The proof is in the kugel: On proving God

June 22nd, 2015

Does a delicious serving of kugel prove the existence of God?

I like proofs for the existence of God. I want Christians and others to understand that Christians are not people who check their brains at the door when they walk into church. Since I was in college, and in some ways before, I found my heart desiring that my atheist and agnostic friends might know and experience God's great love for them in Jesus Christ. This heartfelt desire led me to read works of Christian apologetics, that I might argue well enough to clear away atheists' "intellectual road-blocks" to trusting Jesus.

Moreover, scriptures like Romans 1:19-20 and 1 Peter 3:15 seem together to warrant the kind of thinking involved in pondering proofs for the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas, at the very least a strong contender for the title of Best Theologian Ever, thought God's existence philosophically demonstrable. Holding that God's existence is philosophically knowable apart from faith is a strong claim about the value of human reason and so of the dignity of the human creature. In the 19th century the Roman Catholic Church committed itself formally in this direction at Vatican I. Among evangelical Protestants one encounters plenty of arguments for the existence of God, of various levels of quality, in the apologetic literature.

On the other hand, there are dangers in putting too much weight on philosophical proofs of God's existence. Philosophical proofs for God's existence rarely persuade atheists. Even if they do persuade someone, one has created some kind of theist or deist, not a Christian. Is the God one thinks exists at the end of one's proof Israel's God, the living Trinity revealed in the Bible? Further, a Christian who works on proofs for God's existence may often find herself thinking she doesn't have a proof that works. Ought she abandon the faith when she can't work the philosophical proof, or becomes convinced that a proof she thought works doesn't? Moreover, there is the matter of the church's intellectual culture. An intellectual culture bent on philosophically proving God risks turning Christianity into a universal philosophy rather than a divinely revealed gospel about the Son of God delivering humanity from sin through his death and resurrection. So there is certainly a sense many Christians have that putting too much weight on philosophical proofs for God has its dangers.

But one can always try a good kugel.

Karl Barth, the great 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian, tells this story:

Frederick the Great once asked his personal physician Zimmermann of Brugg in Aargau: 'Zimmermann, can you name me a single proof of the existence of God?' And Zimmermann replied, 'Your Majesty, the Jews!' By that he meant that if one wanted to ask for a proof of God, for something visible and tangible, that no one could contest, which is unfolded before the eyes of all men, the we should have to turn to the Jews. (Dogmatics in Outline, 75.)

Of course, Zimmermann's answer is not the kind of proof modern post-Enlightenment folk want. But that is part of Barth's point. For Barth, a Christian's vocation (intellectual and otherwise) is to witness to Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ reveals himself to the world not as the conclusion of a Neoplatonic or Aristotelian philosophical demonstration, nor as a safe bet at the end of a bout of cosmological probability calculation. Rather, Jesus Christ appears as Israel's Christ, the Messiah of the single tiny people to whom God has bound himself in love by a covenant such that this people "embodies in history the free grace of God for us all" (74).

To understand Jesus Christ is not to understand him as the conclusion of a philosophical argument one could leave unchanged if Israel never existed: to know the true God truly, for Barth, is to know Jesus the Christ of Israel. He writes that "Israel is nothing apart from Jesus Christ" — for the whole history of the Old Testament, for Barth, leads toward and is fulfilled in God's self-revelation in the man from Nazareth. And at the same time, for Barth, "we also have to say that Jesus Christ would not be Jesus Christ apart from Israel" (74).

Barth thus invites us to be humbled, awestruck, delightedly grateful at the historical fact of the Jewish people. For,

"there they are to the present day. Hundreds of little nations in the Near East have disappeared in the huge sea of nations; and this one tiny nation has maintained itself. And when today we speak of Semitism or anti-Semitism, we think of the tiny nation, which remarkably still keeps to the fore, is still recognizable, physically and spiritually..." (75).

To be awestruck at the fact of the Jews is to be awestruck and grateful before the God who in Jesus Christ is revealed as "Emmanuel... God is with us" (Matthew 1:23).

Barth maintains that "in the person of the Jew there stands a witness before our eyes, the witness of God's covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and in that way with us all. Even one who does not understand Holy Scripture can see this reminder" (75).

Does that delicious kugel prove the existence of God?

There is a Jewish deli called Zaftig's not far from where we live in Boston. I've never studied the recipes philosophically, but the Reubens and kugel keep me going back.

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of "Christ the Lightgiver" in the Converge Bible Studies series.

comments powered by Disqus