Rector's Ramblings April 29, 2020
Facts, feelings, and faith are creating quite the stew these days. They’ve been playing on each other and woven together for as long as there have been human beings of course, but now and again they really go at it. As we all try to make sense of the days we’re living in, I would say we’ve definitely seen the “three F’s” combining and contrasting in powerful ways. Sometimes it’s helpful, and sometimes it seems to add to the confusion and the anxiety.
I had someone make a comment to me recently about something scientific and how it was outside the realm of the way I view the world. Their assumption was that as a priest, I rely on faith more than fact, I suppose. There are folks out there who think science and religion are still at odds in the way they were when the church was burning scientists at the stake. In reality, I consider myself a science-friendly person of faith. My first year and a half of college were spent in biology and chemistry classes and labs, and eventually I switched to Psychology. I excelled at the statistical and research aspects of that field. I generally trust good science, and I am aware that not all science is good. By good, I mean accurately tested and vetted.
I know that science does not always equal facts, either. A lot of things upon which the scientific world is built are actually theories and hypotheses. There are a lot of things we know but can’t quite describe. We know some things are constant in science and mathematics, for example, without always knowing why. Because we know they are constant, we can build off of them. Even so, new scientific discovery continues. We know things today we didn’t now yesterday, meaning what was fact once, doesn’t stay fact. I’m totally comfortable with that. This is why science is always testing its theories and hypotheses; sometimes we do learn something new and different.
Faith isn’t completely divorced from this reality, either. Lots of things are dynamic within the faith world. What we believe changes, in some ways easier and faster than scientific assumptions. This isn’t a new reality. The writer of the First Epistle of John knew this. In the fourth chapter, it cautions its audience: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…” Or, as Eugene Petersen interprets this verse in The Message, “My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God.” Indeed. Testing “the spirit” of an idea is vital to a healthy and mature faith.
I once had a colleague from another tradition wonder if I didn’t worry that my flock would read a book with bad theology. He asked why I didn’t take a more active role in telling my congregation what they should and shouldn’t be reading. My response was to explain that instead, we try to teach our congregations to think for themselves. If we use all the resources at our disposal and listen for the movement of the Spirit, nine times out of ten, the Spirit will lead us to the right “spirit”. That other time is when we already knew what outcome we wanted! That’s my hypothesis anyway; it couldn’t possibly be more than one in ten times that happens, could it?
Above (or is it below?) both facts and faith is also a powerful force: our feelings. So much of what we see and hear in public discourse is now based on feelings. If we feel strongly about something for whatever reason, neither fact nor faith will have an easy time dealing with those feelings. No one can argue with a feeling, after all. If I feel a certain way, you can’t tell me my feeling is wrong. My feeling is my feeling! I can’t un-feel it just because you feel differently, right? How we feel about a particular thing/person/idea is somewhat innate, too. Our brains are pretty powerful, and they will make sure that troubling or unpleasant stimuli are dealt with efficiently and quickly. We can feel our way to less anxiety by ignoring the fact of a situation or dismissing the faithful perspective, and our brain can do that for us. For example, if we just feel that all poor people are lazy, it’s unlikely that studies about the causes of poverty nor appeals to the example of Jesus will change that feeling.
If I had to put the Three F’s in order for how best to meet the days ahead, I’d do it this way: faith comes first. What I mean is that if we live out our faith first, leaning into generosity and service, striving for unity and community, and loving with all our hearts, most of the rest of the things around us will fall into place. It will mean making the “right” decisions becomes easier. Next, I’d lean on facts. Not opinions or hunches or pseudo-facts gleaned from the edges of the internet or the ends of the political spectrum. I mean facts that come from the most trusted places we can find them (granted those places are harder to come by!). There are still some places where we want and need experts to give us their best information. When those folks can’t access every fact, their experience and expertise means their guesses are probably better than Uncle Bob’s or the resident Facebook expert’s theories. Quantity also matters. If nine out of ten sources tell me something, I’m going to listen. I may test it against the other one, but that other one has to be able to hold its ground against the rest.
Last place is reserved for feelings. Not that we shouldn’t have feelings. Even those of us who don’t think we feel very much at all are always feeling. No, feelings masquerading as either of the first two F’s are the kind that are least helpful right now. Letting our feelings take center stage means that we will want something to be different than it is, perhaps desperately, which can be dangerous – for body, mind and soul. Our feelings are most useful when we are attentive to them and address them appropriately. If we are going to feel authentically, we have to let the feelings come and then live with them. It’s ok to be afraid, but it’s no ok for fear to drive our actions. It’s ok to be angry, but it’s not ok to turn that anger against those who bear messages we don’t want to hear. Our faith actually comes back into play in terms of dealing with feelings. We can lay our burdens and our anxieties and our anger at God’s feet through prayer.
We can ask for peace and courage and wisdom to replace them. It won’t happen all at once, but over time, the Spirit does seem to find a way to help us heal and grow despite challenges and unpleasant circumstances. The Spirit will help us chart the path between facts, feelings, and faith, much like all those cat videos on social media where cats are delicately walking through a field of objects without knocking them over (unlike dogs who bulldoze everything in their path!) “My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you.” Including this: God is good, and all will be well. Test it. Believe it. And then live it.
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for those who Influence Public Opinion, BCP p. 827.
Photo Credits: “Simmering”, via Cheryl at flickr.com, license CC BY-SA 2.0; books via piqsels.com, license CC0.