Psychologists, political scientists, and sociologists have been fascinated over these past few years by the way countries (ours in particular) are becoming divided not just over goals and policies, but over what’s real. “What the facts are” is now in dispute on issue after issue. It seems that what we claim we “know” has more to do with the circle we locate ourselves in than it does with evidence.
Example: I “know” spring arrived this year on March 20 at 6:29am local time. How do I know? I looked it up on the web. But how do I know I should trust that website? What if every website, book, and calendar agree? But they get their information from astronomers – the calendar-makers don’t use the telescopes themselves. Maybe the astronomers are lying, or figured things wrong. Or maybe they’re telling the truth but the telescope-makers have been using the wrong calculations to calibrate the telescopes. You get the point: Even with such a simple thing as the date of spring I can’t “know”: I have to trust lots of other people, from calendar designers to astronomers to engineers to mathematicians. Our “knowledge” isn’t ours: It’s built on a web of skills and information held by others whom we decide to trust, not by us.
And this is why people can disagree on “facts.” If I trust, for example, the community of scientists that claims that human-caused global warming is real and an existential threat to civilization, my trust in that community will lead me to call human-caused global warming a “fact.” If, in contrast, you trust the community that says there’s a conspiracy of scientists to make those claims and that they’re in it for the money, your trust in that community will make the conspiracy a “fact” to you and warming a “falsehood.”
“Facts” grow from communities: and “facts” are based on whom we trust, and almost never on experience we can have, or tests we can make, by ourselves alone. Almost every “fact” is really a “belief” – in the community we choose to trust about the topic.
Which brings me to the resurrection of Jesus.
We say in the Creed that we “believe” Jesus rose from the dead on Easter. At this point you should be ready to say we believe it because we trust a community of people who have information and skills we ourselves don’t. (Catholics may also claim – truly, I believe – that our belief is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. But we have to trust that guarantee; and we’re right back to the question, who do we trust?)
Our belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes to us through a chain of people through the generations – from the first witnesses, to the writers of the accounts in the Gospels, to the scribes who copied those manuscripts and the translators who allow us to read them. At each stage you can ask the question, Is the (witness, writer, scribe, translator) accurate and trustworthy? And there’s a huge literature from scholars and critics at every stage, available for anyone who wants to dig into it. (One tiny example: the Greek New Testament on my shelf has footnotes on almost every page listing the alternative spellings and the words that are occasionally added or omitted in the early manuscripts of the Gospels and the other New Testament texts. Experts have to make a choice about what is the most likely original text, based on all the evidence. We trust them when we hear the texts at Mass, or read a translated Bible. It’s the community of experts that gives us the text we have. Some Bibles, as you probably know, omit certain books that Catholics believe belong; this comes from a disagreement among experts at the time of the Protestant Reformation. We trust – and thus read the Bible according to – the experts of our own tradition, believing they are guided by the Holy Spirit.)
To “believe in the Resurrection” is to join oneself to the community that carries that belief through history. That’s one reason we recite the Profession of Faith every Sunday: we’re the community that holds these things as true. Personal doubts are common and understandable – rising from the dead is a tough claim to embrace. We rely on others we consider worthy of trust – for us, the generations of scholars, saints, preachers, and ordinary Catholics going back to the eyewitnesses – when we embrace that claim. In this Easter season we might offer a prayer of thanks for all of them; and we might redouble our determination to live a life worthy of what we have been given. Until next week, peace.