Provable vs true

Not long ago, one of the IT staff who was in my office to sort out access to the new network on campus asked me if my research often came into conflict with my faith. He was killing time waiting for some process or another to work through and making polite conversation. :-)

I said no, mainly because I ask different questions when I’m doing research. I posted on this a while ago, but would like to revisit it in the light of some thinking that I’ve been doing recently.

As a result of my work on memory and eyewitness testimony, I am more firmly convinced than ever that we are never going to be able to prove that we have access to the authentic words of Jesus. I don’t see that this actually matters a great deal from a faith perspective, although it should have a significant effect on how we do our exegesis.

I am a fan of detective stories and TV shows and as such am well aware of the importance of having an alibi for the time of a crime if you want to be removed from the list of suspects. I am also aware that there are significant portions of most of my days when I would not be able to provide an alibi if I were accused of a crime because my office is fairly isolated and once the door is shut to keep out the cold or the heat, no-one knows whether or not I’m there. Because I connect to the internet via my laptop, the fact that I’d sent and received emails wouldn’t prove my location, either, just that I was somewhere on campus, I think. The fact that I can’t prove that I was in my office doesn’t make it untrue, but whether or not people were prepared to believe me would depend on my track record for honesty in the past and they would take into account whether I had an obvious motive for committing the crime and for lying.

At home, if I say to my son “Did you use the last of the grated cheese and not put it on the shopping list?”, his reply is most likely to be “You can’t prove that!” And, of course, unless I or someone else was watching at the time, I can’t. If there was cheese in the fridge fifteen minutes before and he was the only one in the kitchen, it’s highly probable that he was the person responsible. If it’s been several days since I last saw cheese in the fridge, any member of the family except the puppy could have done it, but he is the most likely person because he uses the most grated cheese and is more prone than his sister to not put things on the shopping list. His father is also not so good at putting things on the list, but doesn’t use grated cheese except under extreme duress. I am not perfect about putting things on the list, either, but I would almost certainly remember having used the last of the cheese when I went to get some more. Also, my son usually only says “You can’t prove that!” if he’s responsible for the thing he’s telling me I can’t prove. I can therefore say that even though I can’t prove it, on the balance of probability it’s true.

I think that this is the best we can hope for in biblical studies (or any study of  historical events that took place before the advent of modern technology) – until such time as someone produces a machine capable of time travel and miniature recording devices that are not visible to those being observed, anyway. Furthermore, our assessments of the likely reliability of particular sources of information is fairly subjective, so we aren’t going to agree totally on what deserves the “balance of probability” vote.  The fact that I can’t prove something doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, though.

About these ads

6 thoughts on “Provable vs true

  1. In one of my Bible classes in college, my professor drew a distinction between what is factual and what is true. He made the point that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Being able to factually prove that Jesus physically raise from the dead doesn’t change the theological truths of the resurrection.

  2. Davo, I get the point you’re trying to make, but I think your professor was probably saying that it is possible for something to be a truth without being factual and that not being able to factually prove that Jesus physically rose from the dead doesn’t change the theological truths of the resurrection.

    I guess that the point I am trying to make is that there is a point at which people must either say “I am prepared to trust/believe that on the balance of probability, the claims of Christianity are true” or “I do not have enough evidence from what I consider to be reliable sources to believe the claims of Christianity.” It doesn’t matter how much research we do, we are never going to be able to prove Christianity, because of the nature of the evidence to which we have access.

  3. I think I understand the distinction between what you and I were saying. In my understanding, you essentially present two ideological camps: “I believe it probably happened, so I believe Christianity is true” and “I don’t believe it probably happened, so i don’t believe Christianity is true.”

    From my own study, I don’t see enough evidence reach the conclusion that the events documented in the Bible probably happened (at least not entirely or in the way that the text suggests).

    That said, I still find many of the ideas beautiful and true. Although I interpret some concepts differently, I still believe the claims of Christianity are true.

    I mention this in an attempt to offer a hopeful, constructive, alternative perspective for those who fall more in the second camp. Even if one doesn’t have enough evidence from what one considers to be reliable sources, one can still believe the claims of Christianity are true.

  4. Bother. I somehow missed Davo’s second post on this – yes, even if one doesn’t have enough evidence from what one considers reliable empirical sources sources, one can still believe that the claims of Christianity are true. This is what some Christians will refer to as the work of the Holy Spirit. :-)

  5. Pingback: Faith, biblical studies and teaching in ‘sectarian’ universities « Judy’s research blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s