Archive for June 20th, 2010

Reason’s God

June 20, 2010

In a comment to my recent post on the “problem of goodness,” I was challenged on the question of “proving God’s existence.” I understand the question but I do not think the question understands God. There is a definition of God that has floated around philosophical circles for centuries – a very reasonable definition – but not a definition that has anything to do with the Christian God. The modern rise of reason – from the Enlightenment forward (though with roots in Scholasticism and philosophies of the ancient world) has often been accepted as an obvious given of the natural world. It is certainly a powerful tool – not unrelated to the power of mathematics and certain other forms of science. This power leads many to the conclusion that reason is capable of giving an account of the world as it truly exists, and questions the existence of anything that does not conform to the rules of reason.

My first encounter with reason’s claims was in a freshman philosophy class (that I wound up taking in the last term of my senior year of college). Within a matter of two classes the professor had set forth the rules of reason and stated the problem of the existence of God (having offered us a definition of God while he was at it). I did not know then what I know now (needless to say). Like everyone in the class I took the bait and entered into the argument that had been decided before the argument began. I say that the argument had been decided because its premises required prior agreement to much that wasn’t true.

I did not learn until later that I was struggling in a class to prove the existence of a God in whom I do not believe. The God of the philosophers is not the same as the God revealed to us in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. As I often say to those who “do not believe in God” – “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I may not believe in Him either.”

There are things for which reason is useful and things for which it is not. Reason is not the universal human tool – it’s just a useful tool.

The existence of God (the Christian God) cannot be proven in the manner which reason requires. He is not an object such that He can be observed, nor is He a mathematical theorem or formula that can be derived from something else. He is not the consequence of anything – thus He does not exist at the end of a chain of logic.

The claim of the Orthodox faith (other Christians may say different things – I take no responsibility for them) – is that God is unknowable. It also puts forward the paradox that the God who is unknowable, has made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We know God because Christ has made Him known.

This claim of the Church is more than a statement about an event in our world’s history. The Orthodox claim is that the God who made Himself known in the Incarnation, continues to make Himself known through our participation in His life. I could state this formally as: “We know the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit.”

Such language is outside the bounds of reason. It describes something that is a truth claim that cannot be proved nor disproved by reason. That this is so does not seem in the least unusual to me. There are many things, it would seem to me, that are outside the bounds of reason. Human beings use reason, but we do not live reasonably. Reason describes an activity that we engage in, but it does not describe us.

I would suggest that my own existence cannot be proven nor any human’s existence. I am unique and unrepeatable (as are all persons). And though I may be described by various associations (male, American, etc.) none of these things actually proves me. I am a human being – not a provable fact. Considering oneself a provable fact is a diminishment of what it means to be a person. There is something utterly transcendent about every person that is an inherent part of their personhood. That transcendence is generally opaque. It can be known to a certain degree – but more likely apprehended by wonder than reason. It is a place where reason cannot go.

Of course the diminishment of what it means to be human has been a common by-product of reason’s project. There is a very sad history of the use of reason to justify various political and economic schemes that were nothing short of mass murder. I will quickly grant that religion has been abused as well – though it seems to also have a corrective within it (at least in some forms of Christianity) that brings such abuses to an end. The same corrective has also set occasional bounds to reason’s excesses.

But the case of abuse does not ultimately make either argument – it simply argues that human beings can abuse anything.

There are some groups of Christians who hold that reason is the proper tool for dealing with the faith. Generally, they accept a priori the authority of Scripture and then apply “reason” as a means of interpretation. I think this is a novel idea (no older than the late 18th century). And I think it results in a distortion of the Christian faith as received from Christ and preserved in His Church.

I believe in God. I believe in God because I have come to know Him in the person of Christ. The realm of that experience and the living Tradition to which it belongs stands outside of reason – as does much of human life and the universe around us. Reason’s God is too small. It is not surprising that those who give an inordinate place to reason find such a small God unbelievable.