In my early years as a professional Geologist and a Christian, I was dismayed and puzzled by the defence of the literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 stating that scientists were in a conspiracy of deception. Why scientists might do this was never articulated, as the premise of those involved in scientific research is to discover truth.
Later as a practical theologian I wrote a number of texts on the dialogue between science and faith to demonstrate the complementarity between these two ways of exploring the truth about creation and the burgeoning environmental crisis. Those denying the reality of climate change have also disappointed me with the suggestion that environmental scientists are seeking to mislead the world.
Does this help in our understanding of today’s ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories?
Recently some videos have been posted online claiming to show empty hospitals as evidence that the coronavirus pandemic has been exaggerated. These have provoked a strong reaction from healthcare officials, who encourage the public to heed government advice in the face of this dreadful pandemic. Yet some people want to get on with selfishly living their lives as if there was no emergency!
In the United States the conspiracy theories about the recent election results have proved to be more disastrous and dangerous with the storming of the Capitol building in Washington DC.
Disinformation and claims of ‘fake news’ have dominated the rhetoric of the White House over the last four years. There has been a consistent attack on the media as purveyors of lies rather than sources of truth, while the President’s representative Kellyanne Conway, during a ‘Meet the Press’ interview in January 2017, used the phrase ‘alternative facts’ in defence of the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers at Donald Trump’s inauguration.
‘Alternative facts’ is a phrase that occurs in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where we find four ministries of the government of Oceania: The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These deliberate ways of ‘doublethink’ are designed to exercise power and control over the masses.
At the beginning of 2021 The Guardian expressed the conviction that everyone deserves access to information that’s grounded in science and truth, and analysis rooted in authority and integrity.
So how should we as Christians respond to conspiracy theories, alternative facts, ‘fake news’, and a denial of scientific facts?
Our experience, what happens to us, has both inner and outer elements. Inner elements include thought, feeling, memory, attitudes, hopes, hang-ups, values. These are not objective, but intimate and subjective. Our honesty and level of self-awareness will affect how we personally handle truth.
We see this in the film A Few Good Men (Columbia Pictures, 1992) with Tom Cruise as Lt. Daniel Kaffee; Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessep; and Demi Moore as Lt. Cdr. Joanne Galloway, where perception of and the interpretation/value of the truth is at the heart of the court case, which dominates the film. At the climax of the court scene where Jessep is caught in a lie he shouts out: “You can’t handle the truth!” The film explores how each of the characters represented in the film discover the truth about themselves and the truth by which they live. It revolves around Jessep’s comment/question about whether or not they can handle the truth by which they seek to live.
This film triggers thoughts of Jesus on trial before Pilate, where we find that Jesus declares his purpose is to exemplify the truth, a statement that leaves Pilate musing, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:37-38). In his commentary, The Message of John (IVP, 1993) Bruce Milne notes that in a world of illusion and unreality, Jesus offers the one true reality which is found in a relationship with God. Milne then wonders if Pilate’s question indicated the wistful longing of a professional politician, steeped in the daily compromises, the prudential balancing of forces, the application of ruthless power, the half-light world of greys and polka dots where people grope wearily for truth and the soul withers and dies.
Jesus might well have said, ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ But for us truth is not in a book or a creed but in a person; Jesus who said “I am the way, and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth” (John 18:37).
As Christians we should measure the truth presented by politicians, scientists, economists, and medical personnel by what we learn from the life of Jesus. Do the views presented in the media accord with the Gospel of love, are they true, and do they build up the people of God’s world?
The call to us today is the same as in the days of Micah 6:8…. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
This PS was originally published in longer form by Ethics Daily.
John Weaver is a Baptist minister, formerly a tutor at Regent’s Park College Oxford, principal of the South Wales Baptist College, Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Cardiff University, current Vice Chair of the Industrial Christian Fellowship, and a former president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. He is chair of the John Ray Initiative: connecting Environment, Science and Christianity, and his main areas of interest are practical and pastoral theology, and the dialogue between science and faith.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.