Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

To Believe and Not to Believe

May 6, 2012

I have written extensively about the “two-storey universe.” In short, this is a description of how many modern Christians see the world. There is the first floor – the natural world which operates according to naturalist, “secular” rules, and the second floor – the world of God, heaven, hell, angels, etc. The spiritual crisis of modern man is the inherent disconnect in these two worlds. It is a belief construct whose history goes back some centuries yielding a deformed Christianity and a rising tide of unbelief. As I have written elsewhere, many Christians have serious doubts about whether there actually is second floor.

One interesting component of this world-view is unbelief. When a Christian whose world-view is dominated by the two-storey universe ceases to believe – what he ceases to believe in is the second storey. There need be little change, if any, to the first-floor on which he perceives himself to live. He does not cease to believe in the God who is here, but in a God who is “out there.”

Of course, what remains in such a situation of unbelief, is an acceptance of a universe that is less than a full account of how things truly are.  The first floor of a two-storey universe is not the same thing as the “one-storey universe” I have described: it is simply a house with the second floor blown off. It is in this sense that I have commented on Christian fundamentalism (one of the primary proponents of the two-storey universe) and contemporary atheism as two-sides of the same coin. Their interminable arguments are a conversation that takes place in half a universe. One argues that there is a second floor while the other argues that the truncated, detached debacle of a first floor is all there is. However, they do not disagree about the fundamentals of the first floor. The daily world (and often the daily life) of a two-storey Christian can be as empty and secular as his atheist counterpart. He differs only in his anxiety to prove the existence of a second floor.

I believe it is important to go to the heart of these matters – to realize that when arguments take place between such inhabitants of the two-storey world – nothing authentic is taking place. Both positions are inheritors of a broken view of the world and neither will ever state the truth in a satisfactory manner.

It is interesting to me that there are atheists who do not belong to this category of “two-storey unbelievers.” Their lack of belief in “God” includes deep questions about the very character of the universe and the nature of human existence. As such, they share much in common with the Tradition of the Orthodox faith. Many converts to Orthodoxy must undergo something of an “atheist” stage in order to leave the mythology of the two-storey world and enter into the revelation of God as Christ has given to the Church. It is for this reason that in the service for the reception of converts there is included a formal renunciation of various errors. You cannot follow the “only truly existing God” while at the same time believing in a God who does not exist. We are to believe in but one God.

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.

Hitchens on Hitchens – Belief on Unbelief

March 18, 2010

For those of you who follow contemporary discourse – particularly that by contemporary atheists on contemporary Christianity – you will find of great interest this article by the brother of Christopher Hitchens. (Christopher Hitchens has made himself famous as one of the current proponents of the “new atheism.”) Peter Hitchens does an admirable job of speaking for contemporary Christianity:

Why is there such a fury against religion now? Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. 
The one reliable force that restrains the hand of the man of power. In an age of power-worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power.

For those of you with family – you will especially enjoy the fact that a great atheist can have a Christian sibling, just as Christians have to tolerate atheist siblings. It is good writing and good reading. May God have mercy on us all.

The Existence of God and the “God Who Does Not Exist”

January 21, 2010

There is a current “pop-sensation” in the writings of a number of “atheists” whose pronouncements are always sure to garner media attention. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others are current “go-to” sources for the media’s search for usable quotes from atheists. In many ways, the current popularity of such figures is fueled by “pop” Christianity. One mirrors the other. In matters of serious Christian thought – neither is of particular concern – neither has anything to say that should be of note.

Writing in the seventh-eighth centuries, St. John of Damascus offered the following:

But neither do we know, nor can we tell, what the essence of God is, or how it is in all, or how the Only-begotten Son and God, having emptied Himself, became Man of virgin blood, made by another law contrary to nature, or how He walked with dry feet upon the waters. It is not within our capacity, therefore, to say anything about God or even to think of Him, beyond the things which have been divinely revealed to us, whether by word or by manifestation, by the divine oracles at once of the Old Testament and of the New. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 1.2)

Indeed, it was noted consistently by the fathers of the Church that the existence of God was utterly beyond what we would mean by existence when we referred to anything in creation. Thus, if we say that we exist, we do not mean that God exists in the same manner. God’s existence is not like our existence – but utterly beyond – incomprehensibly beyond – anything we mean by existence. This important distinction is lost, of course, in modern conversations about the existence of God. In place of the reverential and careful statements of the fathers is the coarse pronouncements of modern atheists and their pop-culture counterparts.

Of course, St. John of Damascus and all of the fathers affirmed the existence of God. But they carefully hedged the word “existence” about with qualifiers, that it might be clear that the existence of God is not to be compared to the existence of anything in the created universe. We know God, only because He has made Himself known.

And though this knowledge, following the teaching of St. Paul (Romans 1:19-20), is recognized has having been “written” into the very heart of all created things, it is not the same thing as saying that the existence of God is “obvious” or that it should be compared to anything within the created order itself.

Instead, it is recognized by the fathers, that the perversity of our own hearts makes the existence of God less than obvious. The “pure in heart shall see God.”

Christians, therefore, do well to pay attention to this classical teaching of the faith. Arguments about the existence of God, often draw us into a level of speaking that forces us to say things that the faith does not say. It also tempts our hearts to think in a manner that is less true than what we have been given.

The existence of God is a profound matter, and never something that should be treated perfunctorily. That “I believe God exists” and that “I know Him” are among the deepest things that a Christian can say, and are a confession of the grace of God. We have been given something that is consonant with purity of heart, and should thus confess it with extreme humility.

More importantly, we should approach these profound mysteries with careful devotion and awe.

That there are those in our modern world who spurn God’s existence as absurd is tragic. But it should not be a cause for us to treat them as though they were idiots. More foolish are those who too easily assert God’s existence without the proper awe and humility that such a statement properly requires.

We are living in a time of history in which saints are required. We have long passed the time in which rational arguments will carry the day. Nothing less than lives which manifest the existence of God will do. The world has heard centuries of arguments – has been subjected to crass persecutions and atrocities in the name of God (even if these were largely not the result of Orthodox actions). We have survived a century of extremes (Bolshevism, Nazism, etc.). That the world is hungry is beyond doubt. But the world is not hungry for a new and winning argument. The world hungers for God (whether it knows this or not).

The proper Christian answer to the hunger of the world is to be found only in the manifestation of God. Thus the challenge of a modern atheist should not be met with an anxious rejoinder from our panoply of arguments – but with the urgency of prayer that we might ourselves become an answer through the reality of the presence of God in our lives.

In the course of my 56 years, I have occasionally encountered such living answers. To a large extent, I believe that I live and continue as a Christian as a result of the prayers of such persons.

As witnesses of the God who exists – we should strive in our small ways – to become persons whose lives are themselves an argument for the existence of God – a God whose existence is indeed beyond all existence.

It is a tall order. Nothing less than life in the image of the resurrection of Christ will do. Nothing less than that has been promised us in Christ.