Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Holy Week is proceeding apace!  Hard to believe that tomorrow is Maundy Thursday.  Below I post the next in the series about God.  I will post the remainder over the next few days.  You may remember me writing that these were a series I did for Lent some time ago, but they are still what I would want to say on the subject now!

4. The Question of God: The Evidence of Revelation

In our thinking about God, I have been arguing that there is evidence all around us for his existence.  But many people do not see it or do not respond to it.  This raises the question of how people are to come to believe in God.  This question at once brings us to the heart of the problem.  The  assumption in much of the discussion about believing in God seems to be that it is us who have to do the work, that it is up to us to find God.

This assumption lies behind a lot of religious thinking both outside the church and in it.  In contemporary religious studies, religion is often portrayed as human beings’ search for God and for meaning in their lives.  The different religions in the world, then, are to be explained as the different stories of our quest for something beyond us.  Alternatively, from a Christian standpoint, people will be urged to believe in God, to think about the importance of faith, to consider the arguments, to see their need and to act.  This sort of understanding can result in a presentation of the Christian faith that is based on what we can discover about God.  It can also begin to seem that if we make the effort to think through the arguments, experiment and engage with religion then, eventually, we will find God.  God is there and it is up to us to find him.

From a Biblical point of view, this is not at all satisfactory.  First of all, it is not God who is lost, we are.  Secondly, spiritually, we lack the means to come to God.  Thirdly, even if the evidence were as bright as bright could be, we would not be able to see it because spiritually we are blind.  The theologian who has done most in the twentieth century to remind the church of this is Karl Barth (1886-1968).

Barth was born at Basel.  After studying theology at the universities of Bern, Berlin, Tubingen, and Marburg, he became a Reformed minister in Switzerland.  It was while pastoring a church in Switzerland that he wrote a commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  It was to establish him as one of the major theologians of the twentieth century.  He was to become a professor at several German universities until, after conflict with Hitler, he was dismissed by Hitler in 1935, and became professor of theology at Basel until 1962.  Pope Pius XII described him as the greatest theologian since St Thomas Aquinas.

Barth rejected all theology that put the emphasis on human beings and what they did, and stressed, instead, what God has done and still does through revelation.  God, for Barth, is utterly transcendent and wholly other.  Stressing the sinfulness of human beings, he pointed out that men and women had failed to find God because of their sin, and so God, in the person of Christ had come to us, had sought us out, and had unconditionally welcomed us into a relationship with himself.  In the Gospels, after all, it is the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, not the lost sheep who seek the shepherd.  In Christ, then, God reveals himself making it possible for people to believe in him.
And that said Barth is still how it is.  We do not now find God, not even in Christ, by our own reasoning and efforts.  It is not that God made the truth known in Christ, and it is now up to us to find it.  It is still necessary for God to reveal himself to each one of us separately.  This he does through the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ.  In Christ, God calls each of us to himself and makes it possible for us to come to know him.  Left to ourselves we would only ever stumble around in the dark.

But what are the consequences of this for our examination of the evidence?  We have been arguing that there is evidence for God.  Well yes, indeed there is.  We, however, have chosen not to see it and now have become unable to see it.  St Paul describes human beings as being spiritually blind and therefore unable to see the light of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4).  Does this mean, then, that considering the evidence is a wasted effort?  No, just not enough.  It is right to show people that there are good grounds for believing in God, but more is needed.  We must ask God to open people’s eyes to see the truth of the evidence.  We must ask God to draw people to himself through the message we proclaim.  Jesus said that no-one can come to him unless drawn by the Father who sent him (John 6:44).

So where does this leave human reason?  Firstly, it means that reason alone will never and can never bring people to God.  We need a spiritual renewal if we are to be able to enter into a relationship with God.  Secondly,  human reason is in any case limited because we as human beings are limited.  There are limits to what we can know and understand.  This is not a message that we like to hear.  We are encouraged to think that there are no limits to human understanding.  Sadly, the very fact that we are mortal, confined to a body and given over to death, with a brain that cannot absorb everything shows that there are limits.  When it comes to God, we are never going to have the mental capacities necessary to understand him fully.

Thirdly, however, there is a vast difference between saying, as I have been, that we cannot find God through reason and saying that belief in God is unreasonable.  Simply because something does not seem to make sense to us, does not mean that it does not make sense.  Furthermore, once we have come to faith, we are in a position to see and understand more than before.  Indeed, it should be an absolute priority for every Christian to grow in their understanding of God.

Someone who is very helpful when it comes to understanding the relationship between faith and reason is St Anselm (1033-1109).  Anselm was born in Italy.  At the age of 26, he entered the Benedictine monastery at Bec in Normandy.  Shortly after, in 1063, he became the prior of the monastery.  He was prior for about 15 years and then became the abbot.  In 1093, he became the archbishop of Canterbury.  Anselm believed that it was revelation, not reason or experience, that gives us the content of the Christian faith, but the believer can then seek, by the use of his or her reason, to understand more fully what he or she believes.  By examining the Christian faith in this way, we can come to see how rational it really is. 

In a famous passage Anselm wrote:

‘I am not trying, Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for my understanding is not up to that.  But I long in some measure to understand your truth, which my heart believes and loves.  For I am not seeking to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.  For this too I believe: that unless I believe I shall not understand.’  (Prosologion 1)

May God grant us the faith to believe so that we too may understand.

No comments: