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Post-truth, Alternative Facts, and Willful Optimism

I routinely will myself toward optimism. It is easy to be pessimistic, not just lately but chronically. Recently, however, as an ethicist, I find it difficult to speak with any hope of being persuasive. For instance, in a Spectrum Sabbath School post in December , I was buzzing along writing about "character" in relation to the story of Job. “Lying,” I wrote, “was something that everyone knew was wrong and that eventually liars are marginalized in human society.” I stopped myself mid-sentence. How could I write this when someone who has been proven to be dishonest was elected to the highest office in the land--the single most powerful position on the face of the earth?

Of course, some will say, he is a politician, and all politicians lie.  We can quickly enough point across the partisan divide and see liars on both sides. But he is not just a politician. He is a businessman, operating with some measure of success in the world's largest capitalistic society. Lying, it appears, is a personally  successful strategy, and it is persuasive to others. Millions of Christians (and many Adventists) willfully chose to look past his lies. I am confused by this. I am confused by those who do not tell the truth and by those who believe the lies do not matter. Despite my confusion and discouragement, I choose to be optimistic.

The 2016 Oxford Dictionary word of the year is "post-truth."i The term has been in use for a decade or so, but it seems particularly appropriate given the political climate of both Britain and the U.S. over the past few  years. Post-truth is an adjective defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." Make no mistake, Adventists are thoroughly caught up in the grip of our post-truth society. What I wonder is if we are also completely committed to "alternative facts."

Yes, alternative facts. Apparently, it is now acceptable in regular English parlance for people to look at something physically and directly in front of us--and disagree as to what it really is. Mind you, this is not particularly new. I still recall a former POTUS attempting to maneuver his way around the definition of "is." But it seems that we have come to a point in society where scientific fact is now scientific opinion, and we are locked in ideological battles for which science, fact, and truth have little relevance. Of course, this is not new for Adventists. We have been fighting about "truth" and scientific facts for a very long time. But what does it say to our young people when their pastor and/or their church administrator(s) tell them not to believe the facts they are reading in their textbooks? "Trust us," they say, because God has revealed to us an alternative set of facts, and someday the rest of the world will come around to our view.

I do not want to give you the wrong impression. I am not in thrall to science. For almost twenty years I have been biting my tongue (not always successfully) when my clinical colleagues cite “evidence-based” medicine.ii Neither science nor scientific method is my God, but the attempt to turn our faith into science or our science into religion is wrong-headed. I will not allow science to dictate my faith in God as Creator. How God created has been and remains a thoroughgoing mystery. In faith, I revel in His creative nature. On the other hand, I refuse to allow my Church to dictate an alternative set of facts I must accept in order to be deemed a faithful member. When either church or society unnecessarily pit science against religion, it should be rejected. A story that emerges from Walla Walla College (now University) may illustrate my point. The story is well documented by historian Terrie Aamodt in her book Bold Venture: A History of Walla Walla College.iii

It seems one of the School of Theology professors held some beliefs that several church leaders felt were suspect. One of his questionable beliefs concerned the nature of Ellen White’s inspiration. An investigation ensued, and the professor was eventually called in for an interview with several college administrators . As the questioning wrapped up, the professor, Harold Bass, picked up his hat to depart. One of those who was questioning him said, “Harold, if Mrs. White had written that your black hat is white, it would be white to me.” Professor Bass responded, “God gave me eyes to see things white and things black and things in between, and as long as I am normal, I will not substitute the word of Mrs. White or anyone else for what my eyes tell me. If I do not use the senses with which I am equipped, I cease to function as a man.”iv

I choose to be optimistic in a world that now proclaims it is post-truth and that facts are not necessarily facts. Can our faith help provide a way forward? I am optimistic that our love for each other will prevail, at least locally. I know there is no good reason for my optimism, but I am very interested in the scientific research on optimism. Tali Sharot introduced me to the “optimism bias” years ago in a TED talk.v Turns out, we humans are more optimistic than realistic. We all think we are better drivers than others, more intelligent than the average person, and less likely to get a divorce. It is all statistically impossible, mind you. We cannot all be better than average; roughly 50% of all marriages fail. But go ahead and try asking the blushing bride if she has planned for the high likelihood of her divorce! Sharot notes that when the brain processes both positive and negative information about the future, our “neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information.”vi Others insist that there is good reason for us to be optimistic toward the future. Author Matt Ridley proclaims in his book, The Rational Optimist, “I am a rational optimist: rational, because I have arrived at optimism not through temperament or instinct, but by looking at the evidence.”vii Whether optimism makes sense or not, the research indicates that “optimists live longer and are healthier.”viii

Choosing to remain optimistic helps me to hear the words of Christ. “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.” (Luke 6.37-38 Message). I like the NRSV interpretation of the last phrase in the passage, “for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” I believe in the optimistic idea that human nature is malleable. Of course, some things are truly fixed by our genes. Debating against genetic science is just silly. And we have centuries of careful thought and practice across all religions and cultures highlighting human ability to grow toward virtue . It is a palpable demonstration that we can habituate personal qualities, character traits that are positive, uplifting, and Christ-like. So, yes, “the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Compassion is one of these virtues and, within Adventism, healthcare ministry leads the way. Recently, Dr. Richard Hart, leader of Adventism’s flagship Loma Linda University Health, focused his monthly newsletter reflections on care for the LGBT community.ix Aside from the focus of his note, he expresses a disposition of compassion toward others when he writes: “…we are called to meet the world where it is. It is critical that we understand, treat, and support everyone whom we encounter, regardless of their hereditary, cultivated, assigned or self-assumed sexual identity. That is what we do as health professionals. It is what our code of conduct expects of us. I don’t think anyone can argue with that.” Indeed, he goes on to ask us, What Would Jesus Do in a similar situation of facing our world with compassion and care?

This dedication to face, no immerse, ourselves into the world in which we live, empowered with Christ’s compassion and mercy, is what I value about Adventist (really, all) healthcare ministry . The most dedicated Adventists I know are in healthcare, and despite the odds, they also willfully choose optimism. They believe our massive institutions are places of grace and mercy, not just lost, formerly Adventist businesses bent on making a buck. In the physicians’ careful analysis of the best treatment plan, I am optimistic about the life and well-being of the patient. In the gentle touch of the nurse, the physical therapist, the respiratory therapist, and others, I see optimism physically playing itself out in the lives of millions. Standing next to chaplains with their extraordinary listening skills, I feel the optimism that patients draw from the presence of God’s spirit. And yes, even in the work of the finance office, there is routine optimism; somehow we will find a way to bring the poor and vulnerable alongside caregivers so they may feel the Savior's touch.

So, I willfully embrace optimism. I know it is not very rational. I know there is not enough data to suggest I should be optimistic about how we will treat each other with compassion and mercy. But in the reflection of Christ’s own life, I see, I feel, I know compassion and mercy. The healing ministry of Christ, extended through American healthcare, will continue regardless of who lives in the White House. Even in the post-truth, alternative-facts world in which we live, we can still love.

 

Mark F. Carr is an ordained minister and theological ethicist with experience as a pastor, pilot, commercial fisherman, professor, and now clinical ethicist. He writes from his home town of Anchorage, Alaska. 

NOTES:

iii  Aamodt, Terrie Dopp. Bold Venture: A History of Walla Walla College. College Place, WA.: Walla Walla College, 1992, see pages 98-104.

iv  Ibid., p. 104.

vii  Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010, p. 10.

 

 

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