Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

God-talk, naturally speaking

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 20, 2021

OK, so let’s talk about God.

In discussing the natural law in my previous commentary (Natural Law as the basis for polity), I emphasized its elements as things “we can’t not know”, borrowing the phrase used in the title of an excellent book by J. Budziszewski. So now, perhaps, we can be perfectly honest: The existence of God is one of those things that we cannot not know.

Of course, “knowing” is a tricky concept. There are some things we may know without thinking much about them (indeed, the natural law falls at least partially into this category). These things inform our attitudes, behaviors and even ways of looking at the world, even if we do not focus our attention on them intellectually. Moreover, we humans seem to have little trouble being in denial about many of the things we really do know. We may, for example, be in denial about the patent lack of affection for us on the part of someone toward whom we are romantically inclined. Or we may be in denial of our recognition of some fault or misstep. Or we may be in denial about a moral principle which prohibits something we want to do.

In fact, every time we rationalize we are in denial. So knowing is a very tricky thing. Combine it with temptation and there is no plumbing the depths of idiocy (that is, self-induced ignorance) into which we may fall. Nonetheless, we know almost instinctively that there is a God for the simple reason that it is impossible for us to make sense of reality without the God-concept. If we survey the long history of mankind, we see a constant grasp of the existence of God informing every human culture which has not deliberately rebelled against the concept at a late and typically decadent stage in its development. After all, the very idea of God implies our subordination. It interferes with either human pride or human desire.

The chief origin of our awareness of God comes from two typically human intuitions. The first of these intuitions is that, as human persons possessed of an intellectual faculty, we automatically and reflexively understand that any effect has a cause, and we immediately know the difference between something that appears to be the result of generally operative forces (which we must reach back further to explain) and something that appears immediately to be the result of deliberate design. Thus, when we see sand or pebbles strewn on a beach, we immediately think of general causes which have impacted their somewhat random distribution (for nothing is ever totally random; all effects are to some degree constrained). But when we see a precise stack of stones or a sand castle, we immediately apprehend that it was made by a human agent possessed of intellect and will.

In addition, of course, when we see some of the remarkable designs which animals produce (a bird’s nest is a good example), since we know from ages of collective experience that animals do not possess intellects as we do, we ascribe these designs to “instincts” that have been incorporated into an animal’s nature, through a higher instance of design (the design, inescapably, of the mysterious being we refer to as God). To those who neither are in denial nor have been carefully taught by others in denial, design is all but immediately obvious, and all but instantly suggestive of the existence of God.

Refusal to acknowledge design

Discussion of design is as old as recorded history. St. Paul (cited here as a keen observer rather than a Christian authority) expressed this natural recognition of design and its attendant willful corruption some 2,000 years ago, in his letter to the Romans (1:19-32). I will quote at length because it summarizes the entire argument.

First the basic recognition and perverse rejection of the truth:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles [or, we might add, material elements, or their own egos].

And then the role of passion and lust in this willful blindness and rejection of God:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

And finally, the inevitable result of life without God, and the determination to get all to go along with it:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.

Living under a judgment

The second intuition, and the other great source of our natural apprehension of God, is the human person’s acute moral sense. We notice two things here: First, all men and women have a strong sense of living under a judgment, and so of needing to justify morally what they choose to do. This is as true of the person who acknowledges guilt as of the one who refuses to accept guilt. All have a sense of living under a judgment and, as St. John Henry Newman put it, living with the intuition that, if there is a judgment, there is a judge, and if a judge, then a lawgiver, and if a lawgiver, a God who cares what we believe and how we act.

Newman followed this argument with the recognition that, if God cares how we act, it is logical to expect that He would reveal Himself more clearly in order that we might more easily learn how to act rightly. Here, however, I am principally concerned with this pervasive sense of living under a judgment, and this felt need on the part of all to deal with guilt and to justify ourselves, either through some sort of atonement (in some cases, self-punishment arises directly from a pervasive sense of guilt or badness), or through a process of rationalization which either denies guilt altogether or seizes the moral high ground by insisting that those who do not accept our predominate sins are really the root of the problem.

This last situation is endemic in our declining Western culture. Not to see it is another instance of refusing to see it.

Thus can we know, simply from universal human experience and constant human intuition, the basic reality of the existence of God and His concern for the moral order. We can figure out much more about morality through reason, but we need some revelation from God to disclose more about His Being, His inner life, which transcends our own being and understanding. But these two perceptions, of the existence of God and a moral order, may reasonably be taken as the first two points of the natural law.

To admit them requires more, of course: We must be willing to examine our own tendencies and attachments, and also the many ways in which our dominant culture seeks to deny the most basic perceptions and intuitions of the human person. For we must be singularly obtuse in our reflections on life, or in deep denial of the objects of our reflection, to claim not to know what is obvious, by the very nature of things, to every unimpaired person in the world.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Jul. 25, 2021 8:53 AM ET USA

    It would be a great service to any congregation to hear this, edited perhaps for length, as a homily. I'm finding more at this site in a few months than I've heard in a lifetime of Sunday sermons.