Certain “aha moments” stick with me and are a continual point of reference in my life. Many of them happened, not unsurprisingly, when I was in college – a time when I was searching and open to learning.
For some background, I went to a small liberal arts college where a premium was attached to reading and writing. Philosophical discussions were not uncommon over food and drink. Professors would commonly gather in spirited debate in the (and only) fast food joint on the campus as the students. One ongoing debate among students was who was the smartest professor on campus. The debate came to end one day when one of the favorites (a professor who taught Latin, Greek and Logic) took his own life one night. The scuttlebutt was that he came to the dire conclusion in his reasoning that there is no God.
The other professor who was most often championed as “smartest” when was one of the two religion professors on campus. He was enamored with Liberation Theology (the thought that God was maturing and changing with His creation, among other things) and otherwise had an “all roads lead to the top of the same mountain” outlook on religion. His counterpart was Jewis,h of modern orthodox ilk. At the same time, one of the more popular professors (among the intelligentsia on campus) was the undeniable guru of Western Civilization. His Western Civilization classes were staples of the curriculum. Though there was plenty of partying and “normal” college life, it was a cloistered incubator for discovery for anyone eager to learn.
The Western Civ prof. (harkening back to college speak) gave a popular series of lectures in the evening (popular, at least, for the people more interested in political parties than partying). They were not part of any class. His lectures featured the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the connection between science and faith. His lectures were popular, I believe, because they propped up faith for the “smart” college student who grew up believing in God but suddenly faced the disdain of the academic community. The overwhelmingly predominant worldview on college campuses in those days, and certainly now, is anything but a worldview with God as the central figure. The conclusion from the lectures was that empirical, scientific evidence leads a person up the steps to heaven so that the “leap of faith” is hardly a leap at all – or so it was explained to me. I never went to the lectures.
Western thought is dominated by empirical evidence – what we can touch, see, feel and hear and, therefore, know. We are steeped in the scientific method. With most powerful telescopes, however, we cannot see to the end of the universe. With the most powerful microscopes, we cannot see the smallest of matter. The world extends beyond our reach and our ability to know in all directions. There may be, and likely are, even directions of which we have little or no knowledge, dimensions that we cannot see, feel, hear or touch.
The other popular path favored by academicians is logic. It has always seemed unlikely to me that logic is the path to God (or any final conclusion). Logic begins with a premise. If the premise is flawed, the conclusion will miss the mark. We are finite beings. How are we to know the right place to start the syllogism? In my short 50+ years of life, it seems to me that people usually start the syllogism in a place that is pointing toward the conclusion they believe will be reached (or want to reach).
That does not mean that disciplined thinking has no place in the conversation or that we should dismiss or ignore what we know. It merely means that we should be mindful of what we do not know.
I have always thought that faith is a leap, no matter how far the leap seems. We live for maybe eight decades. Then we die. What can we really know of an infinite universe that has no beginning or ending that we can see? I also firmly believe that every single person in the world, religious, agnostic or atheist lives by faith. Faith comes with being finite. It is inescapable. We have all leapt to our own conclusions. We cannot and we never will see the end game, at least in our current state. How we interpret the world, therefore, is necessarily a leap of faith. The atheist lives by faith that there is no God, which is the position the atheist has chosen to embrace, based on what he knows.
In western civilization, we take comfort in what we know. We measure, analyze and categorize it. What we know (or think we know) is our religion. We put our faith in it to the exclusion of things we cannot measure, analyze or categorize. There is a vast amount of certainty in the world we know, and by “know” I mean the world that we have experienced (and measured, analyzed and categorized). The earth rotates around the sun in the same direction. Gravity causes things to fall when suspended in air. We can use what we know to predict things like the appearance of comets in the sky with a great deal of accuracy.
At the same, we (human beings) have only been around for a very, very short amount of time in the scheme of things. No individual human being lives very long at all. Each one of us is barely a mist in the infinite night. I have always thought there is a certain arrogance that is unseemly in western thought. Who are we to declare what is “scientific truth” given the undeniable finiteness of our existence? How do we know that we are starting with the right premise by starting with what we know? As clever as we have been to learn so many things about the universe, given our fragile and fleeting place in it, we do not know what we do not know.
So this all leads me to that “aha moment.” In a class from the Jewish professor in which we were studying the books of the Old Testament, he came in one day with a change of direction. He began with the statement that the Jewish religion is more eastern than western in origin. To illustrate the difference, he asked the class to consider the world as a chair in a room. He described that the western man would begin to examine the empirical evidence, measuring the dimensions of the chair, the distance of the chair from the walls and ceiling, and the dimensions of the walls and ceiling. The eastern man would begin with the question: “How did the chair get here?”
That illustration has always stuck with me. We live in a materialistic world, as the song goes. We easily forget our place in the world, such as it is, and focus on what we see in front of us, as if that were all there is. Even our greatest scientists, physicists and thinkers have the same tendency. We scour what we see, giving little thought, or not wanting to think, about what might lie behind, before, above and beyond it all. How is it that we trust our own judgment so much? Considering that we are less than a bump on a pimple on the universe. In the end, there is nothing but faith. .
For some extra-curricular reading, try KANT’S RELIGIOUS ARGUMENT FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD: THE ULTIMATE DEPENDENCE OF HUMAN DESTINY ON DIVINE ASSISTANCE by Stephen R. Palmquist (“achieving certain knowledge of God’s existence transcends the capabilities of human reason”).