Recently, a woman described on social media a conversation on an airplane with another woman sitting beside her, a stranger. She described how talk about ordinary things led to the woman beside her unexpectedly sharing how she deeply regretted doing something in her past, something controversial. The writer said little, and listened sympathetically.
Various people commented on this story. Among the comments was one I found quite interesting: a comment disbelieving that the conversation happened at all. As far as I could tell, the commenter had no inside knowledge about the writer, the woman beside her, or the conversation on the plane, he simply chose to disbelieve it. His reaction seemed proud, arrogant, unreasonable. Why would he do this? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it had something to do with his opinion about the controversial thing that the woman regretted doing.
Most people, perhaps even myself at times, have a relationship with the truth that is sometimes more complicated than it should be. One would hope that most people believe or disbelieve things because they have done their best to find out the truth. But it seems to me that it is more common that people believe or disbelieve things because they have embraced a narrative. They believe things that fit that narrative, and disbelieve things that don’t. Yet it seems to me that it is a kind of arrogance, a sort of pride, to hang on to one’s preferred narrative, no matter what. It can be a big problem when the narrative has been chosen for reasons other than the truth, because it can lead to believing false things and disbelieving true ones, and worse, even to doing bad things, thinking they are good.
Jesus saw this in the people of his time. During his early ministry in Galilee, despite the many miracles he performed throughout the region, when he spoke at the synagogue at Nazareth, his home town, the people of the town thought, “We know this guy. He’s Mary’s son, the carpenter. Who does he think he is?” When Jesus called them out on this, they tried (unsuccessfully) to kill him by tossing him over a cliff! If you have trouble believing this rather extreme reaction, you can read the story yourself in Luke 4:16-30. To me, this story shows how Jesus’ own townsfolk strongly preferred their own narrative over the truth, despite the evidence.
I notice that the so-called “new atheists” seem to do the same thing. They claim as a principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. At first glance, this sounds balanced, even reasonable. But if you consider what it means, it seems to me to be an excellent excuse to disbelieve evidence for things that contradict your preferred narrative: simply call the thing you want to disbelieve “extraordinary”, and the evidence for it “ordinary”. This way you get to use your “principle” as a reason to disregard the evidence, whatever it is, and go on disbelieving. How convenient.
But that’s not how reality works. Truth doesn’t follow our opinions, our opinions are supposed to follow the truth. True things don’t become less true because we think they’re “out of the ordinary”. Truth isn’t subject to popular vote. Things are true because they’re true, not because we hold particular views about them. As for evidence, the evidence we get to rely on is the evidence we have, which might not be the evidence we would prefer.
Let’s consider Jesus. He showed up in Roman Palestine, not conveniently in a NASA lab, ready to be observed and studied. He hung out with ordinary fishermen in a backwater of the Roman empire, not with the movers and shakers of his day. Christianity has been, from its very origin, a religion of ordinary people. It is based on concrete events in the lives of people: what they saw, what they heard, what happened to them. Are these people credible? I think they are. But are they extraordinary? No, they are ordinary, humble, even simple. They speak of God’s love, of what Jesus has done and is doing in their lives. But it is not something that everyone likes. Strong narratives opposed to Christian claims are circulating in the world today, especially among educated elites. Like the people of Nazareth, many seem to me to prefer their narratives to the evidence: they cling to reasons to disbelieve. I wonder if Christianity is increasingly being left to the ordinary people to whom Jesus himself first ministered, ordinary people who are humbly open to the evidence in whatever form it comes, and are willing to follow it wherever it leads. Happily, Jesus can work with this. He will bring humble seekers to the truth they are seeking. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5:3]
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