As an adherent to a “mystery religion,” I am frequently challenged – sometimes by others; sometimes by my own restless intellect – to explain particular assertions of my faith, to make them comprehensible. There’s an obvious contradiction in this, which I’m sure any Gentle Reader will see at once. Religious mysteries aren’t on the same plane as the murder mysteries the C.S.O. loves. They are mysteries because they involve Divine attributes and operations that lie beyond the realm of things men can understand. One who insists that such things be explained, brought into the time-dependent rubric of cause and effect, implicitly rejects the supernatural / supratemporal realm, where decision, action, and cause and effect as we understand them have no meaning.
In short, some categories of questions that are critical to human thought – i.e., the “whys” and the “hows” – simply don’t apply to God and His workings. But that tiny bit of understanding is among the trickiest of stumbling blocks. Paradoxically so, for it is the only thing in all theology and theocosmogony of which we can be perfectly sure.
Yet we continue to ask those unanswerable questions…and sometimes, on special occasions, the asking brings us somewhere we did not know that we needed to go.
The sciences are those areas of human action where the goal is greater knowledge. The technologies are those areas where the goal is specific results. Despite my initial ambitions, as a young man I left the sciences for the technologies…because, in the simplest terms, I wanted to get things done. But I never lost the desire to extend and expand my knowledge: “the theory of things,” as Albert Jay Nock put it, above and apart from any practical applications.
When I rediscovered faith, that need to know more was still with me. In theology it had found a new application of the most difficult sort. It continues to animate me today, and probably will until I am shorn of the flesh.
But human intellect has limits. Cosmologists have been grappling with it for some time. We can theorize endlessly about ultimate things without any hope of ever proving our conjectures. I have no doubt that certain possibilities much discussed by cosmologists today are of interest to them because they lie outside our powers of investigation and experiment.
In other words, science is aware, and an honest scientist will admit, that there are things we cannot know with the degree of confidence we attribute to the regular rising of the Sun. The infinity of possible explanations for those things cannot be condensed by any means available to men. Those “whys” and “hows” are as unanswerable as questions about why God created Man, or how Man emerged from the chaos of natural selection.
But that doesn’t invalidate the pursuit of knowledge, does it? It merely acknowledges our limits. In the acceptance of those limits lies the gateway to faith.
There are those who’ll tell you, in a self-satisfied sort of way, that a belief in God, or in a religion of any kind, is an indication of weakness, or naivety, or – this is the one that always ruffles my feathers – stupidity. I’ve had jousts with a few such people. Some of their sallies are rather clever. Indeed, the best of them are good exercises for the refinement of the logical faculty. They embed assumptions that are neither provable nor disprovable, which makes them statements of faith.
The irony here is enough to choke a brontosaurus. For Smith to claim that his faith is preferable to Jones’s faith is common. Smith will undoubtedly have reasons for his preference…but it is in the nature of things that those reasons are founded on faith-like premises. He’ll be as unable to prove them as Jones is to disprove them. They don’t constitute defensible grounds for the attitude of personal superiority that so many irritating atheists wear like an obnoxious tie.
More irony, if you can stand it: Just as Christians, in particular, were unlearning the sin of aggressive evangelism – i.e., the sort of evangelism that attempts to bludgeon the nonbeliever into faith – the Western world suffered the rise of the aggressive atheist. His mindset parallels that of some of the most aggressive Christian evangelists: he needs for you to believe what he believes. He cannot have full confidence in his convictions unless everyone shares them. Thus, he must contrive to label and dismiss those who decline his entreaties as somehow defective. It’s his only defense against the fear that lurks in the shadowed places in his mind: the possibility that he could be wrong.
I pray for those people. They need it more than most.
Yes, this is about humility.
We are told that faith requires humility. It does; no argument. But then, so does any sort of inquiry into the “whys” and “hows” of existence. The sciences could not proceed without first accepting that no item of knowledge is final and indisputable. Under the veil of Time, no material proposition – i.e., outside of pure mathematics – can be proved. A beautiful passage from a novel of great importance expresses this requirement brilliantly:
Not that the count was a drone. At last reports, he had been involved in some highly esoteric tampering with the Haertel equations—that description of the space-time continuum which, by swallowing up the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction exactly as Einstein had swallowed Newton (that is, alive), had made interstellar flight possible. Ruiz-Sanchez did not understand a word of it, but, he reflected with amusement, it was doubtless perfectly simple once you understood it.
Almost all knowledge, after all, fell into that category. It was either perfectly simple once you understood it, or else it fell apart into fiction. As a Jesuit—even here, fifty light-years from Rome—Ruiz-Sanchez knew something about knowledge that Lucien le Comte des Bois-d’Averoigne had forgotten, and that Cleaver would never learn: that all knowledge goes through both stages, the annunciation out of noise into fact, and the disintegration back into noise again. The process involved was the making of increasingly finer distinctions. The outcome was an endless series of theoretical catastrophes.
The residuum was faith.
[James Blish, A Case of Conscience]
Be not afraid of what you cannot understand. There are things we time-bound types simply cannot know with certainty or even with fair confidence. It’s like that for everyone, and about everything. Either the lack is of no importance whatsoever, or we’ll know what we need to know soon enough: each of us in his own appointed time.
May God bless and keep you all.