Science, history and truth, reflections from the swamp


America has been transfixed by events in Washington, D.C. over the last two weeks. Allegations of sexual assault against a candidate for the Supreme Court have poured gasoline on an already-raging fire in the body politic.

Judging by the emotions on display on Thursday, Sept. 27, both Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh have been deeply and irreparably harmed. As much as I grieve for both them and their families, I grieve even more for the damage that has been done to our community.

I am angry that so many politicians and pundits have done everything in their power to set Americans against one another. They have left us no place for peace. They have done their darnedest to fan the flames of contempt and hatred that their own side feels for the other. 

There are three elements that make this possible. First, the question itself is binary. There is no middle ground between yes and no. Second, we cannot help but form an opinion about the question. Whether we speak it out loud, or not, it is there. Third, are the emotions. Satan is always busy stirring up feelings of outrage and scorn for anyone holding a contrary opinion.

We have had enough of the feelings. I don’t want to talk about them today. I will only say this much: Stop and think about your own emotions. When you have a different opinion from someone else, why do you become angry? Is that rational? Is it helpful? Is there another emotion that could be more helpful?

You can ponder these questions for yourself. What interests me today is the question of truth. The emotional urgency that has been stoked in all of us has produced some fascinating results that destroy one of the most commonly heard falsehoods of our day.

The postmodern worldview is a part of the air that we breathe. It claims that truth is subjective and relative. “You have your truth, and I have mine.” Facts and logic are swept from the field leaving emotion to rule the day.

This postmodern way of thinking at first was applied to religion. People would say, “you can believe in God if you want, but I choose not to.” Questions about the ultimate truth of God’s existence and nature were ignored in favor of questions about subjective choices in each person’s heart. 

In this worldview, there is no room for the objective question of whether God exists quite apart from your belief. It is as non-sensical as saying “you can believe in gravity if you want, but I choose not to.” In fact, that is precisely where postmodernism has taken us. Once religious truth was denied, all truth claims were placed on the chopping-block. 

In morality, values-clarification exercises teach that there are no moral truths at all. There is just a process that each person must find within the self. Process theology teaches that God Himself is always evolving so that one fixed and final Truth simply does not exist.

In the field of psychology, mental disorders are being redefined as mere differences. This denies the very existence of mental order. In the field of biology people are asserting crazy things about human sexuality that they would never dream of saying about animal sexuality. Last week, for instance, nobody ever thought to ask the female grizzly bear how she identified. 

But if the furor of the past couple of weeks has done anything, it has exploded the myth that truth is subjective and relative. Nobody in his right mind can possibly say, “Judge Kavanaugh is speaking the truth; and Dr. Ford is speaking the truth.” No matter the side of the question on which you find yourself, you cannot say both things.

Pointy-headed philosophers may assert that truth is only a construct of the individual mind. But when “your truth” and “my truth” come into conflict, both must give way to “the truth.” Individual minds meet in the real world and what happens in the real world determines what is true. 

That brings us to a second point. Truth is about history. Science can tell you what might have happened or what could happen in the future. But only history can tell you what actually did happen; and only tomorrow can reveal what will happen.

This week we have been inundated with the word “credible.” That comes from a Latin root and it means “believable.” To say that something is credible is not saying that it happened or that it didn’t happen. It is only saying that there is no known reason why it could not happen.

It is credible that the sun will rise tomorrow. But whether it actually does depends on whether or not Jesus returns in glory between now and then. On the other hand, it is not credible that I played a football game in 1960 for the simple reason that I didn’t exist then.

In our day we are fascinated by the ability of science to make predictions. We can calculate the motion of objects and land a human being on the moon. We can measure the erosion of a stream and project backward to what it looked like a hundred years before.

But we should never forget that the predictions and suppositions of science are never more than educated guesses. Whether they actually happened in history can only be known by history. Despite all the scientific predictions about Apollo 13, it did not actually land on the moon. All of science’s best calculations of stream erosion can only be validated by a photograph from the past.

This brings us to a third important point. The truth or falsehood of assertions about the past ultimately depends on people. People manned Apollo 13 and watched it from mission control. A person snapped the photograph of our hypothetical stream bed. More than that, only that person can tell us when he took the picture.

Truth is history and history is told by eye-witnesses. Absolutely everything that you know about history has been handed down to you through a chain of people. What we call prehistoric is actually “pre-people.” The history actually happened, but if nobody was there to witness it, we cannot truly know it.

The truth exists whether or not you ever learn of it. But knowing the truth depends on the people around us. Some people are reliable witnesses who give us true history, and some are unreliable witnesses who give us falsehoods. Our lives are enhanced by those who tell us the truth. Our lives are made poorer by those who don’t.

That brings us back to the beginning. The deep sadness of our current turmoil is the fact that lies are being told with impunity, and not just in Washington. We have falsehoods taught in our schools, in churches, in the press, in Hollywood, in literature and in science.

With every lie, real people are hurt. The cancer is spreading and there’s only one way to combat it. We must each make a personal commitment to the truth, to seek it out diligently and to follow wherever it leads. Our very lives depend on it.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.

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