Admittedly, I'm hardly a New Testament scholar and my ventures into in-depth exegesis have been dilettantish at best, so perhaps the verse above carries some nuances in the Greek of which I'm unaware. But reading it as I've always understood it, the verse gives me pause. How can we be certain of something we don't see? I don't know. After all, my faith can often be encapsulated in the father's plea to Jesus to heal his demon-possessed son: "I believe; help me overcome my unbelief." Nonetheless, one thing I do know is that whatever the writer had in mind when he wrote of certainty, he wasn't thinking of an objective, measurable, physical proof--the wording of the verse excludes such an idea. Yet amid the increasingly vociferous challenges to Christianity raised by atheists, it seems to me that many Christians are confident that a logical response will thoroughly deflate any atheistic criticism. In short, that's simply not so.
Some of our time-honored arguments aren't as compelling as we've made them out to be. Take, for example, the "something can't come from nothing" argument, a surefire selection for the Layman Apologetics Hall of Fame if there were such a thing. Now, I'll grant that there's something altogether counterintuitive, if not downright illogical, in the idea that the universe arose into existence from nothing, with no outside being or force serving as the catalyst for creation. However, is it really any more logical to posit that an eternal spiritual being, a being created by no one, brought the universe into existence? If it is, it's hardly overwhelmingly so. The reason we find the latter more cogent, I believe, is due in part to our presupposition that God exists.
Of course, science-wielding atheists bring hold their own presuppositions, the most fundamental one being that what is true is that which can be measured or detected empirically. Therefore, because God can't be proven empirically, He doesn't exist. But to claim that mankind in his little speck of the universe can declare the bounds of truth is not only arrogance but also flawed logic. In a discussion board on slashdot.org, a mathematician (perhaps a Christian) wrote the following:
Science and religion are orthogonal to each other. The
set of axioms that runs:
Science deals in falsifiable statements.
'God' cannot be falsified.
Science disproves (falsifies) 'God'
wouldn't last five minutes in Introduction to Logic 101.
The only rational thing to say is that science does not
allow us to make statements about the existence of
'God,' which should hardly be a surprise to anyone.
He goes on to write:
We know for a fact that mathematics as we practice it
today cannot derive all possible truths from a finite set
of axioms. We know that science doesn't give us the
tools to discuss matters of agency or initial-first-causes.
Watching people ignore those limits and use 'science' to
'disprove God' offends me as a mathematician.
Well, that settles it. We've thwarted Enlightenment-imbued atheism! No, not really. Although we cannot disprove God's existence scientifically, we can't prove it scientifically either. And to recognize that science has limits is not tantamount to proving there actually is a spiritual element that lies beyond it. The same holds true when we argue God's existence based on the existence of beauty, man's desire for justice, apparent order in nature, etc. That's not to say such things can't be used to show how a belief in God is reasonable, that we can't make inferences from them, but they aren't proof. As T.S. Eliot writes in "The Dry Salvages" from Four Quartets: "Hints followed by guesses; and the rest/ Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action."
Don't think that I'm denouncing apologetics. Far from it. I think the best Christian apologists demonstrate that Christians can, in fact, be highly intelligent, rational people. The problem is when we fail to recognize the limitations of apologetics, just as some atheists fail to recognize those of science.
Try as we might to compile a list of arguments that eventually add up to an irrefutable proof of our beliefs, we ultimately have to take Kierkegaard's leap of faith. For some the leap is shorter than it is for others, but we all take a leap just the same. But in acknowledging that a leap, however big it may be, exists, we're admitting that there's a chance we may be wrong. And that's scary. So we cling to the security blanket of certainty.
How do we know if we're clinging to the blanket? I'd say if any of the following statements are true (and some have been true of me at times), then you're a theological Linus:
- You assume all non-believers are denying God's existence--blatantly obvious to all mankind--because they'd rather pursue their own sinful desires than submit to God.
- When someone questions your beliefs, you become extremely defensive.
- When responding to criticism from non-believers, your main concern is to prove you're right and they're wrong.
- Convinced of the infallibilty of your position, you approach your study of any other world view assuming it's entirely fallacious.
- You refuse to respond, "I don't know" to any difficult theological question.
So going back to Hebrews 11:1, how can we be certain of something we don't see? Well, I still don't know really. But I suspect it has little, if anything, to do with constructing an invincible bulwark of logic.