“You can’t prove that!” As a Christian I have heard those words more than once. My American culture is ill at ease with public expressions of Christian faith, but will content itself if only I will say that I believe that Jesus is Lord, or if I state my faith as an opinion, as one perspective among many equally legitimate perspectives. But as soon as I say, “I know that Jesus is Lord and Christ,” or “I know that the Bible is God’s Word,” or I know anything in reference to the moral, spiritual, or metaphysical world, my culture reacts. “You can’t prove that! You may believe it, but you don’t know it!”
Are they right? Am I conflating belief with knowledge? That depends on your epistemology. I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, he’s going to start talking about an ology. This can’t be good . . .” Hang in there. The Cambridge Dictionary defines epistemology as “the part of philosophy that is about the study of how we know things.” How we know things. Can I really say that I know that Jesus rose from the dead? That depends on how we know things.
The epistemology of the culture that surrounds the American Church is materialistic. At its core it argues that the only things I can know are things that I can validate with my five senses. I can know that gravity is real because I can drop a ball in an experiment. I can know that the boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit because I can measure it. I can know material, demonstrable, verifiable, physical stuff. It is the epistemology of the scientific method. But I can’t know immaterial, spiritual, moral, or metaphysical things because those things are not physical stuff that I can analyze, that I can manipulate, and that I can prove. The materialist epistemology therefore defines knowledge in man-centered terms, making man, by his experimentation and intellect, the final arbiter of truth.
The problem is that every epistemology is a faith-based commitment. Defining truth in man-centered and materialistic terms is a choice. It’s a choice to preclude all that I cannot verify, classifying such truth claims as opinion and delimiting “knowledge” to material things. In other words, it may be true that we can know nothing with certainty about the immaterial, spiritual, and moral worlds, but no one can prove that. You have to assume it in your definition of truth. You have to take it as an article of faith that the only thing a person can really know is that which he can materially prove.
Here’s the rub: You can make an equally valid but different faith-based assumption. I can, for example, assume that there is a God who knows all things. This God has revealed certain things to man about the immaterial, spiritual, and moral worlds that I cannot prove with my five senses. But I don’t need to prove them, for One who knows all things has said so. Thus, I know that such revealed truths are true. My very definition of knowledge has thus expanded. I can still know true things by the scientific method; I can still validate physical truth claims with my five senses. But I can also know—not just believe—things about the spiritual world that I cannot physically validate.
One man assumes that physical knowledge comprises all that is rightly called knowledge. Another assumes that revealed knowledge is properly knowledge because Him who revealed it knows all things. You cannot prove that there is no spiritual truth; I cannot prove there is. Each man must take his epistemology as an article of faith; neither can be proven nor disproven. Each man has made a faith-based decision. There is no faith verses fact or knowledge verses belief conundrum; there is one faith-commitment versus another faith-commitment. One man has faith that God is and that He has spoken; the other has faith that He has not. The competition does not pit faith against knowledge, but faith against faith.
Christian, when people try to shut down your expressions of Christianity, claiming that you can’t know or prove anything about the spiritual or immaterial world, and that everything you’re saying is only opinion, what they really mean is, “I have artificially chosen to define knowledge in such a way that delimits it to that which I can physically prove, and which makes me the arbiter of truth, thereby writing God out of the equation, and your insistence that you know something spiritual is upsetting my apple cart.”
Please, tip that apple cart, and fear not to do so. Your epistemological assumption is just as valid as theirs. And while their epistemology excludes spiritual, immaterial, and moral truths, yours includes these, while also freely acknowledging that we can gain truth from our five senses as well. If others want to cut the former out of the equation, then they’re impoverishing themselves. But as for you, Christian, just keep believing that Him who knows all things has spoken, and you can know it is true.