My children would have loved to have access to those when they were little. “I didn’t break that glass, the manufacturer failed to make it to a high enough standard.” “No way, you broke the glass. Don’t lie”. “I’m not lying, I’m giving you an alternative fact.”
We often accuse politicians of thinking we are stupid.But when we let someone in power tell us that there are such things as “alternative facts”, well, we’re just making it too easy for them. Why do you need an alternative fact? Is it because the fact at hand isn’t working for you; because the fact at hand doesn’t help you control the story?
Lots of people who grew up in America about the same time as me have had to unlearn lots of “alternative facts” about gay people, black people, women, and Catholics to name a few. It took a long time to unlearn that stuff. It was important we learned those facts because they told us where we were and without them, we were lost and America was in danger. Or so we thought.When I look back, those facts seemed to be about diminishing those we didn’t like, who we felt threatened by, who we wanted to keep down and keep in their place.
In the world of real facts, I like the pilot of the plane I am flying on to know how much fuel is in the tank. I like the doctor to know that dark spot on my ear was a benign nothing to worry about. I like my pay slip to match the amount of money actually deposited in my bank account. I am willing to accept that facts can be spun, used to serve many arguments and contexts but I can’t accept that they have alternatives. An empty petrol tank can’t be full. A loaded gun can’t be empty.
It might seem amusing to have a religious person talking about alternative facts. People might accuse us of having a preference for them, but we really don’t. I believe Jesus’ death on the cross repaired a fundamental wound in the fabric of the cosmos. I believe that God created the world. That Jesus rose from the dead and that following the living Jesus is a crucial part of putting the world back together. These aren’t alternative facts. They are my starting points for who I am and how I engage with the world around me.
I can’t “prove” anything I believe in. I can’t show you photos or statistics or metrics. I believe in powerful eyewitness accounts. I believe that those who have gone before me have offered a powerful world changing tradition and experience. I believe my fellow believers and I have had powerful experiences of our own. Just as I can’t “prove” these, they can’t be disproved either.
In life, my beliefs have to coexist with facts. Facts like gravity, church electric bills, members’ lists and officers. Jesus lived in a real place, under a real Roman Empire, in a real century, died on a real cross with the story written in real Greek.
Truth is important as a way of navigating between faith and facts and getting the best out of both. For instance, factual information about how human activity negatively impacts creation around us leads me to put my reaction in faith terms: how does God feel about what we are doing to a creation he brought into being with his own words and breath? Facts lead me to seek faithful action.
A desire for alternative facts is a desire to hide the truth and hide from it. It is a desire to hide our inability to handle that truth. It is sad for a president of the USA to line up a bunch of Christian preachers to see him into office and to not have one of them point out the folly of his approach to the truth and facts. It is sad they chose not to school his staff in the ways of letting truth be truth.
If they had chosen to do some schooling, they might have told him about Psalm 15:
Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord?
Who may enter your presence on your holy hill?
Those who lead blameless lives and do what is right,
speaking the truth from sincere hearts.
Those who refuse to gossip
or harm their neighbours
or speak evil of their friends.
Those who despise flagrant sinners,
and honour the faithful followers of the Lord,
and keep their promises even when it hurts.
Those who lend money without charging interest,
and who cannot be bribed to lie about the innocent.
That’s a hard road to follow and it is guaranteed to have stumbles and falls and restarts. But people who walk the road will be better people for it. Had those preachers done their duty, they would have pointed out that truth leads us to a better place both in the world and in our souls. It’s a shame they didn’t agree with the Psalmist whose words are for everyone whether they are kings or peasants or presidents.
The short message of the Psalm is this: the one who walks this way walks towards the light. The only alternative to light, is darkness.