary announced the word of the year: 
post-truth - an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
The announcement quoted Independent columnist Matthew Norman: 
The truth has become so devalued that what was once the gold standard of political debate is a worthless currency. 
What happens to a culture that has lost interest in truth?

This election season highlighted our disordered values and the underlying cracks in our ways of knowing.

We elected a president whose candidacy was built on contradictory promises and easily discredited lies. 

Is something true because we prefer it?

Is evidence dismissed because it doesn’t fit our cognitive framework?

If a story is repeated enough times in enough places does that automatically make it so?

We are living in a tangled space, unsure who to believe, no longer certain about what’s right, or true, or good.

Not even sure those words have meaning.

My goal in this blog has been to dig around in what I believe, to examine premises as well as consequences, to try to hear the half-heard words that form and inform who I am, what I do.

Advent leads me back to the foundation of that inquiry, as the narrative of a baby born two thousand years ago collides with the narratives of power and profit playing out in the stress and strain of an American December.

So I’ll start here: why would anyone listen to the story of a provincial baby, nobody child of nobody, born in a stinking animal stall in a dusty village in an occupied Middle Eastern country?

What halfway intelligent modern person would believe, for even a millisecond, that that distant brown baby was the product of a deity’s word spoken to an unmarried teenage girl, or that mythical creatures no one can document showed up in force to sing to a group of migrant shepherds?

Approach this as a scientist and the narrative crumbles quickly.  Two thousand years later, who could “prove” the facts of an immaculate conception? What evidence would it take to support the stories of angel visitations?

The birth of Jesus, like many stories of scripture, sits outside the realm of science, which is not to say that scientists can’t be Christians; many are. 

But for those who insist on scientific naturalism, on a reality that conforms, is explained, can be proven, by the laws of science, the Christmas narrative is a fairy tale, a silly myth, of no more weight and maybe less interest than Seuss’s Grinch or Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft speaks of “the radical insufficiency of what is finite and limited”, the “cramped and constricted horizon” encountered when we “see the material universe as self-sufficient and uncaused.”

I like that phrasing: radical insufficiency.

If this material universe is self-sufficient and uncaused, then perhaps Donald J. Trump is right, as were predecessors to whom he’s been compared. If this cramped, constricted horizon is really all there is, then objections to exploitation and manipulation have limited moral standing.

Yet most of us want something more: some basis for kindness. Some rationale for recognition of our shared humanity.

Advent is a reminder that we all, whatever we profess to believe, find ourselves constrained by the limited horizon of "what is."

At first, (as young adults, or willful dreamers) we rebel at the “radical insufficiency” of the current regime: we try to be generous, even though generosity looks foolish. We try to be honest, even when honesty is rarely rewarded. But slowly we cave. We blend. We realize that those ideals we held have no place in a material world.

Yet sometimes God grabs our world and shakes it – like a child shaking a snow globe – and the scenery changes.

I’ve been reading again the gospel of Luke. Luke, the only Gentile writer represented in the Bible, was also one of the most educated: an upper-class Greek doctor, Paul’s “beloved
physician” and a careful historian.

He starts his account of Christ’s life with a promise to share only what he's researched himself and is convinced is true: 
since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account . . .  so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
After his quick introduction, Luke plunges headlong into the story of Zechariah, John the Baptist's father: names, dates, simple history. In verse eleven, the narrative takes a turn: "Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear."

I love the detail. Not just an angel, but “standing on the right side of the altar.”

The angel explains what is about to happen:  Zechariah’s aging wife will become pregnant with a longed for baby. The child, a son, will be part of God’s plan of intervention for his people, and the world.

Reading the text this time I’m struck by the length of the angel’s speech: detail about what to call the baby, how to parent him.

In the past I’ve identified deeply with Zechariah’s response: “How do I know this is true?”

Religious leader though he is, he's asking for proof: Will you give me some kind of unassailable documentation? Will you come tell my neighbors, so they know I’m not crazy? Could you make this announcement in church next Sunday? So everyone else hears you too?

I love the angel’s response. Polite, but sharp. Let me paraphrase: 
“Seriously? You’re a priest, here we are in the inner sanctum of the temple, I’m standing here in front of you, straight from God’s throne, me, Gabriel, still God's messenger, the same one who spoke to Daniel, centuries ago. I'm here telling you what God has planned, and you’re wondering if you can believe me, even while you're shaking with fear. You still need proof? Really?”
I’ve never had an encounter with Gabriel but I’ve seen God intervene in my life and in the lives of others. I’ve seen the intervention that brings forgiveness, freedom, joy, healing, laughter in the place of pain, a deep sense of belonging for those who felt abandoned.

And still, five minutes later, or five weeks later, five years later, we ask: “How do I know that was true?” “Why should I believe in miracles?” "Where's the proof?"

There are some great discussions of miracles available, including CS Lewis’ book titled “Miracles” and chapter seven of Tim Keller’s Reasons for God. Two interesting websites, Christians in Science in the UK, and American Scientific Affiliation in the US, offer extensive resources on the compatibility of  science and faith. Biologos, founded by Human Genome Project geneticist and physician Francis Collins, offers a helpful mix of articles about miracles and science.

But in many ways the questions this advent aren't about faith and science, but about the place of truth - any truth - in a cynically post-truth world. 

I'm part of that world. 

I’ve been noting how easy it is - for me -  to dismiss those who start from different assumptions than my own, who embrace different ideas, who trust authorities I believe are flawed.

I’ve been noting how easy it is for those around me to assume they are wiser, smarter, more informed than those who disagree with them.

We are all, in a way, like Zechariah, going about our business, unwilling to have our daily routine broken, determined to ignore any reality that threatens our tightly held beliefs.

What warning, what message of hope, what offers of love do we miss?