Way back at the beginning of this series I asked you to accept as a given that there was a God who loves us. If you’ve stuck with me this far it’s time to come clean on that: if you’re asking for proof of God the way we can prove a mathematical theorem or weigh a blob of lead to determine its weight, this is not going to happen. You would like me to pull a deity out of my hat and I can’t. There are logical arguments for God – and I think they are decisive – but if you’re hard set to insist there is no deity without proof, you’re probably going to walk away from this post (if not this sentence) with a hearty, “I told you so.”
However, you already accept a lot of things without such proof – by what we call inference.
A classic example of this is “Prove Great Britain is an Island.” Until quite recently there was little to no way to prove that. Now we can fly so high up that it is possible to see that England is an island and take photos of it. When I say that was no way to prove it: I mean that there was only evidence – strong evidence, yes – but no one could see the whole thing. And, even if you could walk all the way around the island and prove concretely that it was not connected to anything, to ask folks to do this repeatedly, testing all conditions of tide and weather… that was not feasible. Now, in fact, it’s possible to do so with your own camera and a weather balloon. Anyone can. And it’s consistently repeatable. So this example is undone while still being instructive. We were sure Great Britain was an island long before we could prove it.
But here’s something at once concrete, abstract, and humorous: prove you have parents who are your biological parents. I know, I know. You’re sure: they are sure. You’ve seen photos or, perhaps even a video. You’ve got the paperwork. Perhaps you’re enough of a rascal that you’re certain no one would claim to be your parents without due cause. Yet, let’s face it: you have no memory of the event. You did not check ID in the room at the time. Who was there? Did you see? You probably have a sepia-toned memory of one moment when someone pointed out an adult and said that was a family member. What were you? Two? One and a half? Four? What about the time before that? Can you know? There is evidence: genetic (which can prove you’re related but not exactly how) and then anecdotal evidence, although right-thinking folks will insist that the plural of anecdote is not data. Everyone knows including a lot of people you trust. Some pretty important people – doctors, nurses, state officials, perhaps clergy – all are pretty certain. But, really, none of them can prove it either – they are trusting souls. And if your mother has passed away, there’s literally no one who can say she knows fully. Unless you were born at home, even she can’t be sure: all newborns look like Winston Churchill. Were you swapped – by accident or on purpose? You just have to trust her. Genetic tests can now bring you much closer to certainty – especially if there are unique markers on both sides of your family, but that will only tell you where the gene pools came from in your cocktail. They will not ensure that you know the bartenders.
To prove the area of a circle you work the formula πr2. The three angles of a triangle will always add up to 180° and, in a right triangle, one of them will always be square. These are provable facts, they cannot be undone. The entire periodic table of elements is laid out in such a way as to let you imagine that you can manipulate the thing. But you don’t know with that same sort of knowledge that that couple over there is your parents. You can’t: they are human beings (as are you, unless you’re a cabbage) and they can be crafty. You know humans can be crafty.
A friend tells a story of growing up in a family of 3 kids. In elementary school, she and her siblings found out the youngest girl had been conceived out of wedlock and had a different father. Decades later she found out her middle sister was also born of another father and her mother, out of shame, had kept this hidden from everyone – including her own parents – until my friend was old enough to have grandchildren herself. What was she to do with this knowledge that changed literally everything she had ever “known” to be true about her family and about her own childhood? She didn’t have the courage to ask about her own father. Do you know who your parents are? I’m sure you do: but how? Not by mathematics.
You accept a lot of things on faith, quite literally. You make life choices based on trust of other people: have you ever realized when speeding down a highway that you’re in a metal boxed filled with explosives, trusting literally hundreds of strangers not to do you bodily harm? You trust them implicitly because of something called a “social contract”. They also have metal boxes filled with explosives. The only thing that stands between you and an explosion is… trust. Mutual trust.
I realize that asking you to have faith in a God you cannot see is asking you to… take much less of a risk than driving. Much less of a risk than even thinking too hard about your parentage. A lot of serious and well-educated people do – doctors, nurses, state officials, perhaps clergy – and they will tell you it’s ok to believe in God. At this point, I’m ok if you don’t yet believe. I wanted to come clean and let you know that this series of posts was not going to bring you to a “πr2” sort of moment.