What’s the capital of Switzerland? It was a relatively simple question for Eva, our German exchange student. She had been to Switzerland and she had stood in the capital. “Bern,” she said confidently. “No, anyone else?” the social studies teacher paused briefly then added, “The capital of Switzerland is Zurich.” To be fair, when Eva told me this story, I was unsure of the capital of Switzerland. I might have answered Geneva. But when she told me it was Bern, I knew I was wrong. Eva argued with the teacher, “No, it’s Bern. I know this. I’ve been there!” “Maybe Bern is the capital of Switzerland in Germany, but here in America, it’s Zurich.”
I have used this story often as an illustration of the problem with the Texas educational system. But more and more I’m seeing it as an illustration of how facts have become fluid in our culture. Politicians spew facts to support their positions, yet the presumed Republican nominee, gets his facts wrong more than three quarters of the time. Politifact fact checks the political candidates; they find Donald Trumps facts to be “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” 76% of the time. All candidates mis-speak, exaggerate or spin facts to support their claims, of course, but Clinton or Sanders can be expected to get the facts right as often as Trump gets them wrong. This isn’t a partisan issue, by the way, Jeb Bush’s rating is about the same as Clinton and Sanders.
The truth is hard to come by. Besides having politicians and pundits misleading and misinforming us, so called scientific research is also often misinterpreted or mis reported. A study can be widely publicized as new information. Yet often it can’t be replicated, sometimes the data is found to be faulty, or the design of the study is flawed. When these things happen, the correction is rarely reported as widely.
We tend to trust the facts that either come from a trusted source or support the conclusion we already lean towards. As one guest on Radio Times put it this week, the way we think is more like a lawyer and less like a scientist. That is we tend to argue for our own “side” even to ourselves and we easily dismiss facts that counter what we already believe to be true.
The same is true in church, right? We tend to believe the facts that support our own preconceived opinions. Evangelical churches are growing. I hear this quoted to me often during meetings or training, like it’s a fact. I was a fact, but we can’t make a claim that broad these days. A year ago the Pew Research Center reported that the number of evangelical protestants was showing a slight decline (0.9% decline in 2014 from 2007), but remaining relatively stable. Mainline protestants, on the other hand, showed a more marked decline over the same seven year period of 3.4%. Who’s growing? The unaffiliated. The “nones.”
So what does this mean for people of faith as we grow in our understanding of God and our place in the world God created? When I was fourteen or fifteen, I made a decision about my faith. I decided the basis of my faith in God and Christ needed to be large enough and strong enough to withstand the fact-checkers. Being a bit wonky myself, I embraced scientific thought and reason as a gift from God to help us learn about the world we inhabit. So, my foundation couldn’t be something that could be “proved” wrong. It was also a commitment to be constantly curious about the world, to keep trying on new ideas, and to discipline myself to see it from the other side whenever possible.
Lately, I’ve discovered, I’m as biased as the next person, though, when it comes to interpreting facts. I’m more likely to believe it if I hear it on NPR than on FOX. I’m more likely to trust theologians and scholars from Presbyterian seminaries over evangelical seminaries. I’m more likely to see the world through the liberal lens.
I pray though, for an open mind and heart. I pray that the Spirit speaks wisdom to me through the facts. I pray that Christ continues to reveal truth, even if that means giving up hold on the facts I was once convinced of.