Do you believe that the earth goes around the sun or that the sun goes around the earth?
If you are like most people your obvious answer will be, “Of course I believe the earth orbits the Sun. Any dummy knows that.” A follow-up question: Why do you believe that? Your likely answer will be along the lines of “because it’s been proven.” To this I pose a somewhat more difficult third question: How do you know it’s been proven? Did you prove it? Do you have access to telescopes and instruments that would allow you to prove it? Do you have the knowledge to measure and calculate stellar parallax so that you could demonstrably prove the geocentric model of the solar system?
My guess is that for 99.9% of the people reading this post, the answer is no, you can’t prove it. Now, I am not trying to convince you that the Sun orbits the Earth. I (like you, probably) have no doubt in my mind that the Earth orbits the Sun. However, what we often don’t think about is why and how we know this. We think we know it because it’s been proven but we actually know it because A) we trust the people who told us about it and B) it is consistent with our experience of looking at the sky. This is true for a great many proven truths that I know. I’m not smart enough to prove that vaccines or medicines work, that species evolve, the distance of a star, or any number of other truths I never think to question. And unless you are a really smart and experienced scientist, you haven’t proved those things either. Most of the factual proven science we take for granted, we believe not because we proved it, but because we have faith in people who say they have. Sure, somebody proved it but it wasn’t me and it (probably) wasn’t you either. We believe it because we trust the word of others and have come to believe it for ourselves. We didn’t arrive at these beliefs independently nor build them from the ground up. We follow in a long tradition of belief that we have decided to join. Again, I’m not questioning the truth of any of these scientific discoveries. I’m sure somebody can prove them, but I can’t. I’m taking their word for it. When it comes down to it, most of what we believe is because of what everyone else tells us.
This process is actually how most people become believers in God as well. We encounter people that we come to trust (family, friends, teachers, acquaintances, mentors, authors we read, etc.). Their ideas make sense to us and square with our experience of the world so we adopt those ideas as our own. This, however, is where the similarity between my scientific beliefs and my religious beliefs ends, because while I will likely never develop personal knowledge of most scientific truths beyond trusting what the experts say, my faith in God surpassed this point long ago. This is why I say that I am, in fact, actually more convinced of my faith in God than of my faith in proven scientific discoveries.
How can this be? To answer I need to tell you a bit of my story. When I was younger, my belief in God was almost exactly like my belief in proven science: I believed it because I trusted the people that told me to believe it. However, when I was about 15 years old, I was on a church retreat and I had what we Churchy types call a “religious experience.” It’s hard to describe and sounds unbelievable and strange (even to me as I write these words), but I felt like God reached into my life, grabbed hold of me, and spoke to me. He did not speak with audible words. It wasn’t a vision. I didn’t hear voices, yet I felt a powerful presence, larger, and more awesome than I had ever known. I was experiencing (what I would later learn from CS Lewis is called) the numinous. It is an experience of a great many, perhaps a majority of humans throughout history. If you have ever in hard times asked the universe “why” or in good times said “thank you” to no one in particular, you have at least caught a glimpse of this. Over the course of the retreat, ideas came to my mind that I knew were not my own, or at least not entirely my own. I felt a strange mix of feeling truly free and also like I had been commanded with great authority. Questions and issues in my mind about myself and my place in the world that once seemed complex and obscure suddenly came into focus. I had a much greater sense of my own identity and I felt like for the first time in my life that I had a mission. Like I said, it sounds weird and unbelievable, but I know it was real. It was more real than anything I had ever experienced. Even more unbelievable is that it continued after the weekend was over, even up to the present day. My heightened emotions did not remain, no. I came down off the “high” off the retreat within a few days, but the sense and knowledge that I belonged to God, that He was real, that He loved me, and that He had a mission for me remained. The sense sometimes wavered and faded but I found that I could fairly successfully reconnect with it—with Him—through taking some quiet time aside to pray or read the bible. In fact, when I had gone too long without praying, a slow emptiness began to arise in me. I found that I needed prayer. I longed for it. I hadn’t just come to know God. I desired Him. I didn’t know it at the time because I had not yet experienced romantic love, but I had been falling in love with God. Again, weird, I know. I haven’t always felt the numinous as strongly as I did on that retreat. In fact there have been days, weeks, or months where I haven’t felt it at all. But it—He has always returned eventually, and He’s been there to guide me through the trials, joys, and turning points of my life. He is how I decided where to go to college and what I chose as my career as well as who I decided to date, break up with, and marry. He is who comforts me in sadness, who receives my praise when I am thankful, and who bears my anger when I rage against the pains and injustices of life.
So this why I say I am more sure of God’s love for me than I am of the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Yes, the Earth’s orbit seems totally reasonable and I have no reason to doubt it, but at the end of the day, I am believing the word of other people. If all the scientists in the world came out tomorrow with a new discovery proving something entirely different about the Earth’s orbit, I would probably eventually believe it and it would not really affect my life in the slightest. Whereas, the love of God is something I know in the very fiber of my being. I’ve felt his mercy in the confessional. I’ve “heard” his “voice” in prayer many many times. I’ve seen his grace transform the lives of sinners (including this sinner) who were helpless to change through any other means. I’ve experienced the trial of trusting His plan when it seemed senseless and reaped the joy of his providence when, through all the pain, it made wonderful sense again. I’ve seen enough of his promises come true that I no longer have to take it on faith, because I’ve experienced it myself. To try to convince me otherwise would be like trying to convince me that my mother doesn’t actually love me. So, yes, I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun, but only because of my faith in the scientific community, whereas I believe that God loves me because I know Him and He knows me.
Mike Tenney has spent the past 15 years speaking, teaching, and leading
worship and retreats for youth and young adults of various backgrounds and faiths. Mike has been a featured musician and speaker for many events including Catholic Undergrounds, Life Teen XLT's, Theology on Taps, Christ in the City, and the CFC Youth Conference. He teaches Theology at St. Vincent Pallotti High School and directs the LifeTeen band at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, MD. He is also the director of liturgical music for Encounter the Gospel of Life Service Camp. You can find more about Mike and his ministry including online talks at www.MikeTenneyMusic.com