Many years ago, Ambrose Bierce published a satirical 'Cynics Word-Book’ (retitled ‘The Devil's Dictionary') of cynical definitions about Life, the Universe and Everything, based on his observations about life in San Francisco during the 1860s. It’s all wonderfully dark, but let’s begin the New Year with some (slightly more wordy) alternatives.
‘(n.) Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.’ (Ambrose Bierce)
‘The good thing about Science is that’s it’s true whether or not you believe in it.’ (Modern T-shirt slogan) Fail. Anyone saying that doesn’t understand Science, which is all about making a hypothesis, then testing it to destruction. Any body of knowledge is based on a series of interconnecting hypotheses about why things are the way they are, all subject to change, depending on whoever comes up with a better hypothesis that then needs to be considered and tested.
Some hypotheses (eg Newton’s laws of thermodynamics) have stood the test of time better than others (phrenology, eugenics) but they’re all up for testing. Establishing the Truth in Science requires a lot of belief that the Truth is Out There waiting to be discovered, and it can sometimes be stranger than we can possibly imagine (Thank you, Professor Brian Cox).
Another word for hypothesis is faith, which is also searching for evidence. We cannot prove the existence of ‘love’, ‘justice’, or ‘peace’. We can only build up a collection of personal experiences and insights about them from others about what they mean. So whether you’re building up your hypothesis about ‘God’ from the latest Charlie Hebdo cover (‘for’ atheism) or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas sermon (‘for’ refugees), you cannot prove that either are true until you test them out. Both require an element of faith. Which one’s nearest the truth? As Jesus said, you’ll know a tree by its fruit. Ambrose Bierce disappeared in Mexico whilst reporting on the Mexican Revolution. His desire to know the truth took him into harm’s way for the sake of it. Perhaps he had more faith than he knew.
‘n. A brief preface to ten volumes of exaction (demands).’ (Ambrose Bierce)
A shared smile, an encouraging handshake, a pat on the back. That precious moment when people of different culture and genetics and language and history discover that actually, they are all members of the same global family- and show their compassion when it is most needed in thoughtful, gentle ways. It can even happen in families too, when they forget their personal histories and see the bigger picture and their own nakedness in the face of eternity. Funerals are an excellent place to start.
‘ n. A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it. An evidence of culture and a passport to polite society. Supportable property.’ (Ambrose Bierce)
Something so valuable, it can only be expressed as a symbol. As children, our dreams of pirate treasure were evocative, not for what it could buy, but for its sparkle, its lustre and because it stood for every unspoken desire we could ever imagine. (What can you do with a gemstone apart from wear it?) As superior adults, we lock away our financial treasures in property and banks and cyberspace and security passwords of increasing complexity, trusting that everything we've earned, saved and inherited will somehow be there for us when we need it- and then try to use it as a measure of our relative success in the world. Jesus said that our heart's greatest desires lay in the places we keep our treasure. He trusted his own banking to a thief who finally betrayed that trust in spectacular form for the modern equivalent of a month's pay- but then repented. Perhaps at the last moment, Judas realised that all along, the thing he'd actually wanted (and lost) was something much more valuable than anything found in a moneybag.