The poet Maya Angelou is quoted to have said, “There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”
I never did finish college. Having an existential crisis involving issues of sexuality, a loss of faith, and psychological duress is not conducive to study! For a period of about 2 years I attempted to convince myself that I would live purely by the facts, the scientific, the observable and falsifiable. But it eventually became apparent to me that something was missing. I felt empty. All my background in science and learning left me with the facts of my life and an ability to analyze them, but helpless to do anything with this information. The truth of my life, the meaning that connected the fact-engendered dots, eluded me. It was then that I started on the path that led me to becoming a Unitarian Universalist, and after more than a decade I still see evidence that we have not overcome the false dichotomy of science vs. faith, of fact vs. truth.
Science and faith are not of necessity at odds with one another. In truth, I would contend that they can both be seen as tools in our human search for understanding. Which tool one chooses to use primarily is likely based on one’s personal experience.
If we take Angelou’s quote at face value, we may be tempted to conclude (if we equate facts with science and truth with faith) that science can and does obstruct faith. That faith is the better tool to use. However, in addition to the statement “facts can obscure the truth”, I would argue that facts help to reveal truth as well.
When I was a very young child, I loved to play outside in the dirt and observe all the little creatures that lived in our garden. By the time I got to high school, my interest in nature and in science was great. I took six science courses in 4 years, half of these in my senior year.
But I have also always had a love for language, for music, and for culture. Ever since my earliest years growing up in Irvington, NJ, I have been blessed to have friends who come from many different places around the globe. I have always been surrounded by Spanish-speaking peoples. I studied Italian, Greek, German, and French, besides a host of other languages. When I entered college in the fall of 1997, I had no idea which direction to go in. Should I follow my interest in science? Or should I go with my passion for culture, focusing on language and music?
These were and are some of the facts of my life. But at some point, a decision had to be made about the truth of my life.
In Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity (which is subtitled “Rediscovering a Life of Faith”, so if the word Christianity has too much baggage feel free to engage in mental gymnastics and leave behind the fact of the word and hear the truth of the statements he makes), the renowned professor of Religion and Culture explores a paradigm shift in Christian worldview from that of a tradition of divine authority that is literal-factual to one primarily of metaphor, human response, and transformation. Borg asserts that faith is at the heart of Christianity, and provides four ways to understand what faith is — assensus, or faith as belief; fiducia, or faith as trust; fidelitas, or faith as loyalty and commitment; and visio, or “faith as a way of seeing the whole, a way of seeing ‘what is’.” If we take this last understanding of faith, we might start to see facts and truth working in concert with one another, even as we choose to see through one lens or the other. To me, science (or the facts) provides the dots and the lines of our daily lives, the material in which we exist and with which we work to understand life as we know it. To me, faith (or the truth) provides a holistic understanding that goes beyond reason and intellect; it is what connects the dots of science and that which allows us to read between the lines of factual existence. We may be able to factually describe what happens to us when we experience emotion, awe, and wonder; but for me, the power of language, of story and myth, was and is the more transformative path. However, I believe we need both the facts and the truth in order to fully live.
In fact, my main academic interests growing up were science and language. In truth, learning several different languages opened my mind to different ways to view the world, and life in general. Language helped me to understand the sciences as other forms of communication and understanding. In his book, Borg goes on to explain the Latin word credo, which is usually translated as “I believe”, splitting it into its constituent parts of ‘cre’ (think cardiac) meaning ‘heart’, and ‘do’ (think donate) meaning ‘to give’. When I say “I believe”, it is with this understanding of giving my heart to something, which is different than believing something intellectually – with mind.
Again, I believe we need both the facts and the truth in order to fully live. May we Unitarian Universalists continue building bridges between them.