The old saying famously advises, “Seeing is believing.” But a closer examination of this familiar phrase reveals that the coupling of these two participles is quite mistaken. Seeing is not believing; seeing is knowing.
I do not believe that there is a computer on this desk in front of me. I know there is a computer right here in front of me. I can see it. I could reach out and wipe some dust from its screen. I do not believe that the voice of the talk show host coming over the radio is excoriating President Obama and Speaker Pelosi for their health care policies. I know he is blasting these elected officials. His words are as clear as they are excited. Belief is not required when there is sensory proof of a situation. I don’t believe in computer screens or talk show voices or the smell of freshly brewed coffee or the sweetness of maple syrup on a hot waffle. I have first-hand knowledge of all these items.
On the other hand, I do believe that a penitent’s sins were forgiven this morning when I said the words of absolution. I do believe that the Bible is God’s inspired words and not just the recollections of a couple of ancient societies. I do believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven when she completed her earthly journey and that her body is not resting in some obscure Palestinian burial ground awaiting the Resurrection. I have no sensory or mental confirmation that my words effect the forgiveness of sins or that the Scriptures are more worthy than another ancient tome or that Mary truly is enjoying the fullness of heavenly happiness. All these notions, along with the very existence of God, the reality of heaven and hell, the divine institution of the church, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and innumerable others traditions, are the substance of belief and the purpose of faith. Unlike computers and talk radio and coffee and maple syrup whose existence can be readily established, God and grace and the supernatural cannot be seen or heard, smelled, tasted or handled. No, the supernatural world is the object of belief not knowledge.
Some might read this last line above and conclude that faith therefore is blind. Blind faith is an occasional dig leveled at the Christian community, yet authentic faith is far from blind. While the articles of the Christian faith cannot be proven, they can be demonstrated as reasonable and plausible and therefore worthy of belief. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth II was tersely correct when she justified her frequent public appearances by remarking, “I must be seen to be believed.” Religious belief with absolutely no reasonable foundation is mere superstition. For belief to be authentic there must be some reasonable, that is, rational, explanation for its basis. The sacred Scriptures and the Catholic Church have perennially taught that the existence of God and certain divine attributes can be known through human reason. Divinity, morality and spirituality are basic truths available to any open mind. Once this basic foundation is “seen,” to quote the queen, then loftier truths of revelation like the Trinity, original sin, redemption and the nature of the church can be “believed.” Undoubtedly faith is a supernatural act that rests squarely on the grace of God. But human reason, church teaching, saintly example, and personal integrity can be the guideposts leading to a supernatural act of faith whereby the believer accepts the fullness of revelation not because these truths are seen but because God whom one has embraced has revealed them.
Jesus extols the courage of the true believer to the hesitant St. Thomas in this Sunday’s Gospel. The Master declares to his doubting disciple, “Blest are they who have not seen and yet have believed.” Clearly no one has seen God or heaven. Obviously no one can prove redemption or inspiration. Undoubtedly the workings of the sacraments and nature of the church are enigmatic. Yet men and women are invited through faith to accept these and other supernatural truths because they clarify and glorify the nature and person of God who has revealed them. Seeing is not believing. But to believe is to see that God and his church make sense. To embrace God and his revealed truths is the very reason for living here on earth and the source of living eternally in the world to come.