Questioning authority.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 November

Which I do. Which we all should do. Regardless of how much it irritates the authority.

I’m a trained skeptic.

Seriously. I have degrees in both journalism and theology. In both fields, we’re taught to ask the question, “Is that really true?” Don’t swallow whole what anyone tells you. Anyone. Fact-check it.

In journalism, that’s done by finding a valid authority on the subject, and a second source to corroborate the first one. (I know; internet “journalists” seldom bother to find that second source, but they never went to journalism school, and it shows.) In theology, find a proof text, and make sure you quote it in context. One will do; more is better.

Problem is, people are very, very used to having their every statement accepted without question. So when I ask “Is that really true?”—just doing my duty as both a journalist and theologian—they take offense. What, don’t I trust them? Why not? What’s my problem?

Since I give most people the benefit of the doubt, no I actually don’t think they’re lying. (Usually.) But I know how human nature works. I know how gossip spreads. People spread stories because they’re interesting, not because they’re true. People believe stories when they confirm what they already believe, and reject ’em when they don’t. Good people can unintentionally be very, very wrong. Happens all the time. Happens to me.

Hey, humans aren’t all-knowing; they aren’t God. And some of us actually are evil. Like politicos who deliberately spread lies about their opponents. Like kids who bully their enemies. Some Christians have a political axe to grind, so their teachings are always skewed to suit their views. If I just met someone, I don’t automatically assume this is why they’re wrong: Give me time, and I’ll recognize the pattern of partisanship, overzealousness, anger, and other fleshly motives. But most folks are just honestly mistaken.

Still, that self-preservation instinct kicks in, and people are quick to attack my simple doubts as if they’re frontal assaults: “What, d’you think I’m lying to you?”

Fr’instance when I question a theological statement—“You claim everything happens for a reason, but I notice scripture states some things are meaningless”—I get accused of being some sort of unbeliever. Maybe my denomination didn’t teach me how faith works or something. Maybe my time in seminary turned me into a secret heretic or nontheist. (Dark Christians tend to be afraid education will lead Christians astray. Unfortunately this creates the unwelcome side effect of prizing stupidity.)

When I question a political statement—“I agree the government shouldn’t do that, but I don’t agree the solution is for government to do nothing”—people usually assume I’m from the opposition party. Progressives assume I’m Republican. Conservatives assume I’m Marxist. (Yep, not Democrat; Marxist. They leapfrog liberalism and go straight to Marxism. Must be my anti-Mammonism.) I understand their confusion; I don’t hew to any one political party’s platform, ’cause I’m trying to follow Jesus, who’s conservative on some issues, progressive on others. But just as often I am on the same side of the issue, and trying to keep my own side honest. I’m dealing with someone who never asked the basic question, “Is that really true?” and trying to weed out any false assumptions or evil intentions which might’ve crept in.

To be fair, there are more diplomatic ways of asking the question. Like “My experience has been different.” Or “I notice [contrary evidence]; how do you answer that?” My problem is I tend to be brief—which gets interpreted as blunt. And if you’re a pessimist, you’re gonna assume I’m out to debunk you for less-than-noble reasons.

Plus there’s also the fact the first time we find something like “Is that really true?” in the bible, it’s said by the serpent in Eden. Ep 3.1 More than one person has objected to my even asking the question, solely because the devil did so too. I gotta point out our motives are entirely different. It never really cared about truth. I do.

Regardless of how kindly I put it, people are still gonna get annoyed when I won’t automatically accept their statements. It’s a pride thing. They wanna be right. Sometimes they wanna be authorities. (Sometimes it feels like the least-informed among us really wanna be authorities the most.) So however I phrase the question, I still brace for backlash. ’Cause it’s usually coming.

Fear and falsehoods.

As I said, people spread stories ’cause they’re interesting. A lot of times, what makes ’em interesting is they’re scary.

In the early days of the internet, I’d get email from “concerned”—make that fearful—citizens. A claim the government was up to no good, or wasteful, or immoral. “Proof” some big business was greedy, destructive, quietly undermining Christianity, or bashing our troops. Socialists were warned Republicans wanted to round up the poor and put ’em in internment camps. (After this election, it’s now Muslims.) Christians were warned the FCC intends to ban religious programming. If you believe in the black helicopters, you likely get regular updates on what they’re up to. Whatever news pokes people directly in the irrational part of their soul, faster than you can say “Spam!” it was emailed to their entire contact list. Nowadays people stick it on Twitter and Facebook, but I know some oldtimers who still prefer the “Forward: All” button.

I used to get real life U.S. Postal Service mail of this crap. Seriously. I don’t know how I got on the nutjob mailing list; I’m betting it was the Family Research Council. Anyway, unsolicited fearmongers would send me the latest evil plans the Soviets were making about Israel. The secret goings-on of the Trilateral Commission. The atheists’ petition to pull Highway to Heaven off the air. When the internet got big, they moved online, so I don’t get nut mail anymore. Now it’s nut email. But I’ve been inoculated by years of seeing such things. Plus Snopes really comes in handy. (No, it’s not 100 percent accurate, but it’s still way more accurate than your typical fearmonger.)

Bad theology is just as persistent. If I’ve dealt with it in the past, I’ll notice it immediately, but I’m pretty sure some of it is still slipping past me: I picked up a whole lot of junk in my 21 years as a Christian before I ever took a theology class. I’m not infallible, so I know I probably have a few favorite false beliefs of my own. Relax; the Holy Spirit’s still rooting ’em out of me.

But the reason they won’t go easily, is ’cause false beliefs tend to be deeply cherished. We keep ’em because we like them. They suit us. They tickle our ears in just the right way. And sometimes we’ve reordered our lifestyles around them. Pastors have based entire ministries on their favorite heresies.

That’s why my question, “Is that really true?” galls people so much: They really resent the danger they’re wrong—and will have to significantly change their lives. But they like their lives. And hate change. And hate me for threatening change.

True of even their fears. I know; cherished fears? But yes indeedy, such things exist. Some of us love to imagine ourselves as the oppressed minority, the all-but-vanquished, noble holy warrior, fighting till the end like Leonidas at Thermopylae. (The difference for Christians being that at the very End, Jesus will return and vindicate us.) I’m not saying there aren’t real foes in the world. There are. I just remind you Jesus already conquered them. Jn 16.33 Christians are meant to play offense, not defense. Plus it’s awfully hard for American Evangelicals to claim they’re a nearly-defeated minority when their candidate surprised everyone and took the White House.

“You and your head knowledge.”

I tell ya though: When I say, “Is that really true?” it’s a little wearying to be the only one in the room who dared to ask the question. And some of y’all aren’t very good at hiding the fact you’re thinking, “There Leslie goes again.” Nor do you have an idea how often I get rebuked for being all “head knowledge” and no “heart knowledge.”

What’s that mean? Properly defined, heart knowledge is supposed to be the stuff we know by experience, and head knowledge is the stuff we learned from books: We read about it, but we’ve not yet lived it.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s way better to learn from books, and not experience, that genocide is bad, that vaccination is important, that pollution can kill, that sin has terrible personal consequences. The reason God handed down so many commands saying, “Thou shalt not,” is because he doesn’t want his people learning these truths for ourselves the hard way. Rightly so.

Where “head knowledge” is a problem, is when there’s no compassion attached to it. No love. No grace. Legalists will crack down on a Christian for violating a command, and forget God places a way higher priority on forgiveness than penance. But if you don’t have love, stands to reason you won’t follow your Father properly.

But I’m not actually getting rebuked for putting knowledge before grace. There’s an improper definition of “heart knowledge,” and it’s growing in popularity: It’s now the stuff you feel to be true. Head knowledge is still intellectual knowledge, but we’re to prioritize the non-intellectual stuff—because supposedly it’s supernatural in origin. They figure God put it in their hearts.

Bears a remarkable similarity to what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” And it’s just as lying, self-deceptive, and false.

Meh. My personal motto remains, “Test everything, and grip fast to what’s good.” It’s actually a combination of 1 Thessalonians 5.21 (which is about testing prophecy, but I apply it to everything) and the Clan Leslie motto. Testing everything means I’m always gonna ask, “Is that really true?” because I’m always gonna seek truth. No matter where it leads. Even if it leads me someplace I don’t like. Doesn’t matter how I feel; only matters if it’s true.

Plus I figure God can easily stand up to testing. Frauds and fools won’t. I certainly strive to. As should we all.