#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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