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Evidence of Things Not Seen

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Every once in a while, I suddenly realize that I have spent the last several decades misdefining some issue I’ve been interested in, so that all the thinking I’ve done about it is completely and utterly useless.

I’ve been having a creeping suspicion all night that that is about to happen again.

The title of this post is the definition of faith as it was proposed in, I think, the early Jacobean period, by the Church of England.   I’ve got the seventeenth century Book of Common Prayer around here somewhere, with addenda that give essays and formulas and creeds, but I can’t lay hands on it at the moment, so I’m not sure.

But the fact is that that definition is very different from the kind of things people have said in the comments here, and it’s very different from what I have understood faith to mean over the course of my life.

I’ve never had Cheryl’s problem–or the common Protestant problem–with the idea of “works.”  I think it’s the Epistle to James that says that “faith without works is dead,” meaning works as Cheryl was discussing them, and that was always what I thought both Catholicism and Orthodoxy meant.

But what Lymaree calls “faith” I would not–I would call it, I think, trust. 

X, y, z has happened a number of times, no conditions have changed that you can see, therefore you trust x, y, and z to happen again.

To me, Lymaree doesn’t need to have faith in the behavior of her husband. She has direct evidence of his behavior over time, and she can therefore trust it.

Faith, on the other hand, seems to me to require having trust in the existence and behavior of something for which you have no direct evidence.

I’m stressing the “direct” here.  Someone like Aquinas, for instance, thought he had plenty of indirect evidence of the existence of  God.  He wrote five very famous proofs of that existence, contained in a long book–the Summa Theologica–that managed to present all those indirect evidences while upholding the Christian validity of both Aristotle and the pursuit of what se’d call science, the search for natural explanations for the phenomena of the natural world.

In Catholicism, intellectual assent to the faith would go somsething like this:  you read Aquinas, or the equivalent, and your brain tells you that the case for the existence of God is overwhelming.  It’s just that the back of your head, and your gut, are going:  nah.   Just don’t believe it.

You therefore decide to act on the judgment of your intellect, and to “live like a Chistian” (all those doing good works as in James) and to enter the Church even though you can’t believe. 

Faith is a grace, the Catholic Church says, and if you ask God for it He will give it to you.  Eventually.  When He thinks it would be good for you.  In the meantime, you do what your mind (your “reason,” Aquinas would have said) tells you is right and hope that the other thing will come later.

What the people who responded to the last post seem to be talking about is the Catholic  Church’s intellectual assent. 

And that’s fine–I’ve thought a lot about this, because I write a lot of religious characters, and part of me thinks this is the only way intelligent, educated modern Westerners can be believers.

But it also seems to me to be very different from faith. 

From the outside, at least, faith seems to me to be the gut-level conviction of the existence–as the phrase goes–of “things not seen.” 

That is, that people of faith are supposed to believe in God in the same way I believe in the local supermarket.  They have in some way experienced God just as I have experienced the local supermarket.

I’m doing this badly.

Somebody like Dante, or  Chaucer–who was about as thoroughly secularized as it was possible to get in the thirteenth century–lived with God, and the Risen Christ, and the Community of Saints, and the Virgin Mother, the way I live with my sons and cats.  These were daily presences in their lives, with whom they interacted in a very matter-of-fact and unstrained way.  

It probably required a culture unified in belief to make that possible.  Once you reach the stage where cultural pluralism is the norm, where doubt is commonplace and where all beliefs (not just those in God) are continually called into question, belief would have to be a conscious act consciously defined, and the causal familiarity of Bill’s grandmother with, say, St. Anthony, would be imopssible.

In case you’re wondering, Bill’s grandmother used to pray to  St. Anthony to find things–he’s the patron saint of lost things–and then, when she didn’t find them right away, she’d turn his statue on its head until her prayer was answered.  Any Protestant who thinks Catholics “worship” saints should have seen that statue standing on its head.

At any rate, faith as described here seems to me to be a kind of intellectual assent, and not a “knowing,” which is what I’ve always thought it was. 

If that’s all people are talking about, the issue seems to me to be a lot different than I thought it was.

Written by janeh

August 18th, 2009 at 8:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Evidence of Things Not Seen'

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  1. There are people who have – or appear to have – faith as you describe it. I think it’s fairly common in small children, and recommended to adults based on that passage about coming to God as a child. I’ve known a few adults who seem to have it. I think you may be right; it’s difficult to hold to that today. Or some of us aren’t given that kind of faith.

    I don’t think the BCP (Book of Common Prayer) actually defines faith; it does say what a Christian should believe (http://www.prayerbook.ca/bcp.html for the Canadian update; check the Articles of Religion). There’s probably something in the Homilies, but I haven’t read them, and Jeremy Taylor was quite prolific on various related topics. I’m working my way through some of his writings.

    On the other hand, I don’t think I ever lost the belief that there was a god of some kind. I often didn’t believe that god was God, that is, the Christian version, a Person. I had a fairly commonplace range of ideas on the matter over the years.

    That belief (in some force that created the universe) didn’t feel like faith at all; it felt like knowing, at least as much as I could know something I had not experienced, like knowing that black holes exist. Faith is *not* knowing, ultimately – and that’s not a new observation, or one limited to our present-day culture – through a glass darkly, and so on. I expect even people with the strongest faith, who deal with God with as much certainty as Bill’s grandmother did with St. Anthony, would say that they are still looking through the glass darkly in the sense that they don’t understand everything about God. But they do experience the presence of God daily in a way I can do only sometimes.


    18 Aug 09 at 8:38 am

  2. I imagine this is just constitutional for me. I really can’t buy the existence of things I have no evidence for. I call myself an infidel because that’s really it–I have no faith. I understand intellectually that other people are different, but it seems weird to me. I guess this is distributed on a bell curve, like so much else, with a few people very prone to experiencing “the unreal” and a few people not at all, and most people in the middle somewhere, moving in whatever direction their culture supports. (I’m putting unreal in quotes because I don’t want to be insulting, but I don’t really know how to express it. Gods, ghosts, that stuff there’s no objective evidence for.) I know people who are atheists but who believe in ghosts, for example. I can’t imagine having that kind of experience and not exploring until I figured out what I really saw. I think I was born with scientific/skeptical ways of thinking rather than the capacity for faith.



    18 Aug 09 at 10:12 am

  3. “I guess this is distributed on a bell curve, like so much else, with a few people very prone to experiencing “the unreal” and a few people not at all, and most people in the middle somewhere, moving in whatever direction their culture supports.”

    I have known several people for whom God is a living breathing entity. My paternal grandmother was one such, and so is one of my former teachers. For them, faith is simply the natural response to what is a very real, if not concrete, existence while for us (Cathy and I) such faith is completely incomprehensible.

    I’m not sure who are the losers here.


    18 Aug 09 at 10:51 am

  4. What Cathy describes is exactly how I feel too. I’m just not made that way – my response is, “you want me to believe in something I can’t see? Whatever for?”

    I actually find it a little surprising that the majority of people seem to manage that belief.


    18 Aug 09 at 1:48 pm

  5. Believing in things I can’t see or experience doesn’t bother me. There’s lots of stuff I’ll never see or properly understand ranging from scientific phenomena to people I can see and touch, but whose mental processes are as alien to me as those of a Martian.

    Part of what stopped me from simply not believing was basically an insatiable curiosity and a disinclination to believe that there were no answers. That I can’t understand the answers, oh, sure, it’s obvious that happens all the time. But I don’t believe that the answers don’t exist or that some approximations to them can’t be understood. Someone once said in a similar discussion that she just wasn’t interested in questions that couldn’t be answered. I’m the opposite. Those are the questions that fascinate me and that I have to keep nibbling away at. I studied science for a while, at a basic level, and was quite annoyed at first to discover that science is more like a set of Russian dolls than an answer to how and why the world works like it does. You can understand the nature of matter, for example, at many different and useful levels. But I’m told (I don’t have the knowledge necessary to understand it myself) that even the most advanced and complete knowledge of what matter is – what the most basic and obvious part of our existence is – is not complete. It may very well never be complete. It might even be impossible for any human to comprehend anyway. And, of course, if we did fully understand the physical world, that knowledge doesn’t illuminate the even more puzzling questions of human existence. Why are we here? How should we behave? Do we have any value? How should we deal with our basic needs? Should we suffer blindly through tragedy? As interesting as history and philosophy and psychology can be, I don’t find that they have full answers either, any more than my first favourite, science, does.

    But maybe there aren’t answers. Maybe all of life is just an accidental result of the interactions of energy and matter – but that’s just another speculation. It can’t be proven or disproven. It doesn’t provide any really useful ideas about life and humankind. And it’s not an idea you can do anything *with* – at least with science, philosophy, theology etc you can spend several lifetimes just testing and playing with ideas. Spending any amount of time trying to understand such a pointless and accidental system would like developing a gambling system. Some people might find it satisfying, some even an obsession, but gambling bores me.


    18 Aug 09 at 2:08 pm

  6. I’m not sure this belongs in the discussion, but is belief in “science” a form of religion?

    I have met people who call themselves Physicists, or Biologists, or Chemists or Geologists, but I’ve never met people calling themselves scientists.

    When I hear someone claim “Science solves problems”, I keep wanting to ask where science lives, or how much science weights.

    Science doesn’t solve problems, human beings solve them. And I don’t believe in a mysterious “scientific method” that is a magic black box guaranteed to produce solutions.

    When I read about the Dover trial, I was struck by how much the evolutionists seemed like religious believers with Evolution as a central part of their dogma.


    18 Aug 09 at 4:50 pm

  7. Hmm. Maybe now what I feel with my husband could be described as trust, but when I first married him, it was faith exactly as you define it: “having trust in the existence and behavior of something for which you have no direct evidence.”

    As for St. Anthony on his head, I’ve seen that kind of behavior described as “God as vending machine” where you put in prayers (or bargains) and get results. That’s not really faith to me…it’s bargaining with the universe. It’s just easier to conceive that God will answer than that a faceless Universe will.

    Another point, jd. It’s not quite clear to me if you think other people are seeing the scientific method as a black box. It’s clearly a set of rules for testing the world around us, and anyone who doesn’t know that might be convinced it’s as magical as the rules for getting into Heaven. But a real scientist, who follows one or more of the disciplines you list, would not.

    As for not knowing anyone who calls themselves a scientist, you just don’t know the right folks. My husband’s favorite job title ever is “Senior Priniciple Engineer/Scientist.” There ya go!


    18 Aug 09 at 10:38 pm

  8. Oh, I certainly identify as a scientist. Science is a method. And dogma? Nah. Best way to make a name for yourself in science is to take down a big theory with an elegant, replicable experiment! Evolution is just an observable fact. The theory is that evolution is driven by mutation and natural selection, and people have been whaling away at it for decades and the theory just garners more support. That’s not faith, that’s accepting something with a high degree of confidence because of the huge amount of data supporting it.



    19 Aug 09 at 7:41 pm

  9. I don’t think John is referring to actual scientists. He’s talking about people who don’t know much about science (and usually less than that about statistics) who have a seriously incorrect view of what science is and how it works. Basically, if someone in a white coat on TV says ‘scientists have proven X’, X is undeniably true in some people’s minds. Even if the people in white coats are actors. Never mind all that stuff about collecting evidence (or examining someone else’s) and forming reasonable conclusions based on evidence.

    It’s more a case of total deference to experts than anything to do with science as a way of knowing. And unfortunately it tends to be combined with difficult in accepting the unknown. Most people who study science I’ve met are perfectly happy to admit that there are areas – really *interesting* areas – in their field that aren’t properly understood yet. A certain proportion of laypeople like the idea that there’s a reason for everything that happens, and scientists know what it is.

    Of course, you also get the reverse, as when a minority of scientists claim that vaccines cause autism, and a lot of devastated parents support them. They want answers too, and if a matter is in dispute, and a lot of the evidence is ‘sorry, this hypothesis doesn’t seem to have much evidence’, well….I can understand their response. But it’s not a scientific one.


    20 Aug 09 at 6:10 am

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