The God Who Hides Himself II – Msgr. Ronald KnoxMarch 29, 2012
It is possible to give some account of how the idea of God comes into men’s minds. Or again, if each human being independently discovered the idea of God for himself, we might hesitate to ascribe the phenomenon to mere coincidence. But the doctrine of God’s existence is one that is taught to childhood, one that is often bound up, superstitiously, with national hopes, with social ordinances. Even if there were no God, it is probable enough that many people would believe in his existence; it would not be more surprising than the belief in luck, for example, or the belief in omens.
No, the true lesson of this widespread and obstinate Theism among our fellow-men is a slightly different one. The fact that so many men believe in a God ought to set us wondering whether there are not, perhaps, reasons for such a belief, to which we have not hitherto devoted sufficient attention; or perhaps reasons which we scorned to look into, because we had vaguely been given to understand that they were out of date and unfashionable. Mankind’s belief in God is a rebuke to, and a condemnation of, the careless atheist. For it is the height of rashness or of pride to assume without investigation that so large a part of the race is giving credit to an illusion, for the existence of which no rational grounds cm be assigned.
In a word, the existence of religion is a challenge to us to consider eagerly whether there are not grounds for believing in God’s existence, philosophical grounds which will be as cogent for us as they have been for others. When I say “philosophical”, I do not mean that it is the duty of the bushman or of the charcoal-burner to go through a series of carefully arranged scholastic syllogisms. I mean that there exists among mankind a sort of rough, common-sense metaphysic which demands as its first postulate the existence of a divine principle in things. It can be refined, it can be reduced to terms, by the nice ratiocinations of the philosopher; it is equally valid (we hold) whether as it presents itself to the charcoal-burner or as it presents itself to the sage.
The schoolmen, whose method has left its stamp upon all subsequent Catholic apologetics, distinguished five avenues of approach by which we infer, from the conditions of our outward experience, the existence of a God.
- In all motion, or rather, as we should say, in all change, you can separate two elements, active and passive, that which is changed and that which changes it. But, in our experience, the agent in such change is not self-determined, but determined in its turn by some higher agent. Can this process go on ad infinitum? No, for an infinite series of agents, none of them self-determined, would not give us the finality which thought demands; there must be, at the beginning of the series, however long, an Agent who is self-determined, who is the ultimate Agent in the whole cycle of changes that proceeds from him.
- Similarly, in our experience every event is determined by a cause. But that cause in its turn is itself an event determined by a cause. An infinite series of causes would give no explanation of how the causation ever began. There must therefore be an uncaused Cause, which is the ultimate Cause of the whole nexus of events which proceeds from it.
- In our experience, we find nothing which exists in its own right; everything depends for its existence on something else. This is plain in the case of the organized individual; for plants, animals, etc., are born, live, and die; that is to say, their existence is only contingent, not necessary — it depends on conditions outside itself. Now, although the whole sum of matter does not, in our experience, increase or diminish, we cannot think of it as existing necessarily — it is just there. Its existence, then, must depend on something outside itself — something which exists necessarily, of its own right. That Something we call God.
- In our experience, there are various degrees of natural perfection. But the existence of the good and the better implies the existence of a Best; for (according to Plato’s sys tern of thought) this Best is itself the cause and the explanation of all good. But this Best is not found in our earthly experience, therefore it must lie beyond our earthly experience; and it is this Best which we call God.
- Everywhere in Nature we observe the effects of order and system. If blind chance ruled everything, this prevalence of order would be inexplicable; it would be a stupendous coincidence. Order can only be conceived as the expression of a Mind; and, though our mind appreciates the existence of order in the world, it is not our mind which has introduced it there. There must therefore exist outside our experience, a Mind of which this order is the expression; and that Mind we call God.
It is often objected that this analysis of the facts is unnecessarily itemized; it repeats the same argument under different forms. For the purposes of the plain man, it may perhaps be admitted that the first three of these arguments are not readily distinguishable. He apprehends God in his Creation, first as all-powerful and the source of all power (1, 2, and 3); then is all-good and the source of all goodness (4); then as all-wise and the source of all wisdom (5). For all the changes that have swept over Europe since the twelfth century, he has not been bullied out of his conviction.
It is true, the little books of popular science which he reads in his corner of the railway train, talk as if all this process of thought were antiquated; as if something had happened in the meantime which made Creation self-explanatory without the postulate of a Creator. Their cocksure implications affect him like briers that flick a man across the face without turning him aside from his direction. They tell him that matter is indestructible, not elucidating their meaning, which is that Man is incapable of destroying it; but even so he will not believe that matter has existed, for no particular reason, from all eternity; in that, stranger still, it brought itself into existence.
They write of Force with a capital F, or Energy with a capital E, as if we had somehow managed to deify those conceptions. But he knows that whereas motion is a fact that can be observed, force is a concept with which he is only acquainted through his experience as a living creature; it is a function of life, and the forces of Nature (as they are called), over which neither man nor beast exercises any control, must be functions of a Life which is outside experience itself.
They write as if Science had made the problem of existence simpler by explaining the causes of things hitherto unexplained — by showing us that disease is due to the action of microbes, or that lightning comes from the electricity in the atmosphere. But he knows that all this only puts the question a stage further back; that he is still at liberty to ask what caused the microbes, what caused the electricity. The thought of an infinite series, whether of causes or of agents, is no more attractive to him than to St. Thomas.
Of course, it is possible to avoid all these speculations with a bovine murmur of “I don’t know nothing about that.” But this is to give up the riddle, and to give it up, not because you cannot find the answer, but because you have found the answer, and have found it to be unpalatable. The lines of our experience, even in the natural world outside us, converge towards one point, presuppose a Creator who has necessary existence, a Prime Mover, a First Cause. But the created universe points to the existence not merely of an uncreated Power, but of an uncreated Mind.
This argument from the order and systems to be found in Creation is not synonymous with the argument from design; the argument from design, in the narrow sense, is a department or application of the main thesis. Design implies the adaptation of means to ends; and it used to be confidently urged that there was one end which the Creator clearly had in view, the preservation of species, and one plain proof of his purposive working, namely, the nice proportion between the instincts or endowments of the various animal species and the environment in which they had to live. The warm coats of the Arctic animals, the differences of strength, speed, and cunning which enable the hunter and the hunted to live together without the extermination of either — these would he instances in point; modern research has given us still more salient instances of the same principle, such as the protective mimicry which renders a butterfly or a nest of eggs indistinguishable from its surroundings. Was it not a Mind which had so proportioned means to ends?
The argument was a dangerous one, so stated. It took no account of the animal species which have in fact become extinct; it presupposed, also, the fixity of animal types. God’s mercy, doubtless, is over all his works, but we are in no position to apply teleological criticism to its exercise and to decide on what principle the wart-hog has survived while the dodo has become extinct. In this precise form, then, the argument from order has suffered badly.
But the argument from order, as the schoolmen conceived it, was and is a much wider and less questionable consideration. It is not merely in the adaptation of means to ends, but in the reign of law throughout the whole field of Nature, that we find evidence of a creative Intelligence. By a curious trick of human vanity, we describe a newly-discovered principle in Nature as So-and-so’s Law, Boyle’s, or Newton’s, or Tyndall’s, as if the discoverer were himself the legislator.
I am not grudging honor to the pioneers of research; I am only commenting on an oddity of phrase. Surely, when a thing is unexpectedly found, we congratulate the person who has found it, but our next question is inevitably, “Who put it there?” And, if there are laws in Nature to be discovered, it is but natural to ask the same question, “Who put them there?” If it needs a mind to discover them, did it not need a Mind to devise them? If the whole of our experience is not a phantasmagoria of unrelated facts, if water does not flow uphill, and gases do not double in volume when the pressure on them is doubled, who was it willed that the thing should be so? Not we assuredly; not Boyle, not Newton. Not blind Chance, for there is a limit to coincidence. Not “Nature”, for there is no such person; she is only an abstraction. What hypothesis is left to us except that of an ordering Mind? Instinctively we speak of a law when we find a natural principle; and have we no right to argue from a law to a Legislator?
I know that to superior persons all this will sound very naive. But it is easy to suspect simplicity in your opponent’s mind, when the simplicity really lies in the facts. There are thoughts so obvious that we are apt not to reflect upon them, so familiar that we are in danger of forgetting them.
So far we have been dealing with the evidences for God’s existence which are concerned with outward nature, not with the inner life of man. The argument from perfection adduced by the schoolmen is not the modern argument from moral perfection. The plain man would probably conceive the relations between God and man in the moral sphere with more of directness, more of concreteness. He would tell us that the voice of conscience was a voice not his own; whose then can it be, if it be not Divine?
Or he would tell us, in Kant’s vein, that the sense of moral duty is the sense of an obligation imposed upon us by a sovereignty outside ourselves — whose sovereignty, if not God’s? Or he would tell us that the sense of compunction which he feels when he has done wrong is not to be explained away as mere disappointment with himself; it carries with it the sense that he has defied a power above himself — whose power, if it be not God’s?
To each his own appeal; there is little need to dwell on this side of the argument; for probably everyone who has the least hankerings after Theism feels the force of it in one form or another. Otherwise I would ask space to argue that the scholastic form of it has a special value, as the truest both to the philosophic and to the devotional instinct.
I have made no attempt in this chapter to deal with the objections which will present themselves to minds influenced by the more intimate doubts of Idealism. I have been forced to assume, what the schoolmen assumed, and most ordinary people assume, that our thought is an instrument adequate to the cognition of objective reality.
Still less have I attempted to ,anticipate the rejoinders of the Pragmatist — who, it seems to me, above all men should wish to be a Catholic, and above all men will find it difficult to become one. I have merely indicated the course which Catholic apologetic takes in this fundamental matter, trusting that the inquirer, if his doubts begin so early in the process, will find access to more lucid and more copious expositions than mine.