“He has trouble with faith because he is so smart.”
I chuckle whenever I hear someone say something like that. Their intent is not to offend. Usually they’re just venting frustration over a conflict or dismissive attitude. Some Mr. Spock in their life has stiffened-up against questions of belief—against the vulnerability of hope. Against the longing that makes us more human and knowable.
To blame intelligence for a lack of faith is grossly misleading. Smarts and faith are not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, everyone believes something.
The familiar duck-rabbit picture explains the influence of those beliefs. How can two people look at the same data and come up with wildly different conclusions? The lines in the image are the same. And yet, some people organize around a duck and others, a rabbit.
Similarly, beliefs shape how we organize and makes sense of facts. They steer or even limit perspective. So how do you deal with differences when the stakes are higher than ducks and rabbits? The answer is to get curious about people’s hidden assumptions.
Some people just put fact and faith into different boxes, like after the late 19th-century discovery of the atom. At first, scientists believed they had reached the end of exploring matter. It took a little awe out of reality for some people. Others chose to compartmentalize, putting faith into a mystical box away from the measurable world.
Today we know the atom as its own world of wonder, full of mysteries of design. But even if we did understand all there was know about all our parts, there would still be the wonder of the whole and the why behind it.
For example, in this video, you can see a microscopic protein moving like a tiny train on a track— or more descriptively, walking like an elf or minion. The small package of dopamine it transports is attached by a thin tether. What are we to make of these purposeful processes?
Two equally intelligent people can look at these parts with very different assumptions. As a result, one sees a duck and another a rabbit. One concludes there is no intended design to it all. Another stands back in awe over such purposeful complexity.
Nature or just Naturalism?
In other words, the conclusion that there is no ultimate meaning comes from naturalism, not nature. It stems from a certain philosophy, not science itself. Naturalism presumes reality is entirely measurable. That any phenomena can be explained by natural causes. Naturalism excludes the possibility of anything that transcends the material world, such as God or the human soul.
In 1961, when Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, defiantly declared that his cosmonaut returned from outer space and had not found God, a New York magazine asked C.S. Lewis to respond.
“Looking for God — or Heaven — by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth, nor is he diffused through the play like a gas.1
Everyone believes something. We all have assumptions that shape our view of the facts. We come to measurable data and impose these assumptions upon what we see to explain them according to the pretext we bring. It’s like a person who can only play bluegrass style hearing someone hum a melody by Bach and then plucking it on a banjo. The tune will come out as bluegrass.
Faith is not incompatible with nature, only with naturalism that reduces reality to the five senses.
Three ways of knowing
What gives someone access to a greater hope beyond the measurable? A certain humility helps. Humility admits some mystery about a rationale universe. It opens us to possibilities beyond the controlling faculty of reason. The heart has its reasons, and what we value most is beyond measure— like the love of a spouse, the respect of one’s colleagues, or the hope of a child.
A poignant example of value beyond measure is captured in a haiku, written by Kobayashi Issa. The author says he is an atheist, but listen to the humble longing of these lines, written after the loss of his son.
A world of dew
Is a world of dew
And yet…and yet…
Reason and Experience cannot plumb the depths of such longing. Reason is a top-down approach, starting with what we know to test it and draw conclusions. Experience is a bottom-up approach, using what we observe to make generalizations. Explaining all parts of a world of dew does not seem to give a full, satisfactory explanation for the whole.
Alternatively, Revelation is a kind of involuntary “ah-ha” about the bigger picture. Revelation fuels imagination and gives us knowledge beyond the status quo. Walt Disney, reflecting on the worlds of wonder he created said, “It was all started by a mouse.” Revelation helps us stop seeing through everything as parts and start taking notice of the whole. Psalm 19 says it like this:
The heavens declare the glory of God and the statutes of the Lord make wise the simple.
There, in that place of humility, doubts themselves can be doubted. And in that place of humility, new insight may emerge, and a duck may suddenly become a rabbit.
- C.S. Lewis, The Seeing Eye, from Christian Reflections, edited by Walter Hooper, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995, pp. 167-169, 171. ↩︎