Redistributing falsehoods isn’t the same as finding truth

Redistributing falsehoods isn’t the same as finding truth January 22, 2014

Suppose I told you that I don’t believe in Ohio because the Gospel of Matthew says it doesn’t exist.

After the initial surprise, you would — as a friend — set about trying to convince me not to believe such falsehoods. That’s falsehoods with an “s” — plural — because I’ve just told you I harbor two equally false and equally outrageous delusions: One about the fine state of Ohio and the other about the Gospel of Matthew.

You can’t do everything all at once, of course, so it makes sense to tackle these one at a time. So you decide to start with Ohio.

“Ohio does, in fact, exist,” you assure me.

“It can’t,” I reply. “The Bible tells me so.”

You let that go, for now, because again — one thing at a time. You show me some maps. An Ohio quarter. You point out that the American flag has 50 stars — one for each state, including Ohio. And then you correct me when I identify Columbia as the 50th state.

“That’s why it’s called the District of Columbia,” you explain.

“That’s crazy,” I reply. “You’re saying that more than half a million American citizens pay taxes but don’t get to be represented in Congress? You’re saying that the capital — a city named after George Washington himself — is built on taxation without representation?”

But you let that go too, for now, not wanting to get sidetracked.

You show me pictures, videos, the ticket stubs from the Great American Ball Park, Progressive Field and Fifth Third Field that you collected last summer on your Midwestern baseball vacation.

I’m wavering, but I’m torn. The evidence is pretty overwhelming, but I still have to balance that up against my firm commitment to the Gospel of Matthew as part of the inspired Holy Bible.

So finally you shout “Road trip!” and you bundle me into my car and drive with me to Ohio.

And there it is, under my feet and all around me, and my delusion crumbles. I stop clinging to one falsehood and come to accept that, yes, Ohio does in fact exist. But I’m still clinging to the other falsehood — to the other half of one two-part falsehood.

“The Gospel of Matthew is wrong,” I say.

But you can’t leave me there. I don’t just mean that you can’t leave me there on the side of the highway outside of Youngstown (you may want to, but we’re in my car, remember). I mean that you can’t leave me there, disabused of one falsehood but still clinging to the other.

Now you have to address the other half of my delusion.

This is not optional, for either of us.

You’ve shown me that I was wrong to think that Ohio does not exist and now you must show me that I was wrong to think that the Gospel of Matthew says otherwise. Because it doesn’t. And thus whatever responsibility you had, whatever obligation you felt, to correct the half of my delusion pertaining to the existence of Ohio applies equally to the half of my delusion pertaining to the Gospel of Matthew.

Perhaps you’re a New Testament scholar and this is your particular discipline. You teach classes in this stuff. You’ve spent years studying it. In that case you might feel a particularly urgent obligation to correct my misconception about what Matthew does or does not say about the existence of Ohio. But it doesn’t matter if you’re not a New Testament scholar any more than it mattered that you’re not a representative of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

You’re still my friend and the truth is still the truth, and if either one of those things matters to you, you can’t just leave me clinging to an unchallenged, unquestioned falsehood about the Gospel of Matthew.

This is true even if you don’t like the Gospel of Matthew. Maybe you had an unpleasant experience in a community theater production of Godspell. Maybe you’re a rabbi who has long criticized the way Matthew’s Gospel has been used to reinforce anti-Semitism. Maybe you’re a committed atheist who also feels a responsibility to convince me that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of myths and fairy tales and that I need to reject the whole book along with all my ideas about an invisible friend in the sky.

None of that outweighs the simple fact that the Gospel of Matthew does not say that Ohio does not exist.

And so, since we’ve got five hours to kill and there’s nothing on the radio as we cross through central Pennsylvania, you set out to correct the second half of my delusion. You remind me that the Gospel of Matthew was written more than 19 centuries ago by people who had never heard of the Americas, let alone of Ohio. You note that the New Testament was written in a form of Greek that did not have a word for Ohio. You fish the little green Pocket Testament League New Testament with the Psalms out of my glove compartment and read all 28 chapters of Matthew out loud in the King James Version, and then you dig that copy of The Message out of the back of my Yaris and read them all again in Eugene Peterson’s modern language.

Maybe, if you’re that community-theater refugee, you’d have to grit your teeth when you got to “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Maybe, if you’re that rabbi, you could take the opportunity to challenge the Gospel’s troubling statements about “the Jews.” Or maybe, if you’re that atheist, you could include little tangents where you discussed things like the flat-out scientific impossibility of the feeding of the five thousand.

But in any case, you could emphatically demonstrate that — as a matter of indisputable fact — the Gospel of Matthew never claims that the state of Ohio does not exist.

And again, it doesn’t matter who you are, this is just as important as the earlier step of proving that Ohio does, in fact, exist. It’s important for all the same reasons that it’s always important to replace falsehood with truth and to replace factual inaccuracy with accurate facts.

But it’s also important for one more reason: It’s the only sure way to avoid the worst-case scenario when you’re dealing with a situation like this. And that worst-case scenario is Very Bad.

What happens in that worst-case scenario is this: You do half the job, and then allow me to do half a job on you. You convince me that Ohio does, in fact, exist, but then I, in turn, manage to convince you that this means the Gospel of Matthew is wrong.

And thus the total cumulative level of delusion and deception remains unchanged.  You’ve convinced me to abandon one falsehood, but you’ve allowed me to retain the other — and now I’ve convinced you to adopt it with me. All that achieves is a slight redistribution of wrongness. We remain, collectively, just as far from the truth as when we started.

That should never happen. Even if you’ve never heard of the Gospel of Matthew before I mentioned it, and even if have no idea whether or not it has anything to say about the existence of Ohio, you should know enough not to take my word for it. You know what I had to say about the existence of Ohio, after all, and if I’m so utterly, completely, massively wrong about that, why would you decide to accept my expertise on the New Testament?

You wouldn’t. Or, at least, you shouldn’t.

And yet people do. People do this all the time.

This worst-case scenario, alas, is not as hypothetical as the rest of the clumsy analogy sketched above. This worst-case scenario even trips up otherwise very smart people like Neal DeGrasse Tyson. Tyson is a brilliant communicator when it comes to popularizing complex scientific ideas. But he’s also apparently a young-Earth creationist.

Or, at best, he is a credulous believer in the hermeneutics of young-Earth creationism. And that’s wrong. Accepting the hermeneutic claims of young-Earth creationism is just as wrong as accepting its claims about biology, geology or the “evidence” for Noah’s flood.

“You read, say, the Bible, the Old Testament, which in Genesis, is an account of nature, that’s what that is,” Tyson said to Bill Moyers. That’s an invocation and affirmation of Ken Ham. That’s a declaration of the wisdom and interpretive expertise of all young-Earth creationists.

And that’s a mind-boggling bit of illiterate nonsense which is every bit as factually wrong, anachronistic, and genre-illiterate as the assertion that the Gospel of Matthew is a geographical treatise on the American Midwest.

This is what comes from only doing half the job. This is what comes from only perceiving half the job.

Tyson knows that people like Ken Ham are utterly wrong and utterly untrustworthy when it comes to anything at all about the world, or the universe, or the sciences. And yet — bewilderingly, perversely — Tyson has accepted that Ken Ham as a credible and trustworthy source when it comes to the meaning of the book of Genesis.

No, it’s worse than that — Tyson has decided that Ken Ham is the credible and trustworthy source for determining the meaning of the book of Genesis. Screw the rabbis. Screw the seminaries. Ignore anyone who can actually read Hebrew. Just go with what Ken Ham says: “Genesis … is an account of nature, that’s what it is.”


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