Faith and the Invisible: Taking the Leap

Imagine a row of men staring at shadows on the wall of a cave. Chained in place since birth, these men are unable to turn their heads to look at anything other than the cave wall in front of them. One day, a man is freed, and upon standing and turning around he comes to realize that all the “figures” on the wall are merely shadows produced by other people moving puppets in front of a large fire behind the prisoners. Later, the one who freed him forces him to emerge from the cave. Though initially blinded by the sunlight, the freed prisoner gradually comes to perceive objects that resemble the puppets in the cave, and then begins to perceive the sun, as well. He finally understands that the puppets in the cave are mere replicas of the objects above ground, and that the sun makes the perception and existence of such objects possible. When he returns to the cave, however, his eyes, having acclimatized to the sunlight above, can no longer perceive the dim shadows on the wall. In response, the other prisoners ridicule him and conclude that leaving the cave only serves to ruin one’s eyesight. Thus, when the freed prisoner attempts to liberate the prisoners to show them the world above, the other prisoners resist and attempt to kill him.[i]

This story describes Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, which Plato originally proposed to illustrate the process of education and to clarify his theory of Forms.[ii] That said, the allegory also speaks both to the discomfort we feel when asked to place faith in something that we cannot grasp for ourselves, and to the place for doubt and belief in intellectual life. Whether by induction through repeatable experiments or by deductive analysis, we tend to trust what we can grasp by our own intellectual power. The development of modern science and the rise of philosophical naturalism have convinced many that reality consists only of what is perceptible and demonstrable. In turn, the secular milieu has defined reason as a mere application of our senses, while encouraging an attitude toward knowledge that can be best characterized as dispassionate and mechanical. Belief in the transcendent (or in anything beyond or above our ordinary experiences), on the other hand, has been cast as “faith,” and has come to be understood as an unreasonable, unshakeable commitment grounded in sheer force of personal will, motivated by nameless intuitions and wishful thinking. While this juxtaposition of reason and faith is as old as the Enlightenment, this characterization has plenty of modern adherents. Twenty-first century atheists including Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have promoted this portrait of the stark division between “reason” and “faith,” so characterized, and have derided the latter as an inherently self-delusional element implicit in theistic systems of belief.[iii]

But what if—whispers the voice of doubt into even the ear of the skeptic—what if we are staring at mere shadows on the wall of a cave? What if there is a reality greater and even more real than the visible and verifiable? We are used to the idea of the faithful believer experiencing doubt, but in his book Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) characterizes the inability to escape doubt as the dilemma of all persons, believers and unbelievers alike.[iv] Just as the faithful believer experiences the “continual temptation” of unbelief, the unbeliever faces the continual “temptation and threat” of faith to the “real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole.”[v]

In an environment where the visible and verifiable are viewed as the essence of reality, it is unsurprising that belief in the invisible and transcendent is considered unusual, unreasonable, foolish, and even dangerous. Many are critical and disdainful of the leap of faith essential to religious belief, and others may be intimidated by it. In truth, this view of faith as some elusive, irrational, delusional spasm of the will exclusive to religious belief is mistaken. All belief requires some element of faith.

On an everyday basis, to hold beliefs about the world, we rely on faith. To justify belief using first-person observations, we must have faith that our senses are reliable sources of information. We believe that what we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste correspond with reality. In most cases, however, we are relatively limited in what we directly experience of the world; consequently, most of what we believe relies on justification by testimony. We take it on faith that water is a collection of H2O molecules, that the Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607, and that the Earth is round instead of flat. We might evaluate some source of testimony as more or less worthy of our trust, of course, but we still choose to believe it on faith. Even the most empirical of sciences rely on faith. To engage in the scientific process, we must begin by trusting that the questions we ask are the right ones in the first place. William A. Wilson, in an article for First Things, pushes back against an idealized view of the scientific project as an elegant accumulation of simple, raw observations that consequently reveal self-evident truths about the world. Instead, Wilson argues that human nature precludes a truly inductivist project.[vi] Scientists begin with a hypothesis—an idea generated through some connection they see in the world. But because neither data nor facts just present themselves to us, experimental and observational studies must be conducted, often at a great financial cost, to find them. Scientists must first, then, trust that the hypothesis is plausible enough to take the time and resources to test, knowing that it is fairly easy to find patterns (real and conjured) to support it as reality. Moreover, Wilson maintains, the complexity and flexibility of the data sets produced as a result of such a search—the evidence sought and attended, influenced by what the academic field considers evidence and by the narrow question originally asked—demands interpretation. Because the scientific process requires such interpretation, it is possible that contradictory explanations could account for the data equally as well, formulated based on different initial assumptions or tested through different measures. Further, because these data sets almost always underdetermine the theory, in interpreting the data to formulate a picture of reality that transcends the discrete data points, scientists must fill in the gaps. They must, in other words, take leaps of faith. Finally, with the advances of technology, we uncover new data sets every day. We have faith that our current conception of reality is true, even though there might be evidence yet uncovered that suggests its flaws.

The ubiquity of faith in all epistemic endeavors leads to a more nuanced portrait of faith, one that stands in opposition to epistemic postures that prioritize all doubt over belief, or vice versa. St. Augustine recognized these two extremes in the reactions we can take to our reliance on trust in belief.[vii] On one hand, the epistemic posture characterized by excessive doubt is one that rejects any possibility of knowledge. Taking this approach, we might dismiss all scientific evidence for a round Earth, proclaim that the external world is actually a reality simulated by sentient machines, or doubt the integrity of recorded history by internalizing conspiracy theories. On the other hand, the epistemic posture of extreme belief is characterized by credulousness. Just as Roderigo believes that Iago used his money to help him woo Desdemona, the emperor believes that the weavers made him invisible clothes, and we similarly might be overly ready to believe the foreign dignitary’s email asking for our bank account information.

St. Augustine proposes a middle ground, one that incorporates the ideas of belief and doubt into faith.[viii] Ordinary human faith, according to St. Augustine, is the mean of these two extremes, in which we critically evaluate the trustworthiness of our sources and choose to believe or to disbelieve in some proposition.[ix] In holding any belief, from the quotidian to the most scientific, we rely on some element of faith, but can do so in tandem with our use of reason. We adjudicate what we believe based on reason, responding to doubts in evaluating the quality of our sources of information, and then decide to trust, and take the position of belief, or to refrain, and take the position of disbelief. Reason thus leads us to the faith necessary for belief.

There is no escape from the dilemma of belief and doubt. All positions on the nature of reality constitute a belief, and all people take a position. Even self-proclaimed agnostics or those who claim indifference to fundamental questions are still taking a stance on the issue—they are still, as Joshua Tseng-Tham D’17 writes in a Fare Forward article, “responding to doubts that they invariably encounter.”[x] Blaise Pascal’s pragmatic argument for the belief in the God of Christianity is underdeveloped, but reveals the faith implicit in deciding to believe or disbelieve. In his Argument from Superdominance, commonly discussed today as “Pascal’s Wager,” Pascal asserts that people assume that God is either real or not real, and choose whether to believe or not to believe. If God does not exist, and people choose to believe, then there is some argument to be made that we lose some time that could be spent hedonistically or else gain some moral utility from capacity, we often derail our own reasoning faculties to believe what is easiest or most convenient according to our desires.[xvi] In light of these obstacles, as Paul’s letter to the Romans suggests, Christians believe that God granted us proof of his existence through revelation. This revelation strengthens Christian faith in making truth more easily accessible to human minds, and in helping us to understand that faith is not opposed to reason, but is in fact aided by it.[xvii] Just as in all belief, we can evaluate this visible evidence based on reason, which can lead us to faith in the invisible.

Faith means throwing ourselves into an apparent chasm—an intimidating prospect, but not an inherently unreasonable one. The invisibility and incomprehensibility of God pose the “infinite gulf between God and man,” which seems, at first glance, an impassable rift.[xviii] However, as Tseng-Tham writes, the mystery inherent in Christianity “is actually the opportunity for conversion, wherein the person responds to an echo of transcendence by leaping into it.”[xix] Tseng-Tham continues, “Only by making a leap into this reality does the believer begin to understand it, and the space between man and God morphs from a chasm to a bridge.”[xx] Almost similar to the way in which the scientist’s observation and reason lead him to take the leap into believing that some hypothesis might be true and to build theories from the association of ideas, and similar to the way in which we take the leap into believing that Australia is a real place before getting on a plane or discussing events that occurred there, we can only come to truly investigate and understand something invisible by first casting ourselves into belief of its reality. In the famous words of St. Augustine, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.”[xxi] In a cooperative, complimentary cycle, reason can lead us to faith, and faith seeks and leads us to reasonable understanding. Ratzinger writes that faith “has always meant a leap…across an infinite gulf, a leap, namely, out of the tangible world that presses on man from every side.”[xxii] Faith has always represented the risk of considering something other than what can be plainly seen as the truly real. Furthermore, Ratzinger writes, “It signifies the deliberate view that what cannot be seen, what can in no way move into the field of vision, is not unreal; that, on the contrary, what cannot be seen in fact represents true reality, the element that supports and makes possible all the rest of reality.”[xxiii] Though we are naturally drawn to trust the tangible, the apparent, and the visible as reality, by faith we recognize that we blind ourselves if we trust only what we see.

It has become most comfortable to limit our understanding of reality to what we can perceive and comprehend. This complacency suffices us because, as Wilson aptly phrases it, “it works astonishingly well.”[xxiv] We rely on scientific theories as long as they can correctly predict the data—ignoring the possibility that there might be other theories that account for and predict the data equally well or better. We rely on these theories to advance technology that will afford us better sight, more predictive power, and more control. We might pragmatically attempt to pick the laws, theories, and technological practices that yield the best explanations—that is, those that give us greater power for prediction and control—but, as Wilson explains, we live in a world “absolutely rotten with order,” much of it real and “much more conjured into being when fallible, order-seeking minds go hunting for it.”[xxv] In Plato’s allegory, the prisoners would grant each other special honors and commendations for most clearly catching sight of the figures and for most accurately recognizing and predicting patterns of movement: the fact that we can perceive and predict shadows, however, does not make them more than shadows.

The prisoners in the cave did not trust the returned freed prisoner as a reliable source of information because the returned prisoner, having become accustomed to the sunlight, cannot as clearly see the shadows on the wall—which the prisoners in the cave take to constitute reality. Communication between believers and nonbelievers often feels this way: the believer cannot effectively communicate something invisible and so vastly incomprehensible. The one who chooses to place his faith in the view of reality that excludes the existence of the invisible might use this inability as justification for his unbelief. Nevertheless, however strongly the unbeliever might feel justified, she is still susceptible to the doubt that all mankind inevitably faces. No matter how naturally inclined and content we are to rely on the visible, we can still allow ourselves to be drawn to the voice that whispers of the possibility of the existence of something greater than ourselves, something that we cannot readily perceive, something even more real than what we can see. Reason allows us to consider the visible world around us, and to decide what to believe about reality. Faith enables us to take the leap into believing it.

 

i. Plato, Republic. (Classics of Moral and Political Theory, edited by Michael L. Morgan, 75-251. 5th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011), 186-188.
ii. Plato, 186-188.
iii. See: Sam Harris, The End of Faith. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004);
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006); Richard
Dawkins. Speech, Edinburgh International Science Festival, April 15, 1992.
iv. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 44.
v. Ratzinger, 44.
vi. William A. Wilson, “The Myth of Scientific Objectivity,” First Things (November 2017).
vii. Thomas Joseph White, “Trust Witness,” First Things (November 2015).
viii. White.
ix. White.
x. Joshua Tseng-Tham, “Review: Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity,” Fare Forward 8 (2017).
xi. Hájek, Alan. “Pascal’s Wager.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. September 1, 2017.
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/.
xii. Ratzinger, 72.
xiii. Ratzinger, 39.
xiv. 2 Corinthians 5:7; John 20:29 (NABRE).
xv. 1 Timothy 1:17; Colossians 1:15-16; Romans 1:20 (NABRE).
xvi. Pius XII, Humani Generis, 561: DS 3875; cf. Olson, Carl, “Augustine’s Confessions and the
Harmony of Faith and Reason,” Catholic Answers Magazine (May 1, 2010), <https://www.catholic. com/magazine/print-edition/augustines-confessionsand- the-harmony-of-faith-and-reason>.
xvii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35-38.
xviii. Ratzinger, 39.
xix. Tseng-Tham.
xx. Tseng-Tham.
xxi. Catechism, 158.
xxii. Ratzinger, 51.
xxiii. Ratzinger, 50.
xxiv. Wilson.
xxv. Wilson.

Special thanks to Darley Sackitey ’21, Jeffrey Poomkudy ’20, and Joshua Tseng-Tham ’17 for their very helpful comments in the development of this article.

 

Hailey Scherer ’20 is from Potomac Falls, Virginia. She is a prospective major in Cognitive Science with interests in philosophy, psychology, and human-centered design.

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