The Problem with Burning Everything to the Ground

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When Covid hit and we all began hunkering down, a disturbing trend started surfacing on my Facebook feed and in conversations with friends.

Everyone was getting paranoid.

On the conservative side, people at my church started saying the pope wasn’t really the pope. He was part of the “deep church” (similar to conservative’s use of the catchphrase “deep state”) – a shadowy cabal of homosexual and liberal clergy. According to another friend, if I voted for Biden, I was practically voting for the end of Western Civilization as we know it.

My more liberal friends became angry at what seemed to be all of law enforcement. I noticed “ACAB” graffitied on a sign close to my home, and it seemed like cops were all being painted as wretched oppressors. No room was given to understand the terrible pressures they go through in their line of work. No analysis was given of the statistics that paint a mixed picture of the systemic racism activists have been claiming.

While people were dying around the world, the simple act of wearing a mask was being politicized here. The government was trying to take away our right to not wear face coverings! Despite the fact that countries that took this pandemic seriously (like South Korea) were doing quite well, and those that didn’t (like Brazil) were not, so many people here still assumed the virus was a faerie tale or that every news agency in existence was somehow lying to all of us.

What is the common thread in all of this? It’s become en vogue to deeply mistrust institutions and experts in our society.

This sentiment has been in the zeitgeist for quite awhile, I know. But the deep cynicism has taken on a monstrous life of it’s own in recent months. People like me who think experts should be consulted and listened to before making any big decision get accused of being gullible “sheeple.”

I know institutions are not perfect. Every group or organization, like every human being, needs conversion and reform. More than that, I know I could really be a gullible person here who doesn’t take the conspiracy theorists seriously enough. (We’ll all know for sure in a few months when I’m either just fine or living in a bunker.)

But is the answer to burn everything to the ground? To stop listening to the experts and do our own research in the form of google searches? No.

Here’s why I think we all need to punch the brakes on our borderline neurotic fears right now.

Experts Know More than Your Aunt Betty

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I know, big shocker, right? People who have studied epidemiology for years and have risen to the top of their field of study can be trusted more than even two random doctors in Bakersfield. Folks who study policing might have something important to contribute to the conversation on whether or not to defund the police. And Pope Francis, having been a priest, then an archbishop, then made cardinal, may actually know Catholic theology pretty well.

Who would have thought?

Yes, experts get it wrong sometimes. But they will most likely get it wrong way, way, way less than random people on Youtube. It’s entirely reasonable to ask questions and weigh issues, but when nearly every person in a particular field is sounding the alarm bell, we’re idiots not to listen.

We Can’t Always Trust Ourselves

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G.K Chesterton said that if you doubt everything enough, eventually you’ll begin to doubt yourself.

A lot of people doubt institutions. They doubt the WHO has it right. They doubt that the majority of scientists are seeing things clearly. They doubt all the experts. They doubt that bishops can accurately and faithfully carry out their ministries. But those same people appear to be immune from doubting their own abilities to assess things.

Take global warming as an example. So many of the world’s governments, climate scientists, and peoples in general take man-made global warming to be a real thing – and have for years. Why do so many people who deny climate change doubt the ability of climate experts to sift the data competently while considering themselves capable of accurately deciphering the truth?

Humility would dictate that, in general, we defer to those who know a subject better than we do.

We Can’t Function if We Don’t Trust Institutions

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Sure, the police officer closing off access to the freeway told you it was because there was an accident on Highway 101. According to him, you should take side streets.

But can you really trust him? Really? What if he’s part of the “deep traffic”? That mysterious group of people who try to steer people away from using freeways? Best to not believe him until you go down there and see it for yourself.

How can any society function this way? Because let’s be honest, that’s where we’re heading right now.

You know why Covid 19 is raging in the United States and, as I type this, the death count per day is getting almost as high as it was at the peak in Spring? You know why other countries got this under control while we didn’t?

There was a pandemic playbook that was put together during the Obama administration after the Ebola outbreak. It outlined and predicted basically every problem the US has had dealing with this disease. It outlined how much money we needed to combat this. It explained where the shortages would be. I could go on.

The Trump administration essentially dumped that playbook in the trash. No need to consult the experts. He had it all under control.

Except, of course, he didn’t. Now we’re here with 250,000 dead and counting.

We cannot function this way. At some point we need to trust those who have done the hard work of studying, testing, experimenting, and role playing different scenarios for years in their particular field.

Why This Bothers Me So Much

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What drew me so heavily to the Catholic faith was that it was grounded in the expertise of the saints and theologians throughout the ages. I don’t believe I can always see clearly with my modern, fundamentalist eyes.

How is it that the Eucharist was definitively the body and blood of Christ? How does the relationship between faith and works really function? The Bible is a mass of information that is not systematic or easily understandable (as is evidenced by the thousands of differing protestant denominations). I sat in a theology class in college where a protestant teacher drove home the point that even when you think you know what the Bible is saying, you often don’t.

So I put my faith in the collective church’s understanding of its own tradition and its own Scripture. I trusted “the experts.” When reading the Bible, I need the glasses of tradition to help me understand it clearly. I don’t filter everything through my own mind alone – heavily influenced as it is by my upbringing, my prejudices, my culture, and everything else in the air today. That would be spiritual hubris and even spiritual suicide.

I know that the WHO, UN and CDC are not grounded in the promises of Jesus Christ. That is more than a fair criticism. I get it that we need whistle-blowers and prophets on the margins calling for reform.

But the truth remains that by and large, institutions work. Relying on the wisdom of experts works. We shouldn’t ignore them. We can’t afford to be cynical about them at every turn. We should work to make our institutions better, of course. But when they, in their collective wisdom, fire flares in the air and set off fireworks warning us that we’re going in the wrong direction, God help us if we refuse to listen.

©2020 Catholic Anonymous

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