In those moments where we might be caught questioning God’s existence, we often have an instinct that the most obvious procedure is an intellectual one. We need to find a pile of data that either proves or fails to prove God. One clever strategy, of course, is to simply claim that God is the primary datum in light of Whom all else is saved from absurdity—a claim still itself trafficking, nevertheless, in the realm of analyzing data. We recall, however, that the primary tension between man and God is not intellectual, but moral. And yet this is something itself we know mostly as a data point and consequently – at the level of our habits – we still default to resolving the God question at the level of discovering information (usually in the form of demonstrable arguments).
None of this is wrong. It is even necessary, but it is limited. It is limited because the proofs for God’s existence have never borne the burden that they do in our historical moment. Even if they “work” philosophically, they do not have the character of Mathematical demonstrations. Even if there is every reason to believe in God, and no reason not to, the mode in which these reasons manifest is not the same manner in which mathematical demonstration manifests (for those who understand the latter).
Let us pull that apart just a bit. There are certain propositions that we cannot doubt even if we decide to do so. We simply cannot make ourselves do it. You cannot and will never doubt that you are conscious in any meaningful and “visceral” sense. If I asked you to decide to doubt the existence of your fingers, you would hardly be able to stimulate the scenario. But as a simple matter of fact, whatever we make of it, the human being can get into a place where God’s existence is doubted.
And so even if the arguments work, as a matter of plain empirical fact, they don’t produce the kind of inflexible confidence that Christians crave. Medieval certainty about God’s existence was not the result of arguments, but the result of a whole universe of embodied practices, as I suggested previously. The very shape and texture of human life reinforced those aspects of reality in which God’s own being is quite clear. “So what,” a Medieval person might ask, “if there is some aspect of the God question that involves faith? Personal dependence is the very stuff of life. Why not the cosmos?” But in our own moment—in an age of mobility and “systems”—those aspects of life that formerly required rich networks of face-to-face dependence (the paradigm of which is the family) are now increasingly outsourced to a faceless process. Read off the mirror of such a world, “the whole show” can appear cosmically impersonal indeed.
A mode of life that is shaped precisely to erase the feeling of immediate personal dependence will inevitably require some form of counter-habituation. Implied in putting it this way, however, is that some aspects of God’s clarity are found behind a movement of the will. Why, after all, should we go through the trouble of trying to persuade ourselves in the first place? The role that “choice” plays in the question of God, which has always been nascent, is now profound. In the past, when God seemed obvious—even if not definitively proven— it took a very small gesture of natural (not saving) faith to simply work within a framework that takes Him for granted. Similarly with the question of whether or not the mind is really connected to the world. We could argue about it, or simply decide to take what seems to be true for granted. Most humans are content to do the latter. But precisely when God (not to mention reality itself!) doesn’t seem obvious, the volitive dimension of belief will take on a degree of prominence.
And precisely this complicates our circumstance, for the faculty of the will is oriented not toward the truth about reality, but toward the goodness and beauty of it. Most humans have believed in God not because they loved God, but because it seemed insane not to (in the realm of truth). Finding ourselves in a peculiar circumstance where God does not seem obvious, the question of the goodness and the beauty of believing in God takes on a more prominent hue. Arguably, this is one of the reasons that most modern “loss of faith” narratives have a moralistic character. Since the Victorian era, atheism has subsisted on the impression that religion gets in the way of the good and the beautiful. The crisis of religion in modernity is not merely an intellectual one, then, but rather an aesthetic and moral one. Consequently, it is liable to be the case that the fuller persuasion of the intellectual arguments—for most persons in our context—will depend upon their full and felt implications in the moral and aesthetic sphere(s). And this means that the will takes on a significant role in considering the question of God. From one vantage point, this is not a liability because it means that working through our religious questions involves our whole person and cannot be resolved but through a union of our faculties toward a common object. The risk, of course, is that we use such opportunity to serve the flesh, reducing the world of the true to the world of our will. But such is always the risk of maturity, responsibility coming in precise proportion to our ability (and yet refusal) to squander our opportunity and calling.
Before we briefly example a handful of intellectual arguments for God, then, it is worth thinking about stumbling blocks to belief in God at the level of what seems attractive to us and what seems morally praiseworthy to us. Though it is not necessary to proceed in this way, I do so on the hunch that it might aid some. For the final three posts of this series, then, I will ask how we might work through a doubt about God arising from our sense of what is beautiful, from our sense of what is good, and (finally) from our sense of what is true. Peering behind the beautiful and the good in order to see the One behind them perhaps (I’m wagering) puts us in a position to see that same One shining through the true (and now more brilliantly).
For the rest of this post, however, it is helpful to highlight the philosophical tradition of which these reflections are a part. The triad of good, true, and beautiful have (of course) a deep philosophical pedigree. Through the Platonist, neo-Platonist, and high scholastic tradition, they belong to a discourse about the “transcendental properties of being.” Briefly, to speak about a “transcendental” property is to speak about some aspect of all beings that is shared by all creatures, and suspended in God’s own self-contained (and donated) perfection. Transcendental properties, then, look “downward” from above to encompass all creatures, and also give creatures some knowledge of what is “above” creation, but which nevertheless conditions it. These terms straddle heaven and earth as it were. So, for instance, both the smallest particle and God “share” the property of truth in that each is available (in their respective ways) to be known by a mind. How all created things participate in beauty and goodness will be explicated in the posts that follow.
In any case, in hisThe Philosophical Approach to God, W. Norris Clarke presents the tradition of “transcendental Thomism,” which focuses upon the dynamic relationship of human beings to these transcendental properties. While there are bits to disagree with in the book, it elegantly summarizes (and renders precise) an element of scholastic thought that is sometimes neglected. To wit, man’s faculty of mind is dynamically oriented to being in its manifestation as true (or aptness to be known). Man’s will, on the other hand, is dynamically oriented to being in its manifestation as good (or aptness to be desired). But the Thomist tradition goes further than this. Man’s movement toward the truth and toward the good is a dynamic motion toward God. Thomas famously wrote that God is implicitly known in all knowing and desired in all desiring. The above helps us to make sense of this claim. Take knowing for instance. We are never at rest in our grasp of being as true. We leap from truth to truth, synoptically integrating and coming to fresh vantage points. But these fresh vantage points only become new jumping boards for a greater and greater integration of all truth. The most knowing humans are often the most intellectually frustrated because they see an exponentially receding horizon of what “could be” known (as each new piece of knowledge reveals many further unknowns)—the ultimate “hot take” slipping further and further from grasp. Similarly in our desiring. We consummate our desires over and over again, but we are not satisfied in such a way as not to be “hungry” again—and quite quickly! We enjoy thing after thing. We combine goods, and strategize how to maximize them in an ordered and rational way. And yet, in all of our desiring, we do not find an object in this creation that is fitted to our actual desiring capacity. As Clarke summarizes one author, there is a sort of negative infinity in man (in both knowing and desiring) that is fitted for the positive infinity that is God, who is nascently grasped in all knowing and desiring, even if absurdly avoided and despised by sinners during that very process. It is not just that we deploy divine breath to curse God, but that we “use” the very drives that are screaming to be united with God to avoid Him.
Clarke calls this way of getting at the question of God the “way” of inner dynamic ascent, rather than the “external” way (which moves through creation and causality more formally and generally). And precisely since humans do not arrive at the climax of knowing and desiring on this side of glory, one is never intellectually forced to believe in God. Indeed, to put one’s self in the position to become so persuaded itself requires some motivation, some logically prior desire which sees the discovery of truth as a good to be pursued by the will. On the other hand, if God does not exist, human existence is an absurdity. There is every reason to believe that God exists, and there are no reasons not to, but the will is not forced to refuse the absurd. The existentialisms of the 20th century took precisely this line. Life is absurd, a tragi-comedy where the best survival strategy is perpetual dry flippancy at the weight of things. Best be numb rather than disappointed. A dominant perspective in literature, the arts, and film, it is not surprising that we are (in our own context) sick with cynicism on a cosmic scale. Moreover, it would be wise to ask if there are versions of this sickness that do not look like atheism, but rather hide in their very supposed antidotes. If the devil cannot rid the world of truth, the strategy becomes to defang it or render it unattractive.
But Jesus came for the sick, and God’s world and provident care are not left to their disintegration, but are made (in their own way) to be His hospital. Even the devil is reduced to a prop in God’s pedagogy (defeated in his very activity) for those who love God. In one way, persons who have implicitly decided that life is absurd are just one step from the kingdom of heaven, because the conversion of the imagination on this single point would be a gestalt shift relative to the whole universe. And yet it is a shift that requires some motion of will, and particularly in the mode of faith. The paradigm of both knowing and desiring, after all, are not abstractions, but persons. It is persons who know, and it is ultimately the personal that is known (for all is suspended in God’s Personhood). The movement from obliqueness to clarity, therefore, is much like the motion from nascently to truly knowing a person, a path that requires the engagement of the whole self, and is ultimately mediated by a faith. This faith has its reasons, but it remains faith in a person (in a position of some vulnerability) nevertheless. We still can, after all, be angry and mistrusting of God. And it is precisely this reality, then, that I hope to take up in the remaining three posts of this series. For persons like us, and for persons in our situation, we cannot afford to neglect the questions: How does God relate to my sense of what is beautiful? How does God relate to my sense of what is praiseworthy? How does God relate to my sense of what is true? What if there is tension between my dynamic grasp of these aspects of being and what it seems God is like? “Come, let us reason together,” God told Israel. Let us take up His offer in good faith. He is not intimidated by our questions. For millennia, Christians who have taken up His offer with an open soul have been driven to confess, “Let God be true and every man a liar.”