The Calvinist International has graciously hosted my review/critique of James K.A. Smith’s philosophical project…
It is sometimes objected to Christians that their belief in God is unfalsifiable. “How can your position be rational,” it is asked, “if God is not an item proposed for belief? Is a debate over the existence of God useful at all, given such a level of commitment?” And I have seen some reply, “Think of it like the ‘existence of other minds’ conundrum. You can’t ‘prove’ this idea, even though it makes sense out of all of your reality. And, like my belief in God, it is likely that your belief in the existence of other minds is close to unfalsifiable for you.” I think this response is inadequate (thought not technically false) for both philosophical and pastoral reasons.
1. The epistemic status of “belief in God” is the not the same as “the existence of other minds.” This is manifest from the fact that belief in God has declined in many cultures, but belief in the existence of other minds certainly has not. While I think the “existence of other minds conundrum” is a great way to get at various faulty epistemological theories, it is important to be careful to avoid conflating the manner in which it is “obvious” with the manner in which God’s existence can be said to be “obvious.” We need to be comfortable saying that there are ways in which some things are more immediately obvious than the existence of God. There is a sort of immediate spontaneously-arising belief which has almost never increased or decreased in any person in any era of history (including things like simple mathematical truths, etc). Granted, “obviousness” is not what all the folks who bring up this conundrum (especially Plantinga) have in mind. But then there is a deeper issue…
2. Taking my stand on Calvin’s sensus divinitas, I’d argue that God’s existence, while not more “obvious” in every sense than some basic observations, is nevertheless both (a) more foundational and more interior than something “obvious,” and (b) the highest point and end of human reason and desire. With respect to the first, Calvin’s sensus divinitas does not cease to exist in the case of an atheist. All persons are inter-personally related to God via God’s very own Personal engagement with them (Person to person). This is not “obvious” in the way that other things are obvious, but it is the very ontological foundation of all things which are obvious. God’s being is more related to the being of each person and event than those persons and events are related to themselves. As pure contingency, they are suspended (in every particular) in His pure actuality. With respect to the second, God makes Himself to be known as the final end of human desire and reflection. In this sense, He is not “obvious” in the manner of a basic mathematical truth, but He is the final Object to which all mathematical truths, physical observations, aesthetic reflexes, existential coping, reason, being, and reality point. He is the object/end of the highest reflections. Indeed, He is the site at which all being, human faculties, and created diversity converges. As such, He is not always obvious. Reason cannot always survive cohabitation with certain intellectual (ultimately, personal) immoralities, deficiencies of proportion and wisdom, etc. This is not to say that God is not “obvious” in any meaningful sense, but His specifically epistemic obviousness can sometimes be obscured by disoriented faculties which fail to reason properly – in proportion with being, reality, beauty – that is, to reason with wisdom or character. There are many simple Grandmother’s who are, in this sense, far more reasonable than famous philosophers – and far more proportionate in their judgments. And to them, God is even “more” obvious (in a deeper sense) than the existence of other minds – all while remaining the mysterious and infinite Person which all being, goodness, and beauty finitely canvas.
In sum, God is not “obvious” in the manner that created realities are obvious. The latter are rather suspended between His Being as the ontological foundation of all that is “obvious” and His Being as the highest epistemic Object to be known (in all the rational, aesthetic, and personal dimensions of knowledge). That is, from Him and to Him are all things.
This is, of course, a rather large topic. And it is important for several (ultimately very practical) reasons. You see, Christians, especially suffering Christians, want to see God. They want Him to be “right there.” And it is theologies and philosophies which try to bridge the gap of divine absence which often lead to error. Indeed, this is perhaps precisely the reason John almost “out of the blue” emphasizes, in his first epistle, that “no one has seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12). But John goes on to say that in our love for one another, God dwells with us. And the same apostle, in his gospel says again that no one has seen God, but that the incarnate Christ “explains” Him or “makes Him known” (John 1:18). It is quite likely that John’s audience was assaulted by teachings which emphasized spiritual experiences, visions, and sight. But it is precisely the lack of these things that characterizes the present age. Faith is not belief against the evidence, but it is certainly belief when everything is not clear or “obvious.” This is precisely the contrast between walking by faith and walking by sight. It is not the contrast between reason and stupidity, but between immediate and apparent knowledge/experience and trust in an other’s knowledge/experience/character, etc. This experiential gap (wherein God is not “obvious” in the same manner that another person is obvious) is part of the current order of things. Even the incarnate Christ is no longer with us – the Holy Spirit bridging the gap of His absence by feeding us as pilgrims in the wilderness. In the interim, we make due with a diet of word, sacrament, and Christian love, through which the Spirit of the ascended Christ ministers to us.
Christians, especially suffering Christians, might be tempted to ask “why?” Why won’t God just peel back the clouds and make Himself obvious? Why must prayer sometimes be hard? Why must we sometimes persevere to believe that He is there, that He is not silent, that He cares? And here is where we must confront a strange reality: Because God wants it that way. You see, God’s revelation is clear, but that doesn’t mean it is as clear or as “obvious” as it possibly could be. No, God does not intend it to be so. God is not interested in being as “clear as possible.” He is interested in being “clear enough.” He is not interested in our desire for His revelation to be this way or that way, but He is interested in making Christian persons who are formed through suffering, through perseverance, for grasping after Him – and progressively coming to know His gentle providence sanctifying the Christian soul between the habituated rhythms of Sabbath and sacrament.
God’s existence is clear and rational, but it is clearest and most obvious to the rightly oriented soul. Do you want to know God more? Do you want to be persuaded of His reality? Then don’t just think. You have to pray. You have to love others. You have to engage Him in His word. And He has revealed Himself in such a manner as to call us to these activities. He has revealed Himself in such a manner as to be given to simple pious babes – while He is hidden from the disoriented (and fundamentally irrational) teachers of this age.
And being rightly oriented to reality, to God’s being, we find ourselves in a position to sift through all those threats to faith which are parasitic on life’s ambiguities. You’ve heard the objections. “Why didn’t God do it this way?” “If He’s so great, why not.” Why not? Why not? Why not? Like Christ, we can answer questions with questions. Why must these be answered? If there are independent reasons for asserting the rationality of a thing, then my lack of knowledge about all aspects of reality (and its mysteries) does not mitigate that thing. Let’s be frank. This is reality we’re talking about. Things are complicated. Why didn’t God do something this way rather than that? Maybe I could hazard an answer, but it is also completely alright to say “I don’t know.” And we all do this all the time, Christian or not – because that’s life. Life is walking by faith, no matter who or what the object is. But secondly, the Christian knows that the God who reveals Himself and makes Himself most clear to whole persons, the God who is known in Christ, who reveals Himself through nature/reason, Scripture, and history – in faith, hope, and love – is quite predictably difficult to grasp. Do we know why He does all He does? No. But why would we? There is still a ton of stuff that we (including the educated) don’t understand about ourselves, our neighbors, our spouses, others, history, life, science, nature, physics, biology, etc. Why should we understand the Author of all? The fount of life? The Christians always comes back to the obvious. God is God and I am a man. But the incarnate Christ has made Him known. There, I see God “for me” – to be grasped by faith and responded to in love.
In the end, God loves processes. He didn’t make the world all at once (sorry, Augustine!), but over time. And all of created order is motion from potentiality to actuality. It is childhood to adulthood. It is immaturity to maturity. It is Adam to Christ. And this is precisely why we do not yet see God as we would like. We live as pilgrims walking toward the promised land. We’re not there yet. God is not as “obvious” as we’d like. But the manna of Christ, Christian love, natural revelation, revealed Scripture (etc) is sufficient for the journey. And when it is not, know that this is a problem of our orientation, our desires and diets rather than the sufficiency of God’s revelation. And this is by God’s design. He will not just thrust us into the fullness of the eschaton. He will have us grow and learn to suffer and to walk by the Spirit. He will turn is into adults like our elder brother, Jesus. And He will do so not by circumventing our will and all of our faculties, but precisely through them. In short, God’s obviousness is clearest to “entire” persons. Speaking specifically of human freedom, Bavinck gets this basic principle just right:
“A freedom that cannot be obtained and enjoyed aside from the danger of licentiousness and caprice is still always to be preferred over a tyranny that suppresses liberty. In the creation of humanity, God himself chose this way of freedom, which carried with it the danger and actually the fact of sin as well, in preference to forced subjection. Even now, in ruling the world and governing the church, God still follows this royal road of liberty. It is precisely his honor that through freedom he nevertheless reaches his goal, creating order out of disorder, light from darkness, a cosmos out of chaos.”
–Prolegomena, vol. 1, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 479.
So I’ve been having some odd neuro-symptoms that I needed to get checked out recently. After delaying for a while, I finally saw a neurologist who ordered an MRI for me. At the MRI office, I was asked if I was claustrophobic. Without hesitation, I answered “nope.” My wife drove a confident me to my MRI appointment this morning, and a confident me went into the MRI room. A confident me sat down on the MRI bed – and a slightly less confident me was slowly pushed into the MRI machine. Within 30 seconds, an insanely maniacal freaked-out me realized that there was no way in Hell that I could make it through the procedure. I seriously panicked and I was out before the machine even turned on. Shameful, but I guess I am far more claustrophobic than I thought. Of course, when you are asked such a thing – it is difficult to think back to analogous circumstances wherein I spend a long amount of time in a small tube with loud magnets swirling around my head. So I left the office discouraged (especially since I’ve taken too much time off of work and put my wife through a lot as I’ve been trying to figure this out). Fortunately, the doc told me about open MRI’s (the sort where the machine is not a tube but leaves space for peripheral vision). And fortunately, there was a place a few doors down that offered just such services. So determined to use my day off well, I went a few doors down, gave them my doctors orders, shuddered at the look of the “open” machine and (later) scheduled an appointment for 2:00.
Then began the real planning. I called my wife to meet me at the metro with some tranquilizer pills that I happened to have that I have never used. Despite the “openness” of this machine, I knew I’d need to be in an altered state to make it. Then, since my wife had to watch our three children, I called a dear atheist Jewish friend to come hold my hand while I went through the procedure. I knew he wouldn’t pray for me, but I’ve been his confidant through a lot of trials, and I knew he’d be happy to help me through mine. And so it was. I met my wife. I took a “happy pill” and met up with my friend David near the office.
We went in. I was slightly relaxed from the meds. The doctor turned on a rock station (playing Boston I believe). David sat next to me, spoke encouraging words, gave me fist-bumps, and read me excerpts of Hannah Ardent’s Jewish writings. I believe he was reading from the introduction concerning the difference between Ardent’s zionism and that of Theodore Hertzl. The doctor allowed to tilt my head just enough so that I could see his face out of the corner of my eye. And, just to top it off, I prayed, recited Scripture, had libidinous thoughts (pure ones, mind you), drew numbers in my head, and frequently panicked. But I did it. 25 minutes. Done. Drugs felt even better afterwards.
I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. But all I can say that is that on this particular day, I appreciate the face, voice, and friendship of a young Jewish atheist. Medical crap can be rather lonely. And despite our ideological differences, there is a more fundamental sameness between David and I than difference. We are both God’s image. We are both persons. We are friends. And as much as we try to adjudicate our ideological differences, the underpinning of basic humanity is common. It is delightful. And it is precisely what God created us to need and enjoy. I needed God’s provision in the form of a person today, or I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have made it. It feels stupid to say so, but it’s probably true. And today, God’s face looked like a Jewish atheist who read Hannah Arendt out loud.