God and Reason
In the old days, people believed all sorts of stuff. The Vikings thought that the world was formed from the blood and bones of the giant Ymir. The Cherokee believed that the animals pulled the Earth out from under the sea and hooked it onto the sky using string.
A few hundred years ago during the time we now call the enlightenment, some very clever people realised that we could gain accurate knowledge of the universe and everything in it by asking questions and thinking up clever tests to work out the answers.
This might sound simple but it was revolutionary at a time when people would answer questions by referring to the Bible, or the Koran, or to something that Plato had written a thousand years before.
Evidence allows us to choose between one thing and another thing. Someone I know believes that there may be fairies living in her garden. All over the world, all sorts of people are believing all sorts of different things right now as you read this. But which things are true? Are there fairies in the garden?
With many ideas it’s possible to work out a way of testing if they are true or not. You could, for example, go and look at the bottom of the garden. If you see a fairy, then it’s true. Ah, but these fairies are clever, they heard you coming and made themselves invisible.
So, how about if we put a video camera in the garden? Well, you see the fairies don’t like electronic things so they stayed around the back of it to fool you. You can only know the fairies by their works, look how pretty the flowers are this year.
It really is impossible to come up with tests for certain kinds of problems. Unfortunately, these problems are some of the most interesting ones. Is there a god? Are we loved by him? Which is why I fall back on what I call the evidence of the heart.
When I think about God I feel nurtured and cared for. When I talk to him I feel loved. When I bring him my problems to him I feel my burdens lifted, I stand up taller, I walk straighter, I feel more at ease.
This experience isn’t unique to any particular religion. All kinds of people get this feeling, Christians, Jews, Muslims, all manner of different people have this feeling that there is a loving force in the universe which they can engage with.
Some scientists have noticed this and tried to work out where these feelings might come from. They describe humans as the “religious ape”. They put people in brain scanners as they pray and see which regions of the brain are activated. They try to find physical explanations.
What can we infer from the evidence of the heart? I think one of three things.
First, we could infer that our feelings mean what they seem to mean. That there is a god, as we conceive of him, and that he loves us.
Secondly, we could infer that these feeling come from within us. Something in our big brains makes us feel this way. Perhaps we are remembering the warmth of our parents. It is quite easy to feel strong emotions about fictional characters. Romeo never really loved Juliet. Just because we feel something doesn’t make it true.
There is another explanation. Many years ago I saw an episode of Poirot which stuck with me. In this episode, the eponymous Hercule said that there is always another explanation for anything we see. He called this explanation X. X is something else, something we haven’t thought of yet, something outside the realm of our expectations.
I suspect X may be the third explanation. Something other, something beyond. Why do I think this?
The universe as we know it contains a hundred billion galaxies (and that’s only as far as we can see with our strongest and best telescopes). That’s one hundred thousand thousand thousand galaxies, of which, our galaxy, the Milky Way is one. The Milky Way contains one hundred thousand thousand thousand stars and our shiny little planet orbits one of them. No one knows yet how many other shiny little planets there are, but given the scale of the thing, the likelihood is that there are many. It’s unimaginably, incomparably vast.
And yet, If we assume for a moment that god does exist, (a big assumption I know, but one I’ll come back to) He presumably made it all, set it in motion, cued it up and set it running. If there is a god, then we can reasonably assume that he is probably bigger, grander, vaster, more extraordinary than anything we can imagine.
Everything that we know is part of this universe. All our reason comes from it. All our logic is a function of it. To use logical argument to talk about god strikes me as similar to an spider living in the dark interior of a clock trying to explain the beauty of a sunrise in terms of the function of the mechanism. It can’t be done, they’re different realms.
When we use our heads to come up with answers to questions about god we fail. We fail because whatever logic we use, whatever reasoning we come up with there will always be a hole. There’s always another explanation. There’s always X. Because we can’t apply science to questions of theology we can never really prove anything. even when we think we have succeeded we have only really succeeded in deluding ourselves.
Some people talk with great eloquence about the Christian story. They construct arguments. They hang things together nicely. But if you take away the eloquence and strip it all back to an argument and you end up with something that is not satisfying, something with holes and flaws and logical missteps. Something weaker than it should be. Logic is not sufficient. A theory of levers can explain how the clock ticks, but can’t express the beauty of the sky.
But does this matter?
Jesus said “Love your enemy”. Why? It just feels right. Just be and do. Be just, act well, forgive, love. Why? No reason, just because. Jesus said “Love your neighbour as yourself”. To me this is heart stuff. It’s not logical it’s not reasonable, it’s just “be alive and do that”.
I imagine that for God, watching humans discuss religion must be a bit like watching children on a beach building sandcastles. “My castle is the best, look, it has turrets”. “But mine has a moat, I win”. “Yours are no good, you need coloured flags like mine”.
They are all very good sandcastles. See, they’re all made mostly from sand. Oh and look at that, there is the sea with the sky behind it and the bright sun shining down on all of you.
The second we step into our heads we fall on the floor. We worry about who impregnated who, who was the literal son of who, who died when and for what purpose. We worry about the facts. We concern ourselves with words and ideas. Tick tick tick go our brains. we forget that we are the spider in the clock. We describe glory using the language of mechanism.
To understand I think it’s safe to say that if god does exist, and I hope he does, he’s probably a bit bigger than any concept or idea or logic or theology that we can come up with.
But why believe in God at all? prefer to think that there is a god, and I prefer the life I lead when I act accordingly.
And this is where we come to faith. Because without further evidence, without even any idea of what evidence might look like we really just have to plump for something and take a grand and glorious shot in the dark.