Guest post by Harvey Edser, originally posted at The Evangelical Liberal
This is a follow-up to my previous post about moving on from old models of reality, in which I critiqued ‘evangelical modernism’ and suggested that our old paradigms need revising both in science and in faith. This time I’d like to expand on that by critiquing our obsession with facts and factuality as the epitome of truth. It’s an obsession which I believe has tended to impoverish our spirituality.
Facts are of course central to the modernist paradigm. The modernist ideal of truth is verifiable scientific fact, something which can be shown to be observably, provably, objectively true and real. Such facts or data can be accurately observed, measured, quantified and analysed.
Then by means of logic and reason, these facts can further be fitted into overarching structures of theory that usefully hold together sets of data in ways that accord with the observable behaviour and properties of the physical reality. Thus we can build up a better and better picture of the universe, ultimately filing in all the gaps in our knowledge like the unknown areas in a map of the world.
But then along comes post-modernism and pulls out the rug from under modernism by challenging the very idea of verifiable objective ‘fact’.
Post-modernism doesn’t say there are no facts, or that nothing is true; that there is no objective reality, or that we can just make things up as we see fit. Rather it introduces radical and irreducible uncertainty and subjectivity into the equation. It says that there may or may not be truth and objective reality, but that truth is not fully knowable by us in an objective form. It may be there, but we can’t see it directly, any more than we can directly see what we look like in the mirror with our eyes shut (leaving aside photography).
Indeed, by looking at reality we alter that reality, so that our act of observation becomes part of the phenomenon we’re trying to look at. Similarly by thinking about reality, we change it so that our thinking becomes inextricably intertwined with what we’re thinking about. In other words, there’s an inherent subjectivity in our observation and analysis which can never be fully eliminated.
So post-modernism undermines the objectivity of fact. It also introduces a degree of suspicion about the very idea of ‘fact’, and questions whether the modernist ideal of truth as primarily a matter of facts is actually a helpful one. And it suggests that there are problems which the modernist approach and the scientific method cannot solve, mysteries which they cannot clarify. It seems to me that these are all valid critiques.
Knowing in part
Don’t get me wrong – facts are of enormous practical use in our daily lives. Almost anything we need to do in the physical world depends more or less on the reliability of factual information. Catching a train, using a computer, cooking a meal, wiring a plug, even holding a conversation all rely on the basic accuracy of factual information.
The point is simply that facts, while vital in practical matters, are nonetheless limited, partial and provisional. They cannot tell us everything about all we need to know, and in some areas they can tell us very little of use. There are whole dimensions of our lives in which the kind of information that underpins science and technology is largely useless. These are the areas that deal with things like meaning, purpose, value, rightness or wrongness, human relationships; with things like suffering, death, love, eternity and God. For these we need another conception of truth, one that encompasses the ideas of personal truth, poetic and symbolic truth, non-factual or beyond-factual truth.
When the apostle Paul famously writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that for now we ‘see in part and know in part’, he’s describing an inherent condition of our current state; not something that will change as we get better at science. We can only know in part, for now. It’s just about possible that one day we will be able to unravel all the secrets of the physical universe – though it seems unlikely, given that we still don’t have any idea about the nature of the ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ that make up most of the universe. But even if we do, we’ll be no nearer to unravelling the mysteries and enigmas of humanity.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr describes our modern western mind as essentially ‘dualistic’. By this he means that our system of thinking is based around making divisions and distinctions between things so that we can study and analyse them, so we can think and talk about them. While this is essential for science and indeed for much of practical life, reality is always more complex, more paradoxical and less categorisable than this system allows. For dealing with the bigger things, Rohr argues we need instead to cultivate the contemplative mind. I can’t do his argument justice here, so have a look at his book The Naked Now or listen to his Greenbelt talks here.
A question of perspective
Optical illusions may help illustrate the partiality of fact and the importance of personal perspective. Is this well-known picture a rabbit, a duck, both, neither, or simply a set of marks that has no inherent meaning? There’s no real way of saying – it could be any of those.
In fact, something similar applies to any poem or picture or piece of music. I can analyse the Mona Lisa and say what it means and how the effect is achieved, but that does not replace or negate the work of art. The painting remains as a non-reducible entity that defies final analysis or categorisation; it simply is.
Indeed, the same applies to all of our actual experience of the world. Look out of the window and watch the clouds or birds move across the sky, or wind moving in the trees. There are all sorts of ways you could seek to understand and quantify what you’re seeing, in terms of weather patterns or mathematical descriptions, or even psychological analysis of how the scene makes you feel and why. But none of them can adequately describe or replace either the reality itself or your experience of that reality. The ‘facts’ are not enough.
Interpretation and subjectivity
Or finally take a scenario from everyday life. Person A comes in with a load of shopping and slams the door angrily, while Person B is watching TV and doesn’t get up to help. It’s easy to leap to conclusions, but the interpretation of the scene depends on all sorts of things which we can’t necessarily know – the precise relationship between the two participants, the wider context, what’s led up to the situation, etc. Each person involved will have a different perspective, an outsider watching would have a different one again, and any attempt to resolve the scene into factual truth would miss out something vital.
Crucially then, facts and data always need to be interpreted, and at this point the element of subjectivity inevitably creeps in. Five people can witness the same event and each interpret it in different ways; and there may not be one single correct version that we can pin down. With the benefit of CCTV we may possibly be able to arrive at a more-or-less factual account of what took place, but certainly not its full meaning or implications.
Facts always need to be fitted into a larger picture or schema which can make sense of them. But again we have a problem here, for the larger schema is always just a model and never a perfect one. Furthermore, we can often fit the same set of facts into very different, even mutually opposing, models of reality.
In an earlier post ‘Born to believe?’ I listed a number of pieces of evidence that can be interpreted in diametrically opposite ways depending on your starting assumptions. For example, the discovery that we’re apparently hard-wired to believe in God could be evidence for atheism – that religious belief is just down to our evolutionary programming. But it could equally be evidence for religious faith, that the Creator has built into each of us the hardware and software that we need to start our search for him.
Facts and Christianity
So facts are good, facts are useful and important. But they are not all, and they are not enough. Facts are not the ultimate expression of truth or reality.
And in one sense, I don’t actually think ‘facts’ or ‘information’ matter a great deal in Christianity. By which I don’t mean that Christianity has no factual basis. I just mean that I don’t believe we actually need any kind of factual understanding in order to belong to the Kingdom, to be ‘in Christ’, to be redeemed. Nor do we need to convey factual information to others to get them into the kingdom, to get them to be ‘saved’. The kingdom has to be something that is equally open to an infant, or to someone who’s illiterate, or to a person with a condition that prevents them from being able to learn or process factual information.
I would argue that the kingdom is about openness or receptiveness to Christ’s light, life and love – none of which require intellectual understanding at all. It’s about ‘seeing’ rather than analysing and explaining. It’s about becoming alive, and being transformed. It’s about being loved and learning to love. It’s fundamentally incarnational rather than intellectual.
I love both theology and science and I think they can both be very beneficial and life-enhancing. But I don’t believe either is necessary for salvation. And one day, when we know in full even as we are fully known, I suspect we won’t have need of either.
In the meantime, I think we need to find new approaches that take account of the factual but somehow go beyond mere factuality to deeper truth. I suggest we need to develop Rohr’s non-dualistic contemplative mind – an ability to hold paradoxically contradictory truths together, and to accept reality as it comes to us rather than always trying to analyse or categorise.
The Evangelical Liberal is a blog to explore more open and liberated ways of being a Christian, particularly for those who have struggled to find their way within the evangelical tradition.