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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Living One

Published Wednesday, December 29, 2021 By Joseph Minich

We end where most of us begin, wondering how the mind of man can become persuaded of the truth that God exists. We implicitly initiated this journey (at the beginning of the series) by clarifying the nature of the term “God” and the nature of the term “existence,” and then we continued to look at things that might get in the way of coming to the conclusion that God exists. We have dealt with the question of divine absence, with the question of divine beauty, and with the question of divine goodness. Having given some initial utterance concerning how to work through those hurdles, we can now ask the final question: How does the mind come to understand, in a fully persuaded way, that God exists?

The most intuitive answer is that the mind has reasons for believing that God exists, some foundation which could in principle be converted into arguments for God’s existence. And yet precisely this transition is tricky. As pointed out previously in this series, God’s existence is not clear on the same register that other propositions are clear. For most people, it can in principle be doubted (in contrast to many items which it would be very difficult for you to seriously doubt).

But even if reasons are presented to the mind, what we think we see clearly is often still muddled. So, for instance, some minds are persuaded of God’s existence for bad reasons. Others state philosophical arguments in very problematic ways which nevertheless (in their own head) function to make them feel persuaded. This is not to say, however, that such persons are simply deceived. That can sometimes occur, but most of the time there are sincere and well-firing philosophical intuitions that persons have been trained to say and frame in unhelpful ways.

For this reason, contemporary Christians read works of apologetics as a sort of spiritual therapy. We all know what it is for some item of our faith to feel somewhat unclear to our mind, and we all have the desire for those propositions to seemclearer in their meaning to us. And so we get one book on the existence of God and it helps. Perhaps one is delighted to read Ed Feser’s The Last Superstition, or his Five Proofs of the Existence of God,or Michael Augros’ Who Designed the Designer. Suddenly, some of the arguments become clearer to you in terms of their underlying principles and the difficulty of avoiding the existence of God if reality is understood well. Nevertheless, some fog remains and so perhaps one supplements with C.S. Lewis’ Miracles,or David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, or Robert Spitzer’s New Arguments for the Existence of God, or W. Norris Clarke’s The Philosophical Approach to God. Perhaps the most adventurous even consult Stephen R.L. Clark’s God, Religion, and Reality.

What is happening as we do this? We do not, after all, read book after book about the existence of tables, France, or even love. Apparently we “get something” out of reading one book and then another about the existence of God. Arguably what we get is an increasing habit of the mind that sees more and more clearly why it must be the case that God exists. For many of us, this habit is not so firmly placed in our consciousness that it can’t be strengthened. Finding new ways to say the argument helps us to gain clarified and crafted mental content. That is to say, each way of saying things enacts analogous movements in the mind with slight differences such that the common “trace” left in these several journeys of mind slowly trains the soul to have some natural and fixed hold on this content.

I have previously claimed that the importance of developing this habit is particularly prominent for modern persons, who are oriented to the world in ways that obscure God’s obviousness. Moreover, we can hope that there is some spiritual fruit to be born from this habit having such wide distribution among the saints. There are associated spiritual risks and temptations, however, and it is worth ending by recalling that our intellect is always “on a journey” in this life. Prior to the beatific vision, we come to know God by means of creatures operating on our faculties. Our mind can abstract from these phenomena and realize that all must have its Ground. However, what is grasped here is not God as such, but rather His traces as in a mirror. God cannot be contained in our mental content or our words. This is not because these are too concrete and God is too abstract. Rather, it is we and our words and our concepts who are wispy, barely held onto but by habit and will. Such wispy words and concepts are inadequate to capture the God who is that densest and most particular living One.

If this is true of the most exalted of human understanding on this side of our journey, it is especially true of ordinary understanding, and even what counts as relatively “special” among it. One takeaway from this is that it is not a bug, but rather a feature of being a human that you can potentially look at your understanding of the whole of reality and say, “Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’ve failed to factor in……” Perhaps it is possible for a human to avoid feeling this way. I am more confident in saying that most can’t arrive at such perfect knowledge so as to render this doubt impossible. For most of us, it remains true that our understanding of the whole (and of God relative to it) admits of significant qualitative improvement.

But again, this is a feature not a bug. In the Garden of Eden, man existed in a state of innocence, but also relative ignorance. The tree of Wisdom was tempting precisely because the mind of man did not see the future as obvious. Here, like his similar temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Satan encourages man to agitate about his current unfulfilled appetite, and to provide a shortcut to its fulfillment. And as Christ teaches us, the way of God with man is always through dialectic, development, and history. Christ waits upon God’s timing for His dominion, even as He faces the same abyss that Adam could not endure.

Adam could not endure a life without seized wisdom, and neither (apparently) can we. In contemporary life, ideology reigns supreme. We insist on having a “theory of everything” and agitate greatly at those who imply that the common man can’t figure things out. The truth is perhaps worse, that human beings as such grope in the dark. We are probably more ignorant than we could endure fully realizing. Perhaps there are some who escape this feeling on a few matters, but for most of us, life will always be full of hunches about things we do not clearly grasp.

When it comes to philosophical knowledge of the existence of God, this will remain true of many people. Most people can give a fairly decent intuitive argument for God’s existence, but could perhaps not formalize it in a way that was argumentatively compelling. For others, the arguments are compelling, but there is a lingering sense that they might be missing something. For these, the problem of evil can be especially sensitive – a slight “negation” of every positive argument (i.e. all of reality) for God’s existence. The barely grasped “transcendental properties” shatter against the concrete specificity of unbearable pain—a sound—in the neighborhood outside.

Said differently, for those of us who do not see with the mental penetration of Thomas Aquinas, it is likely to be the case that “coming to understand the whole” is something like an endless exercise of deferment. Things don’t “click together” with perfection. There is satisfying intellectual movement, and the feeling of deeper understanding. But there are always those edges beyond which we don’t know what we can’t see. This haunts us because we know what it is like to grow in knowledge and see everything differently in light of that growth. We might even compare two stages of knowing and feel like the previous stage was distorted relative to the qualitative advance. And yet presumably we are still in this position. Presumably most of us could undergo qualitative leaps in our understanding, such that our current understanding, which we now feel is so superior to a previous stage, would itself be reduced to a distortion in the light of that new qualitative leap.

The awareness that this is liable to be the case scares us, but it need not. Adam sinned in a state of immaturity when confronted with his own abyss of unknowing, his own distance from “final arrival.” We do so through the fig leaves of ideology and much else. But on the other side of Jesus, things are different. We have something Adam did not. To be sure, Adam had the entire testimony of creation to encourage his trust in that word which told him to wait. And this is precisely the significance of Christ’s answering Satan by means of appeal to God’s trustworthy speech. Against the unknown is the known of God’s created order and His speech. But it is finally a face that human beings trust. Many of us feel more certain about our faith because persons and minds whom we trust take it seriously. But more to the point, “out of the abyss” has come God with a face. Creatures of unknowing, Jesus has explained God. Even if our mind is muddled in its conceptual content, the most precise exegesis of God is simply Jesus Himself as He gives Himself to us in the gospels, in the church, and in prayer. God is chiefly the Living One, and it is chiefly in a life that we see Him. We can add that we know God precisely to the extent that our lives are shaped after the pattern of Jesus. When we become those whose stories are taken up into Jesus’ story of death and resurrection, walking after Him in the Spirit of love, we develop the kinds of faces that can see God more clearly, as we become Him more fully (or livingly). 

And it is here that Jesus as the “face of God” takes on a double significance. For Jesus is not just God’s face to man, but man’s face to God. Adam faced the abyss of unknowing and took the shortcut. All of us have followed suit. Only Jesus had the fullness of face to endure the abyss, for He fixedly saw and fully entrusted Himself to the Father. He is our face before God, and God’s face to us. Most profoundly, He is God’s face to us precisely in taking on the form of self-giving love, and man’s face to God precisely for the same reason. As a Christian, it is not at all implausible or surprising to me that many will fail to fully understand the intellectual arguments for God until they see Jesus Himself—Jesus as their elder brother and Jesus as their saving Lord. Man’s chief problem is not, after all, that he can’t understand arguments. It is that he is sinful and does not trust God. Perhaps it will be the ordinary experience of persons in our context, formed just this way, to find restoration to the wholeness of human personality through the restoration of trust in a person with a face like ours, but behind the eyes of which is the Living One. That is to say, perhaps we should expect that those who learn to trust God’s love for them in Christ will be prone to develop a mind that understands more deeply. The greatest unsettlement of soul remains the experience of being loved by another. In the face of Christ, the soul of man (his full personality) is exposed in the light of God’s love, and this is the beginning of the healing of man’s mind. Perhaps in this way Christianity is the servant of philosophy, and of all actions that can be inflected through love.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

  • Joseph Minich

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