…and the opposite is…???

Michael Metzger

Binary opposite?
A trio of appellate judges, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is reviewing a lower court’s decision that Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative violates the separation of church and state. Inmates at the Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa receive instruction that states: “criminal behavior is a manifestation of an alienation between the self and God. Acceptance of God and Biblical principles results in cure through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Prisoners deemed to be making “sufficient spiritual progress live in better conditions than the general population, inhabiting cells with wooden doors and using toilets that afford privacy.”1 Yet because the program is “faith-based,” Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has sued to stop it.

My question is this: what’s the alternative? What’s the opposite of “faith-based?” 200 years ago, there was no opposite. Today people imagine an alternative to “faith-based” that opens a Pandora’s Box.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-present) suggested that everyone has a need to classify people, places, and things – to impose order on our lives. He argued the most common means of classifying something is contrasting it with it’s opposite (such as good and evil, white and black, old and young, high and low). Levi-Strauss called it “binary opposite.”

Describing a prison program as “faith-based” leads people to imagine the binary opposite. In today’s world, that’s “fact-based.” Talk about the Law of Unintended Consequences. If a program is rooted in faith, it’s not fact-based. This divide between faith and facts has become the lingua franca of our day. When NBC News reported this week on the so-called discovery of Jesus’ tomb, they noted that people who live by faith might not be upset, but it is troubling for those who live by facts.

The Jewish scientist Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) understood that facts and faith were pried apart 200 years ago.2 He also believed this dichotomy was an illusion. Note: Polanyi wasn’t a theologian; he was a scientist. He observed that all knowledge is tacit or is rooted in assumptions. The word tacit means “unspoken” or “silent.” If someone is predisposed against someone else, it colors the way they hear and see them. Our intuitions and assumptions shape our beliefs.

Polanyi correctly saw that all science sits inside of traditions – intuitions, discoveries and theories – that precede investigative work. For example, some scientists have an apriori assumption that God does not exist. This tradition shapes the way they receive and perceive new information. The late Carl Sagan, for example, confidently declared: “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” There is no God. Yet Sagan couldn’t prove that scientifically. It was simply an assumption he held to, by faith. That’s why Polanyi believed it’s a myth that science yields “fact-based” objective knowledge.

Here’s the power of “faith” assumptions: Take two well-educated and well-meaning people. One is an environmentalist and the other a developer. Now show them the “facts” regarding 100 acres of pristine property. Will they “see” the same thing? Nope. Their “faith” assumptions shape the way they interpret the facts before them. All knowledge is based on faith assumptions.

Second, in order to believe anything, Polanyi believed we first have to trust an individual, or a tradition, or the medium in which we receive the information. For example, if I walk into a room and go to sit on a couch, I must first make a faith assumption (i.e., the couch will hold me) before I truly know if it will. Once I sit in it, I now know whether my faith assumption was true. The whole enterprise we call life is in one sense “faith-based.” Not just religious stuff.

Given today’s fact/faith dichotomy, I agree somewhat with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. First, why not have a prison reform program that is good for everyone, not just those who embrace the gospel? Second, why not communicate in ways that “express the common values of the West whose origins may be religious, in terms that are graspable by those who no longer go through the doors of churches or synagogues?” As Michael Novak points out, we need a faith that can “express these originally religious concepts in non-religious ways.”3 And finally, given that the fact/faith divide is so pervasive today, why not promote programs as “reality-based?” Or “assumption-based?” Or “tradition-based?” Labeling a program “faith-based” in today’s world opens a Pandora’s Box that’s hard to close… and is easy pickins’ for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

1 Peter Slevin, “Ban on Prison Religious Program Challenged,” Washington Post February 25, 2007, A13
2 This philosophical movement was called “positivism” and separated the world between knowledge based on facts and knowledge based on faith. Facts yielded objective, certain knowledge while religion yielded subjective and less reliable information.
3 “North Atlantic Community, European Community: Divergent paths and common values in Old Europe and the United States,” a speech delivered by Michael Novak for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003.


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