“One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.” (From the opening monologue in The Thin Red Line)
“For the early Christians the knowledge of the world began with the knowledge of God, and God could be known only in faith…Natural law is a minor tributary in Christian antiquity.” (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, pp. 161, 321)
Today most western Christians tend to place great weight on the possibility and importance of evidential apologetics. That God’s existence and nature can be seen and known and proved through appeal to the created order seems both intuitive and biblical to us. Thus we love the ontological argument, the argument from design, the fine-tuning of the universe, etc. Yet I have found myself slowly moving away from an earlier optimism I possessed for both the usefuleness and the centrality of such argumentative strategies. Like most long, slow fades away from one’s prior convictions, I find myself unable to give voice to many of the concrete, particular reasons that have prompted me over the years toward a more Barthian perspective on so-called “natural theology.” But I have been enboldened in my stance of late by finding a much older predecessor than Barth to point to in my defense.
Blaise Pascal, in his one-of-a-kind Pensees (every Christian should read this), repeatedly pulls the rug out from under those who would put their faith in evidential, rationalistic “proofs” for God’s existence and excellence. To paraphrase Paul, if anyone had a reason for confidence in the flesh (i.e. the ability of reason to work its way up to God unaided), it was Pascal, the legendary philosopher and mathematician. Yet he intentionally came to forsake this attractive pathway to the divine, as I believe the passages cited below demonatrate.
What accounts for Pascal’s diminished view of creation’s inherent ability, apart from the gospel, to win over the minds and hearts of human beings to the reality of God? I think the impetus for Pascal’s rejection of natural theology can be divided into two categories: ruin and revelation.
First, because human beings are prone to futile idolatry and darkened in both mind and passion, the testifying witness of the created order is not so much absent, as ineffective. Yes, the world cries out the glory of the eternal God, as Paul writes in Romans 1:18-32. Yet in that same passage he also contends that sinful, twisted humanity inevitably distorts, corrupts and suppresses the silent speech of the heavens (Psalm 19). I find this to be spectacularly true in personal experience. Human beings on their own, from a million distinct vantage points in life among which the only common ground shared equally is the sin resident within each biased observer, cannot in actual practice come to know God through wisdom. At best, nature can render us inexcusable, but it cannot enlighten us as long as we remain autonomously aloof from the God who unceasingly beckons to us through the gospel and the church. As Camus pointed out in The Myth of Sisyphus, no one has ever yet died for the ontological argument. Nor should they have. But thousands have died for Christ. And they should have; such decisions will be publicly vindicated on the last day.
Second, from the divine side of the ledger now, reason is not the chosen avenue by which God has appointed human beings to come to know him (1 Corinthians 1-2). And at the bleark prospect that charges of fideism might be laid at my feet, let me state plainly here that I do believe reason is indispensable to knowing God. But I do not believe it is primary. The gospel, as both Origen and Edwards argued, has its highest and most proper proof within. The beauty, power and goodness of the gospel flows from the story of Jesus itself, and not from any external standards, criteria or logical forays into that story by disinterested outsiders. In hindsight, reason confirms the legitimacy and coherence of our faith in a thousand ways. Yet reason was not, is not, and never will be our trailblazing pioneer into the knowledge of God whose prowess receives eternal adulation . For by God’s own design, the world did not come to know the God of wisdom through wisdom, but rather only through the foolishness of what is proclaimed. That is, the only true God only comes to be known through the heralding of the unbelievable message that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of all, having accomplished our salvation through his triumph over sin and death. For Pascal, then, such a gospel necessarily has enormous epistemological implications. If the God who saves us that way is the God we are talking about, then the process of knowing Him does not take essentially place through our own efforts and ability. Knowledge of God is created, sustained and consummated according to the Spirit, and not according to the flesh. Such a claim is not irrationalism, but simply the recognition that the knowledge of God does trade in goods that are fundamentally beyond the reaches of reason’s ambitious arm.
Stanley Hauerwas provocatively argued in his Gifford lectures that Karl Barth–that fiercesome, caricatured enemy of all “arguments for God” which find their origin in isolation from the very gospel they seek to defend–actually turns out to be the natural theologian par excellence, because he starts with Jesus and is only then willing to look at the world. Only from a tentative, humble committment to Jesus, assuming his story as my own story, can I then inquire of creation and see that it sings of the God who made it with any sense of certainty and coherence. From any other position, creation will either seem to me futile and ruthless, or else to belong to a god other than the one that the gospel tells me of. As Calvin famously put it, the Scriptures provide us with the reading spectacles we must wear if we hope to read creation rightly. Otherwise God is still there, but we will not see his handiwork in proper focus.
Hauerwas even argues that Thomas Aquina’s famous “proofs” for God’s existence in his Summa are not, as so often thought, actually proofs at all. Instead, they are (in historical context) intramural attempts from within the community of faith to help Christians who already believe to understand how rational their faith indeed is. Whether this is a justified reading of Aquinas I am in no position to decide, but I do find it to be utterly persuasive as an interpretation of what my experience (when I am most honest with myself) has been with arguments for God, as well as of the proper role of the gospel itself in creating and sustaining within us a knowledge of God that is Christ-centered through and through. Which, of course, is the only kind of knowledge of God there really is in the universe.
I leave you now to ruminate upon Pascal, and encourage those of us who have come to know God in Christ to only depend upon “arguments for God” in derivative, secondary ways. What should we do with all the time on our hands we now find freed up? Proclaim the Story. And then live the Story together. Nothing persuades the human mind and satisfies the human heart so much as when those things are done well, in conscious dependence upon the grace of God.
#3: “‘Why, do you not say yourself that the sky and the birds prove God?’ No. ‘Does your religion not say so?’ No. For though it is true in a sense for some souls whom God has enlightened in this way, yet it is untrue for the majority.”
#189: “We know God only through Jesus Christ…All those who have claimed to know God and prove his existence without Jesus Christ have only had futile proofs to offer…In him and through him, therefore, we know God. Apart from that, without Scripture, without original sin, without the necessary mediator, who was promised and came, it is impossible to prove absolutely that God exists, or to teach sound doctrine and sound morality. But through and in Christ we can prove Christ’s existence, and teach both doctrine and morality.”
#190: “The metaphysical proofs for the existence of God are so remote from human reasoning and so involved that they make little impact, and, even if they did help some people, it would only be for the moment during which they watched the demonstration, because an hour later they would be afraid they had made a mistake.”
#406: “We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of skepticism can overcome.”
#417: “Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves. Thus without Scripture, whose only object is Christ, we know nothing, and can see nothing but obscurity and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself.”
#429: “This is what I see and what troubles me. I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness. Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety. If I saw no sign there of a Divinity I should decide on a negative solution: if I saw signs of a Creator everywhere I should peacefully settle down in the faith. But, seeing too much to deny and not enough to affirm, I am in a pitiful state, where I have wished a hundred times over that, if there is a God supporting nature, she should unequivocally proclaim him, and that, if the signs in nature are deceptive, they should be completely erased; that nature should say all or nothing so that I could see what course I ought to follow. Instead of that, in the state in which I am, not knowing what I am not what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My whole heart strains to know what the true good is in order to pursue it: no price would be too high to pay for eternity.”
#449: “Jesus Christ is the object of all things, the center towards which all things tend. Whoever knows him knows the reason for everything…And that is why I shall not undertake here to prove by reasons from nature either the existence of God, or the Trinity or the immortality of the soul, or anything of that kind: not just because I should not feel competent to find in nature arguments which would convince hardened atheists, but also because such knowledge, without Christ, is useless and sterile. Even if someone were convinced that the proportions between numbers are immaterial, eternal truths, depending on a first truth in which they subsist, called God, I should not consider that he had made much progress towards his salvation.
The Christian’s God does not consist merely of a God who is the author of mathematical truths and the order of the elements. That is the portion of the heathen and Epicureans. He does not consist merely of a God who extends his providence over the life and property of men so as to grant a happy span of years to those who worship him. That is the portion of the Jews. But the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of the Christians is a God of love and consolation: he is a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom he possesses: he is a God who makes them inwardly aware of their wretchedness and his infinite mercy: who unites himself with them in the depths of their soul: who fills it with humility, joy, confidence and love: who makes them incapable of having any other end but him.
All those who seek God apart from Christ, and who go no further than nature, either find no light to satisfy them or come to devise a means of knowing and serving God without a mediator, thus falling into either atheism or deism, two things almost equally abhorrent to Christianity.”
#463: “It is a remarkable fact that no canonical author has ever used nature to prove God. They all try to make people believe in him. David, Solomon, etc., never said: ‘There is no such thing as a vacuum, therefore God exists.’ They must have been cleverer than the cleverest of their successors, all of whom have used proofs from nature. This is very noteworthy.”