July 22, 2017

The Tyranny of Evidence


Text: Romans 8:24b: “Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?”

It breaks no news to tell you that we live in an age fixated on proof. We demand evidence. We expect the leaders of government, of institutions, of medicine to make data-driven decisions. We have handed over our sports teams to the statisticians. We expect the scientific evidence to solve every crime, cure every disease, and untangle every mystery.

You know all of that. The coming of this culture, the shift away from thousands of years of human history open to, and tolerant of, the endurance of mystery and the idea of the spiritual as equally real to the material—all of that is a thing of such scale and such importance that it has become a major theme of our intellectual life since Max Weber first wrote about the idea of the “disenchantment of the world” over a hundred years ago. His basic claim about disenchantment, about the disappearance of the whole realm of the spiritual and mystical, was that it was at the very heart of what it meant for civilization to cross the boundary from the medieval to the modern.

Weber was one of those thinkers whose work was so important and so profound that there are scholars who study him. One of those scholars, Richard Jenkins, summed up this big idea in these words:

“In a disenchanted world everything becomes understandable and tameable, even if not, for the moment, understood and tamed.... [T]here is the increasing scale, scope, and power of the formal means-ends rationalities of science, bureaucracy, the law, and policy-making.”1

Now let’s face some home truths about this. We are people of faith. We are inheritors of a tradition of belief, not a tradition of proof. Our faith emerged at the very moment the world was beginning this shift from the medieval to the modern.

We have for centuries been saying of ourselves that what makes us distinctly Anglican is that we hold together in creative tension the three sources of scripture, tradition, and reason. What that means in practical terms is that we try to live out a commitment to see each one of those things in the light of the other two, and resist the temptation to let any one or the other of them claim first place.

To put it in different words, our faith was designed to be a kind of bridge connecting the world of belief to the world of evidence.

But we know that there is a bit of a problem there. It feels like this bridge we have carefully built is one that fewer and fewer people feel they need to cross anymore. We live in a moment in which people seem persuaded that they can have the fullest possible human experience only ever living in the land of fact and evidence, and never venturing outside it.

And the people who derive power from their command of the systems of evidence and belief—the TED talkers and the opinion-writers— are more than willing to encourage this idea. Just as the people who once derived their power from their command of religious systems of power, the popes and the cardinals, were more than willing to stand against the beginnings of scientific discovery.

Saint Paul wrote to the Romans a couple of thousand years ago, but he anticipated our circumstances with uncanny foresight. He saw clearly the discomfort, the anxiety, that comes from living in a moment of dramatic change and fundamental shifts in the tectonics of our culture.

And he knew that in such times, just as in the days he was writing, people would settle for the sure thing rather than the greater hope.

Because the greater hope is not something you can prove on the basis of evidence. There is no dataset for hope. There is no DNA evidence. There is no randomized control trial.

There is only an assertion about ultimate reality that you do or do not decide to take on faith—not on proof, but on faith.

Our claims on that score are no small matters. They have to do with the nature of God, the fundamental characteristics of human nature, the absolute truth of the sacredness of human life and the need every human confronts to be reconciled to God, and the way in which we are supposed to live because of all those claims. There is nothing small about any of this.

But none of it can be proved on evidence. You can make a case on inference—you can point to the fullness of human life that people know when they live in this way—but against the standards of our own day, that is not proof. It’s not a lot more than a Facebook post.

That is our circumstance. And what we as disciples must remember is, it is the circumstance of everyone who has chosen to stay put on the island of facts, content to be ruled by the tyranny of evidence, living in a place where all that can be called real is that which can be proved.

It won’t do to argue against science, because all of us are willing beneficiaries of science. It won’t do to demand a return to the mystical and enchanted past—as some people do these days with guns and bombs—because that will only harden their determination to remain safe in the confines of evidence and build walls against the demands that faith imposes.

Instead, we need to start here: We know that there is something about us that seems oriented toward living in this way. To see what I mean, consider a story that appeared in the New York Times this past week. The story reports on studies that show the less religious you are, the more likely you are to believe in U.F.O.s, and that folks who rarely attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts.

It isn’t the fact that humans need to believe in something that makes our faith true. That is up to God, the God who has been revealed to us in the record of scripture, the God who has been sought and loved and followed by thousands of years of our ancestors, the God whom we, we who are disciples, we who are not satisfied with being prisoners of the tyranny of evidence, the God that we sense in ways we can’t prove but know are true.

Here’s what the writer and philosopher Marilynne Robinson has to say about the hour in which we are living:

“The long-prevalent belief that what is proposed as truth or reason can only be credited in the degree that it is consistent with the strata of physical reality by any means available to our senses is mistaken.”2

The disenchantment of the world is, itself, a lie; or at least, a different, and dehumanizing, fiction.

So what we have to do, what disciples have to do, is to find, to exemplify, and to share the fullness of life that comes with living with a balance of knowledge and belief—of being people who navigate by evidence, but live by faith. We have to show, not just with our words but by the choices we make with our time and our words and our dollars, that we are the inheritors of the abundant lives Jesus made possible for us—abundant exactly because it does not ask to limit our lives only to what the evidence can prove, but allows us to reach for the justice, the mercy, the compassion, and the love that only faith can reach for in hope. Amen.

1. Richard Jenkins, “Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium,” Max Weber Studies 1 (2000), 11–32.

2. Marilynne Robinson, "Old Souls, New World," Harvard Divinity Bulletin Spring/Summer 2017, 23.