Many thanks to Terry Goldman for his comments about last week’s column. He mentions a “quibble”, there’s really no quibble at all because we’re in full agreement concerning the realm of physical sciences. My point was that, absent tangible and verifiable evidence, we use that which we have to determine the likely existence (or not) of an entity.
For instance, in the dark matter example, even if no further evidence could be found either to the affirmation or contrary, science would likely still hypothesize its existence by what it already possesses. Yet science will no doubt continue to accumulate ever increasing knowledge about the nature and composition of the universe.
However, supposing an incorporeal being, tools we use for direct observation of the physical—wholly limited to the material sphere—would not only fall short but be ineffective absolutely … like trying to measure time with a measuring cup. So, if no new directly observable evidence is expected (or, at least not predictable), the curious open mind pursues evidence at hand.
I would think that most persons of our day would at least not discount the possibility of beings greater than ourselves; after all, the SETI project centers upon that very hypothesis (without evidence and thus “by faith”, I would suggest), theorizing that life will develop elsewhere as it has on earth. But how would one discern (much less study) an incorporeal being of a level far beyond our own, and yet apart from our physicality but able to insert himself into it at will? Would we not be wholly dependent upon the record and testimonials of those insertions?
Yes, certainly many supposed supernatural phenomena have been explained scientifically over time, but that does not negate the possibility of the divine; it simply shows that those particulars were in error, and religion adjusted to new data similarly as does science.
Now a skeptic will dismiss recorded supernatural manifestations in scripture because apart from faith the veracity of scripture—at least apparently—falls into circular reasoning: “I believe in God because of scripture, and I believe scripture because it was inspired by God” rationale. But it seems reasonable to utilize scripture as a partial historical record at least.
So … why might a skeptic come to believe? He might recall the unlikelihood—even seeming to approaching impossibility—that the teaching of an uneducated wandering carpenter from a miserable little village in a remote vassal state of the Roman empire would spark one of the world’s great religions, spanning the globe … reminding us of the teacher Gamaliel, speaking of the evangelization efforts of the apostles: “…if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” (Acts 5:38-39)
The unbeliever might consider that Jesus’ apostles had been with Him daily for two to three years, far too long and intimately to be fooled by any charlatan using parlor game “miracles”, for the apostles were cynical working/business men wary of deception. And yet these same men, after Jesus’ claimed resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, would spend the rest of their lives in arduous and dangerous evangelization even to martyrdom, testifying to the truth of what they had witnessed in Jesus as is outlined in the Biblical Gospels. That collective sacrifice of life and livelihood seems wholly unreasonable had they known that they were promoting a fraud.
The unbeliever might consider the (historical) immediate conversion of early Christianity’s worst persecutor into its greatest advocate after a self-reported vision: St. Paul, who gave up status and fortune for hardship and poverty in order to promote Jesus’ teaching. The unbeliever might also investigate the hundreds, and even thousands, of manifestations of power and healing that occur even today that are far beyond any reasonable scientific or medical explanation, a.k.a., “miracles”.
Because of charlatans, such events are generally dismissed out of hand; I would recommend reviewing those already “vetted” by scientists and doctors—those used at the Vatican canonization of saints. I can also attest that, in my personal ministry as with most priests I know, that I’ve been witness very many events that resist explanation.
Perhaps none of the above—or much else that might be referenced—is as concrete, tangible or verifiable (certainly not reproducible) as we might prefer, and perhaps individually these things might be dismissed as “chance” or other explanation. But taken together, it seems highly unlikely in the extreme … at least, without supernatural assistance.
Some believers will fault this column as diminishing God, or as disregarding St. Paul: “…you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8-9) or “…the world did not know God through wisdom, [and] it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…” (1 Corinthians 1:21-23) But we need also recall St. Paul’s assurance that God: “…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4). And so, we who love God and neighbor should try to speak to our audience as best we can, yet remembering that many disbelieved even Jesus Himself.
The above does not even touch upon the internal movement of Christian faith within the believer, for the skeptic can easily dismiss such as emotional excitation or self-deception. In the end, belief is a matter of personal prerogative; no one can be forced to accept or believe. But every Christian’s hope—indeed, their plea—is that the unbeliever keep an open mind and at least investigate the evidence at hand … and perhaps they, too, will make the leap of faith.