Reality and Faith

In the beginning...

In the beginning...

The Navy has a useful slogan, “Never assume a God-damned thing.” It’s hard to imagine how efficiently things would run if we all followed that motto, how little confusion would beset us, yet we habitually take off half-cocked on assumptions we barely examine. What if the world were really a much different thing? What if what we think we see here is really that pair of silhouetted faces and not a vase at all? That isn’t just a question for 10-year-olds to play with. Trust me for a few minutes here ---

First we must examine how it is that we learn things. Go back in your memory to some of the first knowledge you acquired. How did you know that the furry critter ripping the upholstery off the couch was a cat? How did you learn that 7 came right after 6, or that B always followed A? Did you run an experiment? Did you ask the cat what she was? No. Your mother told you – right? And what did you do? You believed her. You had faith in the veracity of the information she provided.

You see, a human brain assimilates information in 3 ways:
    Empiricism – we run experiments, we observe, we rerun the experiments, we observe some more – science claims empiricism as its modus operandi.
    Rationalism – we add 2 and 2 together; we use logic to combine several pieces of information in order to arrive at a new conclusion – philosophers and mathematicians are experts at this.
    Faith – someone tells us something is true and we believe it. We’re all good at that.

But, faith has been taking a beating for the last 150 years, as if nothing we truly know about our universe could possibly be handed down to us from the past, as if we can only gain knowledge from science and science is never wrong, as if faith were some exercise of wild imagination, and not the simple, solid, reliable method of learning that it is. If every single thing we know must first be scientifically proven or sanctioned by the philosophy department of an Ivy League school then we’ll be mentally paralyzed. In fact that paralysis has already come to pass.

I have long ago chosen to believe, and admit I believe. I can’t believe everything, of course, and sometimes I fail to recognize fabrications, so, I, too, look for evidence, look for rational arguments, but I start with the acknowledgement that my senses can’t cover it all, that my brain can’t, on its own, reach the power beyond the stars.

Our five senses, the basis for empirical thinking, are extremely limited. All around, and in us, events occur which we can neither see, feel, hear, smell, nor taste.  I can’t on my own watch the astounding little machines that chug away in my cells. I can’t smell much of anything compared to what my dachshund can smell. Only part of the color spectrum is visible, and a very limited range of sound registers in my brain, which also fails to acknowledge that we are hurling through space, spinning round and round at alarming speed.

How then are we to be the arbiters of what is and is not possible? How is it then that we demand “proof” of the supernatural? How is it that we can even know what is supernatural? What can men in lab coats prove that will explain the “ghost in the machine?”

Science is finally outpacing Darwin’s brief, though destructive, spasm of assumptions. We can now “see” that our cells are not just blobs of protoplasm, but complex, orderly, highly active, miniature cities. They are made up carefully sequenced, precisely folded proteins, each with its own designated function – not the random mush of molecules Darwin imagined. We can witness the breathtaking design of a hummingbird tongue, or a butterfly’s metamorphosis – and we still can’t figure out how that works, but it certainly couldn’t have come about accidently.

Quantum physics is now questioning the very solidity of existence, so perhaps our assumption that matter is impermeable, that we can’t walk through walls, is just another conclusion we’ve jumped to.

I have chosen to believe because to do so leaves me more open to possibilities. To believe is to no longer be limited by our inadequate senses. But then, you might ask, what do you use as nonsense filters? Surely there’s some standard you use to determine reality, to discern between what is and what is merely imagined…

Yes, thank God, there is. At some point in time we all come up against a Bible, an audacious book, which claims to be the very words of God, the Creator of the Universe, the Setter of All Standards. And when it presents itself to us, we must choose whether or not to believe what it says, just as we have always chosen whether or not to believe what is presented to us.

The Book is a challenge – it presents all sorts of disturbing stories, disturbing because the characters do such outlandish and disquieting things, and because such shocking things are done to them. What’s with poor Jonah being swallowed by a whale? Or Lot’s daughters seducing their father? Or Jesus of Nazareth, a generally harmless man, being crucified? Some of the events seem pretty extreme – the plagues in Egypt, the walls of Jericho, the slaughter of the priests of Baal. It also presents us with astonishingly un-scientific occurrences – a talking, burning bush, a sea that opens to let people pass, a rock that spouts water on command, a man who rises from a horrid death.

It introduces us to astounding beings of light – angels, who are terrifying in their size and brilliance, to demons (angels gone awry) who seem to have a whole hideous hierarchy of their own. The Book weaves through thousands of years of history, sometimes lining up with what mere mortals think they know about the past, and sometimes not. Though, more and more, science is finding itself in line with these ancient scriptures, those same writings still bring us face-to-face with talking donkeys and stars we can’t account for.

So why believe it? Because it nails human nature. Because it explains far more than it confuses. Because we all crave purpose, appear to be designed to need a reason for our existence, and this Book answers that eternal question, most importantly, it does so in concrete terms, not in vague New Age fluff.

I don’t believe the Bible in the sense of some mystical, touch-it-and-I’ll-be-holy way. I don’t believe it in a completely literal sense either; some phrases are clearly figurative. Jesus is not literally a lamb, but He is the embodiment of the Jewish sacrificial lambs who were, in their own time, symbols of the Messiah and the crucifixion to come. But I do believe that if we treat the Book as the miracle it is, as more real than what our feeble senses appear to be telling us, as filled with more reliable information than our pop culture and questionable college degrees provide us, we can become wise.

We modern, 21st century humans think we have it figured out. We think we know that the climate is warming; we think we know that God is not real; we think we know far more than all our ancestors combined. We assume, since Codex Darwinius is the doctrine du jour, that we have now arrived as superior beings who no longer need morality or justice or truth. It never occurs to us that we might have that upside down. We have arrived at arrogance, that’s all, we have evolved a system of suppositions and un-provable hypotheses based on what we assume is knowledge – but notice how often what we thought we knew has been turned inside out.

We need all three methods of knowing to become even slightly informed, to have even a glimmer of what is going on here. We can’t afford to cut out one of them, and especially not faith, for there is reality.