Often in class we will talk about controversial things. I will say that the unborn child is human from the moment of conception or that sex before marriage is a mortal sin.
Sometimes I will say something which I don’t believe is all that contentious in a Catholic school, like “Jesus Christ is God.” I will sometimes get in response a student who will say, “Well, that’s your opinion.”
On days like this I realize how lacking many of us are in the fundamentals. I include myself in this because I had not even thought to address the distinctions of the mind.
Now I begin every course with a day distinguishing between Opinion, Knowledge, and Faith.
Opinions are completely subjective. By “opinion,” I am not talking a judgment you make based on concrete evidence. Here I am referring only to what we would commonly call “taste.”
We all have different tastes. “I like ice cream,” is a statement of opinion. It doesn’t say anything about the ice cream, all it says is that I enjoy it.
Opinions are 100% subjective statements about the self. They require no basis in reason. You cannot argue someone into liking chocolate ice cream. To try and do so would be ridiculous. You can urge them to experience it for themselves and you can point out what you like about it, but no argument will ever move the tastes of another.
And we may not even have control over our tastes.
Have you ever like a song or a movie that you know is bad, but you cannot help loving it anyway? Grease 2 is a terrible film in every way. And yet I love the music. You can point out the me how cheesy the lyrics are and how inane the melody. I agree, but I cannot help but enjoy it.
That is the nature of opinion. It’s all about me.
Knowledge is the polar opposite. Whereas opinion is a subjective statement about the self, knowledge is an objective statement about reality. It is verifiable data that we receive from reason or the senses.
Reason will tell us that 2+2 will always equal 4. All principles of logic and mathematics can be verified by right reason. You can tell me that the interior angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees. If I respond “Well, that’s your opinion,” you would look at me like a madman, and rightly so.
Knowledge is hard and fast. It can also be tactile and observed with the senses. I know that my desk is made of wood because it looks like wood, feels like wood (when I touch it), sounds like wood (when I knock it), smells like wood (when I sniff it). I suppose I could also see if it tastes like wood, but I think that the above is sufficient.
Sometimes our senses can be deceived, but in general we trust the senses to tell us the truth.
Knowledge is solid. Opinions are loose.
Knowledge is the stuff of the hard sciences. Opinions are the stuff of internet message boards and celebrity tweets.
So where does that leave belief?
Belief is harder to define than either opinion of knowledge. It is not opinion. Beliefs are not simple statements about personal preference.
If I say “I believe Jesus is God,” I am not saying “I like Jesus” or “I like believing Jesus is God.” I am making an objective statement about reality. Just as with 2+2 = 4, the statement “I believe Jesus is God” is something which must be discovered and not invented.
But belief is also not knowledge.
I ask my students to raise their hand if they know their moms love them. I then pick out one of the hand-raisers and ask “How do you know?”
“Well,” she starts, “She says she loves me.”
“But,” I respond, “Can’t someone say they love you without meaning it? Any teenage girl who’s dated a teenage boy knows the answer to that.”
“She takes care of me. She feeds me and takes care of me when I’m sick.”
“But doesn’t the lunch lady feed you? Don’t the nurses in the hospital take care of you when you’re sick? Does that mean that they love you?”
“She doesn’t ask for anything back!”
“But that is only so far. Isn’t it possible that she is being nice to you so that one day you will take care of her and that is her only motivation?”
At this point the student is very upset, and understandably so if they divide the world into knowledge and opinion and leave no room for belief. She can have no knowledge of her mother’s motive. But she doesn’t want to say that her mother’s love is only her opinion. That seems too distant and disrespectful.
This is where belief becomes necessary. Belief is a statement about reality, and in that way is like knowledge. But it is a statement based on knowledge, but goes beyond it.
Everything the student said about her mother is evidence of the truth of her mother’s love. But she has to make a leap of faith to acknowledge its reality. But that leap cannot take her away from knowledge.
One of the main themes of the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street is “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” This is insane.
I don’t mean that as an insult. I am speaking technically If insanity is a disassociation from reality, then in this view belief is the acceptance of insanity. This idea has unfortunately seeped into our culture.
Faith is there to fill in the gaps of our lives. And the elite of the world dismiss people of faith as irrational. But nothing could be further from the truth.
St. Thomas Aquinas made clear that faith can never contradict reason. If a belief is in contradiction to right reason, then that belief is wrong.
A young lady says that she knows her boyfriend loves her. When asked, she admits that he is mean to her, he cheats on her, he steals from her, he kicked her dog, he gave her negative feedback on eBay, etc.
Most of us would try to convince her that this man does not love her. This is not a matter of opinion. It is wrong belief, and unlike taste, you can argue belief.
Jesus either is God or He is not. That is not a matter of opinion.
Knowledge and belief are both about truth. And since all truth comes from God, and God does not lie, they cannot contradict each other.
This is why though I can’t argue you into liking Grease 2, I can argue you into seeing the truths of faith (though I can’t argue you into faith itself. But I shall write more on this later).
When belief is divorced from reason and knowledge it becomes superstition.
Life becomes impossible without some kind of belief. I cannot know that the chair will collapse when I sit in it, but I believe that it will hold me. I do not know that my car will refrain from exploding when I turn the engine on. But I believe that it won’t. I have a reason to believe these things will work normally, even if I do not have knowledge.
When it comes to God belief is necessary for another reason. There are some things that are so far beyond our limited minds to understand but are still true. We call these things mysteries.
God is Mystery. And while I will never fully understand the God who is beyond me, I do know that God is rational. And if God is rational, my belief in Him is the most sane thing I can do.
Copyright © 2012, W.L. Grayson
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