A Saturday night around the table with friends, and the conversation turns to philosophy… “Philosophy is kinda interesting,” one friend said, “but it can get frustrating. You can never prove anything. You just talk endlessly and go round and round in circles, but never come to any conclusions.” Enthusiastic nods all around.
I began to feel a bit sorry for philosophy and for big questions with answers that could never be proved to anyone’s satisfaction. “The thing is,” I said, “nothing that really matters to us in life can ever be proved. We can prove many things in this world, but when it comes to the important stuff, proof is off the table.” I decided to do a bit of a personal inventory:
- I can’t prove that my understanding of goodness is true. My moral convictions are among the most important aspects of who I am and understand myself to be, but they could be nothing more than the result of my cultural upbringing or a deep-seated psychological need for attention or some kind of biological imperative toward reciprocal altruism on overdrive.
- I can’t prove that beauty is real. I know how a beautiful sunset over the ocean or a majestic mountain view or a visually stunning piece of art or a breathtaking piece of music makes me feel—that such experiences can reduce me to tears or stunned silence or take-my-shoes-off reverence—but these could just be fleeting impressions and responses that are encoded in my genes to trick me into thinking life is more tolerable than it is.
- I can’t prove that my love for my wife is real. I can’t prove that the way my heart still skips when I see her walk into a room or the way her playful smile and laughter can overwhelm and subdue my cynicism, or the way I get disoriented when we are apart for more than a few days, or the way in which we seem to just fit in more ways than I can even imagine or express are anything more than the elaborate outworkings of primal lust and the desire to reproduce.
- I also can’t prove that my love for my children is real. I can’t prove that the way I can just look at them across the room and be nearly overwhelmed with longing or the sense that I would quite literally die to protect them or the way my heart hurts with hope for them and their future is anything more than an evolutionary instinct to protect my young and a confused desire to pass down my genetic material (I say “confused” because, in my case, there is no genetic connection between my children and I) .
- I can’t prove that the kingdom of God exists. I can’t prove that there is a deep undercurrent to all of history that looks and sounds a lot like Jesus and his way of being in the world. I can’t prove that this kingdom is always advancing and that, despite at times overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it will one day be fully realized. I can’t prove that this isn’t all just one interpretation of the evidence among many. I can’t prove that this isn’t just “stuff Christians tell each other to justify our existence.”
- I can’t prove that the church is the body of Christ on earth. I am convinced that, despite all of our collective sin and stupidity, the church is the bride of Christ, the hands and feet and voice of Jesus in the world, but I can’t prove this. It could just be a glorified social club full of uniquely needy people.
- I can’t prove that my deep sense that a hopeful future awaits is true. I believe right down in my bones that new creation is possible and that it is promised, but it could just be that I am afraid of dying and will countenance any fanciful tale to make this reality more palatable.
- I can’t prove that there is a God. Obviously. I can’t prove that there is a source and consummation for all of this joy and hope and longing and desire, that there is a balm for the wounds of our world, that there is forgiveness of sin, salvation, and new life. I can’t prove that all of this isn’t just one enormous exercise in wish projection.
- Come to think of it, I can’t even prove that truth is real or ought to matter to me. I really, really care about having beliefs and convictions that match up with reality, and think that evidence and logic and reason are crucial to living well in the world. But perhaps even this desire is nothing more than a peculiar by-product of my neural circuitry. Perhaps even the illusion of a hunger for truth is nothing more than one more adaptive fiction foisted upon me by my clever genes, nothing more than one more strange part of an uninspiring story whose only language is utility.
Each of these things matters deeply to me. I can’t prove that my experience of a single one of them is objectively true or that it makes contact with anything beyond, well, me. And, increasingly, I’m ok with this.
The thing is, it’s theologically interesting and significant that God has left us in this epistemological situation. It’s almost as if God has said, “you know what, I’ll let you play around in the sandbox of certainty and proof for as long as you like, and you’ll probably come to think that the rules that apply there work everywhere else too. But the truth is, once you leave the sandbox, once you decide you want to explore the rest of the park or the garden or the forest, you’re going to have to use different tools. You’re going to have to rely on things like relationship, intuition, humility, and, above all, trust. You’re going to have to learn that there is more than one way to know something.
“When you want to learn outside the sandbox, you’re going to have to realize that you’re not in control any more, that life is not just about your poking and prodding and evaluating and making demands of ‘the evidence’ but of you answering a few questions and demands of your own.
“Above all, you’re going to have to learn that life is less about what you can prove than about what and how you love.”