Knowing vs. Believing

Knowing vs. Believing March 27, 2009

Notre Dame University has invited President Barack Obama to be its commencement speaker at this Spring’s graduation. As Obama’s pro-choice, pro-stem cell research policies are at odds with Catholic teaching, this is generating some conflict in Catholic circles.

Christianity Today has an interview with Francis Beckwith, a philosophy professor at Baylor University who resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society to become a Catholic. The complete interview can be found here – I want to concentrate on one thing Beckwith said.

If, for example, Notre Dame were to terminate a faculty member for denying the Apostle’s Creed, you would hear claims that the faculty member’s academic freedom had been violated. Yet, if the university had terminated a chemistry professor because he denied the periodic table, nobody would object. That means that theology in some circles is not thought to be knowledge. Can one legitimately claim that one’s theological tradition is knowledge? Not only Catholic but evangelical institutions, can one legitimately claim that certain issues are settled? That’s really the issue. What are we to think of theology? Is it something we can know? I think it is.

Unfortunately, Beckwith does not elaborate on that proposition. But this is one of the most frequent objections I raise with conservative Christians on the DMN Religion Blog. You can’t know spiritual matters, you can only have faith that they’re true. There is evidence, and some things are convincing – at least to those who are predisposed to believe in them anyway. But we can’t know the Apostle’s Creed (or the Charge of the Goddess) is true in the same way we know the Periodic Table of the Elements is true.

I’ve had some people counter that you can’t truly know anything, and from a theoretical, philosophical point of view, I suppose that’s true – we could all be living in The Matrix. But some things are demonstrable and repeatable – we can’t be 100% sure they’re true, but for all practical purposes, we can assume that they are.

Can you tell I’m an engineer and not a physicist?

The same doesn’t hold true for religion and theology. I believe in life after death, but I can’t provide anywhere close to conclusive evidence for it. I believe in the Goddess and God – that the Divine is both male and female, but I can’t prove it. For all the proof (as opposed to evidence) we have, the atheists may be right, or the Christians, or the Muslims may be right and we’re ALL going to hell.

But I don’t think so.

Some things we can know. Others we will never know, at least not on this side of death. That’s why we have faith.

I think that makes this world a far better place, even if it’s not as black and white as some people would like it to be.

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