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Knowledge and Faith

Baccalaureate Address
by George Ball,
Professor of Biblical Literature Emeritus

Early this spring I stood in front of the statue of John Huss in the old city square of Prague. Memories from my days in divinity school started to drift back into my mind.

A hundred years before Martin Luther, John Huss had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church. . . .He quickly attracted a large following, but was summoned by the church to appear at the great Council of Constance. He knew his life was in grave danger, but the Holy Roman Emperor guaranteed him "safe conduct." He went, but was immediately arrested, tried, and burned to death.

"There is a reason why religion keeps changing," said Dr. George Ball.
His death ignited a spontaneous revolt on the part of the Czechs. Enraged and bloody fighting began in Prague and the rest of Bohemia. Huss's own followers soon split into two groups, which fought each other, and both of these joined to fight crusades which the Roman Catholic Church mounted against them. This fighting went on for 20 years.

As I walked the streets of that ancient, beautiful city, I was struck hard, very hard, by a thought: the people among whom I was then walking had no interest at all in the theological quarrels over which people on those same streets were killing each other 600 years ago. To compound the irony, the single largest religious category in the Czech Republic today is of those who have no religion at all.

Positions people take on religion are constantly changing. We no longer approve genocide or religious persecution, though both are endorsed in the Bible (I Samuel 15 and Deuteronomy 13). In fact, the changes away from those views are in the Bible itself. There is one crucial reason why religion keeps changing and it is rarely recognized: religion is not knowledge; it is faith. Faith is easy to define: faith is accepting and acting on propositions as true without proof of their truth. Knowledge is the result of a process of orderly thought . . . the search for truth through the open, public, systematic, and comprehensive collection of information which is tested by trial, research, experiment and always open to revision. . . . If religion were knowledge, there would be only one religion, just as there is now only one physics or chemistry or biology or mathematics for the whole world.

The great temptation for religion is to try to convert its faith into knowledge and present it as that. Here's a recent headline from the Washington Post: "For Noah's Flood, a New Wave of Evidence." The article cites new scientific evidence of a stupendous flood in ancient times in an area which is now covered by the Black Sea and nearly as extensive as the Black Sea. Some view this as confirmation that the story in the Bible is based upon fact, on knowledge. Many people are not aware that the story of Noah is simply a retelling of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, which takes place at least 700 years earlier. In that story the god of wisdom instructs Utnapishtim to construct an ark and take aboard the seed of all living things in preparation for a great flood. The details are the same as in the Biblical story, including the coming of the flood, the landing of the boat on the summit of a mountain, and the sending out of birds to see if they can discover any land.

Years ago an expedition set out from Seattle to climb Mt. Ararat to look for Noah's ark or fragments of it. (Climbing Mt. Ararat is no small feat; it is nearly 17,000 feet high.) If they had known history, they would have been spared the effort, for they were climbing the wrong mountain. In the original story, the mountain is Mt. Nisir, which is in what today is Iraq or Iran. Mt. Ararat is in modern Turkey.

All efforts to convert religious faith into fact, knowledge, will have a similar result. Faith cannot become knowledge, because faith reaches out far beyond anything that our ways of knowing could possibly verify. Why is there a universe? This is a different question from how the universe began. The "why" is a religious question. What is the place of human life in the cosmic scene? Whatever our position on such long-range issues is, it will be faith and not knowledge. . . .

Because we are reaching for answers to such vast and inscrutable questions which are beyond our range, our answers will always be changing and perhaps growing.

This does not make faith unimportant or wrong. It is perfectly reasonable and even admirable to die for one's faith and its attendant ethical requirements. However, it is not defensible to kill someone over matters of faith. One would then be killing people with no knowledge, hard knowledge, that one is doing the right thing. Yet, sadly, this sort of killing is still happening in our world.

On the subject of killing in service of one's faith, think of the difference between the people in Prague today and the people there 600 years ago. The faith of the future will need to be more inclusive, less limited by a particular tradition or culture, more gentle, more tolerant of change, more patient and kind.

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