When the rest of Jesus’ disciples told Thomas that they had seen their Master risen from the dead, his reaction was, “‘I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side’” (John 20:25, NLT).1 Thomas has since been named the patron saint of architects, Argentina, construction workers, and cooks. One might wonder why he isn’t also the patron saint of empiricists.
Mike Hughes is a guy a lot like the apostle Thomas. Called by some “Mad” Mike Hughes, there’s little wonder why. Outside of his day job as a limousine driver, he has built a bright red and yellow steam-powered rocket of his very own and is fighting the U.S. Government for the right to launch it from federally owned land over the Mojave Desert. His intention is that this flight would be the first step in proving that the Earth is flat. Doubting the authenticity of countless photos from space flights that show the curve of the earth, Mike wants to get up there and see it for himself. “I don’t believe in science,” he says.2
Would you want to hire this guy as a limousine driver?
It’s difficult to miss the multiple ironies in Mad Mike’s project. He says he refuses to place his personal faith in science, which itself asserts observable evidence as a basis for belief. How can he possibly know with any certainty that he and his rocket will not puncture the atmosphere and propel the Earth, like a balloon, in a crazy flight through, well, whatever is beyond? Or, for that matter, how can science itself expect the rest of us to believe anything it says—for example, our Sun is about 93 million miles away—without an exercise of faith in science, that is, faith in that which science claims is fact? Who among us has personally measured that distance?
These kinds of questions bring a thinker—young or old—into what philosophers and theologians call “epistemology.” This is the study of the nature of knowledge and how it is justified.
Probably the earliest question in a child’s life is, “Why?” When a parent follows through with an answer to this, the child is usually satisfied.
But soon after the “Why” question, as the child begins to realize that parents are fallible, next arises the epistemological, “How do you know?”
In general, the parent’s answer is often a variant of the most expedient: “I learned this from (insert authority here).”
When the question pertains to the natural world, the answer usually comes from the study of nature.
“What is the shortest day of the year?”
“Well, because scientists have measured this with telescopes and mathematical formulas and stuff, and they say the shortest day is December 22. It’s public knowledge.”
When the question pertains to the spiritual world—assuming that there is such a thing, which some parents do not—the answer may come from different kinds of sources.
“Why are there seven days in a week?”
From a natural source: “Among the earliest cultures to adopt a seven-day week were the Babylonians, who did this because they divided the monthly cycle up into seven-day phases of the moon.”
“How do you know?”
“Archaeologists have studied clay tablets and stuff, and this is what they think may be where the earliest seven-day week was practiced.”
From a spiritual source: “God created the earth and everything in it in six days and rested on the seventh day.”
“How do you know?”
Slipping easily into the words of the child’s song: “‘The Bible tells me so.’”
This places the questioner at a critical crossroad. When one encounters significantly differing answers to a question, how does one accept one over the other(s). How does one know?
And this is also the point, the crossroad, at which knowing is based on faith. Whichever road is adopted, what is decided as fact—as truth—is a decision based on faith in an accepted authority.
An 8-year-old girl penned a letter to The New York Sun in September 1897 that in the more than a century since has taken on a life of its own in the cultural memory. “Please tell the truth,” she wrote, “is there a Santa Claus?”
The retelling of this story—the child’s letter and the editor’s response—has caught the imagination of screenwriters in several films in which a cynical city newspaper editor is softened by the innocence of the question and responds with an unexpected affirmation of the transcendent. “Yes, Virginia,” he wrote, “there is a Santa Claus.”3
The editor then goes on, not to prove that there is a Santa Claus, but to assert the importance of belief—of faith—in perception of truths that are beyond the material world. “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see,” he wrote. “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”4
Young Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter, however, included a sometimes overlooked assumption that she expressed explicitly. Why would a child—or anyone—address a question like this to a city newspaper? She wrote the letter after a comment that she had apparently heard from her father. “Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’”
In today’s milieu, with its suspicion—or outright rejection—of the so-called mainstream media, this confidence in a newspaper as an authority is almost unheard of. But it does reflect the universal human search for an authority on which to base belief. First, it is clear that she is still young enough that what her father says holds for her some credibility. It’s possible, of course, that her father may have uttered “If you see it in The Sun, . . .” with a measure of cynicism, and she may not have recognized this. Second, however, there was—and still is, to some extent—a need for confidence in the media of the time.
More and more there seems to be a reliance on self as the arbiter—the authority—on which to live one’s life. The search for truth is increasingly dependent on what conforms to thought and opinion already accepted or assumed. Behavior and decision-making are expressions solely of faith in oneself, and fact claims from any other source are subject to personal experience. “‘I don’t believe in science’” or “‘unless I see the nail wounds in his hands . . .’”
Yet, a week after Thomas, the empiricist disciple, made his bold declaration of independence, the resurrected Jesus appeared again. He did not completely dismiss personal observation, addressing Thomas directly with concrete evidence: “‘Put your finger here,’” He said, “‘and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side’” (John 20:27).
It is difficult to imagine that Thomas, confronted in this way, could have had the temerity to reach out to touch the unhealed wound of his Savior standing there, physically, before him. Whether he did so or not, he exclaimed, “‘My Lord and my God!’” (vs. 28, NKJV).
And then Jesus brought Thomas to the transcendent answer to the epistemological question, How do you know? “‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’” (vs. 29, NRSV).
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