Column by Doctor James Merrick
Can you prove it? Not everyone who asks for evidence of faith is being obstinate, hostile, or incredulous; many want to believe. That’s my experience with students. They don’t want to be duped. They want their faith to be realistic and, well, believable.
For this reason, I would caution against a popular reply that suggests genuine faith doesn’t need evidence. Many of us have heard that faith means letting go of our plans, knowledge, or questions and making something like an illogical leap of trust in God. There is something right about this view. Faith is a radical decision to trust in God, and that often means turning away (repenting) from our own ways. Faith is impossible for the cynic.
Yet, we must remember that faith is knowledge of the truth. Many of our earliest spiritual ancestors were converted philosophers who came to faith because it made sense. They regarded Christianity as “true philosophy,” that is, the fulfilment not just of the Jewish Old Testament but of Greek philosophy as well. St. Augustine (354-430AD), in a statement that resounded throughout Church history, claimed that we believe in order to understand. Faith is the way to truth, in other words. So we shouldn’t tell people that faith is best when ignorant or irrational.
The Catechism teaches that faith is not contrary to reason, even if it gives us knowledge of realities that reason on its own power could not know. Think of God, for an example. Rational observation of the natural world reveals the necessity of an eternal and self-existent being. Yet such cannot take us to personal knowledge of who God is and how God engages humans in relationship. Reason cannot take us to the doctrines of the Trinity and salvation, in other words. This knowledge must be made known by God. When God demonstrates who He is and how He acts in history, we know this by faith in Him.
Perhaps an analogy will help. You, dear reader, could quite easily prove that I exist and that I have the characteristics of a human being. But you couldn’t prove what I was thinking at a given moment or how I might respond to a request without me revealing my mind and heart to you through a history of encounters. You can know what and that I am, but who I am is hidden from you.
In the same way, faith is, as the author of Hebrews says, “the conviction of things unseen” (Heb. 11:1). We look at the history of God’s works and, on this basis, enter into a relationship with Him. If that relationship proves fruitful, we know this history is true. Faith, then, is the knowledge of God’s will gained through a historical relationship and personal communion with Him. But because faith is personal knowledge, it is not for that reason without reasons.
So, then, what kind of proof can we offer for our faith? We have to be very clear that the kind of proof you can offer for a claim depends upon the kind of reality you are examining. Here we bump into one of the most common problems
people have with accepting the proofs offered for faith. Today, people tend to feel that since faith cannot be proved scientifically, it cannot be proved at all.
This assumes that science is the only way to prove knowledge. This view is known as “scientism.” People who hold this view have allowed the power of science to mesmerize or enchant them to the point they no longer value other forms of knowledge. Science is indeed very valid and powerful. But it is not the sole source of knowledge.
Think, for example, of historical events. No amount of scientific experiments on the Delaware River could prove that General Washington crossed it on Christmas in 1776 or the significance of that event. Think too of the meaning of poetry, art, and literature. No amount of scientific experiments on a painting would reveal the painter or, even, the meaning of the painting. No scientific examination could render the meaning of a novel. This is because no scientific experiment could give us the meaning of words.
When we go to prove the Catholic faith, we have to be mindful of the kind of claim and reality we are considering. If we make a historical claim, like “Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John in the Jordan River,” then we use historiographical methods to assess our sources and the plausibility of someone like Jesus engaging in said ritual. If we make a metaphysical claim like “God exists,” then we use philosophical reasoning.
In our next instalment, we’ll look at the last claim – “God exists” – to illustrate what proof looks like as well as its limits. But if you find yourself struggling to convince your child, grandchild, or good friend, please take the time to learn how to answer their questions and demonstrate why faith is credible. It might stretch your mind, and, like all exercise, that will be painful. But as the saying goes: “Offer it up!” You might start with the following books:
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (Yale Univ. Press, 2013)
Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith (Ignatius, 1988)
Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus (Image, 2016)
Gerard Verschuuren, Forty Anti-Catholic Lies (Sophia, 2018)
Dr. James R. A. Merrick teaches theology at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, PA and is part of the diocesan faculty in the Diaconate and Lay Ministry programs. Previously, he was a Scholar-in-Residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, served as an Anglican minister in the US and UK, and taught at St. Francis University, Grand Canyon University, and Franciscan University of Steubenville.