A public lecture endeavors to “prove” traditional lore while dazzling a curious audience. An educational institution hosts a seminar designed to persuade students with “evidence” of miraculous events of the past. Yet another publication seeks to “logically” validate the supernatural. A colleague shares “proof” of the divine as a relative seeks to convince family members of his newfound “rational” arguments for belief. All have but one aim: to convert faith to fact.
Aside from any resulting confusion, the inability to distinguish faith from fact is bound to hinder efforts to teach either, and if a teacher or parent cannot be expected to explore subjects with pupils or children by means of intellectual honesty, then hope seems beyond reach. The Bible itself proclaims, “Keep thee far from a false matter” and the Talmud echoes this when declaring the deceiver a most despised character by his maker. That a fallacy should form the cornerstone of one’s faith seems more than mildly antithetical to such values.
FAITH IS FAITH
Despite countless attempts, there are no known definitive proofs — neither logical nor empirical — to validate faith or corroborate its extraordinary claims. In fact, if one chooses the route of methodical analysis and objective confirmation, a mountain of insurmountable hurdles lies ahead, each requiring impossible feats of cerebral gymnastics, as each new day’s discoveries necessitate pitiful reinterpretations of tradition to jibe with an evolving reality.
For many of faith, a discussion of its rational basis is simply irrelevant, as illustrated by a quote attributed to Aquinas, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary,” or as Pascal put so eloquently, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not.” Faith is just that, as its very definition entails. It is a conviction, an allegiance. It is a strong belief based on apprehension but beyond the realm of the observable and verifiable.
Though Nietzsche would equate faith with a desire to avoid truth and Martin Luther would declare reason “the greatest enemy that faith has,” not all saw faith in such stark terms. Heschel described certainty in the divine as something that “does not come about as a corollary of logical premises, as a leap from the realm of logic to the realm of ontology, from an assumption to a fact,” but rather “a transition from an immediate apprehension to a thought, from being overwhelmed by the presence of God to an awareness of His essence,” while declaring that “more is contained in our convictions than has been crystallized in definable concepts.”
As for harboring doubts, Prager and Telushkin maintain that doing so is “normal, permissible, and consistent with being a good Jew,” while quoting Emanuel Rackman, one of the foremost Orthodox rabbis of his time, in stating that “Judaism encourages doubt even as it enjoins faith and commitment.” Though the compatibility of dogma and doubt is deserving of independent discussion, appreciation of the very nature of faith is the crucial first step without which further exploration cannot be deemed worthy.
Some may rejoin that the Jewish faith is unique in that belief in its traditions is not without sound basis. A wide spectrum of “proofs” are presented, ranging from the more plausible, but ultimately flawed, such as the Kuzari principle — which views the claim of mass revelation in itself proof of such a revelation — to more fanciful ones, including hidden Bible codes and the tetragrammaton’s supposed appearance within human DNA helices.
Presenting misinformation or irrelevancies as unwavering evidence of a divine tradition is neither helpful to those who seek the truth nor compelling to those who possess it. Nor is suggesting mere observations act as proof for tradition sufficient when no such correlation exists. In particular, arguments in favor of creationism or design — regardless of their legitimacy — have no bearing on arguments in defense of any particular faith.
Claims of science discovering long-lost truths of the Bible and other religious texts are deceiving, too, and more often than not perpetuated by the misinformed, wishful thinkers or outright charlatans. Such assertions, along with the use of convoluted terminology, do much to impair the critical thinking skills of otherwise potent minds, while adopting a host of biases to maintain the validity of faith is intellectually crippling for honest beings.
Philosophical, historical, archaeological, and scientific “proofs,” as well as personal and collective experiences, hardly prove what they claim to, and resorting to the supposed fulfillment of vague biblical prophecies is fundamentally misleading in light of their source texts and contexts. That the suggested “undeniability” of such proposals may succeed in intimidating those unfamiliar with them is no cause for their validity, even as many are convinced that the very existence of a Jewish state, survival of the Jewish people, and preservation of religious traditions are unequivocal proofs of their divine origins.
Whether proofs are presented as concrete or merely convincing, ironclad or merely impressive, strong or merely sufficient, the path of proof and selective exposure to that which reinforces one’s views ultimately leads to an impasse, as more and more access to information will render not only those “proofs” worthy of suspicion, but all those who suggested them, along with any other ideas postulated by them, no matter how decent. Consequently, purporting to grant “permission to believe” through faulty reasoning or prove belief’s basis “beyond a reasonable doubt,” will likely backfire in time.
HONESTY AND HUMILITY
It is not easy to face the injustices and paradoxes of life, and grappling with the limits of logic can be less than enchanting. But this by no means grants one license to alter the meaning and fabric of faith. One may accept or reject such faith, but its terms remain, and though a pathological need to be correct may push some to any limits to prove the unprovable, this illusion of confidence and certainty likely stems more from an emotional or psychological state than an intellectual one; more from fragility than from strength.
Lack of comprehension or proof is not the end of faith, but the beginning, as answers to life’s mysteries elude even the most informed. As Einstein put it: “We know nothing at all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren…. The real nature of things we shall never know.” Thus, instead of feigning omniscience, would that man simply and humbly admit his ignorance as the biblical Job was forced to as he confronted the divine scolding which resounds throughout the ages: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.”