The Futility of Arguing Our Way To God
You cannot prove God. You cannot conclude God at the end of a syllogism. You cannot argue your way to God. There is no verification principle to substantiate that the term "god" has a referent. With a few rare exceptions, theologians and philosophers agree on these observations.
But let's back up for a minute. At this point I think it is important and useful to this discussion for me to say both that I believe that religion is an essential characteristic of our fundamental nature as human beings and that I use the term god sparingly, cautiously and carefully in my personal religious philosophy because I have found it is helpful and meaningful in some contexts where its mythical quality is clear. I use it cautiously because it is very easy to be misunderstood. I do not want to be heard to say something that I do not mean and do not intend, but I continue to use god albeit with reserve because there is no other word that expresses adequately some aspects of what I believe to be true and important.
Having conceded already that almost certainly I do not use god in the same way or with the same intent as others who have fewer qualms about its use, nevertheless I will attempt to say as clearly as I am able what I mean when I use the word god because whether or not it makes sense to the reader it may be helpful in understanding the interpretation of Christianity that I am laying out for consideration.
Let me say first what I do not mean. I do not mean an omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing) “being” who controls the course of history, the destiny of nations or the affairs of mankind. I do not mean a partisan who takes sides with nations in their struggles for supremacy or their petty wars, or determines the winners and losers in politics or football, or decides who gets promoted or hired. I do not believe in a god of the United States or of Israel or of Iran or of Republicans. I do not mean a god of the storms who makes it rain or causes crops to grow or fail, or who protects some from tornados and earthquakes but causes the destruction of others. I do not mean a conversational companion to whom we pray, who in his wisdom answers some prayers and denies others. I do not mean a micromanager of the events of life. I do not mean a god of sectarian groups, of Catholics or fundamentalist “bible-believing” Christians, or orthodox Jews or of radical Moslems. That god is dead. The modern world has killed her.
This article is not about philosophy, even the philosophy of religion, and it is not about theology, but it touches on some themes and concepts of theology and philosophy of religion. I have studied philosophy but I am not a philosopher. I have studied theology, but I am not a theologian. I studied both subjects because I was curious about how philosophers and theologians think and write.
Philosophy concerns itself with the difficult questions of what we can know and how we can know it. Religious knowledge is one of the areas the philosopher explores to examine claims to have found answers to grand but fundamental questions of being and meaning.
Theology is an intellectual activity that begins with the assumption of the essential truth of the subject matter of religion and attempts to organize and explain the content of religious belief in a comprehensive, meaningful and consistent way, both internally to members of the religious community and externally to others outside the religious community.
Over the centuries philosophers and theologians have used rational arguments to attempt to demonstrate or ‘prove’ the notion that the word god is meaningful because it refers to something ‘real,’ that there is a reality to which the term god is appropriately applied. The two most widely known of these are the argument from causation [‘the first cause’] and the argument from design [‘the divine architect’].
The argument from causation begins with the premises that (a) our world of experience, our universe, exists in space and time and (b) the universe is not static, that is, movement and change are fundamental aspects of our universe that we can see and measure. Whatever the processes by which our world as we know it came into being, including the ‘Big Bang’ theory espoused by most astronomers and astrophysicists, each event in the developmental process had a preceding causal event. If you go back far enough in time there must have been a beginning point or a ‘first cause’ that initiated all subsequent events. That ‘first cause’ is said to be god.
The argument from design begins with the observation that our universe is very complex, from the structure of atoms and cells to the design of the eye and the blueprint of DNA, and that this complexity is too sophisticated and orderly to have happened randomly or by chance. It concludes that the design of our world implies there must be a designer because things do not design themselves. That ‘designer’ is what is meant by god.
There are other rational arguments that are theoretically and logically interesting and some of them are even compelling but at the end of the day none of them is able to demonstrate satisfactorily and conclusively that there is an ultimate reality to which the word god, as used in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, appropriately applies.
These various attempts to establish the ‘reality’ of god (for reasons already stated we intentionally avoided saying the ‘existence’ of god) collectively are termed natural theology. Even if these natural theology arguments are persuasive to some people who think seriously about religion, they are not very helpful to Christian theology because the god they demonstrate at best is no more than a first cause or a cosmic architect, not the god of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, who at the very least is described in traditional Christian theology as both transcendent and personal.
A transcendent god is separate and distinct from the universe, ‘outside’ of time and space (rather than immanent, the inner creative force in the universe that is inseparable from it). A personal god implies that god in some sense shares the highest and best qualities of mankind, in particular the uniquely human characteristics of self-consciousness or self-identity, creativity and moral awareness. The story of the creation of man in Genesis can be understood to mean that man is made in the image of god (imago dei) and shares certain qualities with god, but it is equally valid and probably more helpful to say that the reverse is true, that man envisions god as having the highest and best qualities that he sees in himself and cannot imagine god as anything less than that.
There is a serious practical problem with the logic of the arguments from natural theology. They argue from the known to the unknown. They are based on the assumption that god is at the very limits of our knowledge and functions to fill in the blanks of our unknowns. However, if we use god as an explanation for what we do not know or do not yet know, we will discover eventually that as the perimeter of our knowledge expands we have an ever decreasing use for the god who functions at the margins of our knowledge as the answer to unresolved issues and questions. It is clear that we cannot get to the Christian god through natural theology no matter how careful the reasoning of our philosophical argument.
The god made in our image who directs the course of history and who causes justice and rewards goodness gives us another set of difficult problems because by that logic that god is the same god that interferes in human events, creates some men deformed or mentally deficient, causes football games and wars to be lost, causes some to be born where there is no food or water, and permits innocent children to suffer and die. I don’t think anyone really believes in a god like that, but any view that implies that god is a ‘being’ in some sense like ourselves, the all-powerful and all-knowing god who controls the destiny of men and nations and is an active player in our history, inevitably raises that issue.
That god is dead.