“Like anyone can even know that..” – Kip in Napoleon Dynamite
“For now we know in part…” -St. Paul
Since I’ve been in ministry, a few times a year, I hear from a concerned parent or aunt or grandmother about how their young son or niece or whoever has stopped believing in God. They want to know what to say or how to get them to believe again.
I used to give them resources for apologetics, to give them evidence for faith.
I’m starting to think a better approach might be to show them what we don’t know.
Mystery as Apology
So Rob Bell wrote a new book this week. Until now, he’s written books for the church. This book he wrote for the world. But I think most Christians need to read it, not because you will agree with the answers he gives, but because he gives entirely new questions to ask.
And chances are they are the questions that your kid/friend/nephew are asking.
Bell starts off his book by tackling the certainty that both religious and non-religious people have. His first 30 pages are worth the price of the book. Bell does a brilliant job at helping us realize how big and intricate and complex our universe is.
And then he points out that this is just the part that we know about. There is a staggering 96% of the known universe that is dark matter. Which means we have no idea how to even study it. It’s impossible to comprehend the vastness of the 4% of the universe that we know even basic things about.
This week I had lunch with a professor who teaches Physics, and I was talking about how much of the universe is Dark Matter. And my professor friend told me that if scientist were to write down everything they knew on Dark matter, it would all fit neatly on one side of a 3×5 card.
And remember, that is 96% of the universe.
In Rob’s words:
“We simply aren’t the masters of the world that we’ve been told we are.”
Ever since the Enlightenment, Christians have been talking about God with the same language and tools that biologist and accountants have, but these tools have their own limits.
The brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking was interviewed recently and said,
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Notice what Hawking’s says and how he says it. His assumption is that we don’t live in a fairy tale. His assumption is that the world isn’t enchanted.
Which is so different from the way people used to look at the universe, we used to know what we didn’t know. Hawking’s sounds so certain.
One of the interesting things about the Middle Ages was that people were aware that their theories of how the universe works, were in fact, theories. A theory was valuable because it was helpful not because it was certainly true. And so their language was much more humble. Someone who was trying to describe the universe would say something like “Things appear to be this way.”
In fact, one of the main reasons that the scientists/priests were so against Galileo was not because of his whole “the earth revolves around the sun”, but because of the certainty in which he was saying so.
Now, I’m just as bothered by the next guy by the Midieval ages bad conceptions of God and Church and authority, but one of the things that I appreciate is their humility.
Because at least they knew what they didn’t know.
And what’s more is that this kind of empirical certainty is sucking away our soul.
In other words, does everything we know have to be proven the way that a scientist needs proof?
That she loves you?
That life matters?
That we should care about justice?
Evidence that Denies a Verdict
But this isn’t just a problem athiest’s and scientist’s have. Because we get frustrated with how certain the scientific method has made people, but Christians talk eerily the same way.
Think about the best-selling Christian books right now. “Heaven is for Real” or “Proof of Heaven” are consistently topping the bestseller list, and while I don’t mean to be critical, I think this is telling about the Christian sub-culture we live in.
We want proof. But if you can prove Heaven or God, it suddenly isn’t God you are talking about. Because it no longer requires faith.
Richard Beck has a fascinating post on why religious certainty draws crowds. We want to anchor ourselves in a mysterious world. And I understand why we do this, but at some point if we don’t acknowledge we could be wrong, we are dealing with something other than Faith.
On some level, no matter what language we use, we are all agnostics. Because nobody really has access to certain proof.
I’m not talking about conviction, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think on my better days I’d give my life for that. I’m talking about the lack of humility that recognizes how much we don’t know, and that we could in fact be wrong.
And don’t think we got this idea from the Bible or Christian tradition, we got it from the Enlightenment. In other words way we talk about God was shaped by the way we talked about science.
But this defies what it means to be human. It is to make ourselves into something more than human. Something like mini-gods. It is in word idolatry.
The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is certainty.
But I could be wrong.