Answer my emails: Truth and religion

September 5, 2008 | 41 comments

A reader emailed me a question from a loved-one who has fallen away from Christianity. He forwarded me his relative’s question, and asked if I had any thoughts to offer. The good news is, I have tons of thoughts on this subject! The bad news is, I’m so scattered right now I’m having a hard time putting together a coherent response.

Since it worked so well last time, I asked permission to post this for my brilliant readers to get your responses. Not only am I guessing that we’ll get some great comments, but I thought that this email was worth sharing because it offers some intelligent, thoughtful questions about religion. He writes:

I have two main objections to the idea of one religion (Christianity) being more true than others:

ONE: If the ultimate argument for your beliefs is “I take this on faith, I believe this because it has been my experience and therefore I know it’s true, ” what does that say about people who say the same thing with respect to their experiences who have different beliefs? They’ve gone through the same process as you, but have had different experiences, which have led to different beliefs. In the end, in defending your beliefs you have nothing more to offer them other than, “this is my experience, I take it on faith.”

Doesn’t that lead to relativism? Everyone has their own experiences, thus their own evidence and their own belief. And if “my experience” is the framework for determining what’s true, then everyone is left with legitimate beliefs. You can never find the absolute.

TWO: More importantly, if one is to say that the quest for truth is important above all else, how can you possibly rest until all the evidence has been considered? That’s impossible. We don’t stop a court proceeding half way through because someone offers a really good sounding argument — you hear all the evidence. My belief is that we can’t rest, ever. It is impossible to consider all the evidence, so it always remains possible that we may be wrong, so we always have to continue searching.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

I ask my Christian readers in particular: If a loved-one asked you these questions, what would your response be? Can’t wait to read your replies.


  1. trentonzero

    One: There is a disagreement, and we must discuss, and listen, and reach conclusion. Atheists think skepticism is reason, but skepticism is the enemy of reason, because reason attempts to reach a conclusion based on the knowledge possessed, and skepticism only attempts to tear conclusions down.

    Two: Nor does the court stay open, day after day, night after night, for all eternities, waiting for new knowledge. When a man is accused of speeding, the traffic court does not stay open for all eternity awaiting the invention of the time machine that will allow the judge to go and decide for himself what really happened. Both sides state their cases, admittably imperfectly, and the judge reaches a conclusion, despite his admitted imperfections.

    Kevin Walker
    The Cranky Young Catholic

  2. Garden Gal

    Well, I’d first want to know how he came about believing that the “ultimate argument” for Christianity is purely based on experiential faith rather than solid truths, as well as faith. Regardless of the religion, faith will play a role. He’s right, in that there is no way to know every single fact about a particular religion, Christianity or otherwise.

    My personal explanation as to why I can rest in faith & not need to know absolutely all the answers is because I believe in absolute truth. I believe the Bible is God-breathed. I believe the Bible has been well-researched by both people of faith & people who would love to find fault with it. So for me, Christianity is definitely not an “experience only” religion. You have to make a choice if you’re going to believe that there is more to the reality of what we can see & feel. For me, it’s better to know God than to know all the answers.

    But that’s not to say all Christians never get answers, for that’s just not true. To use the argument of a court case: It is inaccurate to assume in any court case that ALL evidence has been shown & believed to be true. That ALL questions have been answered, & that’s how the jury was able to come to a final decision. That probably has never happened. As it is with God, I have received enough evidence in what I believe to be true in the Bible as well as sufficient “evidence” in my own life that 1) God exists, and 2) He desires a relationship with me. That’s a basic step that anyone has to come to understand in their personal journey.

    For me, it all comes down to the Bible. That’s really the only solid truth I rely on in this crazy world. I either believe ALL of it or none of it. I can not pick & choose which pieces “fit” for me; morally, historically, accurately. It is the anchor in the shifting times of change in culture. It is God’s word directly to His creation.

    I have no desire to know ALL the answers about anything in this world. How thoroughly exhausting such a task would be! Faith plays a role in our lives constantly, not just regarding religion. How do you KNOW George Washington was the first President of the United States? It isn’t because there was an eye witness account that you personally heard someone tell you about. It isn’t because you have hair samples from him & can test the DNA. Nope – it was written down. By more than one individual. And can be tested & found to be true because other things did not contradict it. That’s how we know a lot of things…faith. We take it on faith that was has been written & tested against is true.

    I’m no theologian & definitely not a scientist. But personal experience, faith & facts are all reasons I believe there is ONE God who loves ALL people & would love nothing more than to see those people spend eternity with Him.

    ~ Vicki

  3. Clavem Abyssi

    1) I have to reject this question as a straw-man. I have as low regard for anecdotal evidence as any atheist or agnostic.

    If a loved-one posed this question to me, I would just say that, if anything, they have proved that a belief system can’t be based on experience alone, which I have never claimed it could be.

    2) I accept the premise of this question, in that, I’m pretty sure that any Catholic philosopher would agree that the search for truth is paramount.

    The error here is to see faith as a resting state. We need faith to get on with things, to act on whatever little evidence we do hold. It is doubt and agnosticism that is in repose. So yes, the truth is our ultimate goal but my experience has repeatedly shown me that the truth cannot be fully comprehended by intellectual speculation alone. All of man’s faculties are required to advance towards the truth and even then, I do not think we can close even a fraction of the distance between us and the truth.

  4. Kimberly

    I have been reading a new book by Tim Keller (Of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC) called “The Reason for God”. Fabulous book. I commend it to your questioner.

    His first chapter is titled, “There can’t be just one true religion” (the first half of the book is devoted to exploring common questions/arguments from non-Christians).

    You can read the first 8 pages if you look the book up on Amazon.

    At the beginning of the chapter he mentions that he (a Christian pastor) and a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi were invited to speak at a panel. The all three agreed on the following statement “If Christians are right about Jesus being God, the Muslims and Jews fail in a serious way to love God as God really is, but if Muslims and Jews are right that Jesus is not God but rather a teacher or prophet, then Christians fail in a serious way to love God as God really is.” Keller continues:
    “The bottom line was — we couldn’t all be equally right about the nature of God.”

    I think that highlights it: we can’t all be right. God is who He is. We can look at the evidence through history, through the Scriptures, through our lives, and then we all need to take a leap of faith. Even atheists have “faith” that their skepticism is more “true” than belief in God.

  5. Susan Thompson

    Great questions, and some interesting answers.

    I have only one thought at this time: If God does not wish to reveal Himself to us, we could continue searching and considering evidence for all eternity and never find Him. If He does wish to reveal himself to us, then we do not have to spend all eternity searching for more and more evidence.

  6. sara

    It’s been argued that you can’t use the bible to help someone who rejects its truth. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but regarding the constant, never-ending search, 2 Timothy 3, says that there are people who are always learning without ever coming to a knowledge of the truth. It doesn’t say what to do to help those people but just that some will be led astray by them.

    Probably prayer, intelligence, gentleness would go a long way…

  7. mariam_...

    But why quest for truth? Why not just look for happiness and common good. Just that (i am convinced) they can only be found in things that are true.
    Personal experiences did play a capital role in my journey.
    One of the things experience showed me is that faith supplied us with means and references on where to look at and which way to go in our quest for common good(references –not complete answers. I believe God most often lets us either ask for them in prayers or reach conclusions or even make mistakes.)
    And I’m not sure about the trial example. If you are looking for something as huge as TRUTH, should you think as yourself as a judge… as if you had before you a WORLD THAT OWES YOU AN EXPLANATION?
    Reality owes us no explanations. We need them, of course. But we need to love each other more than we need explanations.
    When i ask myself why Christianity I simply answer that the man that made my mother happy for 25 years was her first boyfriend. She didn’t feel the need to date the whole city to find out that was the real thing.
    I like the metaphore of the bride (the Church as Christ’s bride)And I think only He can make human kind happy.
    As for the religious diversity question, I totally agree with Kimberly
    (Sorry for the language mistakes. I’m a Spanish speaker)

  8. Jess

    I’m not officially any religion though I am studying Catholicism.

    I have had this same thought process that is presented in this email excerpt and I finally have come to two conclusions:

    First, I believe that there is no way to know that something is the truth or have true faith if you don’t practice the religion. That doesn’t mean you have to convert but no religion can be truly evaluated by just reading about it, just like you can’t really know what Italian food is like just by reading about it. There has to be an emotional and participatory component to any study of any religion. I think too many skeptics only rely on hard evidence, solid facts and by doing that they deny the essential quality that makes us human, our spirit. My soul, my empathetic abilities and my emotions contribute to my faith in God and religion. And when I participate in religious ceremonies, gatherings and prayers that aspect of my humanity is fully engaged and for the most part my brain is quiet. Trusting that inner emotional compass has led me to study Catholicism though it is possibly one of the least likely religions for me to explore because my worldview has been fairly opposite to most Catholic teaching up until now. For me I found I couldn’t just rely on gathering the dry facts about a religion, lining them up and deciding if I was going to accept or reject them.

    Second, it is a mistake to view religion as only something to accept if it lines up with your current world view and your idea of the “perfect” religion. This is an intellectual pursuit of religion, I have done this many times with various religions and I found them all lacking in some area. I think what is key to truly have faith is not to necessarily abandon reason but to open yourself up to the possibility of the supernatural, allowing yourself to be moved in an intangible, unmeasurable way. And accepting that you may have to change to embrace the religion, not shop for a religion that suits your current self.

    I will add that I have found it IMMENSELY frustrating to converse with people of various faiths who know very little of the “nuts and bolts”, the history or the theological reasoning behind their religion’s doctrines. I do think there has to be some respect and information gathering of other religions before a person can really deny that the others are wrong and their religion is right. If I had to put my finger on the one thing that irritates non-Christians about many Christians is that they are so quick to condemn others when they themselves are uneducated and ignorant of every other world religion and sometimes even the finer points of their own. It is fine to not know everything but a basic understanding of the general dogmas of the religion are important (at least in my mind).

  9. Elizabeth

    A faith based on the foundation of experience will inevitable fail. Experiences, like emotions, are ill-suited as bedrock.

    I like what Jonathan Edwards writes on the subject of religious affections:

    “True and holy love in the saints arise…[when] they first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated with this view.” (Edwards, Religious Affections, p. 172)

    In other words, true faith begins and ends with God alone. He is the Author and Finisher of our faith. He begins the work of faith in us and He must also complete it.

    Faith isn’t so much a matter of us coming to God, but our acknowledgment that He’s been there all along; waiting for us to take His outstretched hand.

    If one decides to take a rigorous approach to finding God, very well. Scripture promises us that “they Who seek me diligently will find Me.”

    A word of caution though: if your search never ends with God, then your journey wasn’t really about Him—it was about you and your own self-discovery.

    Phew! I’ve written a book! 😀

    Love ya, Jen!

  10. Jon

    It seems to me to be a mistake to grumble against those who want something more than “I take it on faith”. If one pushes deep enough one will always arrive at one’s foundational assumptions, and, being assumptions, essentially the only answer that can be given to the question of why those assumptions is that we take them “on faith”. I think the question could be rephrased as “Given that we can’t conclusively prove any particular set of assumptions is true how can we talk about anything being true? Are things only true from some point of view?

    I figure that a distinction needs to be drawn between what we know (or think) to be true and what is true by nature (perhaps “objectively true” or “fundamentally real” would be better phrases to use to describe the second sort of thing). I think that my point can be best illustrated by looking to the sciences, especially physics and the distinction between theory (used colloquially) and reality. COnsider gravity. It works the way it works no matter what folks claim (which is what I mean by fundamentally real) and folks have held a very wide range of theories about how it works (what we think to be true). Objective truth or reality doesn’t depend on our understanding of reality, and sometimes it can be beyond our ability to prove how reality (for example Einstien’s theories couldn’t be entirely proven when he first published them).

    So what does this mean for the variety of religions? I think it means that we can reasonably talk about ultimate truth while recognizing that the currently available data isn’t conclusive.

    The second question seems to me to start with an error. The intellectual pursuit of truth is less important than actually living with and in reality. Physics provides a good example here as well. Talk about quarks and gluons is certainly focused on something real (more or less) but really understanding quantum mechanics is completely unneccesary for virtually everyone alive in the world today. Just so, one may be able to live reasonably well with a wide vareity of theories about God and divinity (Understanding the Trinity doesn’t particularly help with cleaning the house, for example). Understanding truth is still important, but only secondarily, since embracing delusions tends to make living with reality more difficult.


  11. Anonymous

    TWO – faith is not a moment or a personality facet, it is a journey and therefore, until one reaches the destination (the next life), IS unending.

    ONE – I believe because of what Jesus taught. Why do I believe Him? I have three choices: either (1) He told the truth when He identified Himself as “I Am” (“before Abraham, I Am…”) or (2) He was a liar willing to die for the lies, or (3) He was insane and crazy enough to die for the lies. If He was the second or third, HOW did He influence His followers to die for those lies also?

  12. P

    1. As several people have said, I’m not sure where “ultimate argument = my experience” comes from. I believe that the composites of many experiences, together with logic and reason, form the ultimate argument. I would consider things like the historical argument for the Resurrection, the strange parallels between the “Unmoved Mover” theorized by the Greeks and the Lord God revealed to the Hebrews, the large number of well-documented miracles throughout history, the lives of the saints, and the fact that Catholic theology provides a much clearer view of the way the world works as opposed to almost every other philosophy which tries to explain how it should work to be the “ultimate argument(s).” My own experience is only the icing on the cake, so to speak. My experience wasn’t how I came to believe in the Faith, it was after believing it that I started to live it, and in living it I confirmed that the experiment, if you will, produced the expected result.

    2. Humility and common sense. In fact, the question’s own example provides the obvious answer: we do stop court proceedings before hearing all of the evidence, because otherwise every trial ever begun would still be ongoing. We never ask for all evidence, we ask for enough evidence. That is why the burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and not “beyond any doubt.” After all, anyone might theoretically have a long lost identical evil twin, so unless you have established an alibi for every human being on the planet at the time of a crime (and, of course, have a universal planet-wide census) you don’t have all evidence.

    We just need to accept the fact that we are finite human beings. We cannot know and understand all things. But that doesn’t mean we can’t know or understand anything. And we can know that there is a God, and that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that He founded the Catholic Church.

  13. Sean Michael

    I appreciate the question and comments here. I like to keep things simple…especially here. The original question brings up the occasion of court proceedings. Life decisions are certainly similar to court cases. Fortunately, most decisions in life are a continuous process. Court decisions (despite appeals) are finite. I like the comparison to court proceedings because the language helps answer the question. In court, as in life we never have ALL of the facts. With the exception of capital cases a preponderance of evidence is all that is needed to yield a decision by the court. This is what helps good defeat evil in court. Criminals often trust in the false idea that if we do not have all the evidence we cannot convict them. The courts account for the fact that we will normally not have all the evidence. If I walk out of Mrs. Smith’s house at 2 and see an intruder enter at 2:01 I can safely calculate that the intruder is the person that injured Mrs. Smith. I didn’t need to see the assault.

    The same is true with religion. Will skeptics always have a clever question or jab? Always. Luckily, especially for us Catholics, the question has normally been investigated and answered. I was once a skeptic myself. St Augustine broke me down….and brought me back. Sts Jerome, Nicholas, Thomas, et al. will answer almost any other objections. For those not ready to delve into the deeper theology of the Church Fathers I highly recommend some CS Lewis of GK Chesterton.

  14. sara

    I think that faith, experience and reason need to go together – they affirm and confirm each other. I hope this doesn’t sound too juvenile, but there are accepted facts of history and science that I must take on faith because my reason (intelligence) and experience cannot prove them to me, though other people may understand them; the roundness of the earth, the distance of the sun, the moon landing are things I just accept.

  15. Myron

    I started writing a comment about this, but it got really long and a bit off topic, so I turned it into a blog post, here.

    In answering these questions, consider this. Many people, both religious and atheists, trust their conscience as a guide to finding “the truth” in complicated situations. Since I do that, I’m going to talk as if it’s reliable, not quite the same as “my opinion based on experience”, which would lead to relativism.

    1. The reason religions succeed is because they have some element of “truth” to them. Our conscience tells us that there is something in them that is right. However, the difficulty is that “real truth”, made by whatever made the universe (if you assume it was made, caused, or whatever, by something, and is not random and completely meaningless, although the cause doesn’t have to be personified as the religions tend to do), is likely to be a concept complicated beyond our ability to understand, because, well, we’re just not that bright, and haven’t been around long enough to figure much out. But of course, we want to understand, and cynical people can exploit this, by making stories which contain some important truth, but also a lot of misguided explanation or power-serving myth. And so we have religions. The reason people can believe them on faith is because the parts of them that are true activate our conscience in a positive way. The reason people argue about them is because a lot of each of them is… how can I put this politely… questionable at best. But that doesn’t mean logic will find you the way to the truth, because in the end logic rests on assumptions, just like religion. Even mathematics has unprovable axioms.

    2. So what do you do? Do you search for every piece of evidence in your quest for truth, and reject all religion because of the myths and power-structures?

    My answer is, rather than taking the many, many leaps of faith required to believe in a particular religion, just take one, that I’d say the majority of people, atheist or otherwise, take every day successfully without even thinking about it: You conscience is a reliable guide.

    That one assumption lets you find truth without having to look at all of the evidence, while still being open to finding a greater truth later on. It lets you have a consistent belief system with a minimum of faith-based leaps, and judge religions based on a standard everyone around you will understand and (mostly) agree to. You don’t get to rest in your search for truth, but I find it leads to a pretty fulfilling life, and you’d be surprised how much truth you can uncover with an open mind and a finely tuned conscience you practice listening to every day.

  16. Lynelle

    I would encourage the person to consider the passages below. I agree with Sara that “faith, reason and experience affirm and confirm one another”. It seems God understands our need for “experience” and I feel that’s why he’s included these texts.

    John 20:25-29

    25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
    But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

    26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

    28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

    29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    I John 1-5

    The Word of Life
    1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4We write this to make your joy complete.
    Walking in the light
    5This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

  17. Anonymous

    A quick response:

    1. Relativism: The prayers on Good Friday that we pray in each Catholic Church all over the world are a help to me. We pray for other Christians, the Jewish people and even those who have never heard the name of Jesus, yet strive to know and follow God (in whatever name they give it). So, Christians aren’t the only ones on the block and we acknowledge that even animists and scientific rationalists are responding, in their own way, to follow truth.

    Catholics and other Christians believe that we have the best way to do this in following Christ. And, to some extent, you can look at belief systems throughout humanity and compare. Is Christianity with its call to death to self and selfless love a better belief system than human sacrifice? I think so.

    BUT–spending your whole life shopping and comparing isn’t the point of Christianity. Christianity is not an argument to be proved, but a life to be lived. Short of heaven, we can’t know that this is the ONLY path. So, there is a huge leap of faith at some level and a huge commitment that is called for.

    BUT, like many things in life, restricting choice and closing off avenues and getting on with it actually is the happier, more fulfilling path.

    I could compare following Christ with the choice to get married. Yes, there are endless possibilities when you are dating and the next person around the bend could be better than this one. However, to always keep your options open is to reject commitment and the deeper joys that brings. At this point, I do believe that Christ is the best person to live my life with and for.

  18. Paul, just this guy, you know?

    Jen, these questions look much more interesting to discuss than the insanity going on in the comboxes of my own blog just now.

    1. That is not "ultimate argument for [my] beliefs." The argument for my beliefs (which, for the record, are encapsulated in the Nicene Creed, and more briefly might be stated that I accept what the Catholic Church teaches about morality, God, and itself) is that the only adequate explanation for the documented historical facts is that Catholic teaching is true. Whenever I have departed from Catholic teaching, I have had cause to regret it. I have often noted that others who departed from Catholic teaching likewise regretted the consequences. And whenever I have found some article of faith with which I disagreed, I have investigated the reasons for the teaching and found those reasons compelling. These are, admittedly, anecdotes, and the plural of anecdote is not "proof". Still, I see no one making any such claim for any other point of view.

    2. I work with a computer program that uses a logical function called a "Case" statement. A series of tests is offered, but when one of those tests is found to be true, the program acts on the result associated with that test, and stops testing.

    If truth is universal and eternal (and if it isn't, then what good is it?), then it is not necessary to keep searching for it after it is found. Once you've found the truth, anything that contradicts it can be known quickly to be untrue.

    The effort to try to get people to keep searching for such additional "truth" after they have learned the universal and eternal truth is merely a ruse to keep people journeying towards a destination that they are never allowed to believe themselves to have reached.

    Philosophically, there must be such a thing as absolute truth. It is a logical absurdity to say that "there is no such thing as an absolute truth" because the statement itself implies its own falseness. But it is logically possible to say that there is such a thing as an absolute truth. Faced with two such contradictory statements, one possible, the other not, and the two of them together encompassing the total universe of possibilities, the possible one must be true.

    Mathematically, we might express it as:

    AT >= 1
    AT = 0

    Where AT is Absolute Truth and AT > 0 (because if there were no such thing as an absolute truth, there could be no possibility of saying so).

    Once you've found the absolute truth, the eternal, universal truth, there's no need to spend your life checking it against every falsehood.

    BTW, I notice that it is only people who haven't found the truth who insist that others must continue searching; those who insist I keeping searching rarely want to hear updates on the quest; they generally are not, themselves, interested in Truth.

  19. Will Duquette

    St. Thomas Aquinas would say that there are certain truths we can reach through human reason; among these are that God exists, and that God must be all good, all knowing, and all powerful. Then there are truths that God has revealed to us, such as the Trinity. As one commentor said, we could search forever, but if God did not reveal himself we would never know.

    Now, given that we can know that God exists and is all good and all powerful, we can therefore assume that He can reveal himself to us if He so chooses. And given that, it’s then a question of examining the religions on offer and deciding which one makes the most sense. That’s if you’re really approaching the question intellectually. There’s nothing preventing God from revealing Himself to any given individual without getting into such questions; and in fact, we believe that we only come to God if He Himself draws us to him.

    So the question for the questioner is: are you asking because you really want to know, or are you just being contentious? Could any answer persuade you to taste and see that the Lord is good? If so, then God is already drawing you.

  20. Sean Michael

    I like Will’s arguments the most out of the comments. The “Anselmian” twist at the end was nicely done. However, and I think this applies to most of these arguments; the credibility is based on another Christian’s argument. Although these do a lot of good for Christians it does not help a lot for those falling away.

    Most people that have fallen away, or have never been “there” to begin with, would rather appeal to “intellectuals”. For this reason I like to start with someone the likes of Aristotle. By far Aristotle is not a Christian. At the same time Aristotle was able to conclude, through pure reason, that a force greater than man must exist. If we cannot agree to this then we must concede an infinite regress…a logical impossibility. Concession to a logical impossibility leads to scary conclusions (due to space constraints I will not elaborate).

    My point is that we must be able to appeal to a person’s reason, without religious influence, as a starting point. The argument for religion and Christianity flows from there. The final ascent requires faith. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: there is an intellectual ascent and a “real” ascent.

  21. Jon

    Paul, I have heard the claim you make as an answer to the first question embraced by embraced by Muslims as well. It is explicitly mentioned in the Autobiography of Malcom X for example in connection with what was more or less a cult.

    Actually it’s a little troubling to see how many have responded to the first difficulty by suggesting that one should turn to some specific authority recognized by Christians. Part of the problem is that non-Christians don’t recognize those authorities in the first place.


  22. Tom Cabeen

    Hi, everyone. This is my first post here. I am a convert from Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have been Catholic for about two years. I just love this blog!

    Just a couple of ideas…On the first question, truth is but a description of what is real, what actually exists. Our senses give us evidence of what exists, and we have the ability to reason on what we sense and learn. In addition, we are told by those who have lived before us what they have learned, including those who have received supernatural revelations about things that exist which we cannot sense directly with our physical senses.

    Our senses and reason can point us in a particular direction, as can consensus (what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”.) But ultimately we must make a leap, not a blind one, but a leap of faith nonetheless, in the direction in which the evidence points. If that leap is correct, evidence will continue to mount that we made the leap in the right direction. In my own case, I experienced what Chesterton described as moving from accepting individual propositions taught by the church as true to seeing the Church as a ‘truth-telling thing’. I entered the church accepting certain propositions as true only on the authority of the Church, but as I learned more, these propositions became increasingly a description of reality for me, they made more and more sense and fit within the big picture of existence.

    Regarding the second question, since God is the ultimate reality, and he is infinite, one will never have “all the evidence”. We would not think of applying such a criteria to learning in any other particular field, music or mathematics, for example. We start out by learning certain simple concepts, then we progress by building on that foundation. What is important to real progress is that each of the foundational tenets upon which we build be true, that they actually reflect reality.

    Tom Cabeen

  23. Carrien

    This may double up on someone because I haven’t time to read all the comments.

    In a general over view of all of the major religions in the world, they are all about pleasing the god/gods. They all involve ways to do more and try harder to become righteous or gain the favor of the god, or receive things from the God. It is all basically a barter system. If I do x than the god will do y and I will get z.

    Except for Christianity.

    The Christian faith is the only faith that explains that God made his creation to be in relationship with it, because he loves. He didn’t use discarded parts of a dead god or goddess to create man. He formed us with intent, not as after thoughts, but as the pinnacle purpose.

    And when we fell out of relationship with God when we broke the earth by our rebellion, it was God who sought us. It was God who realized that we would never in our brokenness be able to repair the relationship and so did not require it of us. Instead he came to us. He became one of us. He experienced life from the perspective of his creation and he took into himself and bore in his own body the brokenness that we inflicted, upon ourselves and the earth by our rebellion. What other faith has the god seek us out? What other faith has the God bridge the gap and carry us as lambs to the other side? What other faith speaks of a God who is good? What other faith speaks of a God who gives us his power to become good?

    There is considerable evidence for Christianity. At least, there is evidence for the authenticity of scripture as it was passed down. There is evidence for the historical person of Jesus, and there is evidence in the lives of those who believed, in the accounts of the martyrs and the saints.

    But in the end, it does come down to a choice to believe. The solid proof you seek may never come as you wish it. In the end, I chose to believe in the God described in the Bible, because I don’t want to live in a world that is otherwise. I don’t want to live in a Universe that isn’t governed by a good God that I can trust. And if it isn’t true and I die and find that I’m wrong, I don’t consider it a life lived in vain to have loved sacrificially, to have helped those in need, to have given love to those around me and promoted peace wherever I am. These are the things that I will end up doing following Jesus.

    I have enough personal experience of the fruit of this kind of following to know that it is true.

    As to considering the case closed, I don’t. If you can show me a system of belief and actions, a theology more engaging and realistic than the one I already have found. I will listen. I don’t think it’s out there, but I have never stopped listening or dialoging, even though I have peace with what I believe right now. At some point you have to decide to act as if something is true. To avoid acting or living until you have solved the problem is to avoid life itself, and quite possibility finding the answer as well. It takes a lot more courage to choose to live a certain way, with all of it’s uncertainty. To make choices, not knowing where they may lead takes a lot more courage than not choosing at all because you don’t know for sure how it will turn out.

  24. Jon

    Sean, what you say about the logical impossibility of an infinite regression is an example of our reliance on assumptions. Aquinas is clear that it is logically impossible, but David Hume is equally clear that it is logically possible and in fact is preferable to an (supposedly) arbitrary end point (ie. God according to Hume).


  25. Sean Michael

    Thank you Tom. Very well stated!

  26. Jon

    Carrien, what you say of other world religions doesn’t fit so well with Buddhism or later forms of Hinduism. Both of those are more concerned with getting off the hamster wheel of death and rebirth both assume all people to be on. Neither particularly recommends looking to gods to get off the wheel; they both generally prefer a sort of dying to self.


  27. Patrick

    hello all. my name is patrick, i am the author of the original words to which all of these comments are directed. i wasn’t aware my stuff would be presented to the online community(ahh!), though i’m certainly not upset; this is a wonderful conversation!

    i begin by responding to comments about my hypothetical court case, because it’s a great starting point. correct, we do not let the court proceed without end, we must make a decision. or as tom put recently, we choose a direction, based on the senses, reason, and consensus. without a direction we are paralyzed, restricted from any movement at all because we’ve given in to the most severe forms of skepticism. so we must make a leap of faith which, though it is an informed leap, still contains degrees of uncertainty that shade our conclusion with doubt, though perhaps to a very small degree. in other words, by acknowledging uncertainty we become aware that we’ve chosen ‘a’ direction, not ‘The’ direction. the court remains open for appeal, just as all our conclusions do.

    by acknowledging this uncertainty i think we must simultaneously observe that our direction or path in life is not unique, that ours is hampered by the same epistemological limitations which inhibit every other direction or path from being founded in truth. if everybody must, to some degree, take a “leap of faith” in order to choose a path, then we extend ourselves too far if we also claim our path is true, in some absolute sense.

    yet the beauty of the human experience is that this barrier that restricts us from declaring truth does not resign us to pure relativism, where everyone’s position is equally true. we have logic and reason, which give us a common language and framework by which to engage in conversation. i think there is nothing more vital to understanding ourselves and our world (here i’m assuming such an understanding is inherently valuable, though there are good arguments to support this too) than open conversation with our brothers and sisters on this crazy planet. again, as tom said, we use senses, reason, and consensus.

    so the question remains: “why argue for uncertainty?” i think an awareness of the uncertainty inherent in the human perspective is important because it alters the dynamics of any conversation about one’s own path or direction or religion or political affiliation. with this awareness we are forced to stop short of declaring absolute truth. what we are not inhibited from doing is making a good case for our path/direction/conclusion. So go ahead and make that case, and do so with logic and reason, with actions and living examples, with love and care. The idea is this: even without absolute truth, we still have so much.

    what we are left with is a life based on something less than concrete, absolute truths. We can’t identify truth and then strive to continually live within it. instead, we use all available, though imperfect, means to work toward truth. those means are senses, reason, consensus. Certainly it would be impractical to think that every statement needs to be of the form, “though i am ultimately uncertain, I believe this proposition because of….” but i do think that regularly reminding ourselves of our own uncertainty is a process that initiates a cascade of implications which transform the ways we view the world around us: its animals, people, politicians, and god. we are aimed at and striving for truth, not grounded in truth. humans are not afforded the luxury of certainty.

    though… i will grant that there remains a way to get around uncertainty to reach a place where we KNOW what is true. you can invoke a perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent being that cuts through our imperfect perception to deliver truth to us. to accept that belief involves many premises along the way, upon which augustine, anselm, and aquinas, among others, have expounded eloquently. that is another VERY involved, though immensely interesting, discussion. no time for that here, but: is there not still a leap of faith somewhere along the way? to be clear: i am not criticizing leaps of faith. we all perform them, and necessarily so. and even more than that, they are precious, they are part of what make humans special. we have the ability to create stories for ourselves that help us move through this world. what i am criticizing are positions that involve leaps (ie. all positions) but which then are said to be founded in truth. we all leap, and no one possesses untainted truth. and i don’t think we need it – we still have so much.

    sensing, reasoning, and seeking consensus, imperfectly so, in new york,

  28. Carole

    May I recommend ‘Evidence that Demands a Verdict’ by Josh McDowell?

    Put Jesus on trial for his own words, and see where that takes you. Who did Jesus think he was? Many want to write him off as a good moral teacher, like Confucius or Siddhartha…and he was, but evidently he thought he was more than that. What kind of good moral teacher says things like ‘I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven’ or ‘you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of the mighty one, and coming on the clouds of heaven’, or ‘I am the way, the truth, and the Life.’ He claimed the authority to forgive sins. Most dangerously perhaps, he referred to himself as ‘I AM’, which is God’s own name.

    Whatever you might think about other religions, you are going to have to face into these and other outrageous statements of Jesus and decide ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Although Christianity was my childhood faith, I eventually was confronted with the claims of other religions,and had to weigh the claims of Christianity against those claims. In the end, I concluded that the reasons for affirming Christianity were more compelling than the cases presented by other religions. My faith found a grounding in reason, and was further confirmed by the experience of a personal relationship with him, the experience of guidance, of consolation, of conviction when I sinned, etc.

    Besides the above, I’d recommend CS Lewis ‘Mere Christianity’ and ‘Miracles’; and Peter Kreeft, ‘Yes or No? Answers to Tough questions about Christianity’ which is a Socratic dialogue.

    Joe Ratzinger isn’t bad either, but only if you are real smart. : )

  29. Sean Michael

    Patrick, one problem with some of your thoughts is that you are relying on solely philosophical language to solve a theological issue. Epistemological methods, especially more “modern” will not help out all that much. These limitations are greatly due to the fact that the goal is not to reach greater metaphysical understanding but to investigate much narrower questions (Kant et al). W Norris Clarke wrote a book titled “The One and the Many, a Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics”. This book is excellent at bridging the gap between classic and modern philosophical thought and might help you with your “trial”. Just a recommendation. Lewis and Chesterton are great at the “uncommon sense” arguments but Clarke is an actual “professional” philosopher.

    I also think that many of your struggles are due to the categories are using to decipher the issues. Thinking in modern epistemological terms about God will lead you to your own personal Cartesian like solipsism. Carol is right for recommending Ratzinger. The “leap of faith” phrase, although true in some senses, does not do justice to what is actually occurring in people when their faith grows to the “next level”. I mentioned it briefly before but Ratzinger speaks of the intellectual ascent to God and a real ascent. The intellectual ascent can be reached through study and reason. The “real ascent” is a metanoia of sorts and despite the fact that it can be reached without the usual techniques of reason is in fact an ontologically higher assent. This of course turns modern epistemology on its head and at the same time exposes the limitations of modern epistemological language. This is where Augustine’s “levels of knowledge” and Ratzinger’s teachings are much more effective in explaining the process of conversion. I think proof of these thoughts can be found in someone like a Mother Theresa.

    Mother Theresa may not have been able to give a doctoral level dissertation on the proofs of God but I certainly wouldn’t want to argue with the woman that she did not “know” that God existed or that she did not “know” God’s will. Mother Theresa “knew” the greater theological answers due to her “real” ascent toward God, not an intellectual one although it may have contributed.

  30. Jennifer F.

    Patrick –

    I was excited to see your comment. You bring up a lot of points that I haven’t had time to think through thoroughly enough to offer a decent response, but I’m thinking about just doing a second post on the subject to flesh out the issue more.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking questions!

  31. Carrien

    Jon-You are right about Buddhism and later Hinduism not specifically referring to a “God”, however, they are still systems by which we find the elusive peace happiness etc. by our own works and effort, just as all the others.

    My point is simply that Christianity is the only religion that believes the work is done for us perfectly, in the person of Christ, because we are incapable to being perfect in ourselves.

  32. Paul, just this guy, you know?

    Paul, I have heard the claim you make as an answer to the first question embraced by embraced by Muslims as well.

    Jon, perhaps you misread me; I did not appeal to the authority of the Catholic Church, but to the historical record.

    Jesus lived. This is historically documented in a number of contemporary non-Christian sources.

    He was killed by the Romans. Killing the leader of a religious or other minority group that they found troublesome was a common Roman tactic. It usually worked.

    Instead, within a century, Christianity had spread across the empire. Despite strong efforts to suppress it, it thrived. Within 500 years, Christianity had converted Europe and north Africa, and was working on Asia.


    People were willing to die for Christianity. Why?

    Most of the Apostles were also martyrs. Why?

    Virtually all the popes for the first three or four centuries AD were martyrs. Why?

    What lie would you be willing to be burned to death for? What falsehood would you be willing to face lions for? What myth would you be willing to be crucified upside down to defend?

    The people who knew the truth died proclaiming that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. And if they had denied that claim, they’d have lived longer.

    Not one of the Apostles recanted.

    When a person gives his life to tell you something, you should listen.

    When hundreds of people do it, across a span of centuries, it’s hard to write off as a simple mistake.

    What explains this historical record?

    Only one thing that I can see.

  33. Sean Michael

    Jon, I appreciate the Hume reference (I actually don’t, but we might as well deal with him). Although my goal in these posts is to help Patrick decipher up from down and help him in his search I do think Hume should be addressed since Jon mentioned him and someone else may want to investigate. I missed this post last time around.

    For anyone wondering about Hume he is the only notable (maybe with some disagreement) philosopher who argues that an infinite regress is not necessarily illogical. When I say “necessarily” I am speaking in strict philosophical language. Hume however was not truly recognized as a philosopher but as an historian and economist, similar to a Locke. I would consider Hume’s philosophy as amateur and sophomoric at best and leaning more towards dangerous. Hume’s arguments can be deduced to this: everything we humans consider reasonable is based on assumptions that we consider to be reasonable as well. These assumptions are not in fact based in true logic / reason and therefore cannot be trusted. Hume is a true skeptic, which is interesting due to his profound historical and economic declarations. Let me take this a step further for anyone still interested in this nonsense.

    The end result of following Hume’s philosophy is suicide. Doctorates in philosophy in Europe have killed themselves because of a strange infatuation with Hume. Fortunately, this phenomenon has not spread far past the UK and northern parts of continental Europe. The phenomena is illogical in and of itself but follows this thought process: the world is illogical, I am a logical being, therefore I am above this world and this world has nothing for me worth living; since this is the case I am better off killing myself in hopes of ending up in a logical world that is worthy of my existence, at worst I am dead and no longer suffering in this illogical world.

    If anyone was not bored out of their minds by that please let me know and I will further highlight Hume’s fallacies. I’m sorry for all of you who drudged through that but I felt it important to at least address the issue.

  34. A Philosopher

    If I may briefly invoke “professional philosopher” authority, I should mention that the idea that Hume’s philosophy is “amateur and sophomoric” is simply absurd. Hume is, by universal agreement in the philosophical community, one of the half-dozen best and most important philosophers ever.

  35. Sean Michael

    I’m a little surprised that a professional philosopher would assert another as one of the ## best or most important at all; never the less with no citation.

    Either way if that is the only critique I have no issue. However, I’d prefer to stay on the original topic.

  36. Patrick

    sean micheal,
    perhaps your intentions are noble – to use your extensive exposure to the philosophical realm to further this discussion, but i don’t appreciate the condescension. no matter how absurd i thought another person’s ideas were, i would never assume myself capable of showing them “up from down.”

    and further, hume’s philosophy as “amateur and sophmoric?” a bold statement for sure. the implications of skepticism can indeed be frightening, though they are not to be avoided simply because some might consider them “dangerous.” from my experience, hume’s work is logically rigorous and insightful.

  37. Sean Michael

    Patrick, I just wanted to clarify something I believe you misunderstood from me. When I wrote that Ratzinger and more classical philosophies turned “modern epistemology on its head”, it was not in a demeaning, dismissive or condescending way. In no way was I discrediting modern philosophy, I appreciate the contributions made by the moderns. My point, which I was not clear on, is that modern epistemology has a different goal than the classic sort and is therefore heading in a different direction. Classical studies are in the direction of metaphysical truths where modern are more in the direction of physical and psychological (I know I’m cutting some corners here, forgive me). For this reason the language will be different as well. Kantian language will limit the ability to reach Thomistic objectives and visa versa. I hope this clarifies my terminology.

    Although I stand by my generalities of Hume I don’t find them necessary for furthering the conversation. As far as skepticism is concerned I feel comfortable stating that Hume’s philosophy fits almost all definitions of skepticism. This is not my own thought but the accepted analysis of Hume whether with or without prejudice to skepticism per se.

    Hume does have interesting and often true insights. I would not disagree with you there. The problem with this is that all known philosophers have great insight into the human person. This is what keeps the philosopher relevant through the ages whether it is Plato, Aristotle, Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Averroes, Nietzsche or as you mentioned Hume. My initial problem with Hume, and anyone can disagree with this, is that Hume works largely on antitheses. I recognize the appeal to Hume. This may be an aside but I would put Hume more in the category of a Stephen Hawking, a great thinker, even highly logical, but not a philosopher in the same way we speak of say, Aristotle.

    In concerns to staying away from certain philosophers I would strongly suggest it without proper guidance. That may not seem politically correct but I stand by it with all my being. The reason is that certain philosophies can be easily misunderstood and perverted. I am not making a moral statement here. I would just as quickly tell someone to hold off on studying Hume as I would tell somebody to hold off on studying Augustine. As my first philosophy professor said in his intro; “philosophy is a damn bloody business”. The twentieth century was the bloodiest in the history of man and most of that blood was spilled over a philosophy.

    With that being said I hope you realize I am not interested in being condescending toward any certain philosophy. I don’t take philosophy personal and try to keep it as dry as possible in hopes of progressing understanding. I am interested in what specifically in Hume’s teachings you find appealing, if you don’t mind me asking.

  38. Warren

    How do we know?

    God reveals Himself in the Spirit via the spirit (the peak of the soul) and it is by faith we know the Truth, God Himself, in our hearts, the centre of our being. The intellect, via the operation of reason illuminated by faith, catches up (somewhat) to the heart during the course of a lifetime. In a sense we gradually come to know He Whom we have known (in our hearts) all along, i.e., since God revealed Himself to us. We are saved by grace. God infuses life and informs and gradually transforms our entire being: body, mind and spirit. By cooperating with grace we are gradually configured to the Truth, growing in holiness.

    The Compendium of the Catechism instructs us well:

    27. What does it mean in practice for a person to believe in God?
    It means to adhere to God Himself, entrusting oneself to Him and giving assent to all the truths which God has revealed because God is Truth. It means to believe in One God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    28. Faith is the supernatural virtue which is necessary for salvation. It is a free gift of God and is accessible to all who humbly seek it. The act of faith is a human act, that is, an act of the intellect of a person – prompted by the will moved by God – who freely assents to divine truth. Faith is also certain because it is founded on the Word of God; it works “through charity” (Galatians 5:6); and it continually grows through listening to the Word of God and through prayer. It is, even now, a foretaste of the joys of heaven.

    Tom Cabeen, a belated welcome home!

  39. Anonymous

    I like what an old priest said once at mass about all this-Don’t worry about it, let God abide in His mystery. I try to do that.

  40. Leticia

    “And if “my experience” is the framework for determining what’s true, then everyone is left with legitimate beliefs. You can never find the absolute.”

    Excellent question.

    First, I would say that since there is an infinite body of knowlege and opinions, the quest will never objectively end. Someone will always pipe up with “did you ever wonder if . . .?”We all take the answer which most appeals to us, whether we admit it or not. How do we know that what appeals to us is truth?

    We have it from St Augustine whose saying, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” implies that our souls recognize the Truth in Jesus Christ and though this defies logic, it is sufficiently compelling to tell converts to call off the search.
    Catholics believe in Natural Law; that the laws of God are written into the human heart. If we instinctively know for example that murder is wrong; we must be able to intrisically recognize the Way the Truth and the Life, Jesus Christ Himself. The only remaining question is will we submit to a realtionship with Him surrendering our own wills?
    The search for Truth isn’t a search for cold hard facts. It’s a search for a relationship with God, whether the seeker knows it or not.
    Once the relationship is attained, enlightenment comes day by day, as one draws nearer the source of all Truth.

  41. Ken

    While reading some of these posts, I think there is the common problem of how words are used. I get the feeling the word 'experience' here means something different to different people. I used to thing a religious experience meant something that really hit me over the head, like it had to be a vision or an audible voice.
    I now see that it is in the realizing when an experience is happing that is important. Since I have been born again in my faith after a couple of years of near-atheism, I find myself noticing little 'coinsidences' that are signs that God is all around, we just have to be willing to accept Him.
    For a small example, the sound was not working on my computer. I was wanting to listen to a classical music station online. I tried my Pandora radio application (80's rock music), nothing – unplugged and replugged the speakers, nothing. Did this a few times, re-trying the classical station again also.
    I finally said "God, this classical music is really good for me, and if you could help these speakers turn on, I will not doubt you again.
    I went thru the same cycle one more time, feeling very frustrated, and this time, the sound came one and Beethoven's Ode to Joy was playing. At Catholic Churches this is the hymn "joyful joyful we adore thee", and has the line 'drive the dark of doubt away'. Now why would I ask for that, get it and then dismiss it as just a 'coininsedence' (which was my first instinct)? Would you ask anyone else for an answer, get the answer, and say 'i don't beleive you?'
    So, it is taking that leap of faith to listen and be aware that there is more than the material world and coinsidences, and that is the basic religious experience as far as I can tell.

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