Reason’s God

In a comment to my recent post on the “problem of goodness,” I was challenged on the question of “proving God’s existence.” I understand the question but I do not think the question understands God. There is a definition of God that has floated around philosophical circles for centuries – a very reasonable definition – but not a definition that has anything to do with the Christian God. The modern rise of reason – from the Enlightenment forward (though with roots in Scholasticism and philosophies of the ancient world) has often been accepted as an obvious given of the natural world. It is certainly a powerful tool – not unrelated to the power of mathematics and certain other forms of science. This power leads many to the conclusion that reason is capable of giving an account of the world as it truly exists, and questions the existence of anything that does not conform to the rules of reason.

My first encounter with reason’s claims was in a freshman philosophy class (that I wound up taking in the last term of my senior year of college). Within a matter of two classes the professor had set forth the rules of reason and stated the problem of the existence of God (having offered us a definition of God while he was at it). I did not know then what I know now (needless to say). Like everyone in the class I took the bait and entered into the argument that had been decided before the argument began. I say that the argument had been decided because its premises required prior agreement to much that wasn’t true.

I did not learn until later that I was struggling in a class to prove the existence of a God in whom I do not believe. The God of the philosophers is not the same as the God revealed to us in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. As I often say to those who “do not believe in God” – “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I may not believe in Him either.”

There are things for which reason is useful and things for which it is not. Reason is not the universal human tool – it’s just a useful tool.

The existence of God (the Christian God) cannot be proven in the manner which reason requires. He is not an object such that He can be observed, nor is He a mathematical theorem or formula that can be derived from something else. He is not the consequence of anything – thus He does not exist at the end of a chain of logic.

The claim of the Orthodox faith (other Christians may say different things – I take no responsibility for them) – is that God is unknowable. It also puts forward the paradox that the God who is unknowable, has made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We know God because Christ has made Him known.

This claim of the Church is more than a statement about an event in our world’s history. The Orthodox claim is that the God who made Himself known in the Incarnation, continues to make Himself known through our participation in His life. I could state this formally as: “We know the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit.”

Such language is outside the bounds of reason. It describes something that is a truth claim that cannot be proved nor disproved by reason. That this is so does not seem in the least unusual to me. There are many things, it would seem to me, that are outside the bounds of reason. Human beings use reason, but we do not live reasonably. Reason describes an activity that we engage in, but it does not describe us.

I would suggest that my own existence cannot be proven nor any human’s existence. I am unique and unrepeatable (as are all persons). And though I may be described by various associations (male, American, etc.) none of these things actually proves me. I am a human being – not a provable fact. Considering oneself a provable fact is a diminishment of what it means to be a person. There is something utterly transcendent about every person that is an inherent part of their personhood. That transcendence is generally opaque. It can be known to a certain degree – but more likely apprehended by wonder than reason. It is a place where reason cannot go.

Of course the diminishment of what it means to be human has been a common by-product of reason’s project. There is a very sad history of the use of reason to justify various political and economic schemes that were nothing short of mass murder. I will quickly grant that religion has been abused as well – though it seems to also have a corrective within it (at least in some forms of Christianity) that brings such abuses to an end. The same corrective has also set occasional bounds to reason’s excesses.

But the case of abuse does not ultimately make either argument – it simply argues that human beings can abuse anything.

There are some groups of Christians who hold that reason is the proper tool for dealing with the faith. Generally, they accept a priori the authority of Scripture and then apply “reason” as a means of interpretation. I think this is a novel idea (no older than the late 18th century). And I think it results in a distortion of the Christian faith as received from Christ and preserved in His Church.

I believe in God. I believe in God because I have come to know Him in the person of Christ. The realm of that experience and the living Tradition to which it belongs stands outside of reason – as does much of human life and the universe around us. Reason’s God is too small. It is not surprising that those who give an inordinate place to reason find such a small God unbelievable.

Comments

  1. Fady says

    Excellent article written in a very enlightening approach, thank you. Hopefully you can embed the facebook ‘Like’ API soon so this and others like it can be easily shared.

  2. Darrell Lahay says

    Thanks Father Stephen!

    Very insightful..For what its worth I’ll add my two cents..

    I agree that in terms of “all things being reasonable” that God is, as scripture reminds us, past finding out, or as you put it, unknowable..

    However, i also believe, that the Unknowable, can be known by things that can be known (as it says in Romans, God has been revealed in the things that are created, the invisible shown in things that are visible..

    I have also had talks with some atheists and agnostics that balk at my notion that God exists. They argue that they can’t be sure of Gods existence, and cannot even be sure they themselves exist. The philosophical blowhard asks, ‘how can i be sure – exist?’

    My sincere reply, although it sounds sarcastic, is “whom can i pressume is asking?”

    After reading your post, i am blessed, you made some great points..

    I also appreciate that you didnt make the rash mistake that some mystics do by dismissing reason altogether, but simply took reason of the pedelstal man has made for it and put it in its proper place..the tool box..

    Shalom

  3. says

    Like many I used to balk at the idea of accepting as real a god that could not be quantified. But what used to be the skandalon became the step of acceptance as I came to realize that belief in this case requires faith, I had to accept that which I could not touch or see or taste. If I could measure Him He would not be God. He is by definition beyond our poor ability to measure or even understand.

    Every day I have to leap from the board of reason into the pool of faith. It is a process, a work in progress. My reasoning is bolstered by the lives of the martyrs and the fathers of the church. Men much brighter and capable than myself accepted the god-man who rose from the dead, men far braver than I gave up their lives for their absolute belief in the triune God.

    I read a book once which in part dealt with this very issue. Part of his argument was that if the authorities had wanted to put out the lamp of Christianity all they would have had to do was produce the body. The corpse of Christ would have let reason reign. The apostles and early believers saw our Lord in the flesh and saw Him resurrected. Why else would they have carried on as they did? Many suffered terrible deprivations and died unbelievably horrible deaths. Those who saw Christ in the flesh and lived their lives accordingly is all the proof I need.

  4. Mrs. Mutton says

    I’m only commenting so I can get the follow-up comments on this post. Not being much of a “rational sheep” at the best of times, there’s nothing I can say about this other than: “At last! Someone actually managed to explain the Unexplainable!” Thanks, Father!

  5. pioquindecimo says

    Great point, Father. I think Luther grew disenchanted with scholasticism, logic, and reason. He threw it all out and placed his faith in the Bible alone. Hence the subsequent Protestant focus on basic literacy as a route to Truth. You describe the difference very well in your post: the Orthodox approach God though Christ [God Himself]…not the reason of the philosophers, nor the Solo Bible of the “reformers.”

    This foundational Truth that the Orthodox have keeps them from the many snares that the other countless groups fall into.

  6. mushroom says

    Thanks for this, Father. I completely agree that people often make their first mistake in trying to to define God according to some human standard then find that He doesn’t fit in their little box. You also make an excellent point about the self-correcting nature of Christianity when it is abused for purposes of wealth or power. People who promote “science” will often say that science may get things wrong from time to time, but it is self-correcting. This is true enough as long as science is simply a method for gathering facts about the physical universe. When it becomes a pseudo-religion or a tool of politics, as is often the case today, it’s self-correcting power is doubtful.

  7. says

    Good morning Stephen

    How would you differentiate between reason and knowledge? John 8.32 and 1 John 5.13 speak of knowing. An issue I have with the Orthodox is that they tend to say something is a mystery if they can’t explain it from the Bible. I’m thinking of transubstantiation, or whatever today’s word is for that concept.

    Somewhat separate matter – what is the oldest Patristic writing that we have and how certain are we of the date? Seems I read one time that there was a gap of maybe 50-60 years after the close of the NT. True or false?

    Also, why do you take the body and blood passages literally and not the cut off the hand/foot texts? To me, these are similar statements – shock teaching (to rivet one’s attention), if you will. But, neither was intended to be takes in a strictly literal sense.

    John

  8. Karen says

    John, for the record, I think it would be correct to say (Fr. Stephen can correct me if I’m mistating something) that Orthodox do not take Jesus’ statements in John 6 in a manner that is “strictly literal” either (as some would understand that) when we see them as referring to the Eucharist. We don’t believe we partake of Christ’s mortal crucified flesh and blood in a crass material sense. What we believe is that Christ’s whole resurrected Person and Life is made present in the blessed bread and wine by the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Christ’s promise and teaching, whenever the Church gathers for the Eucharistic Feast. This is a spiritual reality (not a mental exercise) with real spiritual power by virtue of the meaning of the Eucharist in the whole context of the Gospel’s teaching about the nature of Christ in relationship to His Body, the Church. From an Orthodox perspective (and a biblical one), spiritual reality is a greater reality (i.e., it is more real) than the material reality we perceive with our senses. As the Apostle Paul says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

  9. greg says

    John, for what it is worth many of the early Christian writings that give evidence of Apostolic teaching either pre-date (portions of the Didache may have been written as early as 60 ad) or immediately succeed within a decade (the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch or Clement of Rome) the books that the Orthodox Church later set as Scripture. In any case, they do not add to the Gospel, they do however bear witness to the life of the Church and the teaching of the Apostles that is described in Scripture.

    For example, the unambiguously confirm the New Testament understanding expressed by St John and St Paul with respect to the Eucharist.

    On the other hand, they do not unambiguously define Trinitarian doctrine as was done after Nicaea-Constantinople.

    I don’t see how it is possible to affirm the latter but reject the former. Or to separate Scripture from the life of the Church.

  10. says

    Hi John,

    I’ve found it helpful to approach John 6 in much the same way as John 3. Neither one explicitly names what it is referring to (baptism, the Lord’s Supper), but the connections are nonetheless clear.

    It seems to me that one need not embrace transubstantiation in order to take Jesus at his word when he says, “this is my body.” In fact, if we want to call bible things by bible names, we would do well to drop the words “emblem” and “symbol” in reference to the Lord’s Supper, as the bible does not use these terms.

  11. Tony R says

    John,

    In my humble opinion, the early Churches believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. St. Paul in I Corinthians 11 says that someone was unworthy to take of the bread and the cup? Some people even died. This shows that the early Christians universally believed it to be the Body and Blood of Christ, otherwise how could you receive it “unworthily” and some people even died.

    • says

      John,
      The dating of particular NT documents is problematic – even the names assigned to the Gospels is a function of Tradition and not of manuscript. Some of the Sub Apostolic writings are quite likely older than some portions of the NT. But we’ll never quite know. What there is, however, is a unbroken Tradition, with no discernible rupture at the death of the Apostles. But there is no argument against self-invented rules about the Bible and its authority and reason’s role, etc. (precisely because they are self-invented – just the conventions of a man). I choose to follow the Tradition marked and taught by saints and martyrs who spread the gospel across the world, rather than some guy in America in the 19th century.

  12. Ioannis says

    We might refer to many “gods” of reason, and not a singular god of reason. A relationship to Christ, shared among Christians, can become threatened more by these gods than by godless ideas of atheists. How so?

    Moralism serves as one of the gods of reason. It is a cherry-picker god, selecting aspects of a moral life, which closely parallel moral behaviors of those who live in relationship to Christ. Identity politics provides another god of reason. It is the god served by excessive interest in personal authenticity, such as entertained by numerous psychologies of the “self,” some theologies and cosmologies, and loads of glossy tabloids.

    • says

      Ioannis,
      I would add a suggestion. Those who champion reason should read Alasdair MacIntyre. His Whose Justice, Which Rationality is a good read and well demonstrates that “reason” is not one thing, but many things, many of which do not agree with one another.

  13. mic says

    Fr. Stephen said…

    “I choose to follow the Tradition marked and taught by saints and martyrs who spread the gospel across the world, rather than some guy in America in the 19th century.”

    This may be the strongest factor in why i converted to the Orthodox faith.

    peace
    mic-

  14. Ioannis says

    Yes, MacIntyre’s monograph was on my mind, in fact, as I wrote what I considered many [false] “gods.” However, I believe that it is far more accurate to say that reason itself becomes muddled when practicing self-reflection. MacIntyre’s critique provides practical philosophical ground to stop a mad rush to reason for reason’s sake.

  15. cheryl says

    Whenever something pops up regarding “proving” God’s existing such as the ark being found – I know before hand, none of these things will be proven true. God reveals Himself to us…and it’s by faith that we know, not by “proof.”

  16. Miriam says

    Father,

    What role does Scripture play in our “knowing” God? Most Protestants I know would say that should be the primary [and maybe only] vehicle of revelation because they would argue that is how we know Christ. Yet, it seems hard to come to the Scriptures as a Protestant (or the stripe I was always familiar with) without ration/reason guiding you.

    I see things a little differently now, as I’m trying to rethink and reexamine things with a more Orthodox mindset, but could you talk about what role Scripture should play in our “knowing” God?

    Miriam

  17. James, the Brother says

    Pastor John,

    Years before I converted to Orthodoxy I begin to wonder why “engaged/practicing” Christians needed a “reminder” about the death of Jesus on the cross. Shouldn’t Jesus and all of His life be a part of their constant conscienceness always? If this is not the case then should they even consider participating in communion at all? (see 1 Corinthians 11)

  18. Michael Bauman says

    Father Stephen, Am I wrong?

    I did not think that we Orthodox approached the change in the Divine Liturgy as transubstantiation.

    That has always seemed to be a peculiarly Latin Scholastic term.

    The change that occurs is actually far more real even if it is less definable. It does not participate in a chain of reason.

    If I am not wrong then perhaps some of John’s objections simply do not apply to us.

  19. Preston says

    John (on transubstantiation),

    Neither Orthodox or Catholic, but one of the followers of the 19th century movement mentioned above, I must believe that John 6 is intended to be taken in an almost-literal sense. No, it is not the identical flesh that walked the earth and died on the cross, but it is still mystically the body of Christ. Otherwise, why would Jesus not clarify when what he said caused all but the twelve to leave? And although it has always been a minority opinion, some have taken literally the command to remove body parts. Perhaps we should realize that sin is so serious, that if there is no other way to stop sinning, we should amputate the offending member. Maybe if we took it seriously as a possible option, we would find it easier to stop sinning.

  20. Preston says

    To clarify, I am almost alone in my conviction in my fellowship, but it seems to be the clear teaching of John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11, so I must believe it.

  21. Robert says

    “why do you take the body and blood passages literally and not the cut off the hand/foot texts?”

    Tradition.

  22. Michael Bauman says

    Robert, literal is an impercise word to begin with. Does it mean wholly physical and unambiguous or what is your meaning? Once one goes beyond the purely physical in a limited and clearly defined cultural context the term literal looses much real meaning.

    However, there are some significant differences between the two statements. Clearly a hand or foot is not the instigator of any action, it merely responds to electrical stimuli from the brain which in turn is activated by a whole host of spiritual, physical and emotional interactions to specific situations.

    When Jesus was delcaring the Eucharist to be His acutal body, he is expressing, among many other realities, the fact that he has taken on human nature and through that we share in the divine nature. How do we share? There’s the rub.

    It is an ineffable reality that is expressed in many different ways, the sacramental descent of the Holy Spirit made possible by the Resurrection and Ascension of the Incarnate Lord, is one way. Just because it lacks an adequate (to some) rational explanation speaks more to the premisis from which one embarks upon one’s rational discursive.

    To me it is only logical to accept the fact that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ because I have accepted without equivocation that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God without mixture or confusion. That He loves and forgives in a way that is incomprehensible and desires to give Himself to us for our salvation in a manner that is eqally incomprehensible but none the less real.

    Is it ‘literal’? No, because to make such a thing literal is to rob it of its reality, its power and its mercy.

  23. Michael Bauman says

    …a similar robbery occurs by making the communion with Christ purely ‘spiritual’.

    Both the tendency to look only for precise, definable, factual, rational explanations that we can understand AND the tendency to elevate to another realm the reality of God are wrong. Both deny in basic ways the Incarnation and the salvation wrought by it. The sacrament is both physical (bread and wine) and spiritual (transformed by the Holy Spirit). Through it we are allowed to participate in the transcendent Life of God in an immenent and material manner yet without descending into
    ‘the flesh’.

  24. Robert says

    Michael,

    That is all nice and well, but it is largely beside the point. I suppose you could be right, but that is not the final authority.

  25. says

    This use of reason as a tool to qualify faith is sometimes very misguided, especially among Fundamentalists (which I formerly was). I think the misuse of reason explains a lot of my problems, as I make my entry into the Orthodox faith. While many of the things that provoked me to look further into the claims of Orthodoxy “make sense”, there are many things that seem to make no sense. Some of the stories of the lives of the Saints are just one of the many things that reason is a poor tool make use of. I find myself having to unlearn old habits. It gets back to the issue of wonder that you posted about some time ago.
    I just posted a blog, using the characters of Merry and Pippin from The Lord Of The Rings as a metaphor for my impatience as a former Protestant. Orthodoxy has taught me to slow down (which is one of the things I am “unlearning”). As a matter of fact, your blog/podcast on change within people being slow, helped me a great deal. I always wondered why I was told God is not in a hurry, but one needed to hurry up and live for God while they can.
    Thank you for this reminder.

  26. Karen says

    ISTM Robert is making a very good point and very concisely. The notion of the authority of Scripture as understood by Christians in John’s tradition for all practical purposes is an illusion. The real authority is the individual’s opinion about what Scripture must mean or a consensus of some group opinion (and Preston’s comment shows that even within the narrowest of consensuses within various offshoots of Protestantism, the consensus can be extremely tenuous and hard to maintain). The choice between Scripture and Tradition as rival authorities is a false dichotomy. The real dichotomy is choosing between individual or heretical interpretation and Tradition, between a false or incomplete tradition and the full Christian Tradition.

    • says

      Karen,
      ” The choice between Scripture and Tradition as rival authorities is a false dichotomy. The real dichotomy is choosing between individual or heretical interpretation and Tradition, between a false or incomplete tradition and the full Christian Tradition.”

      That is well said.

  27. says

    Thank you Karen, indeed very well said, so true!

    Michael/John I hope you understand I meant to be terse, not to be mean spirited.

  28. paytonsaunders says

    Father, your discussion on the inadequacy of reason is very helpful – thank you.

  29. says

    Fr. Stephen, I wonder if an underlying concept that must be considered in the question of proving God’s existence is freedom. Knowledge of persons can only exist in freedom whereas things do not have freedom in determining whether or not they are known. If God’s existence were proved we would at the same time deny God’s personhood and objectify Him as a thing.

    Peace, Mike+

  30. Dean Arnold says

    Karen’s well worded explanation is not far from the adage that in breaking off from the Pope, every Protestant has become their own pope.

  31. says

    “why do you take the body and blood passages literally and not the cut off the hand/foot texts?”

    I think when that Jesus, when He says, “It would be better to cut off..” He is making an analogy. It is nearly the same in this case to say, “It would be like..” He does not say, “You should cut off..”

    It must be true that one should approach the Kingdom with his soul intact, even at the expense of the body. And not, with one’s body intact even at the expense of the soul. It must not ever be not true. May as well say it.

    Re “the body and blood”, He says, “This is..”. No analogy there.

  32. says

    This is remarkable. I’m trying to add a certain comment (5 or 6 sentences) and this blog somehow seems to ignore it. I’ve tried 2 different computers. Both using Firefox. I can comment on other WordPress blogs and it allowed my comment above at 11:38. I do not think I am using any strange characters. Any ideas, anyone?

    • says

      Rick,
      Sorry, the akismet filter treated your post as spam (I had to clear it). I could see nothing about the post that caused that, but I could see nothing. Sorry about the trouble.

  33. Karen says

    Rick,

    Divine intervention? :-)

    Couldn’t resist the little joke! I’m not computer savvy and have no wisdom for you there, but I will say I had the same problem once and it turned out to be a problem with something only Fr. Stephen could fix on his end (one of the filters or something shuffled my intitial comment to the wrong location).

  34. Considering Ravens says

    My question may be slightly off topic, but something greg said about the early apostolic writing touches on a conversation I had with a family member about early church writings. She seemed to believe that no scripture was written down within the lifetime of the apostles (and is therefore subject to error). I tried to tell her what I knew of tradition and the writings of the apostles and early church, but the conversation sharply declined from that point. :( I think because I wasn’t able to present the information in a way she could relate to, or wasn’t able to tell her my sources (besides tradition–and she is neither Orthodox nor any other faith/tradition).
    Admittedly, I am far more ignorant than I should be about the first century A.D. writers. Can anyone help point me to sources, or specific early writers, in case I find myself in this kind of conversation again? Sorry if this is too far off subject.

  35. Robert Mahoney says

    @ Considering Ravens:

    I know the type, their argument is essentially this….

    They insist that the historical data is too sparse to know anything about the ancient world, but they then proceed to tell us what ‘actually happened’ anyway.

    If you want to learn, please, learn for yourself. You don’t have to prove anything.

  36. Considering Ravens says

    Robert,
    That’s about it. :) I do want to learn for myself, too, but I think it might be helpful to her to realize there is another way to look at it.
    I think she adopted this philosophy out of a deep hurt stemming from an experience with fundamental Christianity. But maybe I’m just being arrogant, thinking I need to change her mind….
    Thank you. :) And it looks like Fr. Stephen’s latest article will be helpful, too

  37. Sean says

    Having read about the 20th century struggle for the establishment of a firm mathematical basis for logic (including a legendary several-hundred-pages-long mathematical proof that 1+1=2 in Bertrand Russell’s “Principia Mathematica”) I came to realize what most mathematicians / philosophers of logic had to admit in the end: The foundation of reason lies on a collection of affirmations held by every human being as axioms – truths that have / require no proof. Indeed, in their quest for universal, solid and objective truth, these brilliant minds failed to see that we every human being – indeed every being – is limited in its powers of perception by the very nature of its existence. I have not even 1/100 of their intelligence so I dare not challenge their power of reason and the work produced thereof, yet I will affirm their final conclusion that however deep they go in their fight to provide logic with a solid, unmovable, unquestionable ground, their only success was to create one more level of mathematical theory – nothing more. Knowledge therefore, is not limited to the realm of reason but is extended to the empirical, emotional and spiritual world.

  38. Rick says

    Father,
    Sorry for the trouble. I think it happened because I posted first from a cell phone. Not a good connection..
    I tried emailing it to you since it was a question.
    Blessings,
    Rick

  39. Sean says

    @ Considering Ravens : feel free to do so. After all it’s not my own opinion, it’s Kurt Gödel’s, in his incompleteness theorems.

  40. Considering Ravens says

    Oh, and Sean,
    Thank you very much–I appreciate you introducing me to Kurt Gödel’s theorems in this way :)

  41. Robert says

    Ravens/Sean,

    I can recommend St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Theological Orations, in case you are not familiar with his writings. Brilliant.

    From the Second Theological Oration, XXI:

    “The truth then, and the whole Word is full of difficulty and obscurity; and as it were with a small instrument we are undertaking a great work, when with merely human wisdom we pursue the knowledge of the Self-existent, and in company with, or not apart from, the senses, by which we are borne hither and there, and led into error, we apply ourselves to the search after things which are only to be grasped by the mind, and we are unable by meeting bare realities with bare intellect to approximate somewhat more closely to the truth, and to mold the mind by its concepts.

    Now the subject of God is more hard to come at, in proportion as it is more perfect than any other, and is open to more objections, and the solutions of them are more laborious. For every objection, however small, stops and hinders the course of our argument, and cuts off its further advance,just like men who suddenly check with the rein the horses in full career, and turn them right round by the unexpected shock. Thus Solomon, who was the wisest of all men, whether before him or in his own time, to whom God gave breadth of heart, and a flood of contemplation, more abundant than the sand, even he, the more he entered into the depth, the more dizzy he became, and declared the furthest point of wisdom to be the discovery of how very far off she was from him.”

  42. Victor says

    Can’t recall where I first heard this but I’ve thought it a lot over the years:
    “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”