There is a current “pop-sensation” in the writings of a number of “atheists” whose pronouncements are always sure to garner media attention. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others are current “go-to” sources for the media’s search for usable quotes from atheists. In many ways, the current popularity of such figures is fueled by “pop” Christianity. One mirrors the other. In matters of serious Christian thought – neither is of particular concern – neither has anything to say that should be of note.
Writing in the seventh-eighth centuries, St. John of Damascus offered the following:
But neither do we know, nor can we tell, what the essence of God is, or how it is in all, or how the Only-begotten Son and God, having emptied Himself, became Man of virgin blood, made by another law contrary to nature, or how He walked with dry feet upon the waters. It is not within our capacity, therefore, to say anything about God or even to think of Him, beyond the things which have been divinely revealed to us, whether by word or by manifestation, by the divine oracles at once of the Old Testament and of the New. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 1.2)
Indeed, it was noted consistently by the fathers of the Church that the existence of God was utterly beyond what we would mean by existence when we referred to anything in creation. Thus, if we say that we exist, we do not mean that God exists in the same manner. God’s existence is not like our existence – but utterly beyond – incomprehensibly beyond – anything we mean by existence. This important distinction is lost, of course, in modern conversations about the existence of God. In place of the reverential and careful statements of the fathers is the coarse pronouncements of modern atheists and their pop-culture counterparts.
Of course, St. John of Damascus and all of the fathers affirmed the existence of God. But they carefully hedged the word “existence” about with qualifiers, that it might be clear that the existence of God is not to be compared to the existence of anything in the created universe. We know God, only because He has made Himself known.
And though this knowledge, following the teaching of St. Paul (Romans 1:19-20), is recognized has having been “written” into the very heart of all created things, it is not the same thing as saying that the existence of God is “obvious” or that it should be compared to anything within the created order itself.
Instead, it is recognized by the fathers, that the perversity of our own hearts makes the existence of God less than obvious. The “pure in heart shall see God.”
Christians, therefore, do well to pay attention to this classical teaching of the faith. Arguments about the existence of God, often draw us into a level of speaking that forces us to say things that the faith does not say. It also tempts our hearts to think in a manner that is less true than what we have been given.
The existence of God is a profound matter, and never something that should be treated perfunctorily. That “I believe God exists” and that “I know Him” are among the deepest things that a Christian can say, and are a confession of the grace of God. We have been given something that is consonant with purity of heart, and should thus confess it with extreme humility.
More importantly, we should approach these profound mysteries with careful devotion and awe.
That there are those in our modern world who spurn God’s existence as absurd is tragic. But it should not be a cause for us to treat them as though they were idiots. More foolish are those who too easily assert God’s existence without the proper awe and humility that such a statement properly requires.
We are living in a time of history in which saints are required. We have long passed the time in which rational arguments will carry the day. Nothing less than lives which manifest the existence of God will do. The world has heard centuries of arguments – has been subjected to crass persecutions and atrocities in the name of God (even if these were largely not the result of Orthodox actions). We have survived a century of extremes (Bolshevism, Nazism, etc.). That the world is hungry is beyond doubt. But the world is not hungry for a new and winning argument. The world hungers for God (whether it knows this or not).
The proper Christian answer to the hunger of the world is to be found only in the manifestation of God. Thus the challenge of a modern atheist should not be met with an anxious rejoinder from our panoply of arguments – but with the urgency of prayer that we might ourselves become an answer through the reality of the presence of God in our lives.
In the course of my 56 years, I have occasionally encountered such living answers. To a large extent, I believe that I live and continue as a Christian as a result of the prayers of such persons.
As witnesses of the God who exists – we should strive in our small ways – to become persons whose lives are themselves an argument for the existence of God – a God whose existence is indeed beyond all existence.
It is a tall order. Nothing less than life in the image of the resurrection of Christ will do. Nothing less than that has been promised us in Christ.