I came to the conclusion in college that a person cannot reason his way to knowledge of God. I don’t remember all of the details that led me to this conclusion, but the conclusion was solidified for me in a lecture given by a professor on Western Civilization featuring Thomas Aquinas.
This lecture was given every year by this professor and eagerly anticipated by students at my college, which is why I attended it. As I remember the premise of the lecture, my memory of it being simplified now so many years later, science and reason can and does lead one to God. I determined then, and I believe now, that this is not true.
Not that science, reason and faith are incompatible. It’s just that science and human reason are not adequate for the task. Just as God must, necessarily, be Other than the material universe, we who are limited to the senses that are part and parcel of the material universe are limited in our ability to “see” and know anything beyond it.
The material universe consists of and is limited to the space/time continuum. By definition, God (if He exists) is Other than the space/time continuum. He is “outside” of space time. He is timeless and immaterial. Our science and our minds exist in space time and are limited to it and by it as a first principal.
In my way of thinking, a God who exists outside of this material world (our immediate environment) would have to reveal Himself to creatures such as ourselves. We could not “ascend” to Him.
Yet this is not to say that we can’t know anything of God. If such a God were to reveal Himself to us, we could know Him, but would we recognize the significance of that revelation? Jesus claimed to be a direct revelation from God. John, the apostle, said, “He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him.” (John 1:10)
Is Jesus who he claimed to be?
I was influenced in reaching the conclusion I came to in college about the value of science and reason in this endeavor, no doubt, by Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard. They came to the opposite position of Aquinas. They essentially say it is impossible for a finite being such as ourselves to reason or discover our way to God. There will always be a gap in our knowledge that we will never be able to close by the reason and evidence that is available to us.
This made more sense to me. There will always be a gap between a finite being and an infinite being.
Around the same time in college I was reading the Bible for the first time in a World Religion class. We read many sacred texts in that class. I read provisions like this for the first time:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
When Jesus was confronted with the question, “what must we do to do the works of God”, Jesus told his questioners simply, “This is the work of God, to believe in him who he has sent.” (See John 6:24-41) Jesus is clearly referring to himself as the one sent by God. When Paul was posed a similar question, his answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 16:31)
These are very curious, counter-intuitive statements. In essence, they convey the message that there is a nothing a person can do to know God and to be right with God other than to believe in Jesus who claimed to be God in the flesh.
For the Jews who were listening to the message, they were being told that there is no law that can be observed, no sacrifice or acts of religious observance that will make a person right with God. In the context of this article, we might say there is no knowledge one can obtain and no evidence one can find that will bridge that gap and connect a person with God.
In the end, it boils down to belief (faith) which, in a biblical, New Testament sense, means a willingness to trust and commit oneself to God as revealed in Jesus.
We are not talking about faith with no evidence, or faith in spite of the evidence to the contrary. In his time, Jesus performed miracles everywhere he went, according to the eye-witness accounts. He spoke with recognized authority. Jesus rose from the dead, and he appeared in the risen flesh to well over 500 people. But some people “doubted” nevertheless and were unwilling to commit.
We have largely poo-pooed miracles in the post-modern, western world. We don’t believe they happen. We aren’t impressed by accounts of miracles, even by people who were eyewitnesses. We assume there must be some other explanation, and we discount claims of the miraculous and anything that relies on them.
Today, the evidence we value is science and reason. Science does not disprove God, but science doesn’t prov God either. It can’t. If God exists, He won’t be discovered in the natural world, and the natural world is all that science can reveal to us. We can’t find God in the natural world any more than we can find a painter in his painting (though we might know something of the painter by it).
Science can’t prove God either, as we have already discussed, but science is not antithetical to the idea or possibility of God. In fact, many people, including scientists, believe that God makes the best sense of the things we know from science – better sense than the proposition that we are merely the product of molecules in motion.
Reason is also not antithetical to the idea or possibility of God. Reason needs a premise, though, and where we start (the initial premise we put forward) will determine the outcome. Test the premise assuming the existence of God, and you will find the logic holds up very nicely. There are many logic-based syllogisms that “prove” God – but you have to start with the right premise.
One thing my reading of the Bible during this time in college suggested to me is the significance and influence of human pride. I saw this pride in myself, and I saw it in others. I saw it in the smugness that went into the lecture on Aquinas. There is a certain self-accomplishment and self-righteousness in being able to reason one’s way to the conclusion that God exists, supported by science, which is a very human endeavor. And the same is certainly true in reverse.
We have this innate drive to be the captains of our own souls. Whether we are riding the atheism train or theism train, we want to be the engineer at the helm. The Bible spoke directly and pointedly to this very human tendency. Salvation comes by faith; it is a gift from God; it isn’t the result of our own efforts; and the reason is so that no man can boast.
I certainly cannot judge the motives of another human being, nor do I want to. I do not have to go far from myself to get a taste for the truth of what I “saw” and understood about human pride. I am familiar with the smugness and pride in myself.
This smugness and pride is a primary instigator of wars, disputes, political factions, familial tensions and the myriad of human relationship problems I see in my law practice. It’s easy to see how pride keeps a person from recognizing God as God as well. Pride is at the center of much, if not all, of the problems of humanity. An unwillingness to cede control or right to others is the nemesis of human unity and the seed of human discord.
What a brilliant remedy to this condition is salvation and redemption that comes wrapped in a package that can only be accepted in humility – offering no room to boast!
These principles juxtaposed in relation to each other took me far down the road I have traveled ever since. We can’t reason or discover our way to God. God must bend down to us. The pride that is at the heart of the relational tumult in the world, the primary thing that stands between us and God, is the one thing that must be relinquished to make that leap into God’s arms.
Kant (or was it Kierkegaard) posited the necessity of a “leap”. I would characterize it more like a fall. A leap gives us too much credit. It’s kind of like the joke about the white man who can’t jump. He might think he is soaring, but he is hardly even getting off the ground.
In reality, it’s more like letting go than taking a leap. Are we willing to let go of our objections, our misgivings, our sense of captaining the ship, our desire to be “let alone”, our stubborn proclivity to wield control? Not that we ultimately have any control. It isn’t much, in the end, that we really give up, but it may seem like the world.