The following is adapted from a series of devotions written for the Crosswise Institute of Concordia University in Irvine, CA and delivered June 25-29, 2018. The theme of the Institute that year was “Science and Your Mind,” an exploration of the pursuit of knowledge in the context of the Christian faith.
SEEING IS NOT BELIEVING
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. – Hebrews 11:1-3
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Ever hear that? Maybe you’ve said it. You hear about something so great you can’t believe it’s true. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But if you can see it, you wouldn’t have to believe it. Seeing is not believing. Seeing is seeing. Believing is what you must do when you can’t see. It’s the conviction of things not seen. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Faith is a way of knowing things you can’t see, measure, taste, touch or smell. Faith deals with the unseen stuff, the “mysteries,” the things hidden from our eyes. Reason deals with the seen things or at least the things you can measure. You can’t see electrons, black holes or air, but you can make observations that allow you to conclude that air, electrons, and black holes reasonably exist. Reason deals with the visibles and tasteables and smellables and touchables. Faith works with the invisibles, the mysteries, the hidden things.
Faith and reason are not opposites or enemies. They are ways of knowing. Not everyone gets that. Sir John Polkinghorne, the nuclear physicist who is also an Anglican priest wrote: “When you say that you’re a scientist and a Christian, people sometimes give you a funny look, as if you’d said, ‘I’m a vegetarian butcher.”
I’ve seen that “vegetarian butcher” look in the chemistry lab when my fellow lab workers learned that I was a Christian. When I told them I was leaving the lab for the seminary, they thought I’d completely lost my mind. For many of my unbelieving colleagues, faith and reason were incompatible. Faith belonged to the realm of ignorance. The more ignorant you were, the more you relied on faith. Conversely, the more educated you were, the less you needed that religious stuff. After all, science is a myth buster. It destroys superstition. It shows you that suns don’t rise and garlic juice doesn’t demagnetize iron and dead men don’t rise from the dead. It tells you exactly how water becomes wine. Science demythologizes everything, because myths are for the ignorant.
I still catch that “vegetarian butcher” look today, but now it’s from the faith side of things. I get it from brothers and sisters in Christ, and especially some of my fellow pastors, when I come to the defense of science and scientific method. How can you defend the theory of evolution or Big Bang cosmology or an old earth and call yourself a “believer?” You may as well be a vegetarian butcher.
What we are doing is setting faith and reason against each other. But both are gifts from God. So in effect, we’re setting two gifts of God against each other. The rationalist says “Reason replaces faith.” The fideist says “Faith replaces reason.” The truth is, the two belong together as two ways of knowing. Faith-full reason and reason-able faith.
Let’s say there was a loaf of bread on the table, and I said to you, “Please bring me that bread.” That would require no faith at all for you do that. You know bread when you see it. But if I ask you, “Please bring me the Body of Christ,” you would need something more than what you see. You would need some way of knowing that this particular bread was in fact the Body of Christ. And the only way for you to know that is to hear the Word of Christ revealing the mystery, and trusting that Word of Christ. The Body and Blood of Jesus are mysteries, they are hidden from sight under the visibles of bread and wine. They must be revealed by the Word and believed. Same with Baptism. And everything spiritual. They are mysteries, hidden things.
Engineers can measure the head of a pin to an amazing degree of precision. But they can’t tell you how many angels can dance on it. In fact, science has nothing to say about angels, archangels, or the whole company of heaven. It also can’t tell you anything about life beyond death, or what to do about your sin, or how one is justified before God. These are all “unseen things” that must be revealed and believed in order to be known. Science can’t tell you about ultimate origins, either. It’s by faith, not be observation, that we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God. By faith.
The Christian apologist GK Chesterton said that either in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, or, in the beginning nothing became everything all by itself. Those are the only two possibilities.
But here’s the odd thing: Even if you had been there to observe the beginning, it might have actually looked as though nothing become everything all by itself. What did the wine steward see when the water became wine at Cana? Water became wine, all by itself. What did the centurion servant’s see when he was healed remotely by a word of Jesus? The man got well, all by himself.
God is so good at hiding, I wouldn’t expect to see Him even if I were watching Him at work, which is precisley what we are doing each and every waking moment when we look at the natural world. You’re watching God at work all the time. When you see light, the rhythms of day and night, when you stand on the beach and see the boundaries of sea and dry land, when the earth brings forth vegetation in the garden, when an egg hatches and when a baby is conceived and born, you are watching God at work. Yet all you actually see with your eyes are natural forces at work. That’s how it is. You might see a fingerprint or two, but you can never catch the Divine Suspect in the act. God’s part is known only by faith.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: Reason with first article stuff; believe third article stuff. You don’t need faith to have clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, a dog, a marriage and a family. You don’t need faith to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. Just discover something really important. And you don’t need to understand quantum mechanics to be a faithful believer. Thank goodness! In fact, you must become as a little child with third article things. Put reason in the passenger’s seat but don’t kick it out of the car! And take Jesus at His Word. Trust that He knows better than you how to save you from Sin and Death. He’s an expert in the field.
When you look at it that way, in terms of first and third article gifts, you’re going to find something. All the stuff that matters deep down, the ultimate and eternal things, the questions of who am I and why am I here and how do I make sense of my life, all find their answer through faith in Christ and not in the study of the seen things. That doesn’t mean you don’t pray before taking a test or when you get sick. You do. But you also study for that test, and you go to the doctor for a prescription. It also doesn’t mean you shut off your brain when you read the Bible, or study theology, or worship. Faith engages the mind as well as the heart. God wants your mind, and He wants you in your right mind, which is why He works a “change of mind,” a meta-noia, repentance.
We’re afraid. We’re afraid that if they think certain thoughts, our heads will explode, or our faith in Jesus will evaporate like a shallow puddle on a hot day. It’s like being in an airplane full of people at 30,000 feet and some kid yells out, “Hey, this thing can’t fly. It’s heavier than air,” and the plane immediately drops from the sky.
But stop. Breath. Think. The Son of God, the second Person of the Undivided Holy Trinity, became flesh, suffered, died, and rose again to save the world and you personally. He gave you the gift of faith to plumb the ultimate mystery of Christ, and not just to comfort and amuse yourself, but to tell others and to share that comfort with those around you. Jesus went through a lot of sacrifice to save you. Do you think your faith is really that fragile?
Werner Heisenberg was a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics. You perhaps know him for his Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. He was a Lutheran, by the way. He said something that describes my own personal journey through science and faith: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting for you.”
I find that to be true. The first time you encounter a thought that seems to conflict with your faith it seems like you are standing on the edge of literally losing your religion. That’s how it was for me too. And I didn’t study at Christian universities. Freshman year was an eye-opener and a faith-challenger. Many of the young people from my own congregation who went off to college and took a sip of knowledge, kicked their faith to the curb. And some will say, “See? All that learning is going to lead you straight to hell!”
But Werner Heisenberg would say that the problem isn’t science or learning, the problem is sipping. Not drinking all the way to the bottom of the glass. And we have a lot of sippers today. We sip from this and that, little bits and pieces of information we pick up on the internet or read in a book. And it’s not just in matters of science and reason but in matters of faith too. We sip from the Scriptures like we sip from science. We sip from the wells of knowledge and from the cup of salvation, like a bunch of white wine pietists at a cocktail party trying not to get tipsy.
You have been encouraged at this conference to be thinkers and doers. This morning, I’m going to encourage you to be drinkers rather than sippers. Life isn’t a polite white wine cocktail party. And the way of the cross is not an amusement ride. The times call for bold thinkers and confident believers who drink deeply from the wells of knowledge and from the cup of salvation.
To paraphrase Martin Luther: Think boldly, act boldly. And trust Christ even more boldly.