Not Knowing

During the most recent Turning the Tide workshop, one of the mediators was lecturing about selfless love expressed through nonviolent action, and she gave the example of the crucifixion as history’s greatest instance of the same. But when she said this, her prefacing statement seized my attention, and caused the episode to become immediately memorable:

“I don’t know if it really happened.”

Although no one interrupted her and the lesson carried on unabated, I was able to detect a palpable amount of shock and surprise as I looked around the room and gauged the reaction of the workshop participants. Why would a Christian speaking to Christians, their faces asked, even suggest that the Biblical narrative could be a fabrication? I myself was wondering the same thing.

Before continuing, I should put some cards on the table, so to speak. A number of years ago I was a vocal atheist, and indeed my main motivation for being such was an unwillingness to believe in the miraculous – that which could be neither seen nor confirmed. I returned to faith, however, when I divested myself of that intellectual hubris, and came to agree with the words of Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Ater all, God’s existence is non-falsifiable, meaning that people can neither confirm nor deny him with any absolute certainty or credibility. Realizing this allowed me to separate faith from knowledge, and having made that distinction I chose to have faith in God, for reasons which are too lengthy and off-topic to be explained here.

But my decision to believe and yet give up hope of intellectual confirmation did not – and has not – put all of my epistemological graspings to rest. Frequently I still find myself trying to come up with some ‘proof’ indicating that God is more likely to exist than not, and my continued reliance on reason becomes particularly apparent when I am goaded into arguments by my atheist and agnostic friends. My favorite ‘proof’ is found in the sufferings of Paul as described in 2 Corinthians 11:23-8; why would Paul live in poverty and bear such hardships if his revelations weren’t real and if his ministry wasn’t genuine? I rationalize these and other arguments by considering it an application of the injunction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, emphasis added). And when contemplating the case for God, I take solace knowing that the early Christians as voiced by Justin Martyr did the same, believing that God, “by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with… both persuades us and leads us to faith” (First Apology, Chapter X).

Justin was not alone in penning Christian apologetics; a short list of Origen’s arguments includes an appeal to the accuracy of Jewish prophets in predicting the coming of Christ (Contra Celsus, Book III, Chapter 2), the apparent protection that God affords to Jews insofar as numerous attempts have failed to annihilate them (Chapter 8), the impressive intellectual qualifications of some of the earliest Christian believers (Chapter 12), the superhuman wisdom of Paul’s writings (Chapter 21), the inclusion of facts about Jesus’ life in the Gospels that are not conducive to His veneration, suggesting that the Gospels are not fabrications (Chapter 28), the failure of secular philosophy to find a better explanation for things (Chapter 37), the rapid spread of Christianity demonstrating its providential guidance (Chapter 39), and the simple language of the Gospels, which shows that they were not born out of “the cunning sophistry of the Greeks (which is characterized by great plausibility and acuteness)” (Chapter 39).

These justifications are valuable, and indeed it is reassuring and conducive to our faith to know that the claims of our religion are likely to be true, or at least plausible. One would never want to rush into a religion without anyrational basis for doing so. And, especially in a generation where Christianity is being attacked like never before by the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins, Hawking and others, these and similar arguments become necessary to soften the hearts and open the minds of those who assault even the possibility of the Christian worldview.

But.

Attempts at rationalization draw dangerously near to a great heresy, whereby one places reason entirely before faith, and seeks to prove the latter via the former. One can see Justin himself slipping into this error when he writes, “[W]e will now offer proof, not trusting mere assertions, but being of necessity persuaded by those who prophesied [of Him] before these things came to pass […] And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate [a writing which modern scholarship now believes to have been fabricated]” (Chapters XXX, XXXV; emphasis added). Here, by resting the case for Christianity on the integrity of a temporal document, Justin sets up an argument which can be (and has been!) disproven, and which, when the weakness of the argument is exposed, only frustrates efforts to spread the Gospel, and causes those who might be curious to learn more about Christianity to adopt the erroneous presupposition that its tenets must be proven to be believed – which they cannot be.

A similar pattern, though of the opposite variety (faith always superseding reason), is visible in the attempts by Young Earth Creationists to invent pseudoscientific understandings of the world that reject carbon dating, attribute the fossil record to stages of extinction during the Great Flood, and claim that biological diversity evidences Intelligent Design; such fundamentalists are merely the modern-day incarnation of the same theologians who refused to yield to the heliocentric model of the universe, citing Scriptural infallibility as their reason. Although such fundamentalists are no longer engaged in persecution, such Christians unfortunately remain as vocal as they are radical, and many in my generation have been turned away from faith on the supposition that Christianity is irreconcilably opposed to reason.

It is clear, then, that faith cannot be placed absolutely before nor absolutely behind reason. The two must be held in dialectic: “We prepare for faith by reason. We believe in order that we may understand, and understand in order that we might believe” (Osborn, Ethical Patterns in Early Christian Thought, 166). And when the two are together, Christianity “does not separate illumination of mind from purification of heart” (166), allowing both to cultivate our capacity to love and thereby fulfill the Great Commandments.

But why does God make his presence so mysterious, uncertain and completely unconfirmable? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if God had produced videographic evidence of Jesus’ miracles and crucifixion, and made it available to all? No. God granted humankind free will from its very beginning, and He seems to place an objective value on the piety which independently arises from this free will among those who choose to believe. “Blessed [indeed] are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

One, final issue deserves treatment. Is it not hard for faith to make room for reason when reason seemingly poses a stumbling block to faith? A good example of this possibility occurred when a born-again missionary I knew in Rwanda cut me off while I was trying to explain historical criticism to him, because, he said, it would be too great a burden to his faith to know which books of the Bible were or weren’t written by the authors to whom they are attributed. Personally, I disagree with this sentiment, and believe that “faith, while it cannot depend on history, may not be insensitive to history… Nor should faith wish to be immune from historical or other threats” (193). God gave us our minds for a reason, and our use of the same, even for the dissection of the Bible, could quite possibly write the next chapter in God’s revelation to the world. For instance, some historical-critical scholars have come to believe that 1 Corinthians 14:34, which prohibits women from speaking in church, was actually inserted by a later scribe against the message of radical gender equality that Paul had been teaching. Thus by recognizing this passage for what it is, the use of reason, even though it is targeted directly against the integrity of the Bible, helps to make God’s message more applicable to our world of increasing gender equality, and prevents us from adhering to a fundamentalist legalism that encourages discrimination and injustice. Such tools must, however, be handled with extreme caution.

To conclude, I will enumerate the propositions which this discourse has brought me to accept.

1. It is impossible to know that God exists, or, as the Kenyan facilitator suggested, that the crucifixion occurred. It was completely reasonable, after all, for her so say so.
2. Every attempt to ‘prove’ God definitively has fallen short, and in fact harms Christianity by ‘exposing’ weaknesses that the religion should not possess in the first place.
3. One can, however, unite reason and faith in a dialectic in order to author apologetics that make Christainity more believable, in order to enhance the faith of practitioners or even soften the hearts of non-believers. Carefully-applied reason can also bring forth new meaning from the Bible, or eliminate antiquated interpretations.
4. Extra caution must be taken, however, not to place reason categorically in front of faith, which will inevitably lead to a disconnected agnosticism, nor to place faith categorically in front of reason, which causes Christianity to retreat into fundamentalism.
5. God seems to place an objective value on piety, and for this reason, it would appear, He chooses to make his existence non-falsifiable.

But what, then, induces the non-Christian to convert, if not knowledge or proof? Although I have dealt partly with this question in my second entry, entitled “Happiness,” a full treatment of the issue will have to wait for an opportunity where I haven’t already written so much.