What regard do we, in our current culture, have for truth, precision, honesty, veracity, and verifiability? What makes something “true?” How do we “know” something, anything? What criteria do we use to decide whether something is credible, believable, or valid? I am going to write about critical thinking on Thursday, but for now I want to respond to three people who have asked me to explain in more detail something I wrote about in an earlier blog concerning “veracity panels.” Don’t look up the term; it is something I made up, but found invaluable when I was doing research for the denomination (United Methodist). Essentially, it is simply fact checking; looking into claims, theories, and “discoveries” to see how “solid” they are. The approach was to gather an odd number of people together who held/hold widely different and often diametrically opposed opinions about a wide variety of topics, specifically our theology, polity, and social witness.
Two examples. In the late 1990s, I chaired the denomination’s Task Force on the Relationship of Science and Theology. This was an incredibly rich and diverse team of people, looking to clarify the United Methodist position on a number of issues (evolution and creationism, climate change/Global warming, age of planet/solar system/universe, genetics and bioethics, etc.) and create resources for use in local churches (“In the Beginning..” award winning series, for example). I was invited to debate a young pastor at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville on “Creationism and the Dangers of Scientific Fallacy.” To prepare for this event, I gathered a group of Vanderbilt religious studies students to work with me to look at the broadest and deepest range of research and study in this area. I intentionally invited a dyed-in-wool creationist, a very conservative Christian educator, a biology student (Christian), a geology student (non-Christian), a lay person from a local church, and a geneticist from Vanderbilt medical center. I assembled an outline of topics and resources, divided them among the team, and we spent a month reading and researching, watching videos and talking with experts in the field. We covered the full spectrum from strict creationism to intelligent design to multiple attempts to blend creationism with evolution through natural selection to strict scientific (even anti-religious) methodology and analysis. This wonderful team of people arrived at a consensus that evolution through natural selection provides the most thorough and defensible explanation of our diverse and ever-changing ecosystems, and that creationism is a declaration of faith, not a scientific explanation. We may choose to believe whatever we want, but veracity lay with evolution through natural selection (despite any gaps, contradictions, ambiguities, etc.). Together we generated a resource listing that weighed in at 61 pages — not bad for a months labor of people who began their journey mired in deep disagreement. My opponent for the debate offered one central argument — “because the Bible tells me so,” and when we shared our support documentation, he provided a single sheet, naming one book written by an Australian creationist, two works of fiction, and five articles — all written by himself. I don’t offer this first story as a “nyah, nyah, see how smart and right I am;” everyone is free to continue to believe whatever they want, but this provides one example of doing the research – of looking deeply into a subject from the very best sources, including everyone across the spectrum. I find that we are living in a culture that lacks the courage to engage in such rational and intentional processes to move us from opinion to a more solid foundation. Were we to engage in veracity panels across this globe concerning the coronavirus and best responses, I feel we would be making better progress. The same with our politics. The same with any and all conspiracy theories.
The second story I offer because it gives me personal hope and shows the power of a veracity panel. I won’t go into the details of the process; it was essentially identical to the first. But I will talk about the outcomes and the importance of moving from opinion to a more credible truth. The focus was climate change. In this case, we dealt with people not only offended by the science, but for whom this was a politically charged issue. For three individuals, climate change was a hoax, a delusion, ridiculous and ignorant. It was a liberal rant and fantasy. The different element with this issue was that many of the people on the panel were receiving the majority of their “facts” and information from politically aligned corporate and social media outlets. Let me just say, Fox, CNN, MSNBC, BBC, and all other 24-hour “news” peddlers have distinctive biases on this subject, as do politicians representing various constituencies in various settings. Neither corporate/social media not politicians are the best sources for making decisions about the sustainability of our life on earth and the impact of human beings on the environment. Let me also just say that once you crack the door open into the vast vault of minds, hearts, souls, and spirits who ARE good sources, you cannot slam it closed again. That is not my opinion; it is the collective opinion of the three most staunch critics of global warming and climate change at the beginning of our experiment together. Not only did the three have their minds changed, not only were they able to admit the danger of their ignorance, all three have since become crusaders for sustainability, green living, and awareness raising; one even changing the entire course of her career to work for climate justice. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but a lot of good, solid knowledge can transform the world.
We can “know” more than we think we do, and we can investigate “truth,” but it only comes through intentionality and an awakening that doing good is more important than being right. Our world is suffering under the weight of an enormous amount of unnecessary ignorance. We can learn – together, and we can grow – together, and by God’s grace, we can become – together – a healthy, respectful, sustainable global community, not tossed too and fro by every wind of doctrine, but by the best thinking of the widest range of thinkers. This is a matter of desire more than ability. We have the ability to learn, but we seem to lack the desire. This could be where the church comes in. What if United Methodists made a commitment to model integrity and fidelity where learning and reasoning apply? What if we worked together to reason and research our way through some of our differences of opinion? What if a basic standard of our life together were simply to verify and support our thinking with some solid consensus? Perhaps this is beyond us, I don’t know. But I will continue this line of thought Thursday, for what it’s worth.