The God Who Hides Himself I – Monsignor Ronald KnoxMarch 28, 2012
Philosophers have continually been exercised by the question whether our knowledge of God is a direct or a derived knowledge; whether the idea of God is in some way native to the mind, or whether we arrive at it through our knowledge of other things, his creatures. The mystical temperament, which has a strong influence on the outlook of Protestant theologians, is naturally disposed to claim, if the claim can in any be justified, that our knowledge of God is direct. For it is instinct of the mystic to reject, as far as possible, all interference, all mediation, between God and the soul.
The simplest, the most plausible of all these theories is Traditionalism. As a matter of observation, it is plainly true the origin from which your knowledge of God is derived, or mine, is the assurance given to us in infancy by our mothers or those who were responsible for our education. What if this should be not only the origin, but the justification of the concept? Adam, we must suppose, had in some an experimental knowledge of God’s existence. Did not he, in the strength of that knowledge, make Theists of his sons and they of theirs, and so on down the whole series of history, until at last the information came to our mothers, and through them to us? The evidence we have, in that case, for the existence of God is a tradition, perpetuated through the long course of human history, and resting in the last resort on the testimony of men who had walked with God, who had had first-hand knowledge of the facts.
Or, failing that, there is a possible refuge in Fideism [vocab: Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths (see natural theology). The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means "faith-ism."].
After all, religion is concerned with the supernatural order, which altogether transcends ours; why should there not be a special, supernatural revelation to man which enables him to apprehend the existence of God; made, if you will, before he is yet old enough to be conscious of the fact? Is it not, perhaps, the best account we can give of this persistent human belief in a Deity, to suppose that there is a special faculty implanted in all of us at birth, but obscured in some of us by faults of training or of character, which apprehends God by a simple act, un-intellectual because it is supra-intellectual?
One philosopher at least, Descartes, would go further than this, and claim that for this purpose no supernatural revelation was needed. The thinking mind, according to his analysis, was primarily conscious of two clear and distinct ideas, itself and God. Outward things, the phenomena of sense, were only mirrored for it through the medium of its own consciousness; but the two facts of its own existence and God’s were guaranteed to it antecedently to any reasoning whatsoever.
At the very basis of all our thought lay the perception of a God who was responsible for implanting in us the ideas with which our thought is concerned; his non-existence was worse than unthinkable, it would destroy the very possibility of all knowledge. You must believe in God in order to believe in anything at all.
This was at the dawn of Idealism; but a theory not altogether dissimilar had found patronage even in the scholastic age — I mean the “Ontological proof” which is usually connected with the name of St. Anselm. The idea of God was necessarily one of supreme Perfection; it was impossible to associate the notion of any fault or defect with the idea of God. But the notion of non-existence is the notion of a fault or defect — indeed, a very considerable one. Therefore it is impossible to associate the notion of non-existence with the idea of God. Therefore it is unthinkable that God should not exist; therefore God exists.
This attempt to prove the existence of God, or to declare the proof of it unnecessary, without reference to the effects of his power which we experience in his visible creation, is a permanent temptation to the human mind. Intellects as far removed from one another as those of Anselm, Descartes, and de Bonald have undertaken it, and it is probable that they will never lack successors. Protestant thought, in our day, is much wedded not to these but to similar speculations.
Thus, you will seldom read any piece of non-Catholic apologetic without coming across some reference to man’s sense of his need for God, or man’s notion of holiness, a notion which can only be perfectly realized in God. The triplication of all such language is that it is possible to argue directly from the existence of concepts in our own mind in the existence of real objects, to which those concepts correspond.
The Catholic Church discountenances all such methods of approach to the subject; some of them, at the Vatican Council she has actually condemned. She discountenances them, at least, if and in so far as they claim to be the sole or the main argument for the existence of God. The main, if not the sole argument for the existence of God — so she holds, and has always held — is the argument which proves the Unseen from the Seen, the existence of the Creator from his visible effects in Creation.
All these efforts at the solution of the problem really depend for their plausibility on a postulate which we do not grant — namely, that it would have been impossible for the human race to infer God’s existence from his creatures. If this were true, then it might be argued that the notion of God must be an idea directly communicated to our minds. Such an argument is perfectly valid if applied to our sense of right and wrong; it must be native to the mind, because there is nothing outside ourselves which could possibly have suggested such a notion to us.
But this is a simple idea, directly entertained; whereas the idea of God is a composite idea, and the attributes which we associate with it, power, wisdom, etc., are derived from our own experience. “If there had been no God,” said Napoleon, “it would have been necessary to invent him” — at least, we may say it would have been possible to invent him. Thus the fact that the idea of God is conceived by our minds does not necessarily mean that it is inborn in us, or that it is directly communicated to us by some supernatural light.
The supposition is an unnecessary one, and now, what has it to say for itself? If it were true, as Descartes held, that the idea of God was a clear and distinct idea, like that of our own existence, why is it that there are so few fools in the world who doubt their own existence, so many who say “there is no God”?
If the existence of God was one of the first principles of all our mental process, then the contrary idea, that there is no God, should be unthinkable — but is it unthinkable? People think it every day. “But at least,” St. Anselm would retort, “it is impossible to think of an imperfect God, and therefore it is impossible to think of a non-existent God.” To which the atheist replies with some justice that, since God does not exist, it is not necessary to think about him at all. You cannot argue from the ideal to the real order of things.
The apologist is on safer ground if he leaves the arena of philosophy altogether, and maintains that the notion of God, so far from being innate in our minds, is something supernaturally implanted in them by a kind of direct revelation. That some such revelation was made to our first parents, we have no ground for disputing; but it would need a robust faith in us to accept so momentous a doctrine on the remote authority of our first parents, even if popular science would give us leave to suppose that we had any. Can we really be certain that in so many centuries of transmission the revelation has remained intact — that the tale has not lost in the telling?
On the other hand, Fideism would have us believe that such a direct revelation is made not once for all to the human race, but to each individual soul. Is it? The argument is surely one of those which admit of no refutation and produce no conviction. It is impossible to disprove the assertion that a direct revelation was made to us at a time of life from which no memories remain to us; but equally it is impossible to prove it. And if some other account can be given of the means by which the race or the individual arrives at the knowledge of God, surely this rather desperate hypothesis is best left in the limbo of mere conjecture.
I know there is a fashion amongst modern apologists to write as if man possessed a religious sense, comparable to his sense of music. This sense (so the argument runs) is most highly developed in the saint, the mystic, who is the real artist, the real connoisseur; in most men it is much less developed; in some it is hardly developed at all. Not that anyone (God forbid!) can be born absolutely tone-deaf to the airs of this heavenly music; but, through lack of development, the talent is nearly buried; there is no response, or practically no response, made by such a soul to the Divine voice within.
The spiritual man discerns spiritual things; he cannot explain to you what his experiences are, or even how he knows that they are real, any more than the musical expert can explain his emotional experiences to the mere groundling. But he knows; he has had an unmistakable experience of God’s Presence; it does not become us, the ignorant amateurs, to dispute his judgment. We can only trust to his higher instincts; and hope that we, too, perhaps, may be privileged to hear now and again some echo of the strains that ravish him.
For the life of me I could never understand how far such authors mean their metaphor to be pressed. Is it really contended that we can argue from a state of mind to an objective reality which lies behind it? If a musical enthusiast, after listening to some rare but gay piece, should tell me that as he listened he could actually see elves and gnomes dancing before his eyes, I should be perfectly prepared to reverence both his own superior sensitiveness to musical impressions, and the subtle power of the art which could evoke such an imaginative experience.
I should not suppose that elves or gnomes had been present, unseen to myself. And I confess that if I lacked the sense of religion quite so thoroughly as I lack that of music, the disclosures of the mystic would leave me in very much the same position. I might feel the mystic to be of a spiritual calibre infinitely superior to my own; I might bestow my admiration on those methods of contemplative prayer which enabled him to achieve his sense of a Divine Presence, his sense of Union. But I should not for that reason be inclined to believe in the objective existence of God, his Angels, or his Saints, if I did not share those beliefs already.
I do not know if I am wholly removed from the generality of mankind in holding such sentiments; but this type of’ argument seems to me both logically unsound and theologically perilous. And the nerve of the fallacy lies, I think, in the use of the word “experience”. When we are asked to let ourselves be guided by the experiences of another in matters of common human importance, we acquiesce (if we do acquiesce) because the experiences in question are such as might have fallen to our lot instead of his; we have eyes, ears, and the other senses corresponding to his. And we can take the measure of his faculties from our own; if he says he saw a thing, we can relate that to our own experience of sight; if he says he heard a thing, we can relate it to our own sense of hearing.
But if a man talks to us of “experiences” in which the faculties of outward sensation played no part, we are no longer in a position to sample those experiences for ourselves by proxy; we have no apparatus for sharing them with him. Where an experience of the outward senses is concerned, we are ready, from the analogy of our own experience, to believe that there was “something there”. But when the alleged experience has been apprehended through the use of spiritual faculties which we either do not possess or do not use, our confidence in the “something there” necessarily evaporates. Which is, I suppose, why the Church tells us that a private revelation may be such as to demand credence from the soul which experiences it, but can never, of itself, demand credence from other people.
Nevertheless the moderns, in their desire for an easy short cut to the proof of God’s existence, are learning to rest more and more weight on this tenuous argument — as I think, fatally. In the same way, they press for more than it is worth the argument, impressive enough in itself, that, when all is said and done, most people do believe in God. Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism have at least theologies of their own; Jewry and Islam acknowledge, no less than Christendom, one God who is both transcendent and omnipotent. In England itself, for all the decline of official Christianity, how much is there of positive atheism?
Nor is the appeal to history less impressive; with a thousand strange vagaries of presentation, humanity has nearly always, nearly everywhere, attested its belief in the existence of unseen Powers; atheism nearly always, nearly everywhere, has been the reaction of a minority, a protest defying the popular instinct. Must there not, argues the apologist, be something in this popular certainty? Have we not been taught to remember that there is no smoke without fire?
We can hardly account for this vast conspiracy of mankind, determined to bow down before some august Power, conceived as intelligent and present to the worshipper; we can hardly account for the satisfaction of man’s highest instincts through such commerce with the Unseen, except on the supposition (which, after all, cannot be disproved) that the God so worshipped under a thousand forms and in a thousand manners does really exist.
This contention, put in its most naked form, means that each of us ought to believe in God because all the others do — an arrangement not differing much in principle from the economics of that famous country, whose inhabitants lived by taking in one another’s washing. Once more we must insist, you cannot argue from a mere state of mind to an objective reality which that state of mind appears to presuppose. If indeed there were no way of accounting for this strange idea having got into so many people’s heads, then the mere fact of its prevalence might make us suspect that there was something in it. [to be continued…]