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On being a philosopher and a Christian

Bob Harrison is most happy to be both.

When I said I was going to do philosophy for my degree, a horrified friend said, “But you’ll lose your faith!” There does seem to be a tension between philosophy and religion. No doubt it’s because a good philosopher is always asking questions, and sooner or later he will ask questions about God, about his own religious assumptions and eventually whether he still really believes as he used to.

The problems are real enough, and you don’t need to be a philosopher to discover them. Any reasonably intelligent person can see that whilst a firm faith can solve many of life’s problems, it raises some pretty disturbing questions, too. Take, for instance, the ‘problem of evil’. God is the Creator of the cosmos. He is good, and wouldn’t make anything that was not itself good. So why is there so much suffering and wickedness to be found all around us? Is it that God is too weak to change things? If so, then he is not an omnipotent Creator. Or does he not want to change things? If so, how good and loving is he?

Another question is raised by the traditional Christian belief that God chooses some people to be saved – and only some. The catch here is: if some are chosen to be saved, and if the future is in God’s hands, what about the ones who are not saved? There has been lots of debate and logicchopping to try to absolve God from the responsibility for choosing damnation for the majority of his human creation, but it seems to me that it all leaves us with worse problems than we started with. There isn’t space here to discuss the morass you can get into in following this problem through, but believe me it is a morass.

The very existence of God is itself the biggest problem, partly because it is thrown into question by the kind of problem I’ve mentioned, and partly because it is not at all clear how we might go about proving that he exists. We can hardly prove his existence empirically, since we can neither see him, hear him, taste him nor smell him. Some people, when praying or singing, use expressions like “we feel your presence…”, but the feeling they describe, though very meaningful for them, is an inner thing, emotional or spiritual, but not tactile.

A more promising approach has been to argue that pure logic somehow dictates, independently of any empirical evidence, that God must exist. Anselm is only the best known amongst many who have advanced some form of ‘ontological argument’. He started by defining God as the most perfect being we can imagine – a definition that even an atheist might accept. Now, we can all imagine a most perfect being. But if that being was only in my imagination, then he would lack the most important of perfections, namely existence. How could he be perfect if he didn’t even exist? Therefore, by definition, he must exist, and be different from anything we know in our finite, imperfect world.

Hey presto, there he is, then, but as theologian Colin Brown points out, in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, this way of arguing “gives the impression of a conjuring trick”. I think, as does Brown, that the argument fails. Although you can form a ‘concept’ – “most perfect being” – and can assign a name to it – ‘God’ – that doesn’t prove that it exists.

Other thinkers have advanced different a priori arguments, including Leibniz’s argument that all things are contingent, but contingent things need, ultimately, something to be contingent upon. Sooner or later we need to recognise something as being not contingent, but necessary; not existing because of something else, or for the sake of something else, or as a result of something else, but because other things would not make sense without it. That which is logically necessary for the rest of the Universe to exist is what we mean by God.

Such arguments have attracted a host of critics. Why should “the most perfect being” actually exist? Is it necessarily true that contingent entities ultimately entail a necessary one? If the Universe goes on, and has been going on, forever, then maybe there is an infinite chain of contingencies; no prime cause, no logically necessary being – no God.

Probably the most popular, and certainly the most easily understood ‘proof of God’ is the one grandly known as the ‘cosmological argument’, of which a popular version is the ‘cosmic watchmaker’. If you find a watch lying in the wilderness and functioning perfectly, you will quite reasonably infer that someone has been there before you. Further, that at some time the parts that make up this watch have been put together by some craftsman or technician. After all, watches don’t grow on trees; they need a watchmaker. Likewise, we find a functioning Universe, so by the same reasoning we look optimistically for a Universe maker.

I think this approach has something to be said for it, but there is one glaring problem for anyone wanting to build a religious faith (at least a Judaeo-Christian one) on it. If it succeeds at all, it doesn’t prove nearly enough. At best it suggests an intelligence and a power. It just doesn’t take us far enough to establish the love of God, or even suggest the fall of man, the divine nature of Jesus Christ… If you are already a convinced believer, this sort of argument can reassure you that the facts of the Universe do seem to be much what your faith would entitle you to expect; that at least some part of your belief can muster some rational support. I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that comfort, but I would not want to build my faith on it, far less try to convert anyone else on the strength of it.

I had an interesting experience recently. Frank Tipler, mathematical-physicist and author of the book The Physics of Immortality, gave a talk to the New Philosophical Society at Edinburgh University entitled

“I can prove that God exists”. His maths were beyond me, but his argument was clearly ingenious. There will come a point at which time will come to an end. Since, (argued Tipler) time moves toward this point, we can take a teleological view (that the meaning of all things can be understood in terms of where they are going; their purpose, or destination in time) and we can say that this end point of time is God – the aim and object of the Universe. Taking this argument further, he claimed that this entailed that we have eternal life and will one day be resurrected. Now, I fear I have hardly done Tipler’s account justice – as I admit, his maths were too much for me, and I can’t remember all he had to say, but I am certain of one thing. Tipler’s God is not the loving father who sent his Son to save me, which, as a Christian, I find essential to my belief.

If I am not impressed by the classic ‘proofs of God’, and if people like Tipler have failed to do any better for me, why didn’t my exposure to philosophy capsize my faith? Partly because I had already been wrestling with these problems for years, so formal study came as no great shock, and partly because my philosophical studies have positively helped me to clarify issues and to form at least a plan of action to deal with my own crises of faith. What is this plan? Well…

When, a teenager, I became a Christian, from an uncommitted background, nurtured on my own chosen diet of Darwinism, Sir James Jeans and Bertrand Russell, I embraced a simple (simplistic?) faith that brought a new sunlight into my life. It did begin, admittedly, with a dark insistence on admitting myself a sinner and repenting, but with an average teenage conscience the admission was not difficult; only the repentance was painful. From there on, though, the picture was brighter. God, I learned, had always loved me. Jesus had died to save me from all those sins. The Holy Spirit would help me to be a better fellow. All I needed was faith, and even that came as a gift from God, complete with a Bible-full of instruction and encouragement. It was all pretty ad hoc. No theological system. We just trusted God and when in need of help or instruction turned to prayer and the Bible.

Simple stuff. To return to it now, and just take it on trust that God is there, and that we will one day see that he was doing the right thing all along – well, it reeks of fundamentalism, doesn’t it.

To believe it and be at all a rigorous philosopher would seem to require a sort of split personality – a double life. All a cop out, in fact.

However, following the example of a man who could have been accused of a similar degree of double living and copping out – David Hume, who was a brilliant sceptic in his study, but on closing the study door adopted a common sense approach appropriate to a man of affairs – my plan of action is to go right ahead with the simple faith approach. Furthermore, I am about to offer what I think are sound philosophical reasons for doing so. I make two claims. One is that it is possible to separate one’s philosophy from one’s religious experience and beliefs without loss of integrity. The other is that we must do so if we are to know God – at least as I understand Him.

The first of my reasons is that the nature of the God of the Bible, if such a God exists, is so different from that of his creation that it is inconceivable that we could understand enough about him to prove his existence, let alone understand his behaviour, by unaided reasoning. The Biblical position is summed up by the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord, for as the Heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”. God, it is claimed, is so different from us that the answers to questions like “Does God exist?” and “What is God like?” must be beyond our understanding. Can we be satisfied with such a position?

Professor Timothy Williamson addressed our New Philosophical Society, not long ago, on ‘Paradoxes of Unknowability’, and something he said came like a flash of light to me. “There may be some truths which are such that our human brains are not capable of handling them. If we cannot even think them, how can we possibly know them – even though they be true?” As he said it, it dawned on me that perhaps truths about God are like that. After all, when Job tried to fathom out the problem of suffering in his own life, God replied with the question “Can you, by searching, find out God?” The question is rhetorical, the answer, “No”. The intention is neither contemptuous nor dismissive, but is to help Job see that some things are just beyond our understanding in our present human condition (Our fallen state? Our stage of evolution? Tick one – or both if you like) Later, Jesus would say: “No man has seen (understood, apprehended) God … but (I) have revealed him.” The moral seems to be that finding God is not a matter for our intellectual enquiry, but we encounter God by means of his self-revelation, and Jesus claims to be a channel of that revelation.

Thomas Nagel, in his important essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ points out that for any organism to have a conscious experience there must be something that it is like to be that organism. I can try to imagine what it is like to hang upside down, to see the whole world not in colour or continuous three dimensional images, but by a kind of sonar, or to eat insects, but to imagine what it is like to do things that bats do still does not tell me what it is like to be a bat having those experiences. Suppose, though, that I could become a bat for a night, then resume my human form; could I possibly convey my subjective experience in writing? Almost certainly not, for we lack the common concepts to communicate bat experience to humans and vice versa. It’s a bit like trying to explain colour to a man born blind, only worse. Now let’s ask the same kind of question we asked about the bat, but this time about God. Let’s not ask, “What is it like to be in God’s place up in Heaven, to have created the world, to see all of space and time simultaneously, to work miracles?” Let’s ask, “What would it be like to be God, when all these things take place?” We can no more do that than we can be a bat, and so we can no more claim to know what goes on in God’s mind than we can in that of a bat. Worse, we can at least see, touch and sometimes hear a bat, but not God. So why should it surprise us if there are times when we don’t see things God’s way?

I’ve tried pretty hard, but just in case I have failed to make it clear, what I am claiming is not that a plea of mystery is a convenient bolt-hole when the believer gets into difficulties, but a far less defensive claim. This is that, if there should be a God who fulfils all of the bold claims that Christians make for him – that he is the Creator of the universe, that he sees the end from the beginning, that he can simultaneously answer prayers offered from innumerable parts of the globe, that he can work miracles… – then we should not be surprised if he is of such a nature that the concepts that adequately describe him and his purposes are such that our minds cannot handle them. You will perhaps not be surprised, then, when I say that if someone should helpfully offer me a ‘foolproof’ argument for the existence of God, or for his possessing certain attributes, I will seem churlish rather than grateful, for I will reply: “It is kind of you, but you have just destroyed my faith – in a God who is beyond my understanding.”

I have offered one reason why I think that simple faith is more likely to tell us anything of significance about the putative existence of God than we are going to find out by philosophical head-scratching. If there is a God, in the sense that a Christian speaks of God, then it is unlikely that we finite humans have the mental capacity to frame the concepts necessary to “find him out”. I now consider a reason why I think not only that we aren’t, but also mustn’t be able to comprehend or apprehend God by use of our reason. When we people talk of God’s justice we mean, amongst other things, that he is even handed; no respecter of persons. A rich person has no greater claim to God’s favour than a poor person. The mediaeval doctrine of indulgences, which led people to believe that they could buy an early release from purgatory for themselves or their families was at fault here, not only because it is difficult to believe that bits of silver and gold could mean so much to God as to affect the eternal destiny of beings whom he loved, but also because it suggested that the wealthy could buy their early salvation whilst others had to wait – a most inequitable arrangement.

But wealth is not the only thing that is unequally distributed. So also is the capacity to do philosophy, or to think clearly on anything for that matter. Imagine a professor of philosophy sitting in his office. He has just had a wonderful experience. After many years of uncertainty he has finally managed to unreservedly accept, say, Leibniz account of the created order. The world is not perfect, but God has at least created the best one which could actually function. This conclusion has provided the last piece in a vitally important mental jigsaw, for the professor has already solved all the other problems that were troubling him about God, and he now says a little prayer and his salvation is assured. At this point, Mrs. Mopp, the office cleaner, enters, and the bright-eyed new convert eagerly explains his discovery and tries to lead her to faith. She stands, mystified, until he is finished, then says, meekly, “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t understand a word of it.” The illustration may be farfetched, but I hope it makes my point. The God I believe in would not make it any easier for the professor than for the charlady to find him, enjoy his love and be transformed into a person who could be called one of his children.

I have tried to show that we cannot find God by mere reasoning, and then have argued that it would be unjust of God to create a world in which we could. Finally, I want to point to another approach to knowledge of God. I’ll call it the ‘relationship approach’.

The Bible abounds with analogies, since it assumes something that underlies my reasoning, here; that by his very nature God is not such that we can properly make statements of the form “God is X”, but only “God is like X”. So he is described as a father, a shepherd, a friend, a husband, a Lord (the ‘man of the house’, in a household of the time). The interesting thing about these, and other, analogies, is that they all concern relationships – the father’s relationship to his children, the shepherd’s relationship to his sheep, and so on. Notice the kind of analogies they are. God is always active, caring and providing, as father, shepherd, or at least benevolent, as friend. There is implied a relationship of dependence on him and an element of trust in him. A relationship with God is like a successful marriage. They love each other but don’t always understand each other. Sometimes one just has to take it on trust that what the other is doing makes sense, and is for the best. Sometimes they have to take each other’s love on trust. Knowing God is like that; not a neat academic project where all the pieces eventually (hopefully!) fall into place, but a romance in which some of the questions are never answered. If you’re inclined to point out that there are some Christians whose religion doesn’t seem to have much romance about it, well, the same goes for some very successful but rather mundane marriages. In the end it is some rather unglamorous features that make them a success, like patience, faithfulness – and trust.

I’m claiming that in pursuing a relationship with God there is no reason why we shouldn’t handle the kind of problems with which I opened this paper in much the same way as we handle problems that arise in a marriage that we mean to make a go of. That is not to say that we shouldn’t care about evil in the world, or that we should accept bizarre doctrines about God without question. It is to say that, since we cannot know anything at all about God for certain – at best we can only have true beliefs – then we cannot know that God will not ultimately come out vindicated of any charges.

I draw two conclusions.

Harking back to my professor and cleaner story, it seems to me that if God is equitable then he will see to it that the means of knowing him will be within the reach of any person capable of making the simplest decisions. I know of only one such means, and that is faith. Even people with serious learning difficulties can usually exercise some trust in somebody. Relating to God is, after all, essentially a matter of will rather than understanding. Moral and spiritual praise or blame concern choices rather than opinions.

If knowing God is indeed essentially a matter of faith and choice, then whilst academic inquiry can be helpful it can also be inappropriate. It can help us to clarify our thinking and appreciate our faith. It can be inappropriate in a sense which C.S.Lewis pointed out. “How do we know we can trust God?” he was asked. “We don’t”, was his reply, but he pointed out that in the most important matters of life we sometimes trust anyway. The example he gave was of a physicist who is told that his wife is being unfaithful. Should he hire a private detective? If he so choose. But then, though he might be acting like an astute scientist, following up hypotheses and so forth, he might not generally be thought of as a very good husband. Lewis was a bachelor, and may have been a trifle unrealistic in not considering how often husbands and wives are unfaithful. Yet it is surely true that if it were not for trust between lovers, or amongst friends, or amongst parents and children, the quality, if not the actual structure, of human society would break down. How much more important the quality and structure of a relationship with God.

© B. Harrison 1996

Bob Harrison used to be a minister in the Pentecostal church and recently graduated in philosophy from Edinburgh University.

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