Does God Exist?

May 6th, 2014

Whether or not you are a Christian, it is worth thinking about the curious fact that humans can know that God exists.

In Christian thought, this knowledge is of about as much value as knowing that Jesus of Nazareth existed in history. You can know it apart from saving faith. You can know that “God exists” and still have a very distorted view of God. This is what Christians think of people who know that God exists and yet don’t know that God is an eternal relationship of love, a Trinity, one of whom became incarnate in Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world.

Yet, since some people think that God does not exist, exercises like this one below have always intrigued and interested me. This one tries to be both entertaining and nearly parallel to Herbert McCabe’s (also entertaining) argument in chapter 1 of “God Matters” (London: Continuum, 2005).

A Dog Named “Nero”

A mutt walks by. Suppose you happen to know that this particular endearing mutt is named Nero. (In my family we like the idea of naming children after Saints and dogs after Caesars. This is the essence of Christian humor.) Having had your coffee before you see Nero and his owner walk by, you scratch your chin and ask, “Why Nero?”

You mean by this something like, “Why does Nero exist?” You have asked a question that can be asked and answered at many different levels. At one level you could find your answer by good detective work – you could ask around and examine some dogs and discover Nero’s parents: this corgi down the street plus that rambling Chihuahua drifter equals this lovable “Chiworgi” mutt named Nero. Yay Nero! If you were immoderately zealous, you could confirm your discovery through genetic testing, and, wham! — question asked, question answered fully.

Or, question answered fully, at this level. For our question “Why Nero?” can also be (and should be) asked and answered at other levels.

By our question “Why Nero?”, we could also mean, “Why does Nero have these traits rather than those? – Why is he this kind of mutt rather than that?” We place Nero within the world of dogs as a whole. We would be asking a question which would be answered, now, by a different kind of detective work, by researching the history and development of different breeds of dogs. And: question asked, question answered fully — at this level.

At the next level, our question “Why Nero?” means, “Why dogs? Why is Nero a dog and not some other kind of animal, like a giraffe?” We place dogs, now, within the animal kingdom as a whole. We would seek our answer through the science of biology, and we’re now studying the evolution of dogs as a species.

At the next level, “Why Nero?” means, “Why is Nero a living thing instead of some other kind of thing, like stone or dust?” Here we place Nero in the context of all the different kinds of things we find in the earth, and here we’re asking about the difference between life and non-life. Biochemistry is the relevant science, and it has not yet conclusively answered this question about how non-life becomes life, but perhaps it will someday.

More deeply still, “Why Nero?” could mean a question about the fundamental kind of structure, the array of matter and energy, which is Nero, and here we would turn to physics to pursue our answers.

Notice, at this point, two things. First, all this time, we’re asking our questions about one particular thing: that furry shedding cuddler Nero. Second, each time we ask, “Why Nero?” we’re placing Nero in a wider and wider context. The various levels and contexts don’t exclude each other. First, the context of his family. Second, the context of dogs. Then the context of the animal kingdom. Then the context of all life, and so on. We could follow this method of contemplation (or one similar) with any particular thing that exists, anything at all that we see by the light of the sun and the light of our mind.

We could also, of course, stop asking the question. We could stop using our mind’s light to know the truth, and stop asking “Why?” in ways that let our understanding grow. We could stop this way at any of the above levels. But that would be arbitrary and sad. It would thwart our human flourishing, because we would be closing ourself off from knowable truth.

Further, notice that each time we ask this question “Why Nero?” in a wider and wider context, we’re asking it over against some other possibility. “Why Nero instead of some other mutt?” — “Why Nero instead of a giraffe?” — “Why Nero instead of a rock?”

The “ultimate radical question” (as Herbert McCabe says) that we could ask about Nero would be the question that places him in the widest possible context and so asks “Why Nero?” over against the most radical rival possibility. This ultimate radical question goes something like, “Why does Nero exist, along with all else that exists, rather than nothing it all?” The answer, the only and necessary answer forthcoming, is “God.” In both common usage and strict philosophical usage, “God” is whatever answers this question. We use the word God not because we're able to comprehend the one it refers to, but because we can comprehend that if we could comprehend the Lord, the Lord would just be another part of the world, and so not by definition the answer to the ultimate radical question posed by the existence of the world.

This means that the right use of our human intellectual light leads us to ask questions of all sorts, even ultimate radical questions, which is to say questions to which only God must be the answer. For to answer our ultimate radical question in any other way – to suggest that everything springs into existence from fluctuations in quantum fields, say – is to give an answer which, whether scientifically correct or scientifically incorrect, does not answer the ultimate radical question. A quantum field, a web of fundamental physical laws, and a purple flying spaghetti monster are each a “thing” as much as is Nero; none can account for its own existence in such a way as to be the answer to the ultimate radical question its existence poses.

This also means, in ways beyond the scope of our present exploration, that God is both radically different than, and at the same time the source of, every “thing” that exists, everything, whatever set of things “everything” names. Christians following St. Thomas Aquinas say that through our natural reason and apart from divine revelation (like the Bible) we can know that God is, but not what God is. But we know that God is not like anything we could see or comprehend or measure. “If you comprehend it, it is not God” (St. Augustine). God plus the universe could not equal two of anything.

So, when we start empirically asking and answering the question “Why?” on the basis of the things that exist and provoke us to wonder about them, we’re led step by step, by the light of natural reason, to wonder and ask questions to which only God could be the answer. Asking empirical questions about the things we see leads to accepting an unseen cause of all that is.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us knowing that God exists. And it ought to leave us open to divine revelation, to prayerful discernment about the claims of Christianity regarding Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the Bible. It ought to leave us open and willing, if possible, to be taught by God more about God than that “God exists.”

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College. He is an Elder in the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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