12 May 2021

False knowledge, and how it’s confused with faith.

There are plenty of people who “just know” things.

And man alive, are they frustrating. Y’see, they can’t tell you why they know what they do. They don’t know where they got their knowledge, nor what it’s based on. Not that it matters where they got it: They believe it. You can’t tell them any different.

But they’re wrong. It’s false knowledge.

I’ll tell people something they’ve not heard before, and they’ll respond—whether in Sunday school, my classrooms, or the workplace—

THEY. “Why, what you’re saying can’t be true, for I know different.”
ME. [patiently] “Well your knowledge is wrong. Relax; we’re all wrong sometimes.”
THEY. “Nope; can’t be. I know this.”
ME. “Okay, maybe I’m wrong. So prove your case. Show me why you’re right.”
THEY. “Don’t need to. I know I’m right.”

Every once in a while they’ll really try to prove their case. Turns out there’s a thousand holes in their reasoning. Easy to see, easy to chip away at. But they can’t see the holes. And don’t really care there are holes; it doesn’t matter if they prove their point; they know they’re right.

It’s not that they actually believe what they do for logical reasons. Humans aren’t logical. We believe what we do because we find it convenient to believe it. Helps when it’s actually true. But even when it’s not, people will push aside all evidence to the contrary, grasp at any evidence they can find in their favor, and believe what they please anyway.

Certain Christian apologists call this behavior “postmodernism.” It’s not. (If anything, postmoderns are frequently the ones demanding, “Prove it.”) Not that postmoderns aren’t just as guilty of this behavior: Everybody does it. Moderns, postmoderns, everyone. It’s not a worldview thing, not a cultural thing, not a political thing, not even a sin thing. It’s a human thing. We’re comfortable with our beliefs, and don’t wanna change ’em, even if there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Change is too inconvenient.

I had to be trained to not think this way. First journalism school, then seminary: We were taught to question everything. Everything. My first journalism professor was fond of saying, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out!” Which sounds ridiculous at first… but you do realize there are a lot of dysfunctional mothers out there, who have very distorted definitions of love. Turns out she might not love you; whatever she’s feeling is neither khecéd nor fílos and agápi. Shouldn’t have presumed; now you see why your relationship is so f----d up.

There are naturally skeptical people who automatically question everything. Or so it appears; there are certain beliefs they take for granted, and you’ll find ’em once you drill down far enough. They might be nihilistic about a lot of things, but at their core they’re pretty sure they’re right about a number of things. Cogito ergo sum, at least.

But more often people are comfortable with the knowledge they believe they have, and are willing to trust it. Their minds are made up. Doesn’t matter which way the evidence points: There’s no higher authority than their minds.

It’s why people refuse to believe in climate change, or in an ancient earth, or insist humans are inherently good (regardless of our obvious depravity). Conversely it’s also why people believe in connect-the-dots theories and conspiracies. And it doesn’t matter how much evidence we have of a screw loose in their reasoning: They’re right. They know so. Can’t tell ’em otherwise.

In 2005 Stephen Colbert famously identified this as truthiness—that people believe what they do because they feel it’s true, rather than know it’s true. (And to a large degree it’s also because they feel it’s true; these “facts” are possessions or creations of theirs, so there’s a lot of selfishness bundled with ’em.)

True, false knowledge has a lot of similarities to truthiness. But unlike truthiness, it’s usually borne from apathy. People believe as they do because change and repentance take more effort than they care to spend.

It’s like fact-checking a headstone. My grandfather’s headstone actually has his first and middle names reversed. But nobody bothered to spend the money to fix it. And nobody’s gonna. Cemetery records, and eventually genealogies, are gonna have his names flipped for ages to come, all because nobody cares enough to fix the error. False knowledge has just this kind of effect on real knowledge… and often a much bigger impact.

So yeah: Truthiness has a lot of feelings involved in its practice and propagation. False knowledge has no such feelings. Gets propagated all the same.

No it’s not faith.

Christian faith, properly defined, is faith in Christ Jesus. We trust him.

But of course you can put your faith into all sorts of other things. You can trust your car to start, unless it’s not trustworthy; trust your job to be there waiting for you, unless your boss isn’t trustworthy; trust the earth’s gravity to keep pulling you downward, which is great when you flop into an easy chair. Trust and faith mean the very same thing, even though “faith” tends to be seen as a religion word, and people imagine it has some unique religious meaning. It doesn’t.

Well, it doesn’t unless you’ve redefined it to have some other meaning. Like “the supernatural ability to believe in goofy nonsense”—as demonstrated by people who totally believe in goofy nonsense. And justify it because it’s “faith.”

When I try to correct people’s false knowledge, and they insist they already know better, it’s obvious they don’t have faith in me. They have faith in their knowledge. Which is false, but they don’t care enough to determine this. They’re fine with it. They’re comfortable.

When I challenge those beliefs, they’re not comfortable. None of us likes to find out we’re wrong. Some of us simply don’t have the humility to ever be wrong. This is what riles up their emotions; it’s not an emotional attachment to their favorite falsehoods, so much as it’s an emotional attachment to “I’m good the way I am.”

What is a human’s knowledge based upon? Ideally, there’s something solid behind it. Some valid experience. Something taught by a solid teacher. Some divine revelation, confirmed by fellow Christians. A proper interpretation of scripture. An experiment, performed dozens of times, which yields consistent results. A math or logic formula. Something which can be proven or confirmed whenever questioned.

But we’re not always taught that. We’re taught whatever we’re taught, by both conscientious and lazy teachers. By truth seekers as well as con artists. By people who truly hear God, and preachers who have no idea what he sounds like. We have wheat and weeds in our minds, but unlike Jesus’s parable, we gotta spend our whole lives long weeding it. That’s a lot of work! And naturally, there are a lot of people who don’t care to do any such work: “I’m good the way I am.”

That’s where they’ve put their faith. Not in Jesus; not even in the ideas. Themselves. They figure they’re wise enough, clever enough, put together well enough, to be kind of an authority figure when it comes to this particular belief. Why’s it true? Because they say so, and that oughta be good enough for anyone. It is for them.

So it’s faith in themselves. But if we’re talking a religious belief, it’s actually quite dangerous to put faith in ourselves. We’re instructed to put faith in God. Trusting myself and my cherished ideas, instead of God and his servants, means I’ve chosen my own way, not his. As Christian as I might make this sound, it’s not Christian at all. For if my mind’s made up—“I’m good the way I am”—not even the Holy Spirit himself gets to challenge or change me. And part of being Christian means the Spirit has every right to do this.

Submit all knowledge to God.

Faith is meant to be based on something solid, not our personal comforts. Christian faith is meant to be based on God, not our comforting falsehoods about how good we are as-is.

The Holy Spirit made it obvious to me, back when I was a know-it-all kid, how much I didn’t know it all. Wasn’t even close. So I started the lifelong process of trying to weed out all my false beliefs. I’m fully aware I’m not done yet; I keep finding overlooked ones. There are Christians who’ve been at it far longer than I have, and they can tell you the very same thing. This world is pretty messed up… and so are we.

So yeah, in so doing I’ve learned a lot about God. It’s why I blog. It’s the result of decades of study and personal experience. I have no plans to stop studying and seeking those experiences: I might be mistaken, and sometimes I find I am. I try to make sure my beliefs and knowledge are based on something solid, instead of things I “just know.” I am not the solid point to stand upon. That’s meant to be Christ Jesus. I’m sand.

Nor do I put things in my brain, then lock my mind behind them. True, I may hold on to certain ideas pretty tight, for I’m pretty sure they’re good ideas. (Or they appeal to me, anyway; they’re not always good. I’m hardly infallible.) But I do know where I got ’em. I have evidence for them, and figure the evidence makes ’em worth keeping. I know, more or less, whether they can stand up to Christ. And every so often, just in case my biases are blinding me, I test ’em again.

Now, if you believe in absolute truth (and you unwittingly put your faith in that, instead of God), my process might sound like something which would drive you bonkers. Because many people cannot stand the thought of uncertainty. Even little uncertainties. They wanna know stuff. They want all the truths sorted out, lined up, and constructed into a perfect worldview-castle. And then they can live in it.

I’ve met plenty of Christians like this. They’ve got some faulty bricks in there. A wobbly foundation. A retaining wall which’d fall down in any earthquake. Especially the earthquakes the Holy Spirit sends us. In practice these Christians nearly always trust their constructed worldview… and not so much God. Turns out God’s only one of the bricks, despite how often they claim he’s the foundation.

The true foundation? Their mind. They trust their mind. They built the castle, y’see.

I stopped believing in perfect worldviews a long time ago. I don’t need one. I only need Jesus. I need the Holy Spirit to correct me when I go wrong. I trust he’ll sort out the world for me so long that I keep following him. Mt 6.33 He’s supposed to be the one building his kingdom anyway; what business do I have building my own castle?

I don’t presume I have the truth; certainly not a comprehensive truth. I expect the Spirit to guide me there. He demands my submission, so everything gets filtered through him; I make no exceptions for my favorite beliefs. If they gotta go too, okay. I trust him, not myself.

That’s Christian faith.