Atheism/agnosticism 3: Theism best of all (part i)

This is the final post in the series: Atheism okay; Agnosticism better; Theism best of all. I’ve split this post in two because it’s turned out kind of long.

Drum roll… and now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, as I finally prove by blinding argument beyond reasonable doubt that there definitely is a God, accompanied by flashes of lightning and the sound of atheists everywhere falling to their knees crying “I’ve seen the light!”, while angelic hosts sing the Hallelujah Chorus in 634-part harmony, with Richard Dawkins on drums and Christopher Hitchens on bass.

Well, perhaps not.

Let’s face it, I can’t actually prove that I exist, let alone God (I could just be a figment of your disturbed imagination – poor you). If you want a far better account of the plausibility of theism than I’m able to make, try Keith Ward’s Why there is almost certainly a God, or for a more amusing and idiosyncratic read, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

So yes, the title of this post is (a little) tongue-in-cheek. I personally have found Theism (specifically Christian, supernatural, theism) to provide a far more satisfying, useful and inspiring framework for understanding and living in the world than either Atheism or Agnosticism; one that fits best with the whole of my experience, not just with isolated parts of it. But I’m well aware that I won’t be able to convince others of this, particularly not in a blog post. And I’m not seeking to denigrate those who hold other positions, though I’m not sure many will return the compliment.

The reasons why I’ve come (after a lot of searching) to accept a Christian supernatural theism are many and varied, ranging from rational and philosophical arguments to historical and textual evidence to personal life experience. And if I’m honest, the personal reasons are the most compelling for me because I can’t deny my own experience, whereas I can always question my logic and interpretation of evidence. However, by the same token they are the least compelling for anyone else, because no-one else can share, investigate or verify my individual experiences.

Reason, goodness and the kind of universe we live in

I’ve never found most of the arguments put forward for – or against – God all that convincing. Even the best logical and philosophical cases tend to look rather contrived – they may be very neat but deep down they’re just not very satisfying. I’ve said before that logic is a useful but limited tool; that on its own it can’t make or even explain a half-decent cup of tea let alone a universe. Love, not logic, is what I as a theist believe the world to be founded on. “God is love” is perhaps the most profound theological statement in the Bible; all else rests on this, and any theology which contradicts this has in my view gone badly wrong.

Nonetheless, theism seems the most reasonable position to me because of the kind of universe we live in – one which has a number of key fundamental attributes:

  1. Rationality/reasonableness; a universe governed by natural laws which can be subjected to rational scrutiny and analysis, and in which there are rational beings whose minds can investigate it with meaningful results. (It is on these qualities that science depends, yet there is no obvious reason why the universe should have these qualities.)
  2. Goodness/morality; a universe in which there appear to be axiomatic principles of right and wrong, good and evil; in which there is the possibility of moral responsibility and in which there are beings capable of making such choices.
  3. Beauty; a universe in which everything from stars and nebulae to plants and people display astonishing beauty, and in which there are beings capable of creating and appreciating beautiful music, art, poetry and architecture. Again, there seems to be no self-evident reason why this should be the case.
  4. Love/relationality; a universe in which everything exists in relationship with and mutual dependence on everything else; in which there is the possibility of personhood and relationship and in which has arisen arguably the greatest quality possible – love, with its characteristics of compassion, kindness, generosity, mercy and forgiveness.

Furthermore, the universe appears fine-tuned for beings like ourselves to emerge, beings who can appreciate and embody these qualities. And crucially, these four attributes seem to me to be axiomatic, pre-existent principles; they do not appear logically derivable from anything within the physical universe, nor does there appear to be any logical reason why the universe should of itself have these qualities. Nonetheless the kind of universe we experience – and indeed our experience of it – depends on their existence.

These fundamental principles are clearly interrelated and it seems evident that they must derive from a common source; a source that provides the ultimate foundations for reason and rationality, goodness and morality, beauty, personality and love. It’s hard to see how such qualities can arise from matter and energy alone, however constituted. These are essentially qualities of Mind, of personhood. So I would argue that the ultimate and final reality on which the universe rests is Mind or Personhood with the qualities of reason, goodness, beauty and love. And this of course is what Christian supernatural theism believes.

Now any atheist worth his or her salt will be able to find holes in this big enough to drive a dozen double-decker celestial teapots through; I look forward to my friend Larry the Barefoot Bum pouring righteous logical scorn all over it. I’ve no doubt that atheists can put forward plausible explanations for the phenomena I’ve described, based perhaps on evolutionary psychology. I’m well aware that a perfectly workable morality can be based on non-theistic grounds (though for how long it can be effectively sustained in practice is another question). But to me the theist version chimes with the full range of my own experience of the world. Only you can decide whether it chimes for you.

Meaning, purpose and justice

Similarly, many of us find that we have an inescapable hunger for things like meaning, purpose and justice. Atheists often get irritated with this, telling us to grow up and either accept that the universe just is and doesn’t need to have additional meaning and purpose, or that we simply have to create these for ourselves. But still, for some the yearnings don’t go away. There may be no logic in it, but we feel in our hearts that the universe requires ultimate meaning, purpose and justice, and that these again require a source, a meaning-giver, a final arbiter.

For crazy mystics and ordinary Christians, every flower and blade of grass (let alone every person) cries out that it has meaning if you can only see it – “Earth’s crammed with heaven / And every common bush aflame with God; / But only he who  sees, takes off his shoes”.  The universe is a place of poetry, music and wonder that cannot be ontologically reduced to formulae and units of matter.

The story we find ourselves in

We all have our metaphors for life. For me, life is most like an unfolding and unpredictable story. And I find that Christianity also operates as a kind of story (a ‘myth’ in the technical not derogatory sense); and that this story chimes surprisingly well with the kind of story we find ourselves in (to borrow Brian McLaren’s phrase). The Christian story has several unique elements:

  • The main characters are us, the human species – deeply flawed but deeply significant; ‘fallen’ but still chosen and loved. We are given the unique dignity of moral responsibility and choice; the freedom to love or not love, to give or withhold, to serve or oppress.
  • The story’s author is not aloof and indifferent. The Incarnation means that God cares about us enough to become one of us, to take on our likeness, our problems and sufferings and even our death. The Author writes himself in to his story to save his characters, letting them do their worst to him, taking into himself their destructiveness and brokenness.
  • The driving force of the plot is indestructible Love which works ceaselessly to redeem, to reconcile, to renew and restore. The point and climax of the story is (to borrow the title of Rob Bell’s new book) that ‘Love wins’. In the resurrection, and finally in the world to come, Love conquers death and hate and evil and human hubris. There is a final restoration, and the cries of the oppressed for ultimate justice and ultimate mercy are fulfilled. But in the meantime we don’t wait passively for this to happen; we work for this day.

Paradoxical truth

Another aspect of Christianity that I find compelling is the paradoxical nature of its truth-claims. Reality is a complex thing, and I’m suspicious of over-simplistic descriptions of it – humans tend to come up with neat, logical conceptual models; reality often doesn’t work this way. The world is an amazingly counter-intuitive place. So where Dawkins complains that the doctrine of the Trinity is just meaningless obfuscation, I see it rather as corroborative complexity. If physical space is multi-dimensional and light sometimes behaves as a wave but sometimes a particle, why would we expect God to be simple? The Trinity seems to me the kind of complexity that derives from reality, rather than from human invention.

So many of Christ’s teachings were counter-intuitive and paradoxical: the first shall be last; give to receive; blessed are the poor; the meek shall inherit the earth; sinners are entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religious; love your enemies; give up your life in order to gain it; my death will bring you life. His own claims to be one with God were hugely controversial and counter-cultural. It’s this kind of unexpectedness in Christ’s teaching that I find so convincing, so authentic. This authenticity also runs through so many of the details in the gospel narratives – socially-inferior shepherds being the first to hear of Christ’s birth; women being the first witnesses of the resurrection, though women’s testimony would not be seen as valid in 1st-century Palestine; the disciples’ faults put on clear display rather than being airbrushed out.

Continue to the second part where I’m talking about the person of Christ, the resurrection and its effects, where I’m coming from personally and all sorts of other stuff…   

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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