WORD FROM THE PASTOR: Proving the Faith?
Around the time I became a serious Christian, I developed an intense interest in the Shroud of Turin–the supposed burial cloth of Jesus. In a way, the Shroud cemented my faith. The mysterious image on the cloth, which appeared to have the properties of a photographic negative, almost seemed to offer scientific proof that Christ had risen from the dead. (As a National Review article proclaimed: “He arose and left behind photographic evidence to prove it”.) There seemed to be an enormous amount of evidence for the Shroud’s authenticity, and that comforted me. Here was “proof” that my faith was true.
Yet in the end, Carbon 14 dating failed to prove the Shroud’s authenticity–it really does seem to date from the 14th rather than the first century. (There is, of course, the possibility that the fire the Shroud went through affected the Carbon 14 levels in the cloth–but I fear that may be grabbing at straws). Even if the cloth isn’t authentic, I don’t consider the time I spent studying it to be wasted–reading about the Shroud gave me a much deeper appreciation of the extreme physical suffering Jesus endured in the crucifixion. So it actually did cement my faith–not so much by “proving” Christ’s resurrection, but by helping me appreciate the great suffering that He endured out of His love for you and me. What Mel Gibson’s “Passion” film did for many people last year, the Shroud did for me back in the 1970s–confronted me with the brutal, horrific reality of Christ’s suffering on the cross.
But I ultimately lost the Shroud as a “prop” for my faith. Instead of scientific evidence, now I had to rely on my faith relationship with the Risen One. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe faith shouldn’t have any “props”. As Paul says in the Bible, “We walk by faith and not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7).
Still, we long for “proof” for our faith. The St. James Ossuary of several years ago was latched onto by many Christians as a piece of “hard evidence” for the life and ministry of Jesus. Unfortunately, the ossuary–with its inscription claiming to contain the remains of “James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus”–has been challenged as a forgery. Miraculous images also appeal to the human desire for proof. When I lived in Illinois, my wife and I viewed a “weeping icon” of the Virgin Mary in an Albanian Orthodox Church in Chicago. Then there are truly bizarre images–like the flour tortilla whose scorch marks form the face of Jesus, or the cinnamon roll whose swirls miraculously outline the head of Mother Teresa!
The desire for proof is strong. A few years before he died, astronomer Carl Sagan appeared on a TV talk show. The host asked, “Do you believe in God?” And Sagan responded, “I’d really like to, but my standards of proof are pretty high.” But if one seeks for faith the same kind of certainty that one finds in science, one will always be disappointed. The truths of faith can’t, in the end, be “proven”.
But some of the most important realities really aren’t subject to proof. I can’t “prove” that my wife loves me. I can’t “prove” that the Beatles were better than the Village People. I can’t “prove” that every human life is precious. But I know these things–I know them just as surely as I know that water boils at 212 degrees. The boiling point of water is provable in a lab–love, music, and the preciousness of life aren’t. Yet all are true–even the ones I can’t prove.
Jesus told the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man ends up in Hades. Seeing Lazarus and Abraham in heaven, the Rich Man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers so they don’t end up in hell. Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, Father Abraham,” says the Rich Man, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, then they would repent.” And Abraham says: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
In this parable, then, Jesus is telling us that the real proof of faith is simply the Bible and its message. The Holy Spirit impresses the truth of that message on our hearts and minds.
But shouldn’t miracles prove the truth of Christianity? Interestingly, a Jewish scholar published a book a few years ago in which he acknowledged that, according to the historical evidence, Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. However, the scholar didn’t convert to Christianity–for he felt that God sent Jesus only to the Gentiles. Even believing the resurrection was not enough to persuade this scholar that Jesus was his Saviour.
I have known people who have been miraculously healed of illnesses. You would think that such folks, having been delivered so wondrously, would spend the rest of their lives serving God and worshiping God. But often, they don’t. Often, they remain indifferent to the church. God’s goodness was “proved” to them in the most dramatic way possible...yet the “proof” didn’t make a difference. On the other hand, I know lots of folks who have had all kinds of terrible burdens and reversals in their lives–with no miraculous deliverance–yet they have a deep faith in Christ. God “proved” nothing to them–except through the Gospel message of Jesus.
St Paul says that some people want signs and proof–“but we preach Christ crucified”
(I Corinthians 1:22). Instead of “proof”, we have a message. That message is, in the end, so powerful that it doesn’t need shrouds or ossuaries or weeping icons. The message of God’s love in Jesus Christ bears such beauty and power that it doesn’t need to be “proven”. In fact, as the old saying goes: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” When you know the sweetness of the message about Jesus, you don’t need proof. The Psalm invites us: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” The sweet goodness of the crucified and risen Lord is all the proof I need!
God loves you and so do I!