God-talk in a culture without clothes
Sometimes when I watch nature programs, I become annoyed by the constant statements that “nature” has done this or “nature” has done that. It is almost as if “nature” is somebody’s name, and should start with a capital N. This is a measure of how afraid people are to speak about God. Our modern material culture is far more comfortable—at least in the short run—refusing to probe beyond the surface of things. It is easier to live in denial of ultimate reality.
Paradoxically, if the latest data and conclusions from the physical sciences were spread as rapidly and forcefully as the scarcely-developed theory of evolution was about a century ago, the typical school child would be learning things like this:
- As far as we can tell, the universe had a distinct beginning roughly 13.8 billion years ago, apparently exploding out of a super-compressed core, of which scientific study cannot explain the origin. This is why we live in an ever-expanding universe.
- Relying on a totally random interpretation of the theory of evolution (that is, a completely unguided evolution), that length of time is not even remotely sufficient to explain the development of the highly complex, cohesive, interdependent, and successful combination of life-forms that we know today. The statistics of probability essentially rule it out.
- Our planet appears to be tuned to what is called the “anthropic principle”. In dramatic distinction from any other planet we have any information about, planet Earth exhibits an enormous array of environmental factors which are all extremely finely calibrated so that biological life (at least as we know it) can survive and develop. The odds against the required combination of factors occurring by chance are astronomical, even in an imaginary cosmic multiverse of thousands upon thousands of different “universes”.
I am just scratching the surface, of course. But you would think that a genuinely scientific culture would run smack into the need to answer the God question in the affirmative each and every day, instead of pretending that modern scientific study has somehow eliminated the need for recourse to the Divine to explain anything at all. In any case, the philosophical arguments which so clearly suggest the existence of God are just as strong as ever, even if we prefer in our educational institutions to ignore them. For example, we can still easily recognize the classic five ways of grasping the existence of God which were drawn from the Western philosophical tradition and summarized by St. Thomas Aquinas.
The flight from contingency
My personal favorite is the argument from contingency (with which the bullet points listed above fit very nicely). This argument begins by noticing that everything we encounter in what we call the natural world is dependent on something else. In other words, nothing that we can observe exists completely independently. Rather, everything is contingent upon something else. This is as obvious for a molecule of oxygen or for a rock as it is for a human person. But if this is true, nothing whatsoever could exist unless there is somewhere a non-contingent being that we do not see, on which everything else ultimately depends for its existence.
Similar to the arguments about the first cause and the prime mover, the argument from contingency proceeds to a necessary logical conclusion from our own experience and the experience of anyone who has observed or studied anything in this universe over thousands of years. The necessary non-contingent being must, of course, be a being whose essence is existence itself, the one being who simply cannot not exist, and logically the only such being of that type: In other words, the stupendous “I am”, that is, God.
Scientific developments, especially in physics, over the past several generations strongly suggest (but of course cannot prove) that the universe is inexplicable without the existence of God. It reveals a great deal about the materialist prejudices and desires of our affluent “elites” that these scientific conclusions have not driven the “intellectual establishment” back to an apprehension of the existence of God in the same way that the nineteenth-century theory of evolution was, in its very under-developed infancy, used to help drive the “intellectual establishment” into the denial of God.
But of course the existence of God was always within the capacity of the human person to intuit from his ordinary interior and exterior experiences. Therefore, we invariably find that the rejection of such a basic vision of reality is shrouded in selfish indulgence and the desire to put off all thought of judgment. If we turn to the highly-developed (and, as it happens, Divinely revealed) religious experience of ancient Israel, two nearly identical psalms (numbers 14 and 53), both almost certainly composed roughly 2,600 years ago, express this insight:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good…. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt…. Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD?
The perspective of the Psalms displays remarkable insight into the social and spiritual factors which tumble together into how we answer the God question. Despite some who seek truth with a relatively open heart, it is the desire for immediate gratification through the mesmerizing attraction of evil that makes our corrupt contemporary culture press us so hard to flee in the opposite direction. Jesus Christ, who had a deeply personal knowledge of these realities at every level, expressed the same problem with acute psychological insight: “Those who do evil hate the light” (Jn 3:20). Even worse, the cultural dominance of a felt need to deny God places enormous obstacles in the path of those who might otherwise, as Our Lord also put it, “turn again and be forgiven” (Mk 4:12).
The physical sciences, of course, cannot prove the existence of God. The true nature of any discipline is to use tools and methods which are proper to its subject matter. No branch of study can be used to prove conclusions about what is beyond its purview. The error, of course, comes in the assumption that the purview appropriate to a particular discipline is all there is. In earlier periods, when the study of material things was not nearly so advanced and so specialized, it was possible for an educated person to gain a strong sense of what each discipline is for, and how all of them fit together to give us greater knowledge of all of reality. With so much specialization today, there is a tendency of too many scholars to elevate their own disciplines into universal tools that can provide universal explanations.
But they can’t. Once we begin thinking our own academic (or personal) preoccupations encompass all there is or all that matters, we become intolerably bigoted. We grow increasingly hostile to those who raise questions about which our own areas of interest and study have nothing to say. We live in a culture which depends almost absolutely—and certainly prejudicially—on turning a blind eye to realities which can undermine the prevailing assumptions. All cultures are like this to a degree, but ours quite literally makes its living at it.
There is a radical urgency about all this, for if any more light is allowed in, people will begin to see that not only the emperor but the imperial culture itself is utterly naked and frighteningly exposed. Our present culture believes that material satisfaction is the essence of life, and therefore that intrinsically temporary distractions are the only source of happiness. More than ever we must live counter-culturally. The only choice left is between despair and Jesus Christ.
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Posted by: loumiamo4057 -
Aug. 28, 2022 2:00 PM ET USA
Another writer likened the idea of life being nothing more than an accident to the belief that an explosion in a print shop could produce an unabridged dictionary. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Posted by: CorneliusG -
Aug. 27, 2022 7:00 AM ET USA
It's surprising, and unfortunate, how many people think the claims of science and religion are opposed, when actually they complement each other to give us a holistic view of reality. I used to teach teenagers the Catechism and almost to a boy and girl they came in believing science "refuted" religion. I hope they left my classes thinking otherwise. Deo volente.
Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
Aug. 26, 2022 9:12 PM ET USA
That last sentence says it all. The older I get, the more I come to the same conclusion.