Dear Cyber Rav,
I had a student in my office today who said she was having trouble understanding some of the abstract concepts I was teaching. We were learning about nuclear fusion in the sun, and it involves some nuclear reactions that don't really "make sense" if you think about them too much (e.g., Why does hydrogen fuse to become helium? -- It just does). Anyway, she said she also had problems with math, because it's so abstract. She then added that for a while she was an atheist for the same reason -- she couldn’t "see" it -- but eventually she just decided to believe.
I have no idea what religion she is, probably Christian. Anyway, do you have any comments on this topic? How would you guide someone who likes concrete imagery to accept some kind of faith? I also notice that she likes to control things in her life, so faith may also represent a giving up of control. I don't know if I will follow up with her on this conversation, but if I can come up with some benign idea, I might pass it along.
A Prof with No Proof
Dear Prof with No Proof,
Doesn’t science require a tad of faith? Science offers hypotheses which purport to explain some physical phenomenon when in fact, it is clear that we really don't understand it or it doesn't really make sense. For example, we know that all objects with mass attract one another, and we have the formula that describes the attraction, but then comes the more fundamental question--why do these objects of mass attract one another, and that's when it all becomes murky. I understand that Einstein has something to say on the subject, but I'm sure you know what I mean. The same could be said about electricity--we can describe its force but what is it, really? And they say that theology is ill-defined!
It’s dangerous to expect too much of science. Lower your expectations and you’re much better off. Physics is relatively superficial, but a superficial understanding of the universe that is accurate is infinitely better than a profound understanding of the universe that is wrong.
As for establishing faith in people who need proof, this is a more difficult task. The paradox here is that if we could prove the existence of God, we would obviate the need for faith. And it's unlikely that there can be belief in God without faith. We ought to, without question, accept as true that which can be proved, but don't reject as false that which resists proof. If you believe that faith is necessary, at least it can open you to the intuitive truths (e.g., the existence of God) that are resistant to proof. I don't know if that is an argument that would resonate with people who need proof, but it’s worth a try.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav