Is Keeping Faith the Ultimate Empirical Test?
In our time, is faith declining because people demand empirical proof? In the first Chapter of her book on the “History of God,” Karen Armstrong asserts that “many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen.” Is this an accurate assertion? It seems unobjectionable. But a little self-examination raises doubts.
For example, many people who have purchased grapes or some other fruit at the supermarket think twice before eating some without rinsing it first. They assume that they might dusted with something harmful (dirt, germs, chemical residue, etc.). For the same reason, most people wash their hands before using them to eat a sandwich.
They act from a sense of concern about things they cannot see. To be sure, these are not things “no eye has seen.” (1 Corinthians 2) The people mentioned act as they do because they implicitly trust the scientists who have examined things with their instruments and “seen” what others are not able to see with the naked eye. Sometimes such scientists look through lenses. At other times, they look at and interpret some scientifically engineered visual or electronic metaphor, calibrated accurately to represent the results of highly sophisticated chemical, molecular or atomic analysis. In any case, most of us rely on their testimony. Most of us trust in that testimony, which leads us to engage in what amounts to ritual behavior to protect ourselves from the baneful effects of things we do not presently see.
Thus, in its application to human behavior, science is not unlike religion. Its practical authority over the layman derives from trust. Now, in the New Testament, the Greek word often translated as “faith” literally has the sense of implicit reliance and reliability conveyed by the English word “trust.” In this sense, we put our faith in scientists the way people in the past put their faith, for example, in the prophets of God we read about in the Bible.
Though we don’t often reflect on it, we do so with respect for the same standard God instructed the Israelites to apply in order to recognize someone as a true prophet:
And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken? When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)
We see a good example of this in the Biblical account of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal. (2 Kings 18:1-40) Elijah challenges them to prepare a sacrifice of bulls which they are to complete by praying to their idol to produce the fire that consumes them. Meanwhile, he will do the same, except that he will call on the Lord God. Though they pray loud and long, the prophets of Baal cannot meet the test. By contrast, Elijah has his sacrificial pyre doused in water three times over, and he directs that a deep trench to be dug around it, to assure that no one can surreptitiously approach. At the time appointed for his sacrifice, he prays to the Lord, who sends down fire from above, which burns “the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the ground around the altar. It also died up the water in the ditch.
Fans of Star Trek and other science fiction will doubtless volunteer the thought that a little phaser fire easily account for Elijah’s victory. But my point has less to do with what caused the demonstration than with the fact that Elijah had to pass an empirical test to prove he represented God. People then accepted his claim, much as we now accept the results of scientific experiment and research, once attested by results reliably verified by credible witnesses. So, true Biblical prophets accrued authority with people at large on the same strictly empirical basis as the miracle workers of modern science. Indeed, in one respect they were more strictly called to account. For when self-proclaimed prophets of old failed to deliver, they were liable to be slaughtered ignominiously. So it transpired with the failed prophets of Baal.
Much later, it would appear that the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ had ended in similar fashion. Thanks to reports of the miracles he performed, in the days before his final passion people in Jerusalem, many of the people gathered for Passover greeted his arrival there with acclaim. But despite the testimony of God’s voice from heaven, (John 12: 28) when he affirmed the prospect of his impending death (John 12:32):
“The multitude answered him: We have heard out of the law that Christ abides forever. And how say you: The Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?”
Then Jesus said unto them, Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walks in darkness knows not whither he goes. While you have light, believe in the light, that you may be the children of light. These things spake Jesus, and departed, and did hide himself from them. But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: (John 12:34-37)
In this Gospel passage, the people who turn away from Christ cite the law as their reason for doing so. But they are also, ignoring the words of the law that instruct them to accept a prophet whose words come to pass. They take the law as proof because they cannot understand how Jesus can affirm the prospect of his own death and yet be the anointed one, sent by God to save His people. Though a voice from heaven affirmed that God would again be glorified in Jesus, they had not the ears to hear. Though they heard that, by the power of God, Jesus raised Lazurus from the dead they did not look for Jesus to live again, by that very power. Though the words of the prophet Isaiah foretold that “those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,” they did not wait, and so the strength of their belief waned away.
We who profess to be followers of Christ today do not have to wait to know that death, even death on the cross, could not subdue the Life within Him. Therefore, we must also know that there is no contradiction between the law of Christ that he should live forever, and the death of Christ that released to us the hope of living likewise with Him in glory. But as they were called to believe in the life of Christ beyond death on the cross, are we not called to believe that the life which, in and through his Resurrection, now abides in us, will endure whatever crosses we are called to bear—even, if they bring us where, in the eyes of the world, the cross brought him: to suffering and death?