A New Proof for God’s Existence?

I want to offer an a posteriori argument for God’s existence. (An a posteriori argument is “dependent on experience or empirical evidence.”) This may seem odd, because the usual purpose of arguing for God’s existence is to argue that there is a God to experience in the first place. But I want to begin the other way round, as a thought experiment. Specifically, I want to argue from the Christian experience of God’s existence, because this is the experience I have. (Whether starting from the experience “I” have poisons this whole argument from the beginning I leave aside for now.)

Things can be known in two ways. They can be known as fact (e.g., Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939) or they can be known as something one is familiar with (e.g., in the sentence, “Greg knows that part of the city.”). This is preserved in other languages, such as French (savoir, connaitre) and Spanish (saber, conocer), but lost in English. I’m dealing here with the second kind, what I will call “familiar knowledge.”

Now, when someone becomes familiar with something–comes to know something, in this sense–they are aware of its characteristics. Say I have a favourite bench in the park: I know this bench’s location, its colour, its supportiveness and comfort. But there is also something else–slightly more difficult to consider–I know about the bench: I know it could potentially not exist. I know that there was a time before this bench was assembled and there will be a time after it has fallen apart. I know it did not have to be–the fancy philosophical term for this is the bench’s “contingency.”

The same is true, in a darker way, of our familiar knowledge of persons. I know, for example, a certain close friend. I know her appearance, her personality, her loves, her quirks and habits. And on a certain, perhaps inarticulable level, I also know she is contingent. Not despite my familiarity with her, but precisely because of my familiarity with her–this being the crux of my argument–I know she did not have to exist. I also experience, on the edges of my conscious knowledge, that she will one day again come to not exist (in a certain sense. I leave that argument aside for the moment.).

Now I come to my argument proper: this sense of contingency, the not-having-to-be-ness which we experience of things, of places and sadly even of persons, is just what is not experienced in the familiar knowledge of God. The same knowledge of characteristics present in our familiar knowledge of things and persons is present in our knowledge of God: we know God’s power, God’s proximity and God’s care. But there is no sense of God’s contingency; to the contrary, we experience God as mercifully necessary–“necessity” being the philosophical opposite of “contingency.” There is no sense in our familiar knowing of God that God might not be.

And from what the Christian faith has always taught, this makes sense. For God is not another “thing” in the universe, perhaps an extra large or hidden or mysterious item. As Sarah Coakley writes, “God is, rather, that-without-which-there-would-be-nothing-at-all” (p.5). And so, one would not be able to experience the could-not-be-ness of God, as we are some of the things which would not be at all without God. God is, instead, the Source of all of this, the one without which there really would be nothing–the Necessary Being. But further, in our Christian experience, we find that this Source is a personal Source–a something who is actually a Someone. A Someone who, in fact, loves.

The Lutherans vs. Locke on Faith and Reason

Luther is famous, among other things, for calling reason a whore. Let us say, at least, that Lutherans since him have been slightly suspicious of its claims. Hamann, a 19th century Lutheran, wrote: “It is the greatest contradiction and misuse of our reason if it wants to reveal” (quoted in Beiser, The Fate of Reason, 22). Reason and revelation do not stand beside each other as two parallel sources, Hamann would say, each handing out some information about the human and divine states of things. Rather, reason is a faculty that muses over the things shown to it, whether by divine revelation or in common experience. As Hamann writes elsewhere, “Experience and revelation are one and the same and indispensable crutches or wings of our reason, if it is not to remain lame and creep along. The senses and history are the foundation and ground – however deceptive the former, and naïve the latter: I nevertheless prefer them to all ethereal castles” (quoted in Betz, After Enlightenment, 230).

Luther calls us to put our full trust in the Word of God, also opposing any “ethereal castles,” though for him, these castles are built with bricks of sinful human words. He, additionally, differs from Hamann on a central point: the role of experience. Hamann saw all his experiences after his conversion as constituting secret messages from God, which simply needed a key to be unlocked. For Luther, in contrast, revelation spoke against his experience–his “clear” and “evident” experience–of guilt and condemnation before God. For John Locke, it is these clear and evident deliverances of reason from experience that make up “the sole matter of all our notions and knowledge” (in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 171).

The word “matter” here is significant, however. Our “ideas” for Locke mean the most basic elements drawn from our sensory experience of the world (e.g., colours, lengths, durations). So of course, in this sense, revelation cannot be a source of “knowledge” apart from our “reason.” (Revelation does not teach us of additional colours, for example.) But what then can Locke mean when he argues, “For faith can never convince us of anything that contradicts our knowledge” (172)? How could it? Let us turn, then, to how Locke understands “faith.” This he defines as “the assent to any proposition … upon the credit of the proposer” (170).

At first glance, this seems quite an optimistic state for faith, especially when one agrees with Locke that revelation is, by its nature, “the testimony of God (who cannot lie)” (172). The First Vatican Council, interestingly, employs the same language of “proposing for our belief mysteries hidden in God” (Dei Filius, in Gunton, 179). Yet, for Vatican I, the human person is “obliged to yield to God the revealer full submission of intellect … by faith” (178). Locke, on the other hand, is less positive about the situation, for the reasoning human person is for him the arbiter of what is or is not revelation.

Since, for Locke, the foundation of all knowledge is our “own understanding” or “intuitive knowledge”, that which we ourselves experience will always be more sure than what is reported either, “by the tradition of writings, or word of mouth” (172). Thus, Locke imposes a further requirement on the Scriptures or reports of tradition: an additional revelation must immediately be given to each individual by God to confirm that these previous revelations are genuine. Of course, God does not grant such genie-wishes and the consequences are dire. Locke writes:

Indeed, if anything shall be thought revelation which is contrary to the plain principles of reason, and the evident knowledge the mind has of its own clear and distinct ideas; there reason must be hearkened to, as a matter within its own province. (173)

It is uncertain just what constitute for Locke the “plain principles,” “evident knowledge,” or elsewhere, “common sense” (173) of a “considerate” or “sober good man” (174). But evidently, not included among these are trust of what is “passed down” from others–the etymological root of “tradition.” Let us return, then, to our polemical friend Luther, who in his commentary on Galatians, writes:

In listing faith among the fruits of the Spirit, Paul obviously does not mean faith in Christ, but faith in men. Such faith is not suspicious of people but believes the best. Naturally the possessor of such faith will be deceived, but he lets it pass. He is ready to believe all men, but he will not trust all men. Where this virtue is lacking men are suspicious, forward, and wayward and will believe nothing nor yield to anybody. No matter how well a person says or does anything, they will find fault with it, and if you do not humor them you can never please them. It is quite impossible to get along with them. Such faith in people therefore, is quite necessary. What kind of life would this be if one person could not believe another person? (Commentary on Galatians, 5:22)

By a strange twist, then, we find Luther supporting a certain claim of tradition against an unmediated–at least through persons, human or divine–delivery of reasonable knowledge. In other words, Luther would argue, against Locke, that we should trust what others tell us about this revelation that has occurred in Jesus Christ, rather than suspiciously holding it up against the light of “our intuitive knowledge” (172). At least he could be read this way here. And interestingly, Locke would be compelled to agree by his (reasonable?) judgment of the trustworthiness of the “one who cannot err, and will not deceive” (173), if only for him the mediatory nature of Scripture were not an insuperable obstacle (172). Or alternatively, if the divine authorship of Scripture were immediately obvious–something careers have been spent attempting to show as “common sense,” whatever that is. Instead, Locke seems to give this cry: if only God would split the heavens and come down! Maybe then he would believe, in view of such clear, immediate evidence. And yet God has: in Christ.

Theses on Epistemology

Epistemology is a fancy word for how we know things. As one of Redeemer’s profs loves to say, it’s how to go about knowing things in order that you can trust the results of the knowing process. I have a few ideas about what this should look like:

1. The knowing process is fundamentally characterized as caritative attention.

“Caritative” here is from the Latin caritas, which is where we get our word “charity” from. In other words, then, we go about knowing by paying charitable attention to the things or people we wish to know (about). There are some possible synonyms for this phrase, then, that could shed some helpful light: we could also call this posture careful listening, concerned attunement, compassionate attending to, or charitable attending. I have all of these broad ideas in mind when I use the phrase “caritative attention.”

2. Caritative attention is a focused activity and always has a content.

There are really two points here: first, paying attention involves focusing upon a particular thing or person in our experience. In listening carefully to a friend’s sorrow or the close argument of a text, we are both heightening our awareness of the focus of our attention and screening out much of the rest of the world. Second, caritative attention is intentional (Husserl), meaning it is always attending to something, consciousness of something. It is never empty.

3. The tentativeness or incompleteness of our knowledge must be acknowledged.

Humility in our knowing is a fundamental element of the posture of caritative attention. We know in part, and our judgments of understanding should stand always open to correction from new insights or other persons. The communal process of knowing the world in which we find ourselves is a generations-long task that must be continually reopened. This involves the difficult work of clarifying others’ positions in conversations or fresh rereadings of old texts—particularly Scripture.

4. The criterion of true knowledge is not “objectivity” but rather “charitableness.”

While especially true of our knowledge of others, since knowledge is attitude-forming and formed, this criterion is also true of the non-human creation. In regards to the animals and plants, the other living creations of God, our investigations should attend to their health and well-being. With regards to all, the creation is an ordered but vivified, overflowing gift of the one crucified and risen God.

5. All knowledge has the formal structure of revelation.

The world is not encapsulated in our consciousness, not even latently, but really exists out there and appears to us. This means that knowledge is not acquired or grasped fundamentally—not, in other words, comprehended—but instead received as gift. Knowledge comes to us, gives itself to us in moments of appearing or “revelation,” in a structural sense. Of course, here, the world’s appearing is not divine revelation, but only like it in the sense of being given (Marion).

6. Various structures and impulses shape our perceptions of the world.

Knowledge is not neutral or objective and rationality is not universal. “Structures,” very broadly speaking, constrict and inform our understanding of the world. These include, for example, the structures of our perceiving and judging faculties, textual-cultural traditions, social institutions and the nature of time. “Impulses” push our attention in various directions. Examples include curiosity, disgust, stress, peer pressure, the Spirit, compassion and love.

7. Knowledge is communal, and properly located in the Church.

The site of knowledge is not the knowing, conscious self, but rather the communities of which that self is a part. Knowledge is properly participation in, a sharing in the accumulated understanding of a traditioned community. The practices of a community produce its knowledge: in the academy, this includes laboratory testing or close reading; in the Church, this includes attending to God’s Word and Spirit, baptism and the Eucharist. The proper communal site of all human knowing is the Church gathered and scattered, as that community that has received from God the truth about the world and its state.

8. Our knowledge is situated by founding stories.

In relation to our self-understanding, this includes, for example, the stories of our birth and baptism, our family histories, and our childhood. For the Church, these founding stories are contained in the “grand reçit” (Lyotard) or broad narrative of Scripture. The understanding of Scripture has been shaped by the unfolding of the Church’s life under the guidance and gifts of the Spirit.

9. Embodied persons or spirited bodies are the “subjects” (or the “what comes after the subject” [Nancy]) of knowledge.

Perception of the world around us is not aimed at lifting out abstracted ideas, but properly continues to be an embodied presence. Thus sight is not the primary or only mode of attending to the world, but the process involves also listening to a stranger’s sigh, receiving a friend’s encouraging touch and the scent of incense. There are also necessary physiological limits to knowing, then, which means that the ability to exercise caritative attention is limited by energy and the need for sleep, which is properly a rest in God.

10. While the beginning of knowledge is “wonder” (Aristotle) or the “interesting” (Deleuze), the end of knowledge is (a kind of) worship.

Growing in knowledge is not an end-in-itself nor a self-aggrandizing project, but rather has as its aim the return to the gathered body of the Church in worship. The same hands that comfort the brokenhearted are lifted in praise to the God who cares deeply for them. The same tongues that speak cultural goods into being are employed to utter the thousand languages of God’s glory. All our embodied lives are returned to the God who made them, as recognition of the revelation that all is gift. And then we return to the world around us for a kind of worship: a faithful, loving action in the world that rests in God’s preemptive grace and brings about the earth’s healing. This is done in hopeful attention to the Day when we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2) and when we shall know fully just as we are fully known by God (1 Cor. 13:12).