The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Truth and Facts
Maya Angelou said, "There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth." But hopefully, as John Winsor, said, "The truth does not contradict facts."
I resort to pithy quotations to open Notes today, because the relationship between truth and facts is tricky. From my perspective as a religious advocate for eco-justice, both are essential, and it is important to recognize the difference.
In this week's lead-up to the People's Climate March and Tuesday's UN Climate Summit, let's consider two strategic examples that show the qualities of each approach.
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A poster child for "facts" is the "24 Hours of Reality" webcast on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. An annual production of the Climate Reality Project, this year's theme was "24 Reasons for Hope." Al Gore, chair of the Climate Reality Project, hosts the marathon session. If you were not glued to your computer screen to witness the flow of the program -- and I confess that I didn't tune into it at all! -- the website has a wealth of materials. Each of the 24 reasons has a variety of ways to "learn more."
Ben Adler, reporting/commenting on Grist, lead off his story about 24 Hours of Reality by saying, "Al Gore still loves his graphs." And as I look through the 24 Hours website, I do see an impressive amount of information buttressing each of the reasons for hope: "the cost of rooftop solar is now competitive with utility rates in many places" (hour 2); "faith communities are embracing renewables" (hour 10); and "key financial institutions are realizing dirty energy is a bad investment" (hour 21).
Al Gore's distinctive gift to the climate movement has been his marshaling of facts and details in accessible and compelling ways. He broke open the climate crisis in public conversation with the 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth", and he has trained multitudes of volunteers around the world to do variations of the slideshow. 24 Hours of Reality continues in this vein, providing us with everything we need to know about hopeful trends and options.
I give thanks for the diligent work of scientists, economists, and advocates to provide solid, reputable, factual information about the climate crisis. They have revealed to us the scope and urgency of human impacts on creation. Those details continue to emerge (yesterday's news: "Earth Has its Warmest Summer and August on Record") and to be refined (the three volumes of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report this year, detailing current research on climate change). Those facts must be known, honored, and heeded. But they are different from truth.
My vivid example of "truth" for this week is tied to the "Whistle Stop Rally" that was held in Denver on Tuesday, when The People's Climate Train came through on its way to the New York march. One of the event organizers introduced me to a song that I've come to love, and that we used during the rally.
The song, "Do It Now", is the heart of a "Sing for the Climate" initiative in Belgium in 2012. During a two-day period that fall, 80,000 people gathered in 180 town squares to sing the song as an expression of political unity. A month later, 300,000 school kids, in 725 schools, also joined together in singing. There was some marvelous community organizing involved in this big project, and some superb video productions. The initiative was very influential in getting the Belgian government to commit to strong action on climate change.
Al Gore's 24 Hours of Reality filled a whole day with graphs, interviews, and presentations. "Do It Now" condenses the message into four short verses, and the second verse really sums up the whole thing:
We're on a planet that has a problem.
A friend wrote back, after I'd shared a link to the "Do It Now" song, "The singing video brought tears to my eyes."
The "Do It Now" song presumes the body of facts about climate change, but it does not name them or dwell on them. It moves from research and information to an assertion of truth: We're on a planet that has a problem. Like the framers of the US Declaration of Independence, the facts are taken as beyond debate. "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
Truth does not contradict the facts (as Winsor said), but truth does not get so bogged down in facts that meaning is lost (as Angelou warned). We claim truth when we're convinced that we are beyond analysis, beyond the need for more basic studies. Truth takes the vast body of information, and declares it to be powerful, meaningful, and of moral importance.
Facts allow us to say, "this is reliable." Truth leads us to say, "we need to start right now."
When hundreds of thousands of folk clog the streets of Manhattan on Sunday, they are not gathered to list facts. They are marching to join in diverse expressions of truth -- that the science and the reality are clear, and that we are at a moment that calls for action.
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An announcement of truth fits well with prophetic religion.
Dust off your Bible, and flip through the gospels. Look at the prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea. Remember Moses and the encounters with Pharaoh that led to the exodus. The prophets declare truth, God's truth, to a world that has forgotten what is most real.
The prophets don't rely much on a recitation of facts. There are some details named to ground the message in specific situations, but they don't depend on footnotes to peer-reviewed research. Indeed, the prophets were often inclined to reject the established experts: "You have heard it said ... but I say to you."
The prophetic tradition, in a time of great crisis, calls the church is to announce truth. That can be hard for us. The style of the liberal church is often "to have a discussion" where we can debate facts and feelings. (Last spring, I moderated a local church debate on fracking with "both sides" represented.) There can be a time and place for those discussions.
But when the crisis is real, when the stakes are as high as they are in this time of climate chaos, we need to move quickly past the recitation and discussion of facts. Faithful churches will announce truth -- truth that we have come to believe is self-evident -- truth that calls us to act for the healing of creation.
Yes, I am grateful for those who have developed the compelling facts. I am motivated, though, by those who announce truth. May we, individually and as churches, be clear and bold in announcing the truth that calls for urgent action for climate justice.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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