Faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off. – Soren Kierkegaard[i]
One day, during a discussion about religion in a sociology class, I irritated a student. While writing on a whiteboard, with my back turned to the room, I casually mentioned there was no proof that God exists. Immediately, a voice behind me yelled out, “That’s a load of shit!!” This was not typical classroom behavior. Spinning around, I saw a young man in the front row with a bright red face, visibly agitated and vibrating in his seat. The other students had snapped to wide-eyed attention, hoping this wasn’t going to become another episode of schoolhouse carnage.
Walking over to him, I asked, “What’s going on?” The young man emotionally recounted how his baby brother was stillborn; he was so small you could hold him in the palm of your hand; and nobody was going to tell him that his baby brother wasn’t with God in heaven. “But that’s not what I said,” I told him. “I simply said the existence of a God can’t be proven. I believe in God, too, but not because I can prove it. I have faith that there’s a God, and that God will take care of your brother.”
The young man calmed down. The other students slumped in their chairs, relieved that we wouldn’t be on CNN. The offended student never took another of my courses.
I was surprised by his response but understood it. I was challenging important personal beliefs, and he lacked an effective way to respond. Not knowing what to say, he said what he did. The student was caught in a conflict between ideas ancient and modern, a stress-fracture in his view of the world.
For most of human history, religion was the source of truth; something wasn’t true unless verified by religion. In 1633, the church Magisterium sentenced Galileo to house arrest for the last nine years of his life after he published a book supporting heliocentrism, making the sun the center of a solar system. Since church teaching said otherwise, Galileo was guilty of heresy, or teaching untruth. Religion, not science, was the measuring stick.
But that is no longer the case. The Greeks introduced rationality into the process, eventually leading to Galileo’s heretical astronomy, and to our modern requirement for observable verification. What can’t be proven is not regarded as true. God is, at best, a hypothesis, and, at worst, a falsehood.
For religious folk in the modern world, like my young student, that can create problems. Their most deeply held beliefs are undermined by the same thought process that governs how they think. In our culture, being irrational is not a social goal.
Anger is a common response to that dilemma, and many religious folk are angry these days, as seen in my class. Others attempt to make religious beliefs seem rational. Numerous books have been written about the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, offering supposed proof for why it’s true. What else, for example, can explain the transformation of defeated disciples to ebullient apostles? Many others, perhaps most, simply block off the spiritual part of their lives to prevent challenges, which is why they don’t like to talk about it.
But all of this is based on a misunderstanding of faith. According to the Apostle Paul (an expert on faith, whatever else we may think of him), “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.” Evidence for the undetectable, by definition, cannot be observed or quantified. The substance of “hoped for” things refers to imaginings. Neither one offers a method of proof; neither offers a rational basis for belief. Faith according to Paul is irrational. While our society may seem religious, it is not a culture founded on faith.
With ideas based in faith, there comes a point where rational thought doesn’t help. We can, and should, think things through. But, in the end, whatever evidence we gather will not be enough. Belief in a knowing Source for the universe, or a loving God, or existence beyond death, are choices that go beyond logic. There is always a gap between proof and belief. Kierkegaard called it a “qualitative leap,” one not based in quantification. You simply decide to make the jump to believe. The leap itself is an act of faith.
When you understand the meaning of faith, you realize that lacking proof is the point. If a belief is based on some kind of proof, it is no longer faith. As Kierkegaard says, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Reason ends where faith begins.
[i] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 82.
Image of angry man by Karolina Grabowska: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-with-hands-on-head-yelling-6333510/
Image of lies/truth sign by by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Image of woman by KoolShooters : https://www.pexels.com/photo/girl-wearing-a-jacket-thinking-7327772/
Image of leaping man by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay