O how comely it is and how reviving for us theists to come upon the “kinder, gentler atheism,” or perhaps rather agnosticism, espoused by Michael Ruse in his book Atheism, reviewed in Commonweal by Gary Gutting (“Believe It or Not,” May 1). On the other hand, I fear it is all what is nowadays known as “God-talk” between professional theologians, and has little to do with the ways people have at all times come to recognize the existence and the providence of God.
The problem may be traced back to St. Anselm and his ill-conceived endeavor to prove the existence of God to an imaginary pagan. And so we get the “ontological argument,” which was no sooner out of his mouth, or proposed by his pen, than his great theological successor St. Thomas Aquinas called that argument into doubt. Instead, we have the much discussed “five ways” offered by Thomas early in his Summa Theologiae, only to have them in turn called into doubt by successive generations of theologians. Then it is: “Doubt, doubt, nothing but doubt!”
Yet doesn’t Thomas himself, from the outset of his theology, emphasize that the basis of Catholic theology is to be found, not so much in rational disputation as in our faith in Holy Scripture? And what do we learn from Holy Scripture but that the name of God, whom we worship whether as Jews or as Christians, is “I AM.” And isn’t this an intimately personal relationship, far removed from the impersonal, impartial objectivity of professional scholars, whether Catholic theologians or atheist philosophers?
For this reason the true knowledge of God consists, as Martin Buber has in our age aptly emphasized, in an “I-Thou relationship,” that is, in an attitude of prayer. He is above, and we are below. He is in heaven, and we are on earth. He is our Creator, and we are his creatures. Or rather, he is our Father, and we are his children. Only in this way, and in this relationship, can we be said to know God, as it were, within a divine-human family. Or rather, it is not so much knowledge as wisdom, the wisdom that is so strongly emphasized in the sapiential books of the Bible, beginning in the fear of the Lord and ending in the love of our heavenly Father—according to the saying of St. John, twice repeated in his first epistle, “God is Love.”
Among these sapiential books, of particular note is the Book of Job, in that it treats of the particular problem urged by atheists against theists, the problem of innocent suffering. As the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, in terms he himself has borrowed from the prophet Jeremiah: “Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must / Disappointment all I endeavor end?” In the Book of Job the problem takes the form of a protracted debate between Job and his comforters, followed by the divine answer from the whirlwind. So here at last we may expect to receive the correct theological answer to the problem so often urged by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, even from the mouth of God himself.
But what are the words put into the mouth of God by the human author? His words have nothing to do with the preceding problem, which is derived from the dark mystery of non-being. The answer he proposes directs our attention to the bright mystery of being. In this answer we are shown the wonders of this wonderful world within which we have our life, our movement, and our being. And in its glorious light of being, the very light that was created in the beginning, all our petty problems fade into the darkness of non-being from which they took their rise.
Above all, when we turn from the Old to the New Testament, and from the old Book of Job to the new Gospel of Jesus, what, we may ask, does Jesus have to say about the existence of God? Nothing. He isn’t concerned with such petty problems as waged between our theists and atheists, or agnostics. He is no theologian, like the scribes and Pharisees, who stand out against him. He is a teacher and a prophet, and he teaches us—in contrast to all the books of the Old Testament put together—to address God as “Our Father in heaven,” repeating it again and again, no less than seventeen times in his Sermon on the Mount and fifty-one times in his discourse at the Last Supper.
Then, once we learn to address God as our heavenly Father—despite all the variations in the presentation of God in the Old Testament, in which (as St. Augustine says) the New remains hidden—and once we learn to regard ourselves as his dear sons and daughters, there is no room left for doubt but only for belief. And that belief is no blind faith against all evidence to the contrary. It is a reasonable belief, based upon what Newman calls in his Grammar of Assent a “convergence of independent probabilities” amounting to a moral certainty. Thus whether we look with wide open eyes upon the wonderful world around us, filled with vestiges of the divine creation, or upon ourselves as created to the image and likeness of God, we find our mind and heart raised upwards to our origin in him who is the light and life of our being. And so it is again St. Augustine who also says of God, “Because he is, we are.”
Such, in conclusion, is what Gary Gutting should have said to Michael Ruse, but for the unfortunate fact that he was considering himself as “cabined, cribbed, confined” to the terms of postmodern professional theology.
Peter Milward, SJ
In reviewing Michael Ruse’s book Atheism, Gary Gutting says, “It’s hard to see how there could be a rationally compelling case for atheism.” Indeed, back when I studied logic, I was taught that you can’t prove a broad negative. Well, nothing is broader or more negative than to say that there is no God. So if you jump to that conclusion, just know it is logically baseless.
Meanwhile, the case in support of the existence of God grew stronger in the twentieth century. Einstein’s general relativity theory, the Hubble telescope, and the background radiation discovered by the Bell Laboratory scientists all pointed to the fact that the universe had a beginning about 13.7 billion years ago. That is significant because, as Professor Gerald Schroeder says: Science could not have made a bigger concession to religion than the concept of a beginning.
Indeed the experience of humanity points to the theist conclusion. Everything we, or our science, has figured out—from the laws of nature to how to apply those laws to produce the whole array of modern marvels from engines to smartphones and much more—has been by a process of observing, measuring, and replicating what we learn from the world around us. This was more or less a process of reverse-engineering, to use the term applied when—in the building of a product—a competitor violates the patent rights of a patent owner.
And our science works. Our minds can grasp, to a significant extent, the logic inherent in what we have observed of our physical universe, and we have used that scientific knowledge to stunning effect. Having thus proved that reverse-engineering works, it makes no sense to say, as atheism requires, “Yes, but there’s no Engineer.” I won’t claim that this makes an air-tight case for my view, but it’s enough for me to gladly join Pascal in his famous wager.
George E. Ward