Faith provides evidence for things not seen. -- Hebrews 11:1
This somewhat popular quote from the Letter to the Hebrews begins a long and poetic chapter describing the wonders of faith, and how it operates in unique ways from Abel all the way to Jesus. The author describes people of faith as "weak people who were given strength" (11:34) and who thus became "too good for this world" (11:38). Maybe today we would say such people are larger than life -- and death -- and therefore indestructible.
The entire faith tradition insisted that there was indeed "evidence for things not seen," and yet too often the common notion of faith became something like "whistling in the dark," or a kind of rugged holding-on that equated faith with a dogged perseverance and love of "old time religion" -- back when "God was really God." It had little to do with discerning the actual evidence that was commonly available in the present, in the mind, memory, heart, soul, and in creation itself.
St. Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross all found that evidence in the very nature of the soul and its inner workings, but we must admit this was not taught to or experienced by most Sunday Christians. Many formal believers found evidence in Scripture and dogmas that matched and affirmed their personal God encounter, but perhaps even more used Scripture and dogma to make their own experience unnecessary. St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, Teilhard de Chardin, many poets, and everyday mystics found evidence in the natural world, in elements, seasons, animals, and all living things, but sadly these were often marginalized as mere "nature mystics" or people outside the mainline tradition. Theirs was not "true Transcendence"! This makes one think that we never got our own core message of incarnation, much less its massive implications. This was despite Paul's direct and clear teaching in his Letter to the Romans (1:19-20): "What can be known about God is perfectly plain since God himself has made it plain. Ever since God created the world, God's everlasting power and deity -- however invisible -- has been perfectly evident for the mind to see in the things that God has made."
However, like never before in history, this generation has at its disposal a whole new type of evidence, display, and apparition that is proving Paul was correct. And this wonderful evidence is from the discoveries of the scientific mind! Most of us never expected this after centuries of dualistic dismissal of all things rational and scientific. God comes into the world in always-surprising ways so that the sincere seeker will always find, and those on lazy cruise control will find nothing. Is sincere seeking perhaps the real meaning of walking in darkness and faith? We must seriously consider this after the very limited good fruit offered by so many "true believers."
The search for truth, the search for authentic love, and the search for God are the same search. I would rather have "one who lays down his life for his friend" (Jn 15:13) by sincere seeking, demanding scholarship, and authentic service, than those who are on no search, do no mental work, and have no open heart for the world, but just want to personally "go to heaven." We have coddled this individualistic non-Christianity for far too long, with no encouragement from Jesus whatsoever -- "the first goes home at rights with God, and the other does not" being his shocking punch line after setting up a clear contrast between the seemingly sinful tax collector and the religiously observant Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14). The difference is that the tax collector is honest about himself (even though not formally religious) and the Pharisee uses religion to be totally dishonest about himself.
My thoughts on newly appreciated evidence are listed in bullet form.
• The common scientific method relies on hypothesis, experiment, trial, and error. We might call this "practice" or "practices"! Yes, much of science is limited to the materialistic level, but at least the method is more open-ended and sincere than the many religious people who do no living experiments with faith, hope, and love, but just hang onto quotes and doctrines. They have no personal practices whereby they can test the faithfulness of divine presence and the power of divine love.
• Most scientists are willing to move forward with some degree of not-knowing; in fact, this is what calls them forward and motivates them. Every new discovery is affirmed while openness to new evidence that would tweak or even change the previous "belief" is maintained. So many religious people insist upon complete "knowing" at the beginning and being certain every step of the way, which actually keeps them more "rational" and controlling than the scientists. This is the dead end of most fundamentalist religion, and why it cannot deal with thorny issues in any creative or compassionate way. Law reigns and discernment is unnecessary.
• The scientific mind has come up with what seem like beliefs; for example, in dark matter, dark holes, chaos theory, fractals (the part replicates the whole), string theory, dark energy, neutrinos (light inside of the entire universe even where it appears to be dark), and atomic theory itself. Scientists teach the realities of things like electromagnetism, radioactivity, field theory, and various organisms such as viruses and bacteria before they can actually "prove" they exist. They know them first by their effects, or the evidence, and then argue backward to their existence.
• Even though the entire world was captivated by the strict cause-and-effect worldview of Newtonian physics for several centuries, such immediately verifiable physics has finally yielded to quantum physics, which is not directly visible to the ordinary observer, but ends up explaining much more -- without needing to throw out the other. True transcendence always includes!
• It feels as if the scientists of each age are brilliant, seemingly "right," but also tentative -- which creates a practical humility that we often do not see in clergy and "true believers." A great scientist will build on a perpetual "beginner's mind."
• Many scientists believe in the reality of things that are invisible, and thus the active reality of a "spiritual" world, more than do many believers. Thus, although they might be "materialists," they actually have the material world defined with an openness to a "spirit" that they themselves often cannot understand. Is this not "faith"?
Maybe this is all summed up in a quote I jotted down in my journal: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition, and religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish." And the greatest scientist of our age, Albert Einstein, weighs in with a most succinct conclusion: "Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind." So let's walk forward with wide and rich sight!
The very shape, possibility, and meaning of evidence is quickly broadening. Religious people would be wise to get on board. Frankly, I think it is what the Christian desert fathers and mothers, mystics and saints, meant by concrete spiritual "practices," and what the Eastern religions meant by "skillful means." Such "doing it" will give you the kind of evidence that you cannot deny. It will move you into the world of action and beyond the mind to a place where you now "believe" because you know for yourself. Some call it "kinesthetic knowing" or bodily knowing, which is the kind that always wins out in the end anyway.