The Importance of Evidence in Faith

When I was ordained a priest fourteen years ago, I was a bit aggressive when presenting evidence for Catholic Church teachings.  I knew people wanted answers, but, because I believed that they were also resistant to hearing hard truths, I was somewhat adversarial in presenting the reasons for the teachings.

[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]

When we look at today’s Gospel about St. Thomas’ not believing and Jesus’ showing him evidence, we ask ourselves: What role does evidence play in our faith?  There are three ways most people approach this question:

1) Some of us have faith because others have told us and it makes sense to us; that’s good, but unfortunately, it’s not persuasive when we explain our faith to others.  Many older Catholics approach faith this way.

2) For others among us, we have some faith but need more evidence to embrace fully Jesus’ commands, especially when a Church teaching contradicts a cultural norm; to want to know reasons is good, but the difficulty here is that quite often our beliefs won’t match Jesus’ and we’ll spend much of our lives disagreeing with Him.

3) For still others among us, we don’t have faith at all because we haven’t seen sufficient evidence.

The Gospel says, “Thomas, who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’  But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’” (Jn 20:24-25).

We see here a distinction made in theology between two kinds of knowledge: evidential knowledge and faith knowledge.  St. Thomas wants to see Jesus’ wounds, which is evidential knowledge, whereas the other disciples are telling him what they’ve seen.  If he were to believe them, that would be faith knowledge, that is, knowledge based on other people’s trustworthiness (Avery Dulles, in Systematic Theology by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza & John P. Galvin, 108-110).

A parallel example would be math teachers giving their students the right answer to a certain problem: either they can explain why the answer is correct (evidential knowledge), or just give the answer (faith knowledge).

There are pros and cons to each kind of knowledge: Evidential knowledge is better in terms of its mode of knowing, because we understand why.  However, no one can live by evidential knowledge alone.  Every day we rely on faith knowledge: We believe friends, teachers, experts, the media, politicians (maybe not).  I don’t think any of us have direct evidential knowledge and have proven for ourselves that the world is round.  We’ve just trusted the people who told us.  This is faith knowledge, not theological faith, but faith in people we trust.

Many of us know that Jesus rose from the dead, which is true, but we only know it because people whom we believe to be reliable have told us, and we haven’t heard any persuasive evidence to the contrary.  A few of us have a bit more evidential knowledge about the Resurrection: we know that it’s consistent with Jesus’ promises, and the effects of what’s happened in history afterwards—that’s a loose argument, but sufficient for us.  However, our mode of knowledge would be strongest if we wrapped our minds around the three historical facts that point to Jesus’ Resurrection as the most plausible explanation of what happened: the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus, and the explosive rise of Christianity (William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 395).  This is evidential knowledge.  It’s not scientific evidence, but historical evidence.

As for faith knowledge, its greatest advantages are that we can arrive at a truth more rapidly than by trying to figure everything out on our own, and it helps us avoid errors.  Children who learn early on to say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ offer to help, stand up straight, and not whine, without ever knowing why, are at a huge advantage, because they will be better able to get along with people and get a job.  People who don’t watch pornography when they’re young are typically at an advantage, even if they can’t explain why, because they have better sexual self-control, don’t objectify their own and other people’s bodies, and don’t see sex primarily for pleasure but as something connected to marriage.

St. Thomas today wants evidential knowledge of Jesus’ Resurrection, which is good.  As Christians, we should constantly be learning more about our faith.  The mind is meant to know, and we should ask God for understanding and reasons.  And if we’re not believers, God doesn’t ask us to believe everything from every person we meet—that would be unreasonable and naïve.  Either we have to see for ourselves why Christianity teaches certain things, or we have to establish the credibility of the people who tell us about Christianity.  So, there’s something good in St. Thomas’ request for evidential knowledge.

However, there’s also something negative about it: The biblical scholar Raymond Brown points out that, in the Gospel of John, some people, when they encountered the miracles of Jesus, weren’t interested in the deeper meaning of the miracles but were only curious about the superficial aspects of it (The Gospel According to John, in the Anchor Bible, 1045-46); they aren’t just skeptics, but cynics: skeptics raise good questions whereas cynics are out to argue because they’re distrustful.

It’s like smart but immature teenagers: They ask lots of questions, not to find answers, but to disagree with their parents.  Once a young man who was choosing to move away from his Catholic faith asked me, “If there’s a God, and the universe is 13.7 billion years old, why did He wait so long to make us?”  I said, “Why not?  Why does He have to make us right away?”  I waited for an answer.  He didn’t give one, because the question of when humans were made doesn’t tell us anything.  It’s a misleading question and doesn’t prove anything either way whether God exists or not.  But this man wasn’t really looking for answers.

A better question, usually coming from sincere adults, is, “If God is there and is loving, as Christians say He is, why doesn’t He reveal Himself more clearly?”  That’s an intelligent question.

So, we can ask for evidence, like St. Thomas.  I find it amazing the way Jesus responds to him.  Even though St. Thomas’s heart isn’t completely pure, Jesus still gives him the evidence for which he’s looking, and not in an adversarial way, the way I used to, but lovingly and calling him to believe; Jesus is so patient with him (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, John 11-21, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 373-4): “After eight days his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’  Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.’  Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’  Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’” (Jn 20:26-29).

We can see three insights here:

1) St. Thomas asked to see and touch Jesus.  But he never actually touched Jesus’ wounds even though he was invited to.  Seeing was enough evidence for him (Fr. Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 360).  From this we learn that he had some sincerity in his search; he didn’t just keep asking for more and more evidence, while avoiding the evidence right in front of him.

2) Though he had some resistance to faith knowledge, he’s the one, in the end, who makes the greatest declaration of Jesus’ identity in all the Gospels: ‘My Lord and my God!’  St. Thomas is the only apostle who calls Him ‘God’ (The Gospel According to John, 1047).

3) Jesus says, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’  Whether or not we come to knowledge of Jesus through evidence or through faith, the most important part is arriving at the truth.  Knowing the truth is what matters (1048): If we’re the ones in the first part of this saying who need evidence and then see, that’s fine, because St. Mary Magdalene and the ten other apostles also believed only when they saw Jesus risen (1049-51).  But, if we’re the ones who believe because we trust those whom God sent in our lives, we’re perhaps more blessed because there’s a greater element of trust in God.

As I mentioned last week, now that we’re focusing on family in our parish, here are three questions:

1) The goal of life is to arrive at truth, so of which kind of knowledge do you need more?  Generally speaking, most Catholic parents need more evidential knowledge, in order to teach their children.  Most Catholic youth need more faith knowledge, specifically trusting in Jesus, in order to live a good life.

2) Do you criticize anyone in your family about their faith?  “Oh, Mom, you just believe whatever the Bible says, even if it makes no sense.”  Maybe your mom doesn’t know why, but the important thing is if she lives the truth, and you shouldn’t criticize her for that.  Or, someone might say to his brother, “You have no faith.  Just trust God.”  But perhaps they need more help understanding the truth before they can assent to it.

3) With whom in our family do we need to be more patient?  Jesus was very patient with St. Thomas.  In certain areas of life, we need to give people time to learn the truth.  People change; I did.  Give them a chance to change.

All of us need faith… and reason.  St. John Paul II said that these are the ‘two wings’ by which the human spirit arrives at knowledge of the truth (Fides et Ratio, 1).  God wants us to use both.

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