Does God "Exist"? Meh. (With Apologies to my Atheist Friends)

In the coffee shop recently, I noticed that an older man was staring at me. I tried to ignore him and took a restroom break. When I came back to the bar-style table, I noticed he was thumbing through the 1928 Book of Common Prayer I had been reading. Slightly creeped out, I decided I should make verbal contact with this interloper (stalker?). We exchanged greetings. He asked me if my book was a Bible. I explained it was a prayer book, but it contained selections from scripture (As the cliche goes: The Bible quotes The Book of Common Prayer...bada bing).

"Do you believe in God," he asked me.
A picture of the Crab Nebula from NASA, which I snatched
from Wikimedia Commons. Since God is invisible, folks
often just put up a pic of stars, or clouds or a sunset.
"Yes," I said, without hesitation. "But it's hard sometimes." And indeed it is. Nonetheless, I didn't balk at answering affirmatively. That's not to say I don't struggle with doubts, for certainly I do. Rather, though, I have to admit the question of whether God exists simply doesn't interest me. Maybe that's because, by temperament and training (well, they tried, at any rate) I'm a theologian: Of course, the existence of God is usually seen as being axiomatic for the theological enterprise, Tillichian and apophatic sleights of hand by the notwithstanding. In fact, as it happens, many gods exist. More than you can shake a stick at, as we would say in Alabama. Perhaps Bhakti Hindus have made peace with this divine cacophony, Christians not so much, stubborn iconoclasts as we often have been.

And, please, don't give me this business about our putatively "secular" age. If anything, the gods have only multiplied exponentially since the onset of secularization in the modern West. Don't believe me? Try this: Pull out your wallet and empty the contents onto the table. Or flip through the 5,000 channels on your digital cable. QED.

So, given all the competition in the pantheons of Valhalla and Vegas, the interesting question for me is not whether God exists, but rather just who is God. And what does God do? If your answer is that transcending us finite plebs is pretty much God's full-time job, I say -- well, maybe, but how boring that is! The gods who don't whose existence is legion, albeit sketchy are, at least, actively involved in the world, and are therefore way more interesting than the God who can't manage more than functioning as a ground of being, a regulative ideal or a horizon of meaning. So too is the God of the Bible. But this was to be a screed about philosophical theology, and I'm getting ahead of myself....

Confessionalist theologians are notorious for not giving enough truck to the question of God's "existence." I hope I'm not offending the apologetes among you -- you budding C.S. Lewises and Tom Wrightses; well, probably most of you read other blogs anyway. But I think it's basically true: We theologians, by and large, just aren't interested in the question. Certainly, pondering the issue is part of the job description of the philosopher of religion -- that scholar who ruminates on the condition for the possibility or the verity of religious experience. For theologians, not so much.

Now I'm not going to play Tillich's game and answer the question "Does God exist," with a firm "No." ("No," not "nein." He spent most of his later career writing in English -- if you can call it that.) But then he turned it around into a trick question and reasserted the ontological argument for God's existence, which one might paraphrase: "Does God exist? Are you sitting here talking to me? Get over yourself." Perhaps I've read too much Karl Barth. Well, actually, that's impossible, but what I have managed to read has perhaps ruined what would have been a promising career in the philosophy of religion.

"Ah," you counter. "But what about Aquinas and his five proofs? What about Anselm and his 'necessary reasons' for God's existence? What about Descartes, sitting alone in his loft apartment while playing Eric Carmen's 'All by Myself?" Meh, meh, a thousand times meh, I say. Sure, these worthies offer "proofs" of the existence of God. But for my part, I think we tend to overstate this business. Aquinas was intent to move through this housekeeping business quickly and get on to his real concern -- training seminarians how to think logically and coherently about sacra doctrina. (Incidentally, I once heard the inimitable Jean-Luc Marion plausibly argue that Thomas was, after all, one of the quenticential apophatic theologians. Thomas the medieval Derrida. Who knew?)

As for Anslem: Well, as many of you know, Karl Barth wrote a famous book about the early scholastic genius from Canterbury. The book is a tough read, especially if Latin doesn't happen to be your second language. Barth hews quite closely to the primary sources. But it does become clear that -- according to Barth, at least -- Anselm conceived his work as an exercise in faith seeking understanding -- with faith, not philosophical speculation on its groundwork, being the a priori term of the inquiry.

But if you want me to throw off some gloss on Descartes, then I know you're reading the wrong blogger. Get out while you still can!

So systematic theologians -- perhaps, from reading this post, you'd prefer to rather label me an "ad hoc" theologian. Barth himself rendered an affirmative judgment on "irregular" dogmatics, so I'm okay with the label, sans any nasty gastro-intestinal associations. Confessional theologians -- okay, call us fideists, if you must (guilty!) -- are more interested in naming God, in describing God's character, in "hunting the divine fox" (to quote the late Robert Farrer Capon). Robert Jesnson has put it aptly: For the Christian theologian, "God is the one who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead." (I don't know where he wrote that, but lot's of y'all have quoted it already on Twitter, so I'm taking it from you on faith.)

Whither then this "modern" phenomenon of atheism? Now I probably already lost the atheists up in my first paragraph, but I feel I have to nuance my critique here a bit, because it is extremely rhetorical and a little on the hoary side. There are two major species of atheism, which can be separated logically but very often work in tandem. First is what I would call rationalist atheism. This type rejects the existence of God on the grounds either that the evidence doesn't seem to point in this direction (for example, the atheism of the radical empiricist) or that the idea of God's existence itself is conceptually incoherent. Sometimes such a critique presents itself under the guise of "science," "scientific thinking" or the "modern scientific (e.g. evolutionary) worldview." But don't be fooled by such labels: The fundamental stance, I maintain, is a rationalist naturalism; neither the presuppositions of scientific method nor any type of experiment could either prove or disprove God's existence. But such considerations as these quickly drive me into the realm of the philosopher of religion and, as I established above, I'm not really one of those.

The second type of atheism is protest atheism, and that is something I take seriously as a theologian because it is more closely tied to existential and moral worries; ethics, I'd argue, has a closer proximity to theology than the metaphysical concerns often driving rationalist atheisms. (On the subject of the close proximity of ethics and theology, see Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Along, or pretty much any premodern Christian theologian.) The protest atheist is obsessed with theodicy worries: How can the world be so crappy, if there is a God who is both powerful and loving? Indeed. I wish I myself had the answer to that question. Or maybe I wouldn't like the answer if actually had it.

Now I would say, though not a philosopher myself, that I probably would hold, if rather loosely, to some modest form of the ontological argument for God's existence.
According to legend, Aquinas was asked,
on his deathbed, if he could prove God's existence,
once and for all. Reportedly, he said:
"Reginald, et ego non potero."
(Image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
But I wouldn't try to make much truck with it theologically, and it certainly is of limited value when dealing with rationalist atheism and of almost no use whatsoever -- indeed, it's rather offensive -- in the face of a genuine protest atheism. As it turns out, I don't have any great apologetic trump card vis-a-vis atheism. I have only one thing: The Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen -- "foolishness to the Greeks," as the Apostle said. So all I can really do is to try to love atheists -- and to love the little atheist who lives inside my own head -- because Christ died for them every bit as much as for me.

So I don't have much to more to contribute to the question of the existence of God. But if you're interested in talking shop -- talking theology, grab a beer (or a coffee, if you're a Baptist), pull up a chair and let's chat.

Dylan (channeling Calvin?) perhaps said it best: "You gotta serve somebody." So which God do you worship? What is she like? What is her character? And what might her next move be?


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Doug said…
On protest atheism Simon Perry has provided a good accessible discussion in Atheism after Christendom that has some points of connection with your stance
Thanks for the tip. I'm glad that a serious-minded person (anyone at all, actually) is reading my post.

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