Q: Archbishop J, why do you believe that God exists (part 7)?
While walking the Camino de Santiago in 2016, I met a young man from England. He introduced himself to me as an atheist. During the conversation, many startling things emerged. The first and most striking was that he did not understand the label that he ascribed to himself—atheist.
For a first-year university student to be an atheist is nearly a badge of honour. Or better yet a rite of passage. You have thrown off the faith of your parents. This is the ultimate rebellion! But what does it really mean?
There are three paths I have found in this conversation.
The first is that the construct of God is more of a caricature. I could not believe in a god like the one most often described.
The second is the problem of evil—how could a good God cause or allow such evil in the world?
The third is a misdiagnosis of the term. I have already touched on the problem of evil in an earlier article so I will leave that alone for now.
Atheism vs Humanism
An atheist is someone who does not believe in God or the gods. If this is taken to the extreme then there is no reason to believe in values, virtues or doing good rather than doing bad to others.
The word comes from a negation of the Greek word ‘theos’ — ‘god’. By adding the “a” it is turned into a negation of god—a-theos—no god.
When pressed by the question, ‘Do you believe you should do good and avoid evil?’ most people regardless of their belief would say ‘yes’. But they do not have a reason. If all emerges from matter, then values have no real foundation.
Asked if humans should be treated fairly, usually the answer is of course! But why? If there is no creator, then all the rules are arbitrary. Yet we humans regardless of religion have a value system based on what is good for the human and human flourishing. This is actually humanism.
Humanism believes that human value is the supreme good. So, we have a moral argument for doing good and avoiding evil. There is also in this conception the belief that the human can transcend itself and become a better version of itself.
Humanism was my halfway house between belief and doubt. It allows a value system and a moral life. Most of all, it allows people to commit their life to the big causes—the environment, eliminating world poverty and hunger, helping the migrant and refugee etc.
Humanism is the belief in human nature, that the human is destined for happiness. This is classical Jewish and Christian anthropology.
There is much that the humanist and Catholics share in common. We both work for the good of humanity and human flourishing. Where we depart is that Catholics believe that authentic humanism needs God.
Pope Paul VI said: “The ultimate goal is a full-bodied humanism. And does this not mean the fulfilment of the whole man and of every man?” (§42, Populorum Progressio). The pontiff continues by saying that this cannot be achieved without God.
The humanist and the Catholic agree in most things. However, Catholics believe that the fullest expression of humanism comes from God. The secular humanist does not agree. But there is more in the agreement than in the disagreement.
Concept of God
We no longer have access to the philosophical categories to speak clearly about God. Most times when people hear the word— ‘god’—they think about a being amongst other beings; superior and with a lot of attributes that we do not have but a being. Here we have the first major challenge. If God is God, then there is no category that we can speak about or conceive to speak meaningfully about God. We have to shift fundamentally if we are to speak meaningfully about God.
We are contingent. We came into being because of a cause—our mother and father. We can go right back to the first and they are still contingent—something brought them into being.
Go right back to the first appearance of a simple living organism. It is still contingent—it does not have its existence because of itself.
Go back to the Big Bang, to the first emergence of time, space, and matter. It too had a cause. This is as far as our human reasoning can take us—to the extreme of the realm of the contingent.
When we speak about God, we are speaking about that which is not contingent. In God, there is no space, no time, no matter.
In the Feast of Epiphany, the wise men read the book of nature and arrive in Jerusalem. They needed those who read the book of revelation to arrive in Bethlehem and the child. It was the religious leaders who knew the prophecy.
When God was first revealed to Moses at the burning bush, the revelation could not have been made up by someone of that time. In Exodus 3:13–14, Moses asks God: “What is your name?” The answer is astounding: “God said to Moses ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you’.”
This is best understood as “I will be what I will be”. St Thomas Aquinas speaking about this text interpreted the passage to mean that God is ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent Being). God is the being that subsists in itself. God is not contingent; by definition, God always was, is and will be.
St Thomas says in his Summa Theologica: “This name ‘HE WHO IS’ is most properly applied to God … because of its signification. For it does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence since the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other, it is clear that among other names this one specially denominates God, for everything is denominated by its form (ST I. Q.13, a.11).
This requires a mental shift from the world of the contingent to that which always was and brought everything into being. We have tried to dumb God down to fit into our human categories. I invite you to allow God to open your mind to that which was, is and will always be.
The atheist seeks to reduce the infinite to our finite categories. The real invitation is to open our finite mind to the infinite, through whose being we came to be.
Reflect on your images of God and ask God to open your mind to a fuller perspective on the divine.