Religion Magazine

The Facts of the Matter?

By Nicholas Baines

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Remember this? “Humpty Dumpty to Alice in ‘Through the Looking Glass: ‘When I use a word,’ he said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’” It’s no wonder Humpty ended up having a great fall.

The point of language is to allow for a common comprehension – mutual understanding between different parties. If we all, individually, get to choose what meaning we attribute to particular words, it is not only communication and comprehension that break down – so do relationship and society. Language matters.

Now, the reason that quote comes so readily to mind is that we now seem to live in a world in which comment is king, perception is everything, and meaning has become subject to individual whim. In his response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Donald Trump said this: “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Set alleged culpability aside for a moment and what is noticeable here is this novel understanding of what facts are. A fact is a fact, even if, as Mark Twain wryly observed: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”. What can it mean to “agree with the facts”? To disagree with facts is deliberately to choose to ignore reality – and that would prioritise ideological prejudice over reality. As Aldous Huxley put it: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Yes, facts have to be interpreted, but that’s a different question.

Facing reality, however inconvenient, is essential to honest living and the functioning of a reasonable society. The Old Testament prophets told the truth about the danger of short-termist thinking when establishing military and political alliances – and were roundly ignored until their people went into some miserable exile. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but kept talking about carrying crosses and the dangers of gaining the world and losing your soul. I don’t understand how people who think the earth is flat or that a theory of evolution is some satanic conspiracy manage to integrate all this.

There is no alternative but to live in the real world and face the challenges that throws up. Religious faith that has to be kept in some sealed compartment lest reality intrude is, in my view, not a faith worth having. If God can’t cope with the real world as we know and experience it, then what is the point?

As Christians now approach Holy Week we need no reminding about harsh reality. Fantasies of political liberation will soon bleed into the dust beneath a cross. And the disciples will find their world turned upside down as they are confronted by the power of death – an inescapable fact of life, but one which will prove not to have the final word.


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