By the Very Rev. Sam Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip
People are kind.
Let me interrupt the program. Let me gently interrupt our anxieties and illnesses, let me interrupt our sheer exasperation with this pandemic, with a special notice: People are kind.
It seems like the journey we have now walked for almost two years is never ending. We’ve climbed some steep hills looking forward to rest and return, only to see still another mountain in front of us. We’ve made some turns for the better, only to find ourselves almost exactly where we have already been.
During our walk, we have been hounded, admonished, chastised, scolded, scared, by people who think they have been helping us. Their latest “breaking news” has often been just another opportunity to raise anxiety. The high drama of daily anxiety would have us believe that another world-devastating catastrophe is right around the corner. The screens we watch somehow present people as threats to us.
For the record, I have become a believer in some of the work of Stephen Pinker; in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he makes the case that, over the long course of history, violence is actually being reduced in human civilization, not getting worse. It may be that, over time, other things are getting better, too. Individual cases can be horrible, for sure. But, over time and as a whole, human civilization is progressing towards the better. The ubiquity of available news accounts would have us believe that catastrophe is everywhere; but the true odds are, it is not.
People are kind.
So, last Saturday, I took another kind of walk. I escaped the world of “breaking news” and the latest anxiety tweet. I went for a walk in one of Atlanta’s great parks, this one along the Chattahoochee River. I knew covid cases were rising and that I had to be free from exposure as I led church services on the following day. There were others with me out there, perhaps with similar desires; let’s get some fresh air without infecting anyone!
On my walk, I saw kind people, pure and simple. We were all so different out there! Me, a seasoned white man. A Black couple, with two scrambling children. An Asian guy jogging. An Hispanic family on a picnic. A group of college guys playing some new kind of game in the field (roundnet? spike ball?). An old couple meandering and taking their time. A cool bicycle guy. Lots of people, of all shapes and colors and sizes, walking their dogs, who were also of all shapes and colors and sizes. I was walking in love.
“Hey,” I said sYes, of course.
I have heard that line over and over now, as most of you reading this article have heard it, again and again. “I’m going to follow the science,” as if that statement explains every position they try to justify. It doesn’t.
This week, I heard that line from an exceptionally bright and committed person. I was attending my local Atlanta Rotary meeting (via Zoom!), and the guest speaker for the day was none other than Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Yes, that Rochelle Walensky, who is the director of The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I am one of those who has appreciated her devoted work and service during this historic and challenging time.
But here was her full comment: “Many people say, ‘I’m going to follow the science,’ as if science is black-and-white. But it is not. Science has a lot of gray.” Said Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
I fully agree! I am a person who loves science, appreciates science, believes science, because it is a long-term practice of paying attention, observing empirical data, drawing careful conclusions, and being willing and able to change my mind. I have often considered that science is the art of paying attention, sort of like prayer that way. (I recently heard a noted local radio host, whom I admire, call himself a “political scientist” – which is to say he pays attention to politics!)
I love science because it has a lot of gray. Obviously, there are plenty of certain principles that we do well to accept and live by. But, there is always a lot of gray. That “gray” can be the delightful mystery which inspires us to learn more; that “gray” can be of the Spirit!
Walensky went on to say the real issues are where science meets policy. I agreed even further! Those are the decisions which require far more sensitivity and context than the rather simplistic statement of “I’m going to follow the science.” Context and local environments matter.
Regarding pandemic protocols, many of us have agreed and disagreed, just like scientists. Some issues are gray. Of course, some are not. I hope, for instance, and continue to hope, that people everywhere follow the scientifically established benefits of being vaccinated. Vaccinations have saved lives from polio, malaria, typhoid fever, covid-19, and so many other diseases. I submit to vaccinations willingly and eagerly.
But I do not as eagerly say, “I’m going to follow the science,” trying to justify so many things, such as why I wear a mask in some places but not in other places. Most of what we do, responsibly, is about observing data, about loving relationships, about weighing risk and benefit, and about appreciating that every good thing – every good thing—carries some risk. Times and context change; and our scientific observations and conclusions change, too.
The statement, “I’m going to follow the science,” reminds me very much of the statement I have heard even more often in my life, “I’m going to follow the bible.” “Sure,” I say, “and which part of the bible do you specifically intend to follow?” I try to follow the bible, too, but not every individual part of it. Some parts of the bible are far more important than other parts. I simply do not agree with some of the parts that the fundamentalists emphasize. (Science, too, has its fundamentalists!)
If you have truly read the bible, you may know that claiming “I’m going to follow the bible,” does not settle much at all. You will need some reason with it; you will need some tradition with it; you will need some context with it; you will need some experience with it; you will need some time with it.
Obviously, you will need the guidance of the Spirit with your following of the bible. And it’s the same with science. The practice and empirical data of science delivers a lot; but humanity will always need the guidance of Spirit. We need Spirit with our data. We need Spirit with our flesh. We need Spirit with our science! Sure, I am going to follow the science; but I am also going to follow the Spirit!oftly, as we passed each other in the woods. “Nice day,” replied the guy with a huge German shepherd. I wondered if I would have been so fear-free if it were dark and we were in some city alley. But we weren’t. I saw young lovers enjoying each other, without a care. They smiled at my smile.
Last Saturday, people were being patient. They were not threatening each other. People were being real, in person, next to each other. Moving to the side to let others pass. Returning errant soccer balls. Letting children squeal. They were walking in love. To a soul, every person I encountered that day was kind. To a soul.
Friends, I have something to tell you. We are going to make it. People are kind.
The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip