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Monday, January 09, 2006

Taking It On Faith

A few days ago, two elders of the Mormon Church appeared on my doorstep. As is my wont, I ushered them inside and we began to discuss matters. In the course of the conversation, they displayed a peculiarly American misunderstanding of a critically important issue, an issue that has literally formed, or misinformed, the American worldview. Indeed, the issue is plastered in the headlines today as Dr. Hwang’s celebrated cloning accomplishments crumble into dust. The issue is, of course, faith.

For the scientist, faith is a humbug, a mental illusion with no basis in physical reality. For many in the Christian world, faith is only real when it is blind; for them, faith is real because the evidence has not been seen. As is readily apparent, the difference between these two world-views is thin indeed. Both take as a given the idea that faith is not based on physical facts.

Indeed, they even present the same evidence to prove their point: Jesus told doubting Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." (John 20:29) while Paul told the Hebrews, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Using their common position as the base, both sides fight strenuously over the worth of faith. Evolution, intelligent design, even the events of history are up for grabs. Indeed, even as you read this, an atheist in Italy is getting free publicity for his new book by suing a Catholic priest for preaching Christ and Him crucified. The atheist has convinced a judge to compel the priest to prove that Jesus actually existed. The conviction that faith cannot produce such evidence lies at the heart of the suit.

But, as in most matters Scriptural, things are not quite as simple as they seem. Neither side recalls that the Hebrews were warned repeatedly to “take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children's children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) Similarly, no one remembers Paul’s warning: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; for you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

John’s commentary on faith was most clear - and is most ignored - of them all, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the word of life. For the life was manifested: and we have seen and do bear witness and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father and hath appeared to us. That which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you: that you also may have fellowship with us and our fellowship may be with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you, that you may rejoice and your joy may be full.” (1 John 1:1-4)

In short, both the Old and New Testaments demonstrate that faith is most certainly not blind, that faith is most certainly based on physical evidence. Indeed, if it were not for the existence of this physical evidence, faith would be useless.

Despite opinions to the contrary, John’s Gospel doesn’t discount the need for evidence, rather, it insists that the apostles, the witnesses to the evidence, are trustworthy. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed [your witness].” Similarly Paul’s letter to the Hebrews points out that faith is based, not in a lack of evidence, but in the evidence of a thing which has no physical counterpart – trust. Paul’s central point is not, “Don’t worry your heads about physical evidence,” rather, he intends to answer one question: is God worthy of trust?

Trust in the persons of the apostles or the persons of God: this is a question about reality, but not the physical reality of an object, rather, the moral reality of the person.

If we take the scientist’s definition, if we assume that the only things worthy of our trust are the things that can be measured and replicated, then both the writing of history and the interest in current events are, in the scientific sense, religious pursuits. After all, none of us actually see most of the events described in the newspaper, radio, television or internet. Certainly none of us saw the vast majority of events described in the history texts. In neither case can we replicate those events. Taken critically, we have no more reason to believe there was a French Revolution than there was a Christ – the “witnesses” might all be colluding in an enormous lie for purposes of their own.

Indeed, given this reasoning, I have no basis for believing there is even a Rome or a Paris, though I have visited both. After all, I did not measure those cities in any repeatable way, and I have never returned to them, so I can’t say with scientific certainty they were actually there. No peer-reviewed scientific journal has verified their existence.

Just as Russian minister Grigori Potemkin reputedly constructed facades of villages in the Crimea in order to impress Empress Catherine II of Russia or as three British citizens discovered in the recent Space Cadet hoax, perhaps someone just created it all in order to laugh at my credulity. How do we know we aren’t living in the Matrix?

Many people assume that science revolves around the testing of the physical environment we inhabit, but that’s not strictly true. Whether we speak of apostolic review or scientific peer review, the issue at stake is the same. It is not a question of whether the physical evidence is trustworthy. It is a question of whether the persons who report the physical evidence are trustworthy.

If we live in the Matrix, then someone constructed it. If Rome doesn’t really exist, then it’s a put-up job. If we aren’t really in space – although our senses give us many reasons to think we are – then someone is pulling a fast one on us.

Scientists take as a given that there is no hoax – the physical material they work with every day is actually reality. In order to exclude the possibility of being hoaxed, there can be only two possibilities. Either (1) there is no person creating the data that feeds our senses, there is only the data or (2) the person who does provide the data that feeds our senses is trustworthy, he is not out to hoax us but to inform us about something.

But that creates a problem. Science has never created a physical instrument to reliably test the trustworthiness of any person alive, whether man or god. We must either choose to trust someone or choose not to. Scientists develop trust in one another’s skill as scientists in the same way everyone develops trust in each other and in God – they look at the results.

When Dr. Hwang first reported his results, those results were taken on faith. As far as Hwang was concerned, blessed was the scientist who did not see or question the results, but still believed. For quite some time, most of his compatriots in the field were blessed beyond compare. Hwang’s work fell apart primarily because the people who knew him best began quietly casting aspersions on his work. What had earlier been accepted was now critically re-examined. He proved untrustworthy in the end. Scientists who entertain agnosticism or outright atheism, have at some point in their lives put God in the dock and found Him untrustworthy as well.

Faith is directed towards persons, not towards physical objects. In order to have faith in physical reality, we must either assume there is no one behind the physical reality or we must assume total trust in the one who is behind it. Either way, we are taking something on faith, and what we take on faith is precisely the evidence of things not seen. That’s true whether the faith-filled person is an atheist or an apostle. Faith is not blind, if only because persons are the object of faith, and persons are always known through how they reveal themselves.


Ron said...

Very nice... but how, exactly, did the interview with the Mormons go???

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Pretty much as one would expect. I spiked their cannon early in the interview by pointing out that their own book testified to being extraneous. The Book of Mormon says it contains, "just like the Bible, the fullness of revelation." If they both contain the fullness of revelation, I don't need the Book of Mormon, do I?

Then I discounted the utility of emotion in conversion. Satan can put a burning in my loins, so why not a burning in my heart? The test of the truth is whether it accords with reality, not whether it can engender an emotional response.

In that regard, how did Joseph Smith "Test everything. Retain what is good," when it came to his visions? He asked which religion was true and received the reply, "None of them. Follow the one I will give you."

Well, isn't that what we would expect Satan to say? Is there any archeological evidence for the existence of the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon?

The two young men were non-plussed by these questions. No one had ever asked them such things before.

I pointed out how to identify five generations of apostolic succession in Scripture, then asked them when the Great Apostasy took place and who was involved. At one point, I even had them telling me Peter was apostate in Acts 2, because I pointed out that he couldn't have baptized 3000 people by immersion in Jerusalem - not enough water.

Every time they picked a date for the apostasy, I pointed to an early Christian writing from that period that showed no signs of such an apostasy. They had never heard of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, etc., of course.

We talked for about two hours. They left rather shaken. I invited them back, but doubt they will take me up on it.

Ron said...

Thanks for the update. It's worthy of a separate blog methinks. I'll file it away for future reference. BTW Is there a finer reference to that quote? (The Book of Mormon says it contains, "just like the Bible, the fullness of revelation.")

Steve Kellmeyer said...

There is a finer reference, but I've mis-placed my book of Mormon, so I can't give it.

I'll have to hunt another copy down somewhere.

chris_tkd said...

According to the Introduction of the Book of Mormon:

"The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God's dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, AS DOES THE BIBLE, the fulness of the everlasting gospel" (emphasis aadded).

Pointing this passage out to Mormon missionaries usually leaves them at a loss for words. The best I've gotten is "well, shouldn't you know them both?" No, not if they both contain the fulness of the Gospel!