Friday, March 23, 2012

Yes, It Matters Whether God Exists!

An opinion piece in the NY Times sets forth the thesis (from philosopher John Gray) that it doesn't really matter whether God exists. In the piece, which is admittedly very interesting, the author, Gary Gutting, explains Gray's view by pointing to eastern religions which are atheist/agnostic-friendly such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Of course, Gray marginalizes people who disagree with his theological indifference by calling them "religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths."

To the best of my knowledge, all of the Semitic religions believe that God really exists and that the universe is centered around His person. Some are more God-centered than others, but it seems harmful to Gray's case that most of the people on the planet who worship and follow God actually do believe that God exists and that his existence is important. Regardless of percentages or opinions, the author evidently thinks that the strongest response by someone such as myself who believes that God's existence is very important is the following:
The obvious response to Gray is that it all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need. But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death.
To me, this is far from the strongest response. My reaction is not to offer a subjective answer to an objective claim. And for those of you new to Christian apologetics, let me just offer this little tidbit. If somebody says, "It doesn't matter if God exists," your best reaction should not be, "That's not what I want out of a religion. I want a God who really exists!" The cynic will rightly respond, "I want to see a ladybug eat the cast of Twilight whole, but it ain't happening."

I'll digress, however, and keep following Gray's argument. He goes on to argue that even if God's existence could be sufficiently established to one's satisfaction, that still would not prove that such a God wants to save said person and take them to heaven.
Here, discussions of the problem of evil become crucial. An all-good being, even with maximal power, may have to allow considerable local evils for the sake of the overall good of the universe; some evils may be necessary for the sake of avoiding even worse evils. We have no way of knowing whether we humans might be the victims of this necessity.
In other words, if the universe is even a little bit out of the control of God, there is no guarantee that the most devoted saint will be able to enter heaven since the existence of any counterfactuals means that God's will is not ultimately supreme. If there were 'rules' for going to heaven, doesn't the existence of evil and sin in the universe mean there is no guarantee that evil will not triumph in the salvation process of said saint?
It may seem to us that if we live as we should, God will ensure our salvation. But it also seems, from our limited viewpoint, that God would not permit things like the Holocaust or the death of innocent children from painful diseases. Once we appeal to the gap between our limited knowledge and God’s omniscience, we cannot move from what we think God will do to what he will in fact do. So the fact that we think an all-good God would ensure our salvation does not support the conclusion that, all things considered, he will in fact do so.
He then goes into a bit of a digression about how there are people who appeal to their experience with God as proof that He will save them, but then Gray points out that even if the deity does exist and is communicating to this person, how does one have assurance that the deity will be able to ensure that this salvation will happen? How does the person know that the deity is not malevolent and fooling them, or simply unable to actualize the salvation? After all, He does dwell in a universe where evil has happened before. Perhaps evil will show its ugly mug again.

Aside from the fact that this does sound a bit like a monologue that the guy holding his sixth Guinness next to you at Rosie McCafferty's Pub might be spouting off, there is a reasonable point here. Fortunately, the author does get to that point by the end of the piece.
We can, of course, simply will to believe that we are not being deceived. But that amounts to blind faith, not assured hope. If that doesn’t satisfy us, we need to find a better response to the problem of evil than an appeal to our ignorance.
The point which I accept is that we need a robust view of God and his sovereignty. 99% of this article does not apply to Reformed people who do not appeal to free will to explain the sin which is in this universe. The truth is, the first sin was not out of the control or sovereignty of God, and so any and all evils which happen are under the self-determination of God.

Gray would, I think, argue from his position of skepticism that our problem is not the impotence of God to stop evil, but rather, the claim that God may be evil or deceptive. There are effective responses to this, however.

First, it is important to remember that God has revealed Himself to us, and He has told us that He is good. If men want to hypothesize that he is evil, then they must posit the alternative and consider what that leaves them with (read the next points to see what that is).

Second, if you even grant for the sake of argument that God might be immoral/deceptive/evil, you remove all possibility of morality. John Gray might say, "well, there you are," but I'm not entirely sure John Gray - in all his skepticism - would be willing to posit a totally amoral universe.

Third, if you grant that God is deceptive for the sake of argument, then you destroy the foundations for epistemology. In other words, you become unscientific. Knowledge itself becomes totally uprooted.

From Gray's position of entrenched skepticism, he is not free from criticism. Often skepticism is enjoyed because it is seen as unassailable. However, even the skevptic must be able to account for some things. Even the skeptic wants to believe true things. Even the skeptic wants to offer arguments which are logical. Even the skeptic believes that lies are immoral. How can he account for a universe where truth, logic, and morality can co-exist? Does the skeptic's universe even allow for universal, immaterial, invariant laws? If so, why is he exempted from enunciating a basic defense of his skeptical worldview?

In the end, the skeptic goes into a tail dive because he speaks as someone who is standing outside the conversation, without a horse in the race. However, the reality is that he is quite invested and is far from the disinterested observer that he likes to paint himself as. So speak up, skeptics. Criticize dishonesty and bad arguments when you see it, but remember that you also must account for the universe as we know it.


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  2. It was in that moment, shaking my fist in God's face, on the verge of determining that I would no longer believe in a God at all, that instead I turned to the window and looked outside - at the grass, the sky, the field across the dirt road - remembering sunsets and my Anatomy & Physiology courses from 20+ years before, when I had been in awe of the miracle of the way the body works, the design of it, the way it compensates when part of it isn't working correctly, and the way our atmosphere has just the right chemical composition and temperature to sustain life, that the plants use the carbon dioxide that we exhale to produce the oxygen that we inhale. And in that moment, when faced with the inescapable conclusion that all of that was indeed created by Someone who had the wisdom needed to create such a miraculous thing, realizing that that Someone is still there, in that moment - before my eyes ever passed over Hebrews 1:1-2 - I knew in that moment that whoever created that had the wisdom to keep it going even now - and that I didnt'. Ergo, He with the wisdom to create the world and keep it going, had a plan for things and I knew nothing.

    And so it was that I fell - albeit in utter fear - at the feet of the Creator of Heaven and Earth. It was later that He brought me to see His glory and my utter blackness of heart through His Special Revelation (Ezekiel 1, actually) and in that was the cross I had always known about held out to me.

    And I haven't been the same since.

    All that to say, Yes. It matters. Praise be His Name.


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