A Guide to Examining the Way We Believe So That What We Believe Will be Secure
(Warning: Santa Clause spoiler forthcoming)
I have to admit it. While growing up, Santa Clause was my favorite Saint. Although at four years old, I did not know he was a Saint, nor did I care. He was the guy who partnered up with mom and dad and brought me presents for Christmas. I believed in him because mom and dad said he was real. In fact, I saw him once. It had to be 12am or after. I sat in my bed, anxiously trying to force sleep to bridge the time as it stood at that moment with the time when we would burst into the dimly lit living room with shouts of joy and excitement when we heard some bells. I low crawled down the hall with my little sister. We took a short cut through the dining room peered toward the Christmas tree. There he was. He had lost some weight and had something seriously wrong with his beard, but it was him nonetheless. Santa Clause was at our house. He told us to get to bed. His voice was strangely similar to my father’s. And he was not too jolly. No matter. I wanted to believe, therefore, I was willing to suspend any sense of a critical spirit that wanted to arise.
As the years passed, my desire to believe in him continued, but there were some things that were not adding up. Sure, the cookies and milk I sat out for him each year were gone each Christmas morning. As well, I could not deny the fact that there were gifts present Christmas morning that were not there the night before. And these were presents that were different. A key sign at our house that a particular present was from Santa was that the gift was unwrapped. Not to mention that my most trusted sources for referred conviction, mom and dad, still insisted that he was real. I had plenty of reasons to continue to believe, but there were some things that, again, were not adding up.
Kristie and Angie, my older sisters, provided a very disturbing testimony. They said to me more times than one in confidence that Santa was not real. While I thought they were crazy, they did throw a wrench in the stability of my referred conviction. According to their account of things, mom and dad were Santa Clause. I wondered if others shared their crazy worldview. This took me back to my encounter with Santa that night. My sisters’ testimony would make sense of why Santa sounded like my dad. Of course, the more I thought about it, it was possible that mom and dad ate the cookies and drank the milk. After all, they did eat and drink too. And my dad really liked cookies. It was well within their capabilities to place unwrapped Christmas presents under the tree. Not only this, but it made little sense that Santa could make it to every house in the world in one night, especially if he was going as slowly as he was the night I saw him. Finally, the kicker came the following year. I was on the pre-Christmas hunt for mom’s hidden place where she stored the Christmas presents. Rumor had it that it was in the south hallway closet. Though it was normally always locked, this particular day it was not. When I looked inside, to the horror of this now seven year old kid, there lay Santa’s suit, boots, and white beard. It was almost final. I just had to get mom and dad to admit their deception and I could put a nail in this investigation, count my losses, and confirm my broken heart. Although my mother attempted to stand her ground for a time, the overwhelming amount of evidence eventually caused her concession. I, since that day, I have not believed in Santa.
We will get back to ol’ Saint Nick in a moment!
Real Life Conviction (evidentia)
“Real life conviction.” That might not be the best way to put it, but it does begin with an “R”! Reviewing from an earlier chapter, this most broadly refers to human experience. It is often called “empirical,” meaning that which we can observe or experience through our senses. It has to do with the evidence. Appropriately, the Reformers called this, along with rational conviction, evidentia. It is stuff that we can see, feel, taste, touch, or test. This can come by way of direct personal encounters or by historical and empirical verification. Whereas rational conviction comes intuitively and works primarily off of logical deduction, real life conviction comes by way of subjective encounter, evidence, and testing. It makes up the third sub-meter in our “conviction meter.” It is a very important part of human epistemology (how we know what we know).
During the enlightenment, there were two schools of thought about where our ultimate source of information came from. The “Rationalists” believed that the most important source for knowledge was intuitive, meaning that we are born preprogrammed with paradigms of understanding. The “Empiricists” believed that the ultimate source for knowledge came from real world evidences. These would be the things we learn through real life experiences and investigation. You know, this is the age old nature vs. nurture debate; the philosopher vs. the scientist. Do we know what we know due to our inherent nature (rationalism), or do we know what we know due to life’s nurturing (empiricism).
The folly in the rationalism vs. empiricism debate only comes when we exclude one or the other. The truth is that both are important components in our knowledge and conviction about things. We are born with a certain rational framework that dictates and guides the information which we, later in life, acquire. Even the scientist who says, “This is my method: I believe in only what I can see and what I can test” (often referred to as “Logical Positivism”), cannot be consistant. Why? Because this very method cannot be seen or tested! Does the scientist believe in this method? Maybe, but it is a rational conviction that cannot be put under the microscope. Therefore it is intuitive. This is what philosophers call a self-defeating belief. Its like saying “My wife has never been married.” A wife, by definition, must be married. In the same way, the method of those who say “I only believe in that which I can empirically verify” is self defeating since one cannot empirically verify the truth of such a statement.
However, our experience provides a powerful guide that can help us to adjust our way of thinking at a fundamental level. It is much easier to believe things that we can test and experience. This is the stuff of “real life.”
How Real Life Conviction Works
When I believed in Santa, I had to look for the evidence to help confirm my belief, and it is ultimately the lack of evidence that ended that belief. Initially, I had testimony from others (referred conviction based purely on authority—mom and dad). This is how my faith in Santa looked at first.
Notice the rational meter is slightly up. Intuitively, by itself, there is nothing formally absurd with a belief in a guy with superpowers, giving presents to all children. It is logically possible. However, there is nothing that would intuitively compel anyone in such a direction either. In other words, it is not logically necessary. Therefore, the rational meter has very little to say here. The referred meter, on the other hand, is very high. Most of my faith in Santa had come from the testimony of my mom and dad. Most of the other kids at my age believed in him to. Therefore, there was a confirmation of prejudice on the playground! But notice the real life meter. It is not too high. The evidences, while present, were not above reproach at all.
Now I am going to introduce into the Real Life meter two sub-meters. Please hang with me.
1. First-hand Evidence (or Personal Experience)
First-hand evidence is comprised of those things that we personally experience. Left unchecked, this, along with emotions (which I will talk about in the section on consent) is the most powerful of all the meters to our belief. Many people work only off this. These are the things that we touch, taste, smell, hear, and see. Speaking of Santa, my first-hand experience came when I actually heard the bells and saw Santa by the tree. With regard to our faith in God, these are the experiences we have that confirm our worldview. This would include miracles, answers to prayer, visions, and other various encounters with what we believe are best explained through a divine agency.
2. Forensic Evidence
These are the bread crumbs of our faith. Anyone who is hooked on one of the crime investigation television series knows what I am talking about. Forensic science deals with evidences which confirm or deny the presupposition. In other words, while first-hand evidence is seeing a man walk through the snow, forensic evidence looks at the footprints left behind. With regard to Santa, my forensic evidence was the presents that were under the tree Christmas morning which were not present the night before. Forensic evidence has a historical element to it. It deals with shadows of the past. What we would expect to have happened if our belief is true. What evidence was left behind and are there any other alternative explanations for this evidence? With regard to our Christian faith, there are many evidences we would expect to find such as human design, innate morality, archaeological confirmation, historical impact and longevity, an empty tomb, devoted followers, and first-hand testimony.
Since much of the Christian faith is based on the testimony of others, some will equate this type of conviction with Referred Conviction, but I think they are different. Referred Conviction is the reliance on others’ conviction which becomes our own based on their scholarship and integrity. What I am talking about here is evidence based on actions and beliefs that we would expect others to have if our faith is true.
Therefore, our Real Life conviction meter looks like this:
God and Real Life Evidence
When it comes to Christian belief, we must recognize that one’s conviction level is not determined by rational or evidential (Real Life) conviction alone (as with the rationalists vs. empiricists mentioned earlier). It is both. We have dogs in both hunts. The Bible presents God as a God who calls on us to “Come and see.” As well, the Christian faith will be strengthened the more we focus on Real Life conviction, looking to both forensic and first-hand experiences.
According to the Christian worldview, God does not hide in the heavens, having already installed in every human all that is needed for a conviction about his reality and his will. He intervenes in time, giving evidences of his presence, love, and redemption. We are not left to blindly grope in the dark, hoping to pin the tail on the right donkey.
The Bible tells us that God has provided his fingerprints on his work, the footprints in the snow. In the Gospel of John, John tell his readers that Jesus did many things during his life, but the selected biography was given so that people would be compelled by the evidence given to believe that Christ is the Son of God:
Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Luke, a contemporary of the Apostles and writer of the Gospel of Luke, tells his friend Theophilus that he investigated the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection closely. It is upon this investigation in which Luke’s conviction and testimony is based.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
And we dare not forget the biggest skeptic in the Bible. Thomas, an apostle of Christ, having received the testimony from others (and possibly even seeing the empty tomb), would not believe that Christ had risen from the grave until he (empirically) saw him and touched his wounds.
So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.
Sure enough, eight days later Thomas got his wish and was finally convinced due to first hand evidences that Christ rose from the grave (John 20:26-28).
As well, when Christ rose from the grave, he did not do so in secret, informing someone many years later through an angelic encounter. He could have just gone up into heaven and required blind faith of all his followers. But, according to Luke, Christ was active and teaching immediately after his resurrection, presenting himself to his followers by “many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3).
In Acts 17, Paul tells the philosophers at Mars Hill that God has given evidence for himself so that we would not be groping in the dark.
The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”
God is close to us, having provided evidences for his existence and activity. Though he does not need man nor dwell with man, he is not far from any of us. He is present and active.
Many Christians fail to explore real life conviction when exercising their faith. This can dramatically influence their conviction level. If we don’t look toward the evidence that God has provided through his fingerprints on history and in our own experience, our faith will be weakened.
Belief in Santa Clause is unwarranted, not because we don’t want him to exist (for what child does not emotionally want to believe in Santa), or even because it is rationally absurd, but because the evidence is simply not present. However, belief in God does not have to be like belief in Santa. We can—indeed, we are called upon—to investigate the claims of the Christian faith.
Also, as this whole process seems to get more complicated, I feel compelled to remind you that nothing I have said is necessarily rocket science. While it is the anatomy of belief, for the most part we are simply looking into how all of us already believe, even if we don’t know these things. My purpose is to give you tools to either diagnose a problem you may have in your Christian belief or to propel you forward in the same.
Later, we will look further into how both first-hand and forensic elements to Real Life conviction add to the testimony of Christianity.
1. Does Real Life Conviction contribute to your faith? If so, in what ways?
2. Further explain how belief in God and belief in Santa are different.
3. Describe how your faith might suffer if your conviction is only based on rational and referred conviction.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]