Toward Wholeness Blog

How do you “Know” something is true? part 2

These times call for discernment, even more than most times, because competing truth-claims are loud, and the place you land with your convictions is consequential, not just for you, but for both your family and society as a whole. Wisdom and Maturity are better able to sift truth from error, and I’m writing this series to help you do just that! Last time we discussed the first of seven principles:

1. Post Modernity is right about some things (previous post - found here)

This time we’ll consider principles two and three:

2. Most decisions have an element of faith

When you walk onto a plane and sit down, most of you don’t even think about it. You don’t listen to the safety orientation. You probably don’t put your phone in airplane mode. You don’t grip the seat, white-knuckled, as you ponder the reality that it weighs about 465,000 pounds, and it’s about to defy the law of gravity, a law as old as the universe, elevating you, and thrusting you through the air at speeds hovering around 600 miles an hour. You’ll sit down in Seattle, or wherever you’re from, and wake up on the other side of the world.

You don’t “Know” you’ll get there, with total certainty. There are, after all, the occasional mechanical failures or freak weather, not to mention terror or, maybe worst of all, a pilot who loses his moral compass. In spite of this, short of it being literally true, you “fully expect to arrive” at your destination. You KNOW the law of thermodynamics transcends the law of gravity. You KNOW there are checks and balances and accountability for the safety of this giant machine. You KNOW the people flying this machine have been trained, and vetted, and have a solid reputation for skill and trustworthiness. You KNOW. You KNOW.

But you don’t understand much of it all, at least if you majored in music and went on to receive a masters degree in theology. You understand such a tiny amount about what’s happening that when the wings over which you’re sitting start flapping a bit in the wind, it crosses your mind that they look like they should break, but you quickly dismiss such anxiety as nonsense. “They’ve thought of that,” you say to yourself as you put your headphones on and close your eyes.

This is an example of a kind of knowing that requires a large degree of faith. You don’t study the physics. You don’t do the engineering math to determine wing sheer. You don’t do reference checks and measure blood alcohol on the pilots.

What you’re doing is called “faith.” You’re proceeding with neither a full understanding, nor a full vetting, of all available evidence. You do the same thing when you get into a car and drive it across town. You do the same thing when you gather for worship and declare certain things about God, and Christ, and life, and death, to be true. It happens again when you sit in a chair, put a letter in the mailbox, swallow a prescription pill.

Unless you claim to have all knowledge, perfectly, about all subjects, you make decisions in your life based on faith. This is why it’s funny to me when people say, “I don’t have a faith.” What they likely mean is that they don’t have a religion. I get that. But let’s be honest. We all live by faith, which means that we take actions without full knowledge. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.

So let’s take climate change for example:

On September 14th, President Trump visited California to survey the forest fire situation, once again this year at historical levels of damage and intensity. At one point, state Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot urged the president to “recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forests.”

“If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians,” Crowfoot added.

Trump responded, “It will start getting cooler, just you watch.”

But will it?

Trump’s suggestion that the planet is going to start to unexpectedly cool is at odds with reality, experts say, that “Science doesn’t really know.”

“Maybe there is a parallel universe where a pot on the stove with the burner turned to high ‘starts getting cooler.’ But that is not our universe,” said Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field.

I’m not writing about politics here, because you and I can disagree on the best ways to deal with health care, and poverty, and the childhood hunger crisis that’s real in America. Whatever policies we support, however, you have a conviction about all these things, most likely. Some convictions are stronger than others, and some feel weightier than others, but you have convictions and you’ll act on them.

It’s important to note that this kind of “knowing” affects basically everything. We need to decide and act: Is it safe to fly? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is it safe to gather in a big indoor public meeting? Are masks helpful in mitigating the Corona Virus? Is hell real and will people burn eternally who don’t follow Jesus? Is the food safe in this restaurant with a sign saying “C-“ posted from the health department?

Here’s the rub. You need to make these decisions, but you don’t KNOW you’re right.

You think you’re right.

You believe your position strongly enough to act on it.

You have reasons for your convictions and, at least in the universe of your mind, they make sense.

But you don’t KNOW; not with a capital “K”, the way you know you’re reading right now. The way you know you’re alive. The way you know whether you have a spouse or not. You don’t have BOMBPROOF certainty. You have made, to a greater or lesser degree, a leap of faith. You do that every time you take a flight, even before Covid questions. That’s because, even if you work for Boeing and understand the laws of aerodynamics, the engineering, design, production, and testing protocol that went into the plane’s manufacture, you still don’t know the last time is was maintained, or whether the pilot had a good night’s sleep or his/her blood alcohol level. In addition:

You weren’t there for the resurrection.

You probably don’t know the equation about time and space related to transmission rates of Corona Virus, and even if you did, you might not know mitigating factors such as HVAC systems and what they do to the air, and filtration systems, and even if you knew all that, you don’t if the person sitting next to you will sneeze, and even if they do, you don’t know if it’s dust, a cat at the house of their significant other, or the Corona Virus. You. Don’t. Know. You don’t know all the science regarding the transmission of a previously unknown virus and the efficacy of various kinds of masks to prevent its spread under various kinds of conditions.

You don’t know what steps have been taken, if any, to mitigate the C- minus rating. You DO know you love their Mongolian Beef and your heart tells you they’d benefit from your business, and “how bad can a C-minus really be anyway?” (purely hypothetical illustration).

So you’ll make a decision and jump in one way or the other either landing on the affirmative or refusing to jump in, and you’ll do so without fully knowing. That’s just the way it is.

This reality is part of the Apostle’s Creed that begins with “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth...” instead of “I KNOW that God the Father exists and is almighty and the maker of heaven and earth.” We don’t know. We believe.

I’ll note that when I tell people what ”I believe” about Jesus, they’re generally far more open than if I begin by pretending to have bomb proof certainty about my faith beliefs. Bomb proof certainty leads to arrogance and argumentativeness, not dialogue. And our faith in Christ is, by the way, called “faith” for a reason!

3. Almost no decisions depend on blind faith

So, we need to put our faith dollar down somewhere on the table, in spite of the fact that we don’t have all the evidence. And we will, and it won’t be because of coin toss, or a random guess. We’ll look at all the factors and, in many cases, the competing truth-claims, and then we’ll decide. Yes, there will often be competing truth-claims, not just about the resurrection and masks, but about vaccines and mail-in ballots, the 737 Max and the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross, and nearly everything else in life.

You’ll weigh competing factors, often instinctively and quickly, sometimes slowly and thoughtfully. Either way, you won’t, or shouldn’t, just ‘jump in.’ As I shared in the previous post, maturity is about discernment, and the reality, almost indisputable by virtue of factual evidence, is that a huge number of people in America have atrophied their discernment muscles. I say this because there’s so very little we agree on these days:

We can’t agree that the Post Office is trustworthy

We can’t agree that the FBI can, generally with the exception of a few bad eggs, be trusted

We can’t agree that the there’s Systemic Racism in America, or such a thing as White Privilege

We can’t agree that police are mostly good, hard-working people, seeking to keep the peace

We can’t agree that humans have anything to do with the warming of the planet.

Among American adults, it appears that there are about 80 million adults on both sides of all these questions, and both sides are mostly certain they’re right.

As I said in the previous post, there’s truth about each of these statements - but we don’t know the truth with bombproof certainty, or maybe even at all. But we’ve landed, and most of us have landed hard enough that we won’t be moved.

How did each of us land where we did on these various issues? We’ll that’s the subject for next week's writing... For now, maybe we can agree that all of us who claim to know so much have an exercised an element of faith in our truth-claims. Maybe that would make us a little more humble, a little more open to correction, a little more like St. Francis who “sought more to understand than be understood.” That humility, in itself, would be a good place to start.

Still to come:

4. You place your faith where the evidence points

5. The evidence depends on credibility and knowledge you don’t have -

6. Credibility and Knowledge are tied to TWO THINGS:

7. character/references

I look forward to our continued conversation...


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