The news keeps reporting that some large percentage of the American population believes we are on the wrong track as a country. I don’t doubt the news. But the problem with that statistic is that we might think we are on the wrong track for conflicting reasons. 100% of the bus passengers may agree that I-80 towards Truckee is the wrong road, but if half think we should be headed up I-5 to Oregon and the other down to LA, our apparent agreement means little.
We have become sloppy with facts. That is the kind way to say it. A drug is reported as lowering the risk of some disease by 50% and that sounds very impressive. But if the risk of this disease is only 1 in 5 million, decreasing the odds to 1 in 10 million doesn’t mean what it sounds like.
I remember standing on the roof of a new Eichler over on Louis Road (no tall trees yet) to watch the first US satellite. We believed in facts then. Or at least it seemed like we did. We lost some faith in science when we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But it wasn’t the science that was the problem; it was what people did with the science. Doctors knew that lead was poisonous to children, but the lead industry persuaded the government to add it to gasoline. The problem wasn’t the science.
Facts had a way of correcting us. The cigarette companies had the science on tobacco and lung cancer, despite their denials, and eventually the facts won. More or less.
We changed as a country because of facts. We don’t have lead in gasoline any more. We don’t have the smog that once filled the Bay Area. We can see the East Bay hills, now. We don’t have the litter we once had. We stopped feeding the bears in Yosemite. We can change.
But now we seem to be going backwards. Kellyanne Conway didn’t mean it quite the way it came out, but we do seem to have come to a time of “alternative facts”. We make up facts that suit us. Or, at least, we cherry-pick them. Facts don’t seem to get listened to; they just get challenged and denied.
Christians bear some guilt in this. The war on evolution should never have been about the science; it should have been about the story people told using that science. Some used it to say everything was getting better every day, but the science didn’t say that. Others said that it meant that biology was destiny, that we can’t – or don’t need to – transcend our innate natures. But the science doesn’t say that either, only that when disaster strikes, when the environment changes, some animals are more likely to survive than others – and the ones who survive, pass on their genes. Evolution can describe what is, but not tell us what we ought to be. Tribalism might have an evolutionary advantage, but we are the ones to decide whether fear of the other or love of neighbor is the right path for us. (Jesus had something to say about this.)
Facts matter. And Christians should be out front on this issue. We are the inheritors of a tradition that does not look at the world around us as filled with spirits and numinous powers; we say that the world was made. Nature has an objective reality. It can be measured and studied and known. There are facts.
And though the resurrection of Jesus is a unique event in history and, therefore, cannot be verified by repeatable scientific experiment, the Christian confession has always been that what happened was a fact and not a mythological story. It was an event in time not a metaphor. It occurred in Judea during the administration of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. Facts matter.
The first question God asks his rebellious humanity in that marvelous story from Genesis 2 is “Where are you?” – not because God doesn’t know, but because we need to face the truth. We are hiding in the bushes. We are creatures to whom deception comes naturally. None of us had to teach our children how to lie; that is innate in us. It is truth we need to teach. It is truth we need to practice. It is truth we need to honor.
The Christian community is drawing near to that great drama of the Paschal Triduum, the three days from the evening of Maundy Thursday when Jesus is seized, until the first light of Easter. It is a story that asks us to see truly. Humanity tortured and crucified the embodiment of truth and love. He was a threat to us, we said. But God did not let the lie endure.
Neither should we.