#20 Some Things Have to be Believed in Order to be Seen

ONE OF MY FAVORITE books is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and one of my favorite quotes is this one from that delightful little book: the fox says to the Little Prince, “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” [1]

It is in this vein that I suggest that some things have to be believed in order to be seen.[2] That affirmation has sometimes been hard for this Missouri boy to affirm. Missouri is the “Show-Me State,” and we Missourians like to have visual proof of something before we believe it. “I’ll have to see it to believe it” is a firm position for many Missourians (as well as for most other people, perhaps). When I googled “I’ll have to see it to believe it” (with the quotation marks), there were 1.69 million results (produced in 0.12 seconds; how does Google do it?!).

The desire for proof is not a bad one. Such a desire keeps us from being gullible, and that is good. Even though it is fairly common, gullibility is not a good thing. Michael Moore, the social critic who is well-liked by some and maligned by others, once said, “There’s a gullible side to the American people. They can be easily misled. Religion is the best device used to mislead them.”[3]

It is never good to be misled by religion—or by anything else. Seeking proof or sufficient evidence before believing something, thus, is usually a very good thing. But that is not always possible. In fact, it is not possible for the most foundational aspects of our existence. As the fox wisely said, “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

How Do We Know What We Know?

We don’t often think about our basic (or absolute) presuppositions, but such presuppositions are the foundation upon which our worldview rests. Norwood R. Hanson, a noted American philosopher of science, spoke of presuppositions as “spectacles behind our eyes.”[4] We do not see most things as they are, we see them as filtered through our presuppositions. Long before, the Jewish Talmud averred, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” That is why there cannot be complete objectivity, even in the world of science.

There is a widespread idea that religion and/or philosophy might be filled with unprovable presuppositions but that science is a purely objective investigation of the world as it actually is. It turns out, however, that science also rests on presuppositions. At least that is the considered opinion of Arthur F. Smethurst. In his highly regarded Modern Science and Christian Beliefs, the British scholar writes first about “the presuppositions of modern science.”[5] That first chapter is based partly on the oft-quoted statement of Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld: “Without the belief that it is possible to grasp the reality with our theoretical constructions, without the belief in the inner harmony of our world, there could be no science. This belief is and always will remain the fundamental motive for all scientific creation.”[6]

Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge is one of the most important books I have read in my lifetime.[7] The heart of that book is related to the Latin words nisi credideritis, non intelligitis, which are usually translated into English as “unless you believe, you will [shall] not understand.” Augustine quoted those words from the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:9.[8]

Our presuppositions shape what we hear, as well as what we see. According to John 12:28, Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name.” “Then,” John reports, “a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” In response, according to verse 29, “The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’” To those who had a worldview that allowed for there to be voices from heaven that would speak to Jesus, it was easy to believe that Jesus had heard a heavenly voice.” But to those whose presuppositions did not allow for the “supernatural,” or for the supernatural to speak to Jesus, what they heard sounded only like thunder.

This is the way it is with miracles: if one’s worldview is that everything is determined by the “laws of nature,” then miracles are ruled out a priori. Some other explanation must be found for what may look like a miracle or for everything Christian believers, for example, claim as miracles. Truly, some things have to be believed in order to be seen.

Is Everything True if We Just Believe It?

But is anything or everything true for those who believe it? What about Santa Claus, or fairies, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for example. Can young children really see Santa Claus because they believe in him whereas adults can’t because they don’t have such a belief? No, except for the metaphorical Santa Claus such as Francis Pharcellus Church so famously described in his 1897 editorial in which he declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” there is no Santa Claus and believing won’t make it so.[9]

Nor can believing in fairies (and clapping your hands) bring about their existence. Tinker Bell (Tink) is a fictional character from J. M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy.[10] One chapter of Barrie’s book is titled “Do You Believe in Fairies?” Tink was a fairy who mended pots and kettles, like an actual tinker (and thus her name). When she drinks a poisoned potion meant for Peter, she begins to die. Peter faintly hears her saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies. And he shouts to the sleeping (and dreaming) children, “If you believe, clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.” But clapping one’s hands and believing in fairies don’t make them exist in real life.

In recent times there has been talk about the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), which was created as a satirical protest against the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public schools.[11] Admittedly, the FSM was created as a spoof, but it attracted a worldwide following. So, for those who believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, does it really exist? No way.

These are probably enough examples to make my point: to say some things have to be believed in order to be seen does not mean that everything believed really exists and, consequently, can be seen. While some things cannot be seen unless they are believed—that is, while some things cannot be seen unless one’s presuppositions make possible the understanding of such reality—that certainly does not mean that one’s presuppositions create reality.

This takes us back to an earlier chapter (#16), where I emphasized that an unexamined faith is not worth having. Perhaps we could also say that unexamined presuppositions are not worth having. But it is every bit as hard to examine one’s presuppositions as it is to examine one’s faith. Yet it can be done to some extent, and some people do, in fact, change their presuppositions, although that usually involves a lengthy and difficult process. Still, that is part of what is meant by conversion, and especially evangelical Christians have long claimed conversion to be not only possible but also necessary in order to become a Christian.

The Meaning of Faith

Hebrews 11:1 is an important Bible passage for Christians, and one that is relevant to what we are thinking about in this chapter. According to the New International Version of the Bible, faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Accordingly, faith is just the opposite of the attitude that demands to see something before believing it. That is the desire to be certain because of seeing. But faith is being certain without seeing. That is also why the Bible says “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7, NRSV).

To live by sight means to be limited to just those things that one sees, feels, or touches. But by faith one realizes that there is a larger world, one which is not limited to just the physical, to just the things that can be known by physical seeing, or to just the things that can be investigated by science.

We humans can’t see God or Spirit, or such things as Love or Heaven. That’s why the Bible also says that “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18a). Those things which can be seen are important, and many are good. But most are not essential. And as I have already affirmed, maybe a bit hyperbolically, essential things are invisible to the eyes.

The Bible verse cited above, Hebrews 11:1, also relates faith to hope. Hope is thus also related to my insistence that some things have to be believed to be seen. I like a statement often made by Jim Wallis: “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.” And can’t we also say, Faith is hoping in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change?

Faith is not only the basic commitment to God that determines the way one sees the world, faith is also decisive trust in God. That trust makes it possible for people to see things differently from those who have only trust in themselves or other less-than-ultimate humans or human systems.

William Sloan Coffin, once the popular, though controversial, pastor of the prominent Riverside Church in New York City, has written, “There is nothing anti-intellectual in the leap of faith, for faith is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation.” And in the same book he also exclaims, “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.”[12]

Enough Light, Enough Darkness

This chapter started with a quote from a book by a French writer, and now in this final section I quote from another, more famous, Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, already introduced in an earlier chapter. Pascal believed that true religion must be the free choice of the human heart and will. Thus, he suggests that God wishes “to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart.” Consequently, God “has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not.” On the basis of that understanding, Pascal makes this frequently quoted aphorism:

There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.[13]

If God and the things of God were so plainly visible that there was no question about their existence, humans would have no freedom except to believe. But if God were completely hidden and unknowable, then no one could believe. So I think Pascal’s understanding is brilliant.

Naturally, most atheists object to his statement—and to faith in general. They use the words blind faith to criticize the believer’s position. But it has been suggested that blind is a rude word that people who do not have faith stick on to the faith of those who have it. So blind faith is a description often used by those who regard faith as a bad thing to put down those who regard faith as a good thing. But while there is a problem of credulity, in a sense all faith is blind, since it means belief in that for which we have no physical evidence.

Of course, as I have written in an earlier chapter (#16), theology is an important discipline as it is “faith seeking understanding.” Faith may begin as a leap, as Kierkegaard recognized and wrote about, and it is, obviously, not based on sight from the outset. In that sense faith is blind. But that does not mean that there is no place after the leap to seek for a deep understanding of that faith—or the presuppositions, the “glasses behind our eyes” placed there by faith. Rigorous thinking, critical analysis, and careful investigation are certainly among the many activities that a person of faith needs to engage in from time to time.

But all of that does not change the fact that some things have to be believed in order to be seen.


[1] (Mariner Books, 2000), p. 63. Saint Exupéry (1900-44) was a French writer, poet, and aviator. Le Petit Prince was first published in 1943; the first English translation was published the same year.

[2] This statement is attributed to the English poet Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962). His reputation was established by the publication of Poems in 1917.

[3] A quote in Gary Younge’s “The Capped Crusader” in The Guardian (October 4, 2003). Moore (b. 1954) is an American filmmaker, best known for documentaries, such as “Bowling for Columbine,” which won the 2002 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “Sicko” (2007).

[4] Hanson’s best-known book is Patterns of Discovery (1958). Hanson (1924-67) argues there that what we perceive is not what our senses receive, but is instead filtered by our preconceptions (presuppositions). Thus, human perception is “a patterning, dependent upon a prior conceptual system. Observation is not simply about seeing; it is about seeing as” (Alistair E. McGrath, A Scientific Theology. Volume I: Nature; Eerdmans, 2001; p. 112).

[5] This is the title of the first chapter of his book, first published in 1955 by Abingdon Press. Smethurst, who earned a Ph.D. degree in science, was a canon of Salisbury Cathedral when his book was published.

[6] The Evolution of Physics: The Growth of Ideas from Early Concepts of Relativity and Quanta (Simon and Schuster, 1961; first published in 1938), p. 296.

[7] Polanyi (1891-1976) was born in Hungary but spent the last half of his life in England. He was first a professor of physical chemistry but then became a social scientist and philosopher of science. His book introduced above is subtitled Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy; it is based on his 1951-52 Gifford Lectures in Scotland.

[8] See Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will (The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1964), p. 5. English translations of Isaiah 7:9 are somewhat different than that of the Septuagint, the oldest translation of the Old Testament into Greek.

[9] Church’s editorial in the September 21, 1897, edition of The Sun of New York was titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” and was written in response to the widely-known inquiry by Virginia O’Hanlon, who was eight years old at the time.

[10] J. M Barrie (1860-1937) was a Scottish author and dramatist, and his most famous play was Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904); Peter and Wendy (1911) is the title of Barrie’s novelization of the play.

[11] The Flying Spaghetti Monster was created in 2005 by Bobby Henderson, then a 25-year-old Oregon State University physics graduate.

[12] Coffin (1924-2006) was pastor of Riverside Church from 1977 to 1987). The quotes are from his Credo (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 8 and 7.

[13] A. J. Krailsheimer, trans., Pensées (Penguin Books, 1966), p. 80. This is in fragment no. 149 in the 1966 edition and no. 430 in the 1897 Brunschvicg edition, which is widely used for reference.

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#19  One Doesn’t Have to be a Liberal to Reject Fundamentalism

EITHER/OR THINKING IS quite common, although it is usually not the best kind of thinking, as we saw in an earlier chapter. Nevertheless, people’s ideas about theological stances, as about many other matters, tend to be either/or. Many people, thus, seem to think that Christians are either fundamentalists (or at least conservatives) or liberals.

In the previous chapter, I asserted that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian. I am convinced that that is the case. My distaste for Christian fundamentalism is so strong that, as I have stated previously, I wrote an entire book that was published under the title Fed Up with Fundamentalism. Consequently, many people have assumed that I am a liberal; one of my Facebook friends once even referred to me as a “proud liberal.”

But does opposing fundamentalism make one a liberal? Not necessarily, and that is the main point I am making in this chapter: you don’t have to be a liberal to reject fundamentalism. In spite of the fact that many want to label Christians as being one or the other, seeing Christians as either fundamentalists (conservatives) or liberals is not the only option. It is true, though, that many of the leading liberal Christian thinkers of recent times are people who have reacted strongly against fundamentalism.

Coincidentally, the very week I was working on the first draft of this chapter I received the first shipment of my second book, The Limits of Liberalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Liberalism.[1] In that book I give examples of several leading liberal theologians whose liberalism, in my opinion, is an over-reaction to various problems within fundamentalism. So it seems to be quite true that liberalism is the opposite of fundamentalism in many cases. But it doesn’t have to be that way, for there can be a suitable stance in between.

It Is Not Necessary To Go from One Extreme to the Other

Although the tendency of so many Christian thinkers has been to move from one extreme to the other, in most matters we should seek to find the optimal position between the extremes. Such an endeavor sometimes involves both/and thinking as advocated in an earlier chapter, seeking simultaneously to incorporate the truths that seem to stand in opposition to one another. In other cases it may mean rejecting emphases of both sides in order to affirm a better position in between. But whether we talk about balancing the extremes or holding the extremes in tension, for the most part we want to seek and hope to find a position between the extremes. Let me give an example.

In my book on fundamentalism, I wrote that I am fed up with fundamentalism’s attitude toward the Bible. That was the subject of the whole fifth chapter. But the fifth chapter of my book on liberalism is all on “the limits of liberalism’s understanding of the Bible.” In the former book, I write about the problem of belief in biblical inerrancy, and in the latter book I indicate that rejection of biblical inerrancy is one of the positive aspects of liberalism. But there are still problems with liberalism’s view of the Bible.

For example, there is a tendency for liberals to see the Bible as a sacred religious book, but as only one among many sacred religious books. Thus, rather than refer to the uniqueness of the Holy Bible, many liberals see the Bible as simply one of the many “sacred scriptures” of humankind. The Bible is completely relativized; that is, it has no universal relevance, for it is only the sacred scripture for people in the Christian tradition.

There is much to be said, of course, for not demonizing the beliefs and the scriptures of other religious traditions. Far too often Christians in the past have shown disrespect for the faith of people in non-Christian traditions and have dismissed the significance of the normative writings of those religions. But arrogance, contempt for those who are different, and belittling the sacred books of others are not Christian virtues. To put it bluntly, such attitudes are downright sinful.

But is it necessary to go to the opposite extreme? I think not. It is not necessary to react to one extreme so strongly that one embraces just the opposite. The way some Christians have mistreated people of other religious faiths and profaned their holy books is certainly most regrettable, but does that necessitate treating all religious books as of equal validity? Again, I think not.

More Examples of the Extremes

In addition to the fundamentalist and liberal understandings of the Bible just considered, let’s look at some other central Christian beliefs that are interpreted in widely different ways by extreme Christians on the right and on the left.

Think about the way God is understood. Although there are not so many Christians on the right who still picture God as looking like an old bearded grandfather and who think of God as existing physically somewhere in the universe, there are many who still seem to think of God very anthropomorphically (that is, they think of God as having humanlike features). Thus, there is a rather strong belief by Christians on the extreme right that God should be thought of as male and addressed only in masculine terms. They are, accordingly, offended by those who refer to God as “Mother” as well as “Father.”

But on the other side there are now liberal Christian theologians who deny that God has any “objective” existence at all. Such persons reject theism, the philosophical/theological position that affirms the independent existence of God (or of gods); that is, they reject the idea that God “exists” except in the ideas humans have about God. Such people may affirm God as a symbol or as a metaphor, but they do not believe that God exists as a Being independent of human beings.

Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong and former Dominican priest Matthew Fox are just two of many who could be introduced at this point. Spong’s rejection of a theistic conception of God is the cornerstone of what he envisions as a “new reformation” in Christianity. And Fox, who has written a book titled A New Reformation, boldly declares, “Theism (the idea that God is ‘out there’ or above and beyond the universe) is false.”[2]

So with reference to God, the understanding of some fundamentalists is far too physical or anthropomorphic, but the opposite extreme advocated by some liberals denies any “objective” existence to God at all. Neither extreme is satisfactory.

There is similar polarity with reference to Jesus Christ. Fundamentalists, and most conservative Christians who are not as extreme as fundamentalists, generally understand Jesus as the incarnation of the one true God. Christians have consistently and persistently through the centuries referred to Jesus as the “one way” to eternal salvation, and that is still the bedrock belief of most evangelical Christians. But partly because of the “intolerance” of such an exclusivist position, many liberals have come to talk about Jesus as an exemplary human being but not as a unique savior sent by God for the salvation of the people of the world.

Whereas fundamentalist and conservative Christians profess that Jesus Christ was (and is) divine, most liberals and many progressive Christians see Jesus mainly as a “man for others,” a spiritual leader who taught by word and by deed what it means to live a life of love. Or, if liberals affirm that Jesus is somehow divine, it is in the same way that many other notable religious leaders are divine. They acknowledge the plurality of saviors just as they recognize, and generally applaud, the plurality of religions.

But is it really necessary to see God as either transcendent, existing beyond and “above” the world of us humans, or as immanent, present only within the world and, particularly, within the hearts of those who acknowledge God as a “unifying symbol”? And is it really necessary to see Jesus as either a divine being and a transcendent Savior sent from beyond to be the redeemer of humankind or a human being who lived an extraordinary life as a fully human person in the world of ordinary people? Is there not a position between the extremes in which the truth on both sides can be held at the same time?

Finding a satisfactory position, or following a proper path, between the extremes is not usually easy, however.

The Difficulty of Finding the Middle Position

In The Limits of Liberalism I wrote about how in ancient Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were the names of two sea monsters situated on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy. The fearful monsters, representing a hazardous whirlpool and a dangerous reef, were located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to sailors who sought to pass between them: avoiding Charybdis usually meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa.[3]

Many writers have used those mythological monsters to refer metaphorically to the difficulty of avoiding opposing extremes, and it is a helpful metaphor. I certainly agree with those who seek to escape the “monster” called fundamentalism, as evidenced by the content of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism. Still, I see the danger of fleeing the “monster” on the right only to be gobbled up by liberalism, the “monster” on the left.

Those who seek to navigate the narrow channel between the two may well argue that the monster on one side is not as dreadful or as destructive as the monster on the other. And some may see the monsters as being so unequal that they are willing to risk being captured by the lesser monster so as to not be devoured by the other. But is it not better to steer clear of both monsters?

Should we not try ardently to escape both the Scylla of liberalism and the Charybdis of fundamentalism? That surely is the most prudent course to pursue. But, unfortunately, some have been so intent on escaping Charybdis that they have sailed straight into the jaws of Scylla. However, the point of this chapter is that one does not have to become a thoroughgoing liberal to oppose fundamentalism, in spite of the fact that many have become liberals because of their opposition to the many questionable aspects of the fundamentalist form of the Christian faith.

More rigorous thinking is needed. It is never enough to adopt a theological stance on the basis of what one is against. That has been the trouble with some liberals; they know they are against many of the ideas, attitudes, and excesses of fundamentalism. As well they should be. But they are not equally sure about what they are for, nor are they aware of all the ramifications of taking a position on the opposite side of fundamentalism.

Seeking the Radiant Center

While working on The Limits of Liberalism, I came across a delightful book by Adam Hamilton; he is the dynamic pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a Methodist megachurch in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. Hamilton titled his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.[4] While I largely agree with the centrist position Hamilton takes on most issues, I decided I did not like to talk about that position as being gray, for generally gray is not a very appealing color. So I went on to suggest that perhaps we can seek a position “between the extremes” of black and white which is a brilliant blue, a gorgeous green, or a rousing red. Maybe the future of Christianity does not have to be just some shade of gray, but a rainbow of colors with many hues blending together to produce a form of the faith that is more appealing than one that is black or white—or gray.”[5]

So even though I like Hamilton’s position, and even though I found his calling for a “radical center” appealing, I decided to call my vision for the desired middle position the radiant center. That center “glows with the heat (passion and compassion) and light of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the gospel about Jesus.” It radiates out “to warm and enlighten everyone within its scope.” That radiant center will also be radical, in the sense that it goes to the very roots of the Christian faith. Its radiance comes from the Son, Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15, NIV), “who is the ultimate root, basis, and energy source of the center.”

Proposing such an attractive center or middle position doesn’t mean that all other Christians will necessarily affirm such a stance or flock to it—although I hope more and more will. Perhaps most of those on the right, especially the rigid fundamentalists, will likely see the radiant center as being “liberal” and will criticize it for abandoning some of the fundamentals of the faith. Similarly, many of those on the left may see that center as being too conservative and will continue to advocate a position that is more in harmony with the ethos of secular humanism than with the historic Christian faith. Being in the middle almost always opens one to attacks from both extremes.

Yet, I continue to insist that rejecting fundamentalism doesn’t make one a liberal, just as one can reject liberalism without being a fundamentalist. Actually, I would like for Christians to move on past the “two-party” system that has been so prevalent for the past century, a system which has been injurious to Christianity in many ways.

The radiant center is not a small or limiting position. It is large enough to include Christians with various emphases and understandings of the Christian faith. The radiant center doesn’t seek uniformity or unanimity. It realizes the vitality of having different interpretations and the dynamism of constant dialogue.

The radiant center is the between-the-extremes place for those who reject fundamentalism as well as those who recognize the limits of liberalism. Among the many who identify with that center are both those who realize full well that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian (the emphasis of the previous chapter) as well as those who know that one doesn’t have to be a liberal to reject fundamentalism.


[1] (4-L Publications, 2010); unfortunately both of my books are now out of print.

[2] (Inner Traditions, 2006), p. 63. Fox (b. 1940) was dismissed from the Dominican order in 1992 and two years later was received into the Episcopal Church.

[3] This and the following paragraphs are heavily dependent upon the subsection titled “The Sea Monsters,” pages 87-88 of The Limits of Liberalism.

[4] (Abingdon Press, 2008). Hamilton is the founding pastor of the 22,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

[5] The Limits of Liberalism, p. 273. The last subsection of the final chapter is “Recommending the Radiant Center,” and the subsequent quotations above come from p. 274, the last page of the chapter.