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« People who need Peeple | Main | The gift of perspective »

April 13, 2009

Relics of faith

Shroud If you're not sure the Resurrection all those Christians celebrated this past weekend really took place, then how about a little proof--the genuine burial cloth that wrapped the body of Christ and still bears His image. Or perhaps not.

The Shroud of Turin is perhaps the most famous "relic" purporting to have a direct link to the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And its fame has as much to do with the questions of its authenticity.

The Wall Street Journal has an article online about the shroud--its history, its relevance, and the upcoming public exhibition. The author, Peter Manseau, writes of the controversy:

But maybe so much focus on explanation misses the point. Belief -- any belief, whether in God, the Resurrection, even the Force -- requires a partial abandonment of the rational. This does not mean that faith is irrational, only that it involves a recognition that there are some things that can be explained only through acknowledgment that proof is not always the highest good.

Or, as the writer of Hebrews put it, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

(Image © AP)

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Comments

LeeQuod

In the article, Peter Manseau wrote: "Belief -- any belief, whether in God, the Resurrection, even the Force -- requires a partial abandonment of the rational."

AAACCK!! No, a thousand times no, dear Kristine! Belief requires a recognition that rationality is not infallible. That's an entirely different thing; I don't abandon rationality at all in my apologetics - I simply acknowledge that my rationality can merely build a model of reality, and then use that. However, my model is definitely not reality itself.

I'm trying to think of an analogy that would make sense to Liberal Arts majors, and here's the best I can do: the computers we all use have a problem in calculating decimal numbers. This includes numbers like pi, the vaguely familiar 3.14159 sequence, and much more familiar numbers like the withholding from your paycheck of Federal income taxes (for citizens of the USA). How much to withhold is a calculation in dollars and cents, but is a percentage of your income - and therefore can involve fractions of a cent.

A computer's way of calculating those percentages involves using a model of fractions of a cent, and the model isn't exact. In fact, there are many such models, and some are more precise than others. (The really precise ones are used to calculate pi to a bazillion digits; ask Regis if you really, really want to know more.) Interesting things happen when the models don't match reality; one of the Superman movies with Christopher Reeves had Richard Pryor as someone who was scamming his employer by paying himself from the "rounding errors" of investments.

So those of us who work a lot with computers know that the model may not match reality, and that it's important to know what doesn't match, so you don't go calculating the wrong thing.

Same thing applies to reasoning about matters of faith. A worldview is a kind of model. If your worldview/model says that supernatural activity is impossible, as most atheists claim, then the Shroud must be a medieval forgery. But is that worldview a faulty model? Can the absence of the supernatural be proven, by rational means? I say it can't.

Sorry for the length, but this is an important distinction that often is overlooked in the furious rows that erupt over the Shroud.

Jason Taylor


It is irrational not to admit the limitation of our reasoning process because all reason depends on premises and premises are by definition unprovable.

Kristine

LeeQuod, isn't that what Manseau is saying in his second sentence--that rationality is not infallible, that not everything can be explained by reason alone, but that this does not necessarily make those things any less true? At least, that's how I read his statement.

LeeQuod

It's more-or-less what his second sentence is saying, Kristine. I could quibble with his use of "not always", but that's secondary.

What's primary is his use of "partial abandonment" as a preface. One of the reasons (I could say "excuses", but that's too presumptive) given by atheists for rejecting Christianity is the idea that faith requires not just partially but completely abandoning logic - so by becoming a Christian, one becomes stupid. This is buttressed by Mencken's characterizations from the Scopes trial.

In contrast, as Jason has indicated, to have faith is to become able to reason about one's rationality - in effect, to become *more* intelligent than one was as an unbeliever.

Readers of The Point, particularly our atheist, agnostic and only nominally Christian brethren, are typically of above average intelligence, and some of them are far above. The slightest insinuation that they'll have to give up the life of the mind to have faith is an enormous stumbling block that we Christians should not put in their way. I was a nominal Christian for many years until an intellectual pastor showed me that faith does not truncate one's intellect, but rather completes it, so I have a vested interest in displaying some, uh, "passion" over this otherwise dry topic.

But I see I've failed to thank you for making this post to begin with. I very much appreciate it; it's brought back fond memories of arguing, many years ago, with skeptics who believed they could prove unquestionably that the Shroud was forged by the Knights Templar. Personally, I find the Shroud to be interesting for the surprises it contains, and the points it confirms - location of the bleeding from the nails, the "broken" nose, height, weight, hair, and so on. Even if it were a forgery, it's fascinating on the basis that it shows what medieval Christians believed. And while I find relics relatively unimportant to my faith, I believe this one is probably not something created by the Templars.

David

Manseau seems to mean well, but I don’t think he describes the situation properly. Nothing is explained by suspending the rules of proof; however, suspending the rules allows us to … take some things on faith. The question is not whether to abandon reason or not; the question is what to do with questions that reason cannot answer. And it is unhelpful to speak of either faith or proof as the “highest good”. They are both essential ways to process what we experience.

At all stages of human development there has been what we know, and what we do not yet know. And so it shall always be. Manseau describes our plight as living in tension between the will to believe and the need for proof. (Or is it a will to know and a need to believe?) Either way, it leads to LeeQuod’s description of worldview as a model of reality. It is important for all of us to remember that we do not have the whole truth. Hasn’t all human progress been, in a sense, a process of envisioning models and then learning whether or not they are “closer to the truth” – i.e., whether they work in the real world?

Of course, that leads to a different question: how does one measure “what works”? And so the beat goes on…

Ben W

Very nicely said, LQ.

David

@ LQ: "Readers of The Point, particularly our atheist, agnostic and only nominally Christian brethren, are typically of above average intelligence, and some of them are far above. The slightest insinuation that they'll have to give up the life of the mind to have faith is an enormous stumbling block that we Christians should not put in their way."

LQ, you manage to refrain from presuming too much at the beginning of your post, then deliver this very substantial presumption. I wonder how you define "nominal Christian". I might just be one, and if I am, it is not because of intellectual obstacles; it is about "fruit". I don't see enough in the "real Christians" (including those who post here) as compared to the atheist, agnostic and other non-Christian people in the world.

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