This is an idea I’ve been tossing around for a little while. It’s not fully fleshed-out, may still need some work, so I hope you’ll understand if it’s got weak points. (In fact, if you find some, please let me know via the comments section below; credit will be given where due.)
I call the idea The Reality Test. It’s meant to be a double-check of any purported statement of fact or tenet of belief, or of those making the statements or holding to the tenets. The Reality Test is a single question:
“Does this assertion or belief match up with what I and others have observed about reality?”
Pretty simple, right? When someone says something that seems a little off, give it The Reality Test. Does your own experience corroborate or contradict the statement? Does it jibe with what you know about the field to which the statement is applicable? Does it square with my core beliefs, those tempered by experience and study, about how the universe works? Or, for that matter, with the stated core beliefs of the person making the assertion? In short, does it agree with reality or try to go against it?
To a certain extent, we use something like The Reality Test every day. When your boss tries to convince you that the (latest) reorganization will help the company, when your child is making excuses for why their homework isn’t done, when your spouse is attempting to justify an expensive purchase, you apply a version of The Reality Test on the spot, and shape your response accordingly. This is just a codification of that same instinct. It’s not perfect, obviously – sincere beliefs can still be sincerely wrong, and there has to be room left for faith (to cover what reason cannot) – but it should help sort out the more fragrantly obvious examples of horse manure.
Let me give you a few examples using The Reality Test, and then I’ll go into why I’m bringing this up right now.
“Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” — Ronald Reagan
Not to pick on Ronnie – this is just the first easy example I thought of; I’m sure I could find a Clinton quote that works just as well. For The Reality Test, this is a batting-practice softball. Trees produce oxygen – I learned that in grade-school science class – as well as leaf litter and other detritus that harbors entire ecosystems. What is considered “pollution” (carbon monoxide, airborne toxins, et al.) is not produced by trees at all, and is most certainly produced by automobiles. Plus, from my own experience I have found the air and water in California’s forests to be much more healthful and clean than the air and water in, say, an auto repair shop in Stockton. Therefore, President Reagan’s statement fails The Reality Test.
Here’s a tougher one, one that at the time it was stated was largely scorned:
”The earth revolves around the sun.” — Galileo Galilei
You may recall that Galileo’s spiritual overseers – the Roman Catholic Church – officially rejected this statement, and have looked rather foolish for doing so ever since. (Don’t get uppity about it, though, Protestants – Luther and Calvin rejected it too, on largely the same grounds.) One could say that they used The Reality Test – going by their own observations of the sun rising and setting, as well as those same terms being used in the Bible – to come to their conclusion. But they did not acknowledge the reasons for Galileo’s view – his own observations of the sun and earth – which would produce the exact same phenomena, and his observations of other planets and the moon. I’d say that given those factors, a true application of The Reality Test would bring a result of “inconclusive, but deserving of further study.” In short, when using The Reality Test, it doesn’t pay to be too dogmatic.
One more example, from another eminent scientist:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” — Stephen Hawking
This has been getting a lot of recent play in discussions I’ve seen as “Hawking’s rejection of God” and whatnot. But I would say that on a scientific basis, this statement doesn’t hold water. Gravity can’t explain the Big Bang – since gravity attracts, and the Big Bang is the ultimate example of repulsion – or other forces like magnetism or strong and weak nuclear forces. It certainly can’t explain the idea of spontaneous creation, which violates one of the core tenets of philosophy and cosmology: ex nihilo, nihil fit (nothing comes from nothing). It may not be necessary to invoke God, but you have to start somewhere, and gravity doesn’t have the qualifications to be the Prime Mover. So this time The Reality Test says, “barring the introduction of different scientific evidence than what we now have … sorry, Steve, but epic fail, dude.”
Okay, all this seems pretty obvious, you say – so why am I wasting perfectly good bandwidth on it?
Well, for my wife’s sake, that’s why.
Nina (aka the Supermodel) has been attending a particular congregation on Sunday mornings for almost four years. But she’s been increasingly discontented with the situation there. They urge people to “be in fellowship” … but they only mean to keep attending the weekly services, when there is almost no chance to interact with one’s fellow parishioners, and therefore no “fellowship” in any true sense. They also emphasize “worshipping God” … but employ a heavily regimented music time featuring a high-volume rock band, so there is little opportunity to interact with God, either – thus largely circumventing the possibility of actually worshipping (paying attention to, regarding as worthy of praise and adoration) Him. Opportunities to serve others in the context of the weekly meetings are also truncated; when Nina (a professional teaching assistant with over a decade’s experience) volunteered to teach children’s Sunday school every week – at a time when the pastor claimed they were desperately short of teachers — they refused to let her, allowing her to do so only once a month.
Still, she’s stuck with it, for the sake of our daughter’s spiritual growth (and our son’s, before he became too ill to participate) and for what fellowship she could glean “between the cracks” as it were. But recently, the sermons – and make no mistake, this congregation, like most American congregations, build most of their ministry around the weekly sermons – have been getting strange.
Not “strange” as in “blatantly heretical” or “strange” as in “the guy on stage is acting like a schizophrenic.” But … well, the preacher did a several-week series on Heaven that according to her fell rather flat. Granted, Nina has had to deal with the subject of Heaven lately more than some – she has reason to believe her mother-in-law is there now, and for a while it looked like our son would be there soon as well. So to her (and I), Heaven is a real place, not on this planet, but somewhere; this is, in fact, the traditional and historical view of Christianity. And it seemed to her as if the preacher treated it more as an abstract concept to consider than as an actual location.
Then there was the time several weeks back where the preacher used clips from the disaster movie 2012 (based on the idea that the pagan Mayans predicted the world would end on December 21 of that year – which, incidentally, they didn’t) as a jumping-off point to discuss Jesus’ return. Only he did so in such a way that you couldn’t tell from his preaching whether or not he thought Jesus was coming back on December 21, 2012. (You also couldn’t tell from the follow-along sermon notes in the bulletin that day – I looked.) Nina had to e-mail him to find out what the heck he was saying; his response clarified that no, he didn’t believe Jesus was locked into a 12/21/12 ETA, but didn’t state what he does believe about His return.
And last Sunday, I picked her and Charlotte up from the meeting (usually they get a ride home, but this time no one there was willing) and asked her how it had gone. Apparently the sermon was about “being lost,” and the main thrust of it was that even if you’re lost, God will find you. Which sounds reasonable enough … unless you believe that God is infinite and omnipresent (everywhere). Which, in fact, is basic Christian theology, not to mention Nina’s and my experience; even the times when we wanted to hide from Him and His influence, we uniformly failed. And if God is everywhere, He doesn’t have to find you – He already knows where you are, because He’s already there! The rest of the sermon (again, I later checked the follow-along notes in the bulletin) pretty much stated God’s ability and desire to save anyone from eternal torment … but only an infinite God can be assured of being able to follow through on that.
After Nina told me that, I took a moment to reflect on that and some of the previous episodes (only two of which I related above; there have been more) and said, “Nina … I think that place is failing The Reality Test.”
Her response was something like, “mmm … yeah.”
A “fellowship” without much fellowship … a “worship service” that hardly allows for worship … centered around teaching messages that aren’t clear about what they’re teaching … from an organization supposedly dedicated to an infinite God in Heaven but which doesn’t seem to grasp the basic concepts of either infinity or Heaven …
… mmm … yeah, The Reality Test has something to say about that.