Faith, Understanding

Faith, Understanding March 2, 2017

photo-1473508476344-269a87b502ee_optI have an idea: let’s see and understand.

Oddly, people keep pretending they can begin with no assumptions and then reason their way to Truth. The desire to find the truth is highly commendable, but to find the truth, we have to begin by looking for it.

We do not start from no place, but some place and this changes our search. It makes it harder, but since God exists and His creation is filled with regularity, the search is not impossible. In fact, the search itself brings us to adulthood.

When I was a little boy, I thought I could just go to the library and read all the books on the Civil War I could find and then I would know about the Civil War. The library had many books on this topic and my little head was soon stuffed with facts. Sadly, it did not take long to discover that many “facts” weren’t, they were opinions that (at best) contained facts: George B. McClellan could build an army, but could not fight. This turned out to be highly disputable.

My first lesson was that people use facts to draw conclusions, but the minute we start drawing conclusions, the arguments begin. This is not a bad thing, but a good thing. At the very least, we sharpen our perspective. Some conclusions are bad enough or fact free enough (“Slavery was not harmful to African-Americans.”) that they are (nearly!) impossible to maintain.

Worse was the discovery that many of the books repeated the same fact set, but were leaving many facts out. Where were the voices of the enslaved people? What were the women doing? What about the Copperhead voters? How did Lincoln’s campaign to win Northern Evangelical votes work?

These were all parts of the War that my books never mentioned. They had selected facts and the selection was similar from book to book even when they did not agree. People decided what was “important” to the story. Of course, it is easy to see that while they may have been right, they had thought about the topic with care and I had not, that this was a decision based not on facts, but on ideas about what was important.

Now when I asked this sort of question as I got (much) older, I got two basic responses:

We can’t talk about everything, so we are talking about this small thing. 

We base what is important on other facts about what makes humans flourish.

The first response was one from my early days. The idea here was people could limit the topic to such a small area that we could gather most of the relevant facts. The minute I tried describing something in my first novel (started and blessedly never finished in junior high), the problem was obvious. How much detail mattered? Should I include colors, but not smells? What if, like Dad, I could not see as well as most? Is “seeing” always more important than sounds?

I realized that “just the facts” in any description meant someone picking out some facts. As I grew older and got some film maker friends, my naive view that film showed me “what happened” was destroyed. Forget manipulating the images. Even if the film is not messed with the framing of the camera, it leaves things out. The colors are not (quite) the same.

Fortunately, as an avid science fiction reader, writers like Isaac Asimov came to the rescue or so I thought. Science would tell us what made the human animal flourish and do well. We would focus on those things. Finally, Dad had to point out that this too had its bias, we would have to create a hierarchy of values. Why should we privilege human flourishing? Why not increase the circle to include the higher animals? What about ecosystems or even the Earth?

In short, the secular humanism of writers like Isaac Asimov just turned out to be the Jewish worldview he inherited with a dollop of Americanism . . . not very impressive.

I became convinced that humans saw first and started trying to understand what they saw. We chisel away at our experiences, our biases, and try to do better. We trust the truth is out there: the cosmos is real, orderly, natural moral law exists. The truth is sturdy enough that if we keep hammering away at it, we will find it.

This turns out to be (!) what Augustine said faith does for us: we see and then we seek to understand. God is first experienced and faith comes to us. We get it and then we try to understand what “it is.” Reason, as it always does, follows seeing, though this seeing is of a good God whose very nature undergirds His reality and truth.

We can, of course, know God exists using reason alone, but any argument is debatable and we have to live our lives now. So we see Him and then live while working on understanding. Our very brains are hard wired by reality to get Him, just as we are hard wired to get the complex duality of reality: matter and ideas. We misunderstand, at times, both matter and ideas, which is why, in the most important issues, God revealed the Truth in His Son.

It turns out that we work hard to see the Truth, make jumps that are never (quite!) justified by the data, and then we have a breakthrough. We get it! This is faith, seeing, and real faith then moves back though the rational and experiential process that got us there to know. Along the way, we will still make mistakes, take some things as certain that are not, but that is the way of it.

We start in experience, move forward, often (even as children) get more than we can prove, and then spend the rest of our lives full of the wonder of wondering . . . seeking understanding. All of this is in PhaedoRepublic, and Symposium.

Plato understood and avoided foolish materialism and an idealism that would have made science impossible. Instead, he left the world ready for the Incarnation. Jesus came and we saw. We have been understanding every since. This is a good thing: seeking, seeing, questioning, wondering.


How do I know? I just watch Mr. Mueller’s sixth grade class do it.

Let’s join them!

Browse Our Archives