On having proof
I am dizzied by the fascinating discussions that are still going on in the last few posts. Until I have time to sort through all these great thoughts and offer a coherent response, I will note one high-level takeaway that I keep coming back to as I follow these discussions:
As I read these detailed back-and-forths about one Bible verse vs. another, examples of bad Christians vs. good Christians, whether or not this or that event really happened, I think of how odd this would all seem to people like my grandfather.
My 92-year-old grandfather is a kind, humble man and a brilliant engineer. He worked his way through his college by shoveling coal during the Great Depression. After receiving his civil engineering degree he went on to oversee the construction of large refineries throughout Mexico and South America for most of his adult life. Everyone who knows him remarks first about what a wonderful, generous soul he is, and this compliment is usually followed by noting his keen intelligence.
He’s never been much of a church-goer and we’d never talked about God or religion, so I’d always assumed he didn’t believe in God. One day back when I was still an atheist but starting to actually listen to the Christian point of view without being in “attack mode” every time, I casually asked him over dinner if he believed in God. I was surprised when he said yes. “But he’s so smart!” I thought.
When I asked him why, he thought for a moment and said it’s just always seemed obvious to him that there’s a purpose to all this life that surrounds us, that it came from somewhere. As an engineer, he said, he could appreciate the grand system that is the universe, that the order to it all struck him as something that was intended. When I asked him some tough questions about his faith he would answer, occasionally only with “I don’t know,” but through it all he seemed undisturbed, maybe even a little amused, by all my questions.
I realized he’s one of those people to whom God has always seemed “so obvious”. The notion that God might not exist would be, to him, like saying gravity doesn’t exist. Whereas to me it had always been “so obvious” that God was nowhere to be found, his “existence” nothing more than a mental crutch to help people avoid thinking about their own meaninglessness, it intrigued me that someone so intelligent and reasonable would find God’s existence so…obvious.
I thought about the great men of science like Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Boyle and all the others who believed in God. Even Socrates and co. believed in “gods” in some form or another. When I read about these men and their personalities they often reminded me of my grandfather. They didn’t cry about Jesus or shout about hellfire and brimstone, but rather they struck me as calm, reasonable men of great intellect to whom the existence of God just seemed to make sense.
I always assumed that the reason I didn’t believe in God was because I was a more scientific-type thinker. My mind simply demanded proof before it would believe a theory to be true. And as nice as it would be to think that God and Mr. Jesus love me and want me to hang out with them and the pretty angels in heaven, the Christian story just seemed so bizarre and, really, absurd. These were some wild, often nonsensical claims that these Christians had, and I had not seen any proof that they were true.
But what, I thought, about these great men of science? What about my grandfather? Would I really be so bold as to say that my mind is more scientific than that of these men? Did they not also demand proof for their beliefs? I was perplexed.
That question has remained in my mind over the past few years as I’ve gone on this wild ride of discovering faith. And now, I think, I finally understand.
When the question of confirmation bias arose in the comments the other day I thought it was a fair point. I took a moment to examine my beliefs and see if perhaps I was “seeing” the results of my faith only because I want to convince myself that I have made a good decision here. I can say with complete honesty that I don’t think this is the case. Of course perhaps my mind is playing another trick on me and I don’t even realize what’s going on, but I am being honest when I say that I don’t think this is a mere psychological mechanism at work here.
But in the process of examining my situation one thing did strike me as odd: I still don’t believe in the same way a lot of Christians seem to. I don’t “feel” God, I usually feel like I’m talking to myself during prayer, a lot of times I’m really just going through the motions. (And, boy, “going through the motions” of being an orthodox Catholic is quite an endeavor.) So why do I do it?
It was then that I realized: because I’ve seen proof. It’s not the sort of proof that I could demonstrate in a laboratory but, to me, it is proof nonetheless.
When I first started reading works by Christian apologists I was quite surprised at how reasonable they were, that their arguments in favor of God and Christ his Son were more involved than the one’s I’d always heard (mainly “Shut up,” and the old standby “You’re going to hell”). I decided to take Pascal up on his wager, to follow St. Augustine on his advice to believe so that you might understand, and to just live my life for a while as if God did exist.
The results were striking.
There was no big “come to Jesus” moment, and even few times that I could say I “felt” that God was there, but it was as if some deep, powerful magnet had been activated within me that began pulling me in one direction.
This mysterious, powerful force was a compelling data point in favor of God’s existence, but it wasn’t proof enough. After all, it is hard to say objectively whether all the amazing “coincidences” that kept happening, all the doors that kept opening were from Something outside of myself or just the sorts of things that had always been there but I’d overlooked.
But something else started happening as well. The more I went through the motions of believing in God, the more the world started to make sense to me. The more I started to make sense to me. The picture of the world I’d had based on science alone now seemed incomplete. I still believed everything I’d learned from studying chemistry, physics and other sciences, but I now saw a whole other dimension to the world around me.
It was like the difference between looking at a picture of a double-fudge chocolate cake and actually having one in front of me to smell, touch and taste. Everything I knew before was still there, but I was now experiencing it at a whole different level full of wonder and richness.
I’d considered my life before this God experiment to be wonderful and full of happiness, but it now seemed disordered, confused and flat in retrospect. Little lingering “issues” faded away; parts of life that had seemed overwhelming were diffused and put in their proper place; I saw the psychological harm that certain actions that seemed totally innocuous in my atheist worldview had caused me; I was finally able to put a name to the deep stirrings within my soul I’d experience when listening to a profound piece of music or hearing about an act of evil; I understood why Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, what drove the efforts to build the great cathedrals; for the first time I felt the staggering depth of my potential as a human, a woman and a mother.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Also, there’s no reason to detail every single thing that fell into place in my life when I lived as if there were a God since it’s proof only to me. I cannot empirically demonstrate that any of this really happened, that it was real and not imagined.
All I can say is that I am not intentionally stating an untruth when I say that my life changed in a radical, profound way, inside and out, when I began giving God’s existence the benefit of the doubt, and that I am certain it came from something outside of myself. When I have acted as if God exists, setting aside cynicism and approaching it with humility and an open heart, I have seen the results that you would expect to see if he did exist. When I have followed the prescription that it is said the Perfect Doctor has prescribed, it has indeed worked to heal, even when I was sure it wouldn’t.
And I now think I realize how this mysterious God could seem so obvious to so many of the great minds of science, to brilliant men like my grandfather, whose intellects also demand proof. The laboratory in which the God experiment takes place is within the confines of the individual soul, and others can only observe the results, and not the mechanisms behind them. I cannot speak to the experience of former believers who saw no fruits of their belief in God other than to say that, based on my own experience, I have to wonder if they were conducting the experiment correctly, approaching it with humility and an open heart.
Because for me, and perhaps for all those believers among the ranks of the great minds of history, we also demand proof. And we have seen it.
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