I have never met an atheist in my lifetime. Through 40 years of college teaching of English and American literature, and biblical and systematic theology, I have never had a student I thought was an atheist. Through 50 years as a priest, I have never encountered an atheist.
Many people, I should own, did say they did not believe in God, but then I asked them to tell me more about God. Tell me, I would say, what exactly do you mean when you say “God”? At the end of every such exposition of their understanding of God I would have to say this: If that is what God is, then I do not believe either. But I do believe, and I think I can give some account of why.
For starters, God is not one more person in the room, but bigger. God is sui generis. Not even “being” is a category that God fits into. There is no container for God plus us. If there were, that container would be God. God is not one more player in history, but bigger. We are in God’s world, not God in this world, our world. God is more part of me than I am of myself. Creation ought to be impossible. If God is everything, and only an infinite God is worth talking about, then how can anything be something? Impossible logically, and yet here we are — creatures of our Creator, and both outside of our Creator and never but inside at one and the same time.
The tradition I know and trust does not plump for a pantheistic God. Were we but a chip off the old block, belief in God would be much simpler. But we are not absorbed in God. We were created from nothing to be in relation with God, whose eternal and infinite love we received from all eternity. If you are at least baffled, now you are talking about God.
Groucho Marx quipped that he would not belong to a club that would have him as a member. In the same manner, I would not want to know a God whom I could comprehend. Always I want to say to my conversational friend: Your God is too small. Perhaps there are atheists whose God is not too small, and whom I have no business to patronize with a simple argument that a larger concept of God would solve their doubts. I can say, however, that I have never met someone so well-informed about the concept of God and so adamant about his absence in all ways.
Reason to believe
Why do I believe in God? For an honest start, the reason is because I was raised in a Godly tradition both at home and in school. My Catholic background allowed for God and leaned on God. We did not collapse, even when we leaned hard. No one comes to God without having joined a community (not necessarily an organization). There are intellectual communities that account for all of us in our thinking and doing. We are in large part products of our education.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, points out that the view from nowhere is a myth. We all come to the pursuit of truth with a view from somewhere, which view we may hope to articulate and confess in such a way as to mitigate the most blatant errors of subjective perspective.
Most atheists are made so by the bad arguments of believers or by the bad behaviors of believers, or both. With friends like this, who needs enemies? I no doubt do my share in promoting atheism, even as I wish it were not so.
So, you say, give me some arguments for the existence of God. If what you want me to do is prove a piece of information, much as one might want proof that there is a London, forget it. You can take the word of thousands of people who believe there is a London, and some have very good reasons. Or you can go to London and stand there. But if you want that kind of proof of God’s existence as a piece of data, God is not a piece of data open to empirical scientific evidence.
Let us suppose that we can know something of the truth, maybe not the Truth with a capital letter, but truth discoverable by human beings. How strange we should have a mind if there were nothing to learn of truth. Imagine a world where there are squirrels who wish nothing more than to eat acorns, and in this world there are no oak trees. Absurd. Imagine a world with human beings with minds capable of perception, insight and judgment, who desire the true, the good and the beautiful, but there are no such things to be had. Absurd. And one can stop there with Shakespeare’s pithy, dark line: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
I have always thought it bizarre on the part of those who are constitutionally skeptical or cynical that they contradict themselves by saying that the one thing we can know is that we cannot know. If they want to be skeptical about everything, they have to be skeptical about being skeptical. If that is our life, silence makes more sense than conversation going around in circles, mildly interesting but going nowhere. I take it human beings can approach the truth, not own it, but at least know it in a limited way.
The Catholic Church has defined a belief that human beings are capable of discovering the truth of God’s existence. Note that the claim is for the capacity of the human mind, not for the prudence or wisdom of its behavior. Has anyone proved the existence of God to the Church’s approval and satisfaction? Not exactly. The Church backs no one rational argument for God, neither Aristotle nor Aquinas, Kant nor Descartes, this nor that mystic come to tell. We believe the human mind capable of finding God by reason alone, even if most of us raised in a tradition of faith come to know God by faith.
It may be possible for a human being to run a 3-minute mile, but there may be no one so dedicated to train for years to do so — given a constitution capable of doing so, and given trainers and finances to do so — and so no person may ever actually run a 3-minute mile. I assume it is impossible to run a 3-second mile in this world, but I could be convinced it is possible to run a 3-minute mile, even if no one claims to do so yet.
Philosophers cannot agree on a proof for the existence of God among themselves, and so we have yet to emerge with a rational proof that convinces everyone, even if we presume that a pure heart and a fair-minded mind make the attempt.
We all come out of a tradition, and there is no view from nowhere. Only God’s view is from everywhere, and that includes nowhere. In the meantime, atheism is caused by the bad arguments and the bad behaviors of believers, reinforced by the bad thinking and bad behavior of those who do not find God.
Let me complicate this issue even more. The issue of God is not about information about God. It is not a question of fact — i.e., does God exist? To answer “yes” to such a question, or even “no,” does not give one a ticket to the main event in the contest of belief. Belief is a matter of trust in God. In such a quest for trust in God one cannot be an agnostic. You must say “yes” or “no” to a marriage proposal. If you say you do not know, that is a “no” to a marriage proposal for now. One may change one’s mind in the future. But right now, I will not marry you. “Do you trust me?” God asks. “Will you lean on me and see if the furniture moves or whether the harder you lean the more you are supported? Yes or no?” You cannot say “maybe” or “I do not know what to say.” That is a “no” for now.
If belief is a matter of trust in the heart more than argument in the head, then we should all be on alert. We may never know for sure where our heart and our love really is. We may not know if we have in the depths of our heart said “no” or said “yes” to God and trust in God. Those with all the right words of religious rhetoric dare not be presumptuous; it may be all talk and no walk. Those with none of the right words of religious rhetoric need not despair; more may be going on in the depths of their souls where trust in God is born than they can say.
When they asked Joan of Arc at her trial for heresy and for her life if she knew she was in the state of grace (“yes” to God), she avoided their mean-spirited trap, because no one knows. According to the transcript of the trial, she said: “If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may God grant it to me.”
Granted I grew up Catholic, granted faith is a gift, granted you don’t need exact words, granted you do not know your own response to God, granted you know more than you can say, and granted it is a bad idea to pull up a potted plant to see how the roots are doing. I do believe in God and happily so.
So I am lucky or I am blessed, you may say. What about those people who do not have a clue? What is the best account that I can make of what goes on in the pursuit of God? Where one begins makes a big difference, is what I want to say. If you begin by thinking, I am here, where is God? the outcome is predictably a long road. If you begin by thinking God is here, and where am I, what am I, who am I? the road is shorter. It seems to me that I am the question, not God, who seems obvious, naively on my part perhaps, given the scale of the universe. In that sense most all of the human race has believed in some sort of God who is more than each one of us.
Perhaps it is true that the human race is divided into lumpers and splitters, followers of Plato or followers of Aristotle. Lumpers find it easier to believe God has to hold this whole blooming world together. Splitters find it easier to believe they are on their own and every unity has to be earned. Some folks are more inclined to kneel when the gorgeous sunrise appears; others are inclined to pause and ask questions. I am not sure that where one begins explains everything about where one ends, but I think it suggests whether the road to God will be long or short.
The fact that we exist at all on planet Earth is a rare concatenation of so many causes over billions of years. If you have not seen the science, believe me, the odds that the Earth supports our life in all its intellectual complexity are more unlikely by a factor of a zillion than winning the greatest lottery in the world with the purchase of one ticket. Could happen, of course. But I find it easier to believe in God at first blush than in the astronomical odds of pure fortune.
Two issues deflect people from comfort in God: that evil and suffering perdure in this world, and that prayer seemingly falls on deaf ears. There is no satisfactory explanation for the suffering of innocent children and much else. God gives no explanation, though Christians believe God gave in Jesus a demonstration. “I will join your pain,” says God. “Through Jesus, I will become a speck of stardust in my mother’s womb, she but a speck of stardust on planet Earth, itself a speck of stardust in the solar system, itself a speck of stardust in the Milky Way galaxy, itself a speck of stardust in a universe of billions of galaxies yet expanding at great speed since its inception some 14 billion years ago. I will be poor, and I will die with you in pain and shame. No exposition, only solidarity with my people.”
That prayer seemingly falls on deaf ears stems from wanting prayer answered our way. We should pray not to inform God of our plight, which God knows, nor to plead for our care, which God unasked cares about more than we do. We pray to offer our lives to God, who is creating “in the ending” a new heaven and earth out of everything in our lives and world, much as God “in the beginning” created this huge cosmos out of nothing. In our prayers we propose; in God’s response we offer ourselves, knowing in faith no tear is shed in vain, nor a drop of blood wasted.
Jesus prayed for his daily bread, and he begged for his life in the Garden of Gethsemani. Did Jesus know he was God? He had no adequate words to say, but he knew like a child knows whether it is loved by his or her mother and father, even if the child cannot speak and tell you so. Follow someone around. Why do they do what they do? See if they kick the dog. See if they salute the sunrise and take the milk bottles in from the porch. See how they live. It is a wordless clue.
God is verb, not a noun. God does not have an existence; God is existence, and we should not by all logic exist at all. Why God, indeed? The question is why anything and especially why me? But then, we have come full circle to where we began. I am here, and where is God? Or, God is surely here, and where am I — and why?
“Strong as death is love,” says the Song of Solomon (8:6). The claim in this line is not so much that love survives death, but rather that just as death pursues everyone and in the end captures us all, so love is just as strong. God is infinitely resourceful, and to outrun God cannot be easy to do. We have every reason to be hopeful in our trust in God.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come again. You have never left us; now make your presence manifest. Reveal the ending of the book, the last chapter, the final piece in the jigsaw, the other side of the tapestry threads. Come Lord Jesus, not as the threat of bench judgment but as divine magician who works wonders to work it all out, good and bad, the new heaven and new earth, the new creation from everything, much as marvelous as the ancient creation from nothing. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Father Nicholas Ayo is a professor emeritus in Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies.