“Please, don’t ask me to believe anything. Let’s stick with what we can know.”
Those were the words of author Barbara Ehrenreich last week on NPR’s Fresh Air show with Terry Gross. Ehrenreich is an atheist who caused a bit of a stir by admitting in a new book that many years ago, she did have some kind of quasi-mystical experiences. But whatever those were, today Ehrenreich says that the only religions she has any respect for are the ones with ecstatic mystical rituals–like various religions in Africa, she claimed–that put a person in touch with “god” or the divine in some palpable way. But faith itself? Belief? Puh-leeze, it’s the 21st century. We are so finished with the idea that belief is a way of knowing. Let’s embrace what we can prove, what we can see and touch and be all empirical about.
I would not expect Terry Gross to have been quick enough or informed enough to point out that it’s fairly well established that we all live off a whole lot of beliefs that cannot be logically or empirically proven. Lots of philosophers may dislike Alvin Plantinga’s work in this area but I don’t know of anyone who has scored a knockout punch to his contention that all of our knowledge rests on a foundation that cannot be verified as reliable once and for all. You’d need to invoke logic to prove logic and since that is self-referentially false to do, we are forced to believe a great many things that we may claim “to know” but that actually just occur to us as reliable.
It is pretty tough to prove that the entire universe was not created–replete with your every memory–five minutes ago. It is pretty tough to prove that someone else loves you or even that other people really do exist (and are not just projections of your own mind). And as Plantinga says, we don’t feel the need to prove every day that we ate Cheerio’s for breakfast or that an orange tiger lily is swaying in the breeze just outside our office windows. A great many things just appear to us to be rational to embrace and it’s fully warranted to call these beliefs knowledge. For Christian believers, the same can be said of what Calvin called “the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit” and the knowledge that comes through the avenue of revelation. If there is a God, then this God would be able to communicate with us and if this God did so through a Holy Spirit who testifies with our spirits on various things, then this can and should count as reliable knowledge even if it technically is a matter of faith and thus of the very “belief” that Ehrenreich says her life can do without.
But enough of my amateur efforts at summarizing some pretty deep philosophy. It is Holy Week, after all. Christians around the world are gathering this week for services that are almost 100% about what we believe. Jesus’ suffering and death and ultimately his resurrection are not things we can touch with our hands or see with ordinary eyesight. When Jesus told Thomas that the day would come when people would have to believe in him despite not having the risen Jesus standing physically right in front of them, he meant us and he meant just about everyone since Thomas, too.
When I was a little kid, we read John 20 at the dinner table and my Mom said “Jesus means us.” And I thought, “Gee, I’m in the Bible! How cool is that!?” Then when I got a little older, I thought how foolish I was to think that way–I am not specifically in the Bible! And then I got a little older still and swung back to my child-like (not child-ish) conclusion that I AM in the Bible after all because Jesus’ story and God’s Grand Story are my story. I cannot prove that. But I know it. I know it because I believe.
I am comforted by the works of philosophers who defend the rationality of this form of knowing, and on Friday when I attend a mid-day Good Friday service, Alvin Plantinga might be in the same sanctuary even as we saw each other at this service last year. But Al won’t be there because he’s proven his faith any more than my family and I will be there based on rational and empirical constructs that will pass Ms. Ehrenreich’s threshold for warranted knowledge.
No, we will be there to remember the sacrifice of Jesus because we believe. Simple as that: we have the gift of faith and we believe. Credo ut intelligam is the traditional Latin line for “I believe in order to understand.”
Good enough for me, in the 21st century or ever.