This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on February 10th, 2017.
The other evening, on the way to a party in Tujunga, I saw a glowing sign sporting a large hand with odd markings. It appeared from out of the dusk; neon back-lit Necromancy, Tarot card readings, Fortune telling. Right there and then, with just a quick turn into the park-lot…my future could be known! What about my parish? Will our true endowment drive succeed? What of the dozens of displaced families sheltering in Central America whose amnesty visas have now been put on hold, for whom my organization is responsible? Will the dozens of school recommendations I have written for the youth of my parish prevail? Does my house meet Feng Shui standards?
Silly stuff, I know. But human beings are always looking for augurs, even in the 21st Century. We still gaze at the moon and the stars, the alignment of furniture and the positioning of walls, the entrails of animals, and the gender of children, as though, apart from our collective submission, these things have any bearing on health, prosperity or progress.
If there is any note sounding through the library of Hebrew and Christian Scripture, it is that false claims to secret knowledge must be resisted, and that soothsayers and fortune-tellers are liars. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures insist that there is One who takes the measure of all assertions, and that superstition and falsehood misguides and leads to a peril. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1).
The Western Scientific Tradition, birthed from Judaism and Christianity and their shared belief in a Creator unfolding an orderly world which can be observed and understood, brought us Enlightenment commitments in which many beyond the Western World rejoice, and which too little inform those who stand in the intellectual stream of that inheritance. “Inventing The Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism” by Larry Siedentop, is an especially good read.
The common strand in Western Liberalism is a commitment to objective truth…to the weighing and measuring, the dissection and analysis, of all assertions. Are statements verifiable, or are they designed to obfuscate?
The Jewish and Christian Scriptural narrative insists on the pursuit of truth also in the subjective realm of human relationships, in faith and governance. Justice, mercy and humility are tools by which to measure those things which scientific methods are poorly equipped to assess. No ground is given for “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” in the subjective sphere any more than in the sphere of objective fact. There remains a high bar to which all are equally held.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, a 70-year-old research and analysis division of the organization that prints the Economist magazine, stated January 31st, 2017 that the United States was no longer a “full democracy.” The EIU democracy rankings are based on a ten-point scale, with a score based on a combined rating of Electoral process, the functioning of government, political culture, voting rights, and civil liberties. A cumulative score below 8.0 drops a country from among full democracies to flawed democracies, where we now keep company with Italy, Botswana, Sri Lanka, and Mexico. Last week our new, under-prepared, and quite possibly anti-democratic president maligned our press corps, called for a return to torture, moved to exclude Muslim refugees from a peculiar selection of nations (not Pakistan, nor Saudi-Arabia, from whence attacks have actually arrived) from entrance to this nation, traditionally proud of its immigrant heritage. Civil society and core values are under duress, subjected to soothsayers who subsume fact to ideology.
Episcopalians maintain that standards of objective truth exist in the political and social sphere, and that they are essential for the social weal, for anything approaching a functioning democracy, and certainly for the pursuit of the highest and best ideals of the United States of America.
Those in our social and political culture who suggest that Truth is malleable; that there is no reasonably assessable standard by which current events might be measured, are conjuring the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:7), and subjecting our polity to dissemblance. Good governance must be fact based, reflecting a commitment to objective truth, and an engaged citizenry must insist on this foundation in discourse and argument.