Chapter 8: But How Can We Be Sure?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 8: But How Can We Be Sure?

Dear Mr. Brown:

Thank you for your recent letter! The question which you raise is naturally suggested by our previous correspondence. We have been arguing about religious truth, about God and alternative explanations of the universe. But argument and speculation do not carry us through to the place where we want to be; they deal with possibilities and probabilities and, as you say, we want certainties.

You are disturbed, you say, by the contrast between your college courses in science and your courses in philosophy. In mathematics and physics you get Q.E.D. answers, but when in philosophy you discuss life’s ultimate origin, meaning, and purpose, it often sounds like guessing, intelligent guessing but still ending in surmise and conjecture rather than provable certainty. In the realm of religion, you ask, is there any escape from problematical conjectures to solid convictions that one can feel sure about?

This question obviously needs answering, but, before I tackle it, let me remind you that science is not so full of certainties as you seem to think. In my day Jeans and Millikan have been two major interpreters of modern science. They have radically differed as to what is happening to the physical universe as a whole. Jeans thought that it is dispersing at so prodigious a rate that it might be said to be blowing up, while Millikan thought that it is being inwardly recreated so that it might be said to be building up. At last Millikan, after discussing this difference between Jeans and himself, wrote, "The one thing upon which we can agree is that neither of us knows anything about it." Some time ago I sat with a group of medical research scientists and, to my amazement, heard one of our leading biologists assert that at present biologists do not really understand the why and wherefore of a single basic biological reaction. Or take light -- one would suppose that the physicists would understand that. Yet one of them tells us that there are two theories of light, that which of them is true science is not sure, and then he adds whimsically that one of them is used on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and the other on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. As for the basic secrets of the cosmos, Jeans says, "The ultimate realities of the universe are at present quite beyond the reach of science, and may be -- and probably are -- forever beyond the comprehension of the human mind."

Indeed, listen to Thomas Edison himself:

We don’t know the millionth part of one per cent about anything. We don’t know what water is. We don’t know what light is. We don’t know what gravitation is. We don’t know what enables us to keep on our feet when we stand up. We don’t know what electricity is. We don’t know what heat is. We don’t know anything about magnetism. We have a lot of hypotheses about these things, but that is all. But we do not let our ignorance about all these things deprive us of their use.

So, science is not so cocksure and so free of guesses and conjectures as some suppose.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between the Q.E.D. provability of wide areas of science and the speculative nature of philosophy in general and of religious theory in particular. You are right about that, and your question is relevant to the need of many people: "But how can we be sure?"

One difficulty is that many start with the assumption, which you seem to share in your letter, that there is only one roadway to assured truth -- the scientific method. May I beg to differ? I know that Beethoven’s Concerto in D Major is beautiful. Moreover, I know it with a final certainty that nothing can disturb. Were I to live as long as Methuselah, I would see endless changes in science -- it may be even some of Einstein’s formulas upset -- but I never would have to change my mind about the beauty of sunsets and rose gardens and Beethoven’s concerto. That assurance is not irrational or antiscientific, but obviously science alone could never have led me to it.

Moreover, I know some persons whom I completely trust and love. For over fifty-six years I have been married to the same girl and, believe me, I know her. My knowledge of her is not antiscientific but no scientific investigation led me to fall in love with her. Love is not simply an emotion; it is one of our most important means of cognition; some things, especially persons, we never can know unless we love them. Amelia Burr was a good friend of mine, and I have always been grateful that, thinking of someone whom she loved, she allowed herself poetic license and wrote,

I am not sure the earth is round

Nor that the sky is really blue.

The tale of why the apples fall

May or may not be true.

I do not know what makes the tides

Nor what tomorrow’s world may do,

But I have certainty enough

For I am sure of you.

You see what I am trying to say: scientific methods of investigation are not the only road to truth. A color-blind man can know all the scientific theories about color, but there is another kind of knowledge he will altogether miss when the dogwood trees break into bloom or the setting sun lights up the evening sky. The most important truths cannot be reached by theory, speculation, induction alone; they must be experienced if they are to be known. How do we know what even anger is? By being angry. How do we know what romantic love is? Surely not merely by hearing Freud analyze it or Browning sing about it as "all a wonder and a wild desire," but by experiencing it. How do we know what a lovely home is? By having one. We can look up "courage" in the dictionary but we cannot possibly know what it really means if we never have experienced it. We cannot even tell an unkissed person what a kiss is so that he will really understand it. In this scientific age some highbrow circles are so obsessed by the restricted notion of truth as the mere mating of intelligence with facts that they think of intelligence as in itself a sufficient implement for the discovery of truth, whereas the fact is that the areas where we can get at truth by intelligence alone are few. Mathematics, physics -- such are the special preserves where intellectual processes alone can arrive at certain knowledge, although even there one must enlarge intelligence to include imagination. But move even a little away from such restricted areas and it becomes clear that, if we are to know any great things, something more than scientific exploration, induction, and verification is required. It was not a preacher but Dr. Alexis Carrel, the scientist, who said, "Intelligence is almost useless to those who possess nothing else. The pure intellectual is an incomplete human being. He is unhappy because he is not capable of entering the world he understands." If you wish to pursue this matter further, go to the library and get The Ways of Knowing, written by William Montague when he was a professor of philosophy in Columbia University. There are five major highways to knowledge, he says -- not one, five! -- and scientific induction is only one of them.

Now, with regard to religious truth, I am convinced, as I have shown in my previous letters, that both science and philosophy point in the direction of theism. But you are right in thinking that this alone leaves us with a probability and you are right in asking, "How can we turn this probability into assured certainty?" Before I tackle that let me quote Kierkegaard: "Existence must be content with a fighting certainty." What we are dealing with is the attempted explanation of an infinite universe by a finite mind, and while we do need, and I am convinced can have, a confident assurance about our faith in God, humility must be mingled with our confidence in any formulation of that faith. As Browning put it,

You must mix some uncertainty

With faith, if you would have faith be.

Nevertheless, multitudes of history’s noblest souls have had a "fighting certainty" about the reality of God. They may have had puzzling and confused days, saying as even Martin Luther said once, "Sometimes I believe and sometimes I doubt," but underneath was a confident certitude like Paul’s: "I know whom I have trusted." And the basis of that assurance is the same as that which sustains so many of our certainties in everyday life -- not theory but experience.

Said Canon Streeter of Oxford, "I have had experiences that materialism cannot explain." So have I and so have you. Let us consider a few of them.

The experience of wonder. Some years ago a young man came to see me who, arriving in New York City to start his business career, sought in the church a spiritual home. I asked him about his college days and whether they had involved a religious upset, and when he answered with a decisive "No," I inquired the explanation. He said, "Mountaineering! I always loved mountaineering. I used to go off for days alone in the High Sierras, and on so many mornings at sunrise I have been on a mountaintop and have seen God remake the world, that religion dug into me. I always knew, for all they said, that the Eternal is real." Well, read the eighth Psalm and see what a long history that approach to assurance about God has had.

The experience of vocation. Centuries ago a young man, worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem, heard an inner voice saying, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" and he answered, "Here I am! Send me." That was Isaiah, one of an endless multitude of history’s most useful lives who were sure that they were called from on high to challenging tasks. Without that experience Livingstone never would have gone to Africa, nor Grenfell to Labrador, nor Schweitzer to Lambarene. And in humbler ways every one of us has felt that vertical relationship, involving duty, responsibility, obligation -- a call to make the most of our best for the sake of others.

The experience of conversion. For twenty years I spoke regularly on Sundays over a large national and international radio network, and the man who directed the program and cared for all the details was my warm friend. He had been a professional gambler. Then a noted preacher had come to town and had aroused such public interest that my friend, out of sheer curiosity mingled with scorn, went to hear him. And something utterly unexpected happened. A Power, greater than his own, took hold of him and remade him. In Paul’s phrase he was "transformed by the renewing of his mind," and he became an able, dedicated Christian layman. That may be more than ordinarily dramatic, but it is a kind of experience which has marked the crucial turning point in innumerable lives. Ask anyone who has ever had such an experience of inner transformation, and you always face the certitude that he did not change himself -- he was changed by a Power greater than himself. As one young man, saved from tragic moral failure, said to me, "If ever you find someone who does not believe in God, send him to me. I know."

The experience of prayer as communion with God. When Jesus said, "I am not alone, for the Father is with me," he voiced an experience to the reality of which centuries of religious living bear witness. "God," said Emerson, "enters by a private door into every individual." He certainly does. Even unbelievers have hours when they feel that they are not simply talking to themselves, but that they are listening and speaking to a Presence greater than themselves. As for devout folk who, like Jeremy Taylor, think of prayer as "making frequent colloquies and short discoursings between God and his own soul," that divine Presence is indubitably real. God to them is not a theoretical discovery made at the end of an argument, but a day-by-day certainty and an indispensable reliance.

The experience of inward reinforcement in times of trouble. As Paul put it, writing from a Roman prison, "In him who strengthens me I am able for anything." Millions of gallant souls have known that experience, and instead of being wrecked by life’s tragedies or driven into skepticism and cynicism, they have found an inner resource which brought them through their hardships radiant and triumphant. So a woman, struck blind in her sixtieth year, said to me, "You needn’t argue with me about God. I see him." Trouble may seem an unlikely place to find God, as I said in my last letter, but nevertheless that is where multitudes have found him. The eighteenth Psalm was written, as the author says, "In my distress," but listen to him!

The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer,

my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,

my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

That is not speculation but very realistic experience.

Once more, the experience of inspired hours. We all have them, when

. . . the spirit’s true endowments

Stand out plainly from its false ones

-- when vision clears, and horizons widen, and we become even for a little while more and better than our ordinary selves. We have our low hours -- sullen, disillusioned, discouraged, skeptical, cynical -- but we have inspired hours too when, as Emerson put it, "we wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight." Mark this notable fact: it is in our low hours that we find it easiest to disbelieve in God; it is in our best hours that we find it easiest to believe in him. I recall the days when Professor Edward Bosworth of Oberlin was a powerful influence among the younger generation of that time. One day a youth asked him why he believed in God, and he answered, "Once I saw a boy flying a kite which had gone so high that it was invisible, and I said to him, ‘How do you know there is any kite there at all?’ and quick as a flash he replied, ‘I feel the pull of it.’ " So in our best hours we feel the pull of the invisible. Something eternally real is there. Faith in God is faith in the validity of our best hours. As one of my theological professors used to say, "All the best in us is God in us."

Again, the experience of inspiring persons. All of these aspects of experience which I have mentioned have one thing in common: they are responses to revelations from beyond ourselves. Wonder and awe before the majesty of the Creator, answering a high call to service, being transformed by a Power greater than our own, being aware of a Presence in whose fellowship we find our strength, being reinforced by the divine help so that we triumph over trouble, opening our lives to inspired hours when the best seems the most real -- all these are responses to revelations of reality above and beyond ourselves, but nowhere is such revelation so compelling as when it comes incarnate in a person. So the central driving power of Christianity is response to a person. Paul did not say, I know what I have believed. Probably at times he didn’t know what he believed, in some area where, as he wrote, "Now we see in a mirror dimly." But he could always say, "I know whom I have trusted." Christianity at heart is thus a personal relationship, and that is always an experience which one does not get at by scientific exploration or philosophic speculation. Love, trust, loyalty to a person, bring with them the most inescapable certitude we know. Speculative metaphysics sometimes seem, as another put it, like a search at midnight in a dark room for a black cat that is not there, but your knowledge of your father is not like that. Neither is my experience of Christ. I am absolutely sure about him and about the kind of life he reveals.

Of course, these seven kinds of spiritual experience which I have noted do not cover the whole field. I have selected them from many more, hoping that they would indicate to you how it is that the great souls in the Christian tradition have come to possess their "fighting certainty."

One remark of yours calls for special comment. You say that some of your fellow students find their religious certitude by relying on an external authority. True! Our Roman Catholic friends believe in the Pope’s infallibility, when he speaks ex cathedra. Far from despising reason, they use all of it they can get their hands on, but when the Pope speaks on matters of faith and morals, that is final. Similarly, fundamentalist Protestants, believing in the inerrancy of the Bible as though every word of it, dictated by God himself, was to be accepted as indubitably true, ultimately rely in all their arguments on an external authority. You cannot accept this kind of authoritarianism, and neither can I. Nevertheless, "authority" can have an admirable meaning, and we could not live without it for a single day. What do I know by firsthand personal investigation about our many scientific specialities? Yet I am a fairly intelligent citizen of this modern world, because I rely on the honesty and intelligence of the great scientists. That is not slavish surrender to a mental dictatorship, but a welcome enrichment of life and thought. We would be foolish not to recognize that, in one realm after another, there are minds that have gone farther and eyes that have seen deeper than we have. They do speak with authority, not to enslave but to enlighten us. So in the field of religious truth I listen reverently to great souls who, if I will let them, will share their experience and faith with me. Jesus in the spiritual realm is certainly an authority, but he does not ask me to put out my eyes and use his. He wants to help me to see for myself -- "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God." So, while you cannot be a Roman Catholic or a fundamentalist Protestant, "authority" can still have a rich meaning for you. Indeed, look at the choice you have. If you choose theism, you necessarily think that the disbelieving skeptics and cynics have been deluded; but, if you choose atheism, you have to think that all mankind’s prophets and saints, its supreme souls, Christ over all, were deluded. That is one consequence of atheism which I cannot face. I feel absolutely certain that it is not true,

One final comment on a sentence in your letter where you speak of science as depending on knowledge, while religion depends on faith. Think again, my friend! When you speak of faith you apparently picture a church with a congregation of people reciting a creed. Let me change the picture! When I think of faith, I think of Cape Canaveral in Florida. What built that rocket base? Faith --amazing faith that we can conquer space, put men in orbit, reach the moon, perhaps reach Mars and Venus. And there at Cape Canaveral, as everywhere in science, faith is marshaling intelligence, organizing experimentation, leading the way to knowledge. If you think that this is just a clergyman’s view, listen to Dr. Prichett when he was president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "Science is grounded in faith, just as is religion." Of course, it is! Watch Christopher Columbus sailing west and guess what is in his mind! Faith in the unproved proposition that the earth is round and that, if he sails far enough, he will find land -- probably Asia. Granted that, as President Lowell of Harvard used to say, when Columbus started he did not know where he was going, when he arrived he did not know where he was, and when he returned he did not know where he had been! Nevertheless his faith and the venture it produced added immeasurably to man’s knowledge. So in the realm of religion faith leads through experience to knowledge. I hope that you will travel that road until you can say, like the Samaritans in John’s Gospel, "It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world."

Cordially yours,