Unseen Substance

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In much the same way that physicists have discovered the endless world of subatomic particles, the conviction of faith is the ability to see beyond the finite to the infinite.

At any given moment during any time of the year, were you to visit my home, you would find a stack of books on the nightstand beside my bed. Generally, these books represent my varied interests of study: gardening, theology, psychology, and current events. But recently, a new pile of books has sprung up on my nightstand. I’ve begun collecting books on physics.

Now, for those who love science, and particularly physics, this comes as no surprise. Why wouldn’t I have already accumulated a library full of physics books? But for those who, like me, didn’t graduate beyond basic biology, you might think me crazy, or masochistic, or both.

Whatever the case, my interest in physics began by considering this particular statement from Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is…the conviction of things not seen.” What a complex and seemingly paradoxical statement about the nature of faith! How can we have a conviction in things that are beyond our senses, beyond our perception and understanding? Moreover, how do we maintain the conviction of faith in the absence of concrete evidence? Can we really sustain conviction in that which is beyond our conscious experience of the world?

Physics in its simplest definition is the study of matter and how it works.(1) Physicists are concerned with the material and the energy makes up the universe. As such, the discipline of physics deals with elements so small that they cannot be seen even with the aid of the most powerful microscope. John Polkinghorne, physicist and Anglican priest, explains, “We now know that atoms themselves are made out of still smaller constituents (quarks, gluons, and electrons….we do not see quarks directly, but their existence is indirectly inferred).”  While physicists can only see, as it were, an indirect inference to these tiny realities of matter, they point to and indeed make up matter and energy all around us. I cannot see them, nor do I contemplate their existence on a day to day basis; but I trust they are there and at work when I sit down on my office chair each day!

In the same way, the Christian scriptures affirm that faith discerns the substance behind the often murky shadows of our reality. Indeed, the discipline of faith is to train one to have a different kind of sight. The apostle Paul wrote that “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot is eternal…for we walk by faith not by sight” (2 Corinthians 4:18, 5:7). The conviction of faith, therefore, is the ability to see through our circumstances to the spiritual realities behind them. The grace and strength promised in weakness, for example, the wisdom that is found in the foolishness of the cross and in the suffering Christ, or the blessing and joy that is found among those who weep, all bind us to a concrete reality in God even while we “see through a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is an eternal reality experienced in the midst of our temporal lives.

In this sense, then, the conviction of faith calls us to go beyond certainty to wisdom.  As Scottish author George MacDonald once noted, “Men [sic] accept a thousand things without proof every day, and a thousand things may be perfectly true and have no proof.  But if a man [sic] cannot be sure of a thing, does that automatically mean it is false?” (3) Indeed, all kinds of assumptions are made each and every day—that my chair won’t fail, or my car will get me from one place to another without injury, or I will see my loved ones again at the end of the day—without any certainty or proof.

Perhaps the conviction of faith seems more tenuous when suffering comes. The writer of Hebrews names ancient men and women who endured in faith.  They endured even when the promise was not received or seen, even when they were “tortured, mocked, scourged, stoned, imprisoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword, impoverished afflicted and ill-treated” (Hebrews 11:35-38). These were the ones of whom the world was not worthy, the writer tells us. They saw beyond their circumstances to that eternal reality.  They saw there is something greater than comfort or ease in this world, and they held on—however tenuously—to faith.

The “conviction of things not seen” is the substance of faith. It is the attention to those seemingly immaterial realities that are the true substance behind the circumstances of our daily lives. The conviction of faith is the ability to see in the disparate threads of our lives a beautiful garment, a useful quilt, or a magnificent tapestry. The conviction of faith is the ability to see beyond the finite to the infinite—in much the same way as physicists have discovered the infinite world of sub-atomic particles. Those invisible particles form an intricate tapestry of essential structure for everything that we see around us.

In the classic story of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of a little fox who promises to reveal the secret of life to the young boy in the story. When the secret is finally revealed it is this: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”(4) In a similar manner, faith sees what cannot be ascertained by chasing after certainty.  Rather, faith offers the conviction of what is yet unseen as the substance of reality.


 

(1) From physics.org
(2) John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (London: SPCK, 2005), 3.
(3) George MacDonald cited in Michael R. Phillips, Knowing the Heart of God (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1990), 9.
(4) Antoine de Saint-Exupery as cited by Thomas Long, Interpretation: Hebrews (Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), 114.

 

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