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Believing is Seeing

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

What do you see?

The old adage that "seeing is believing" has never seemed more out of touch with reality than it is these days. You can show people something as clear as day (the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine, for example), or offer them sound arguments that are beyond reproach (that the election wasn't stolen, for example), but no amount of showing or offering will trump what they believe.

And I use the word "trump" intentionally. Trump has become synonymous with his name, which is to say that his brand of fiery rhetoric, awash with disinformation, misleading innuendo, and hate-mongering, can bulldozer over almost any thoughtful argument by sheer force of will. The word "trump" comes from "triumph," which is what I mean when I say that Trump has become synonymous with his name: all he has to do at a rally of his supporters these days is show up and open his mouth, and they're putty in his hands. Talk about an easy triumph. Talk about being brainwashed.

I bastardize St. Anselm's famous credo, "faith seeking understanding," in the title of this blog. "Believing is seeing" is rule #1 of the standard operating procedure of any magician. Sleight of hand is merely convincing your eyes what your brain already knows and (this is important) not the other way around. When you see a magician make a card disappear, your eyes were tricked to "see" what your brain already "knows", namely, that if you can't see something, it isn't there. Your brain, as it happens, trumps your eyes. If you were to play back a recorded version of that magic trick in slow motion, you'd see immediately what actually happened to the card (that it went up his sleeve or is being cupped in the magician's palm), but your eyes don't tell the whole story. The brain glosses over that small detail and convinces you that the card actually disappeared. It sounds counterintuitive, but that's precisely how magic works. But because it all happens almost simultaneously, it feels like "seeing is believing" -- like you saw the card disappear and your brain can't believe it. But believe it it does! And that's the magic of... well, magic.

Cut to Trump's political/rhetorical sleight of hand. He tells his followers something, and even if they wouldn't believe it for a minute if it came out of, say, Joe Biden's mouth, because Trump said it, it must be true. In other words, their brains trump their ears -- or, more accurately, their brains trump their good sense. They hear some "fact" that has not been proven (which, actually, makes it not a fact, but why bother with such details), and this is the equivalent of the card gone missing: "Trump said it, so it must be true" = "you can't see it, so it must not be there."

But this is no magic show we're living in. This is life, which is what makes Trump's lies so dangerous. People so badly want to believe what he's saying because he exonerates -- even justifies -- their already deeply held hatreds, fears, and prejudices. Trump, as I said back in 2015, is their id, which might give the impression that he somehow brought conspiratorial thinking and racial animus into the mainstream by himself, but he didn't. He was only successful because he realized that he'd tapped into the vein of a significant portion of the electorate whose tendencies already ran towards conspiratorial thinking, bigotry, and violence. Think of the fans of the WWE, the NRA, Tucker Carlson, and the National Inquirer as exhibits A, B, C, and D of what kind of craziness people are more than willing to believe -- and even pay for.

Which brings me to St. Anselm's credo: "faith seeking understanding." People would do well to read his Monologion to see the full context of what he meant, but this is it in a nutshell: "an active love of God seeks a deeper knowledge of God." When one believes in what one can neither see nor prove (by dint of the object of one's belief, namely God), one is forced to see, instead, with the mind, the heart, and the will. And when such a thing happens, Anselm says, we are drawn more deeply into the heart of God's mind, heart, and will. And when that happens, we see more with those faculties (the mind, heart, and will) than we do with our eyes. We see because we believe, and not the other way around.

In this sense, faith is like magic (and some might argue that believing is like magical thinking) but with this crucial difference: where the magician tricks us into believing something that isn't true, God "tricks" us into believing something -- or, rather, Someone -- who is. And because the object of our devotion is God, who we come to know and grow to love in the Person of Christ, we become more Christ-like in our actions, in our beliefs, and in our feelings. In other words, we are put in touch with the deeper realities of existence, which includes those things we cannot see.

Which brings back me, unfortunately, to Donald Trump and his triumphalist christian (lowercase "c") nationalism. Nothing is more easily distorted than religion, and where it becomes a martial law (as in a law that is defended with violence), it becomes the work of the devil. We see with increasing frequency how right-wing political rallies are morphing into evangelical prayer meetings, and where the cause of Neo-Republicanism is infused with divine fiat. But no wrongs are more evil than those done with religious intentions, and we are quickly devolving as a country into a venal mix of patriotism and faith, just like Putin is doing in Ukraine with the blessing of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church, and the Nazis did in WWII with their claims to the Third Reich and the blessing of the German Church, and the Crusades before them with the blessing of the Popes and their justification of slaughter for the sake of the Holy Land.

If you can't see all of this, you aren't looking closely enough -- which is to say, you aren't looking with the mind, heart, and will of God. You aren't seeing the world with the eyes of Christ who (I hasten to add) is testified to in Scripture (there is no other Christ). And if you call yourself a Christian and you aren't seeing what is happening to our country and to the American church, then you are doubly complicit because you have no excuse. You've been given the goods, so to speak. Millstones won't be heavy enough.

I fear that a time will come again when the honest, thoughtful, sane Christian person may have to put his life on the line for the cause of the gospel. Let's not mince words: a lie gets half way around the world before the truth even gets its shoes on, and a lie laced with religious intentions travels even faster, and with a greater sense of urgency. And social media is the accelerant that only makes these lies travel faster, to the point that we become so overwhelmed with the strobe-light effect of such disinformation that we begin to struggle to see the difference between what is true and what isn't. What Putin is doing in Ukraine and in Russia -- distorting the truth for his political gain -- is exactly what he did in this country in 2016, and continues to do today. And many are falling prey to his tactics, and the Right Wing church most of all.

God help us. And take heed. Even in times like these, God makes himself known, but only to those inclined to listen, those inclined to see; to those who have ears, then, and to those who have eyes...

(If you missed the five deer in the picture above, you weren't looking close enough.)

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