Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Does God Really Exist?

A talk by Father Robert Connor
For the Augustine Club at Columbia University

"Atheism in the strict sense of the word came into existence only in the modern age...

"Atheism ... rejects any and every claim that God or the divine exists...
"(N)o primitive people is unqualifiedly atheistic, since among all primitive peoples there is some kind of an idea of a worship of a divine reality. Even the high religions of Asia that do not acknowledge a personal absolute (Buddhism, Taoism) are not atheistic, as is often mistakenly claimed. By reason of its conception of the world as numinous, classical antiquity likewise did not have any atheists in the sense describe above.
Atheism is a Post-Christian Phenomenon: Judeo-Christian revelation affirmed the transcendence of a creating God and he immanence of a created cosmos.

"Atheism in the proper sense, which denies everything divine, became possible only in the modern age. It presupposes Christianity and to that extent is a post-Christian phenomenon. The biblical faith in creation had broken with the numinous conception of the world that was current in antiquity and had effected a denuminization of reality by distinguishing clearly and unambiguously between God the creator and the world as his creation. In so doing, the Bible thought of the world in worldly terms and God in divine terms and of the two as qualitatively distinct in infinite degree. Only when God had been conceived as radically God was it possible also to deny him in a radical way. Only when the transcendence of God had been taken seriously did it become possible to experience the immanence of the world, and only after the world had been acknowledged simply as world could it become the object of objectifying scientific study and technical transfor- mation. The way was being prepared for this kind of autonomous understanding of the world as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But the autonomy of the world, based as it was on the idea of creation, remained part of a total context that was theonomous; in fact, the autonomy itself was given a theonomous justification. On the other hand, the very emancipation of autonomy from its theonomous context and reference and thus the presupposition for the rise of modern atheism had theological causes. These were provided by late medieval Nominalism. Nominalism carried the idea of God's omnipotence and freedom to an extreme, turning him into an absolutist deity who acts in an arbitrary manner;" ("The God of Jesus Christ," Crossroad, 1986, pp. 16-17).

The reaction against an arbitrary God not creating nor acting through the Logos - intelligibly - but deceptively stimulates the rebellion of a non-theonomous autonomy of the subject characterized by the cartesian cogito "I think, therefore I am." The classic profile of the modern period begins in the presumption of non intelligibility of the world where the subject gives "names" to reality which do not correspond to anything real. The subject, then, is exalted replacing God as the source of meaning. This continues through the Enlightenment to Marxism where God is seen to be the alienation of the meaning of man and hence obliging renunciation in the name of humanity and being declared "dead" (Nietzsche). The "shape" of replacing God by the subject is a new immanentist trinity: the belief if progress, absolutized scientific-technical civilization and political messianism. Ratzinger remarks that
"The remarkable thing about this strange trinity is ... that this structure now replaces the concept of God and necessarily excludes it, since it takes its place. This systematic exclusion of the divine from the shaping of history and human life, referring to the definitiveness of scientific insight, is perhaps the genuinely new, and at the same time the truly threatening, element in that strange product of Europe that we call Marxism. I now assert that this same combination, in weaker forms, is active in the life of the Western world even outside Marxist thinking (he is talking of Western/American capitalism here). If it were to succeed in establishing itself definitively, this would ... be the end of what could make Europe a positive force in the world" (bold mine). (Turning Point For Europe? Ignatius, 1994, p. 125).
[Handwritten summary of stages:]
1. The World is God. He who accepts the evidence of the World accepts God. There is no Atheism, but Pantheism
2. The revelation of Creation splits the created world from the Creator. Both are accessible to reason: a) by the experience of perception and abstractive reasoning; b) by the moral experience of being an “I” imaging God. Both yield access to being, the latter more and differently than the former.
3. The revelation of the Judeo-Christian Creator clears the decks of the sensible world as God, opening it to the development of science. If God is totally trans-sensible - beyond the perception of the senses, and the Invisible God is denied, then radical Atheism enters for the first time: neither in the sensible world or beyond it. This is the Nietzschean modern period, the theological period of God-is-dead.
Does God Really Exist?
(The mind of John Paul II: Crossing the Threshold of Hope,Knopf (1994) 28-29)

“Your question ultimately concerns Pascal’s distinction between the Absolute – that is, the God of the philosophers (the rationalist libertines) – and the God of Jesus Christ; and, prior to Him, the God of the Patriarchs -from Abraham to Moses. Only the God of Jesus Christ is the living God. As has also been stated in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum (no. 3), the first God mentioned above--the God of the philosophers--is the fruit of human thought, of human speculation, and capable of saying something valid about God. In the end, all rationalist arguments follow the path indicated in the Book of Wisdom and the Letter to the Romans--passing from the visible world to the invisible Absolute.
Aristotle and Plato follow this same path, but in a different manner. The Christian tradition before Thomas Aquinas, and therefore also Augustine, was tied to Plato, from whom it nonetheless rightfully wanted to distance itself. For Christians, the philosophical Absolute, considered as the First Being or Supreme Good, did not have great meaning. Why engage in philosophical speculations about God, they asked themselves, if the living God has spoken, not only by way of the Prophets but also through His own Son? The theology of the Fathers, especially in the East, broke away more and more from Plato and from philosophers in general. Philosophy itself, in the Fathers, ends up in theology (as in the case, for example, in modern times, of Vladimir Soloviev).

Saint Thomas, however, did not abandon the philosophers' approach. He began his Summa Theologica with the question "An Deus sit?"--"Does God exist?" (cf. 1, q.2, a.3). You ask the same question. This question has proven to be very useful. Not only did it create theodicy, but this question has reverberated throughout a highly developed Western civilization. Even if today, unfortunately, the Summa Theologica has been somewhat neglected, its initial question persists and continues to resound throughout our civilization.
BUT The point of JPII: "the response to the question 'An Deus sit' is not only an issue that touches the intellect; it is, at the same time, an issue that has a strong impact on all of human existence. It depends on a multitude of situations in which man searches for the significance and the meaning of his own existence. Questioning God's existence is intimately united with the purpose of human existence. Not only is it a question of intellect; it is also a question of the will, even a question of the human heart (the raisons du coeur of Blaise Pascal). I think that it is wrong to maintain that Saint Thomas's position stands up only in the realm of the rational. One must, it is true, applaud Etienne Gilson when he agrees with Saint Thomas that the intellect is the most marvelous of God’s creations, but that does not mean that we must give in to a unilateral rationalism (my emphasis). Saint Thomas celebrates all the richness and complexity of each created being, and especially of the human being. It is not good that his thought has been set aside in the post-conciliar period; he continues, in fact, to be the master of philosophical and theological universalism. In this context, his, his quinque viae - that is, his "five ways" that lead toward a response to the question "An Deus sit?" - should be read (Crossing the Threshold of Hope 30-31).
The point is that the only being that is directly and unmediatedly experienced is the self in the moral (free) act of self-transcendence. The obedience of Christ to death on the Cross mimicked in us by the obedience of faith as self-gift is the prototype of the act. The being of the person expands as relation (self-gift) in such an act, and consciousness of being “like God” follows on that expansion. Witness the consciousness of Adam (notoriously mimicked by Helen Keller in naming the water) as being different from the rest of created “things” after his obedience to subdue the earth by naming the animals (the “original solitude”).
Contrarily, the act of disobedience (sin and selfishness) reduces the being of the person as expansive self-gift and correspondingly reduces the intelligence and consciousness of mystery into mere conceptualism and rationalism. Rationalism regresses into positivism, skepticism and finally into nihilism. Hence, the thesis: as Christian faith as gift of self evaporates in a society, reason loses its sense of mystery and decays into nihilism.
Hence, the question of God is not just a subject concerning the intellect in that the whole dynamic of the person as being is the privileged locus of the encounter of reason with being. Hence the ontological state of the person as affected by moral performance is critical for true-to-reality knowing. Ratzinger says:
"This restriction of reason has the result that we are left in almost total darkness regarding some essential dimensions of life. The meaning of man, the bases of ethics, the question of God cannot be subjected to rational experience, verified by mathematical formulae. And so they are left to subjective sensibility alone.”
The analysis of this within faith is the following: Man was created in the image of God with relational dimensions as has God. He was in a divinized state as image which consisted in obedience to the divine commands to subdue the earth, multiply and not eat the forbidden fruit. Disobeying that moral command severed the relation to God and hence damaged the ontological status as image. Man contracted from relation to autonomous individual and the real understanding he had of God was by way of experiencing himself as God's image. This was an experiential understanding he had of himself which was subjective and real. It was not idealist subjectivism but a realist experience of himself as "I" imaging the triple "I" of the Deity. It was an experience of the unfathomable mystery of God in himself within which he conceptualized about himself and exterior reality and was able to conceptually communicate with God and the woman.
"As a result of that mysterious original sin," says John Paul II, "committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is a 'liar and the father of lies' (Jn. 8, 44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thes. 1, 9), exchanging 'the truth about God for a lie' (Rom 1, 25). Man's capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and skepticism (cf. Jn. 18, 38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself." (Veritatis Splendor #1).
There has been a systole and diastole of approximation to the original state of imaging God whereby reason is able to contemplate the fullness of reality as mystery. The systole is the development of relation throughout the Old Testament by faith and obedience to God and the commandments. The complete restoration is understood to be in Jesus Christ who is God himself who has taken the fallen humanity of the man Jesus and obeyed with it to death on the Cross, thus restoring the original perversion of the human will, the proof of which is the resurrection from the dead.
But that identification with Christ has had its highpoints (first 1300 years) and its diastole (low point)- particularly with regard to a lived faith during the last several centuries. The failure to live the faith is the explanation for the progressive passage from mystery, to rationalism, to positivism, to nihilism. That is, as the personalist/relational dimension of the human person diminishes the object of reason - the subject himself - diminishes. Thus, one literally grasps less of reality. In another context, Ratzinger remarks: "But ethics does not provide its own rational foundation. Even the ethics of the Enlightenment which still holds our states together lives on the after-effects of Christianity, which provided it with the foundations of its rationality and it internal cohesion. When the Christian foundations are removed completely nothings holds together any more...
"What is essential is that reason shut in on itself does not remain reasonable or rational, just as the state that aims at being perfect becomes tyrannical. Reason needs revelation in order to be able to be effective as reason. The connection between the state and its Christian foundations is imperative precisely if it is to remain the state and be pluralist" (bold mine) (“A Christian Orientation in a Pluralist Society, in Church, Ecumenism and Politics.” Crossroad, 1988, pp. 217-218).

POSITIVISM: ("Crossing..." p. 33)

Is man truly capable of knowing something beyond what he sees with his eyes or hears with his ears? Does some kind of knowledge other than the strictly empirical exist? Is the human capacity for reason completely subject to the senses and internally directed by the laws of mathematics, which have been shown to be particularly useful in the rational ordering of phenomena and for guiding technical progress?
If we put ourselves in the positivist perspective, concepts such as God or the soul simply lose meaning. In terms of sensory experience, in fact, nothing corresponds to God or the soul. The great cognitive error here consists in the reduction of the capacity of the intellect to judge mere "FACTS" ABOUT REALITY. But FACTS are judgments ABOUT reality. They are not an experience of being but a pointing AT being THROUGH ABSTRACTIVE PERCEPTION and go about identifying subject and predicate. FACTS [therefore] are abstractions, a very weak and mediated experience of reality that can crash, and is devolving into Nihilism:

“The real untruth of the world view of which drugs and terrorism are symptoms consists in the reduction of the world to facts and in the narrowing-down of reason to perception of what is quantitative. That which is most specific to man is shoved aside into the subjective realm and thus lacks reality. The "abolition of man", which results from the attribution of absoluteness to one single mode of knowledge, at the same time clearly falsifies this world view. Man exists, and anyone who, on the strength of his own theory, has to pull man down into the sphere of a machine that is "seen through" and can be assembled lives in a construction of perception that misses precisely what is essential (J. Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe, Ignatius, 1994, 35) (underline mine).


Cognitive realism, both so-called naive realism and critical realism, agrees that "nihil est in intellectu, quod prius non fuerit in sensu" ("nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses"). Nevertheless, the limits of these "senses" are not exclusively sen sory. We know, in fact, that man not only knows colors, tones, and forms; he also knows objects globally--for example, not only all the parts that comprise the object "man" but also man in himself (yes, man as a person). He knows, therefore, extrasensory truths, or, in other words, the transempirical. In addition, it is not possible to affirm that when something is transempirical it ceases to be empirical.

Experiencing God By the Direct Experience of Self-Transcending.

“It is therefore possible to speak from a solid foundation about human experience, moral experience, or religious experience. And if it is possible to speak of such experiences, it is difficult to deny that, in the realm of human experience, one also finds good and evil, truth and beauty, and God. God Himself certainly is not an object of human empiricism; the Sacred Scripture, in its own way, emphasizes this: "No one has ever seen God" (cf. Jn 1:18). If God is a knowable object--as both the Book of Wisdom and the Letter to the Romans teach--He is such on the basis of man's experience both of the visible world and of his interior world. This is the point of departure for Immanuel Kant's study of ethical experience in which he abandons the old approach found in the writings of the Bible and of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Man recognizes himself as an ethical being, capable of acting according to criteria of good and evil, and not only those of profit and pleasure. He also recognizes himself as a religious being, capable of putting himself in contact with God. Prayer--of which we talked earlier--is in a certain sense the first verification of such a reality…(underline mine)
“And we find ourselves by now very close to Saint Thomas, but the path passes not so much through being and existence as through people and their meeting each other, through the "I" and the "Thou." This is a fundamental dimension of man's existence, which is always a co-existence… Such co-existence is essential to our Judeo-Christian tradition and comes from God’s initiative. This initiative is connected with and leads to creation, and is at the same time – Saint Paul teaches - `the eternal election of man in the Word who is the Son (cf. Eph. 1, 4).” (Crossing… 34, 36)

This disclosure of the experience of the “I” – not as “consciousness” as in Descartes – but as Being is the unique work of John Paul II as believer/philosopher. It appears full blown in the “Acting Person” where he solves the riddle of the impasse between thought and things that has left us with the bogus alternatives and irresolvable conundra of natural/supernatural, grace/nature, church/state, contingent singular/absolute universal, science/religion…. The “I” needs to be loved (grace) in order to be and to act; the “I” is simultaneously “faithful” of the Church and citizen of the body politic; the unique “I” as privileged locus of being is supremely intelligible and not meaningless “fact,” etc. etc. The following are the significant sites of his thought:

The Methodology of Wojtyla Enabling This Disclosure of the “I” As Gift: The Experience of Self-Determination.

“But as the need increases to understand the human being as a unique and unrepeatable person, especially in terms of the whole dynamism of action and inner happenings proper to the human being – in other words, as the need increases to understand the personal subjectivity of the human being – the category of lived experience takes on greater significance, and, in fact, key significance. For then the issue is not just the metaphysical objectification of the human being as an acting subject, as the agent of acts, but the revelation of the person as a subject experiencing its acts and inner happenings, and with them its own subjectivity."

Perhaps, the analytical genius of Wojtyla comes to the fore precisely here. The “I” is being, not consciousness. But the experience which discloses the “I” as being is the work of consciousness. He distinguishes the consciousness of the experience of sensible things - which is taken from the experience (sensible perception) of the external world: this pink cloud – from the consciousness of the experience of the self (“I”) in the act of self-determination in the moment of morality: responsibility or guilt. In its (non abstractive) mirroring function, consciousness grasps the subject (not yet experienced as “I”), which has been objectified by reflective (not “reflexive,” in the terminology of Wojtyla) thought, and then “actualized” (subdued/mastered) by itself. He distinguishes between the reflectiveness of the mind turning back on its own act of knowing things and the reflexiveness of consciousness which captures both the reflections of the subject in potency to self-determine, and in the act of moving itself. This capturing both states of the self as pre and post self-determination, as potency and act with respect to itself, constitutes the experience of the “I” as “I.” And he corroborates this when he remarks in Fides et Ratio #83 that “In a special way, the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being, and hence with metaphysical enquiry.”
He remarks in the Acting Person:
“The consequence of the reflexive turn of consciousness is that this object – just because it is from the ontological point of view the subject – while having the experience of his own ego also has the experience of himself as the subject. In this interpretation `refexiveness’ is also seen to be an essential as well as a very specific moment of consciousness. It is, however, necessary to add at once that this specific moment becomes apparent only when we observe and trace consciousness in its intrinsic, organic relation to the human being, in particular, the human being in action. We then discern clearly that it is one thing to be the subject, another to be cognized (that is, objectivized) as the subject, and a still different thing to experience one’s self as the subject of one’s own acts and experiences… This discrimination is of tremendous import for all our further analyses, which we shall have to make in our efforts to grasp the whole dynamic reality of the acting person and to account for the subjectiveness that is given us in experience.
“Indubitably, Man is, first of all, the subject of his being and his acting; he is the subject insofar as he is a being of determinate nature, which leads to consequences particularly in the acting. In traditional ontology that subject of existing and acting which man is was designated by the term supposed – ontic support – which, we may say, serves as a thoroughly objective designation free of any experiential aspects, in particular of any relation to that experience of subjectivity in which the subject is given to itself as the self, as the ego. Hence suppositum abstracts from that aspect of consciousness owing to which the concrete man – the object being the subject – has the experience of himself as the subject and thus of his subjectivity. It is this experience that allows him to designate himself by means of the pronoun I. We know I to be a personal pronoun, always designating a concrete person. However, the denotation of this personal pronoun, thus….
“Hence not only am I conscious of my ego (on the ground of self-knowledge) but owing to my consciousness in its reflexive function I also experience my ego. I have the experience of myself as the concrete subject of the ego’s very subjectiveness. Consciousness is not just an aspect but also an essential dimension or an actual moment of the reality of the being that I am, since it constitutes its subjectiveness in the experiential sense.”
****** It is important to go back to see that the original recovery of the “I” as “alone” - “from the beginning” - was precisely in the experience of subduing the self (self-determination) on the occasion of work (naming the animals and tilling the garden). Then, God reveals the axiology of the person: “It is not good for man to be alone.” The re-creation of man as male and female is the occasion for them both to increase in their ontological density as “I” by the respective subduing of self to be gift to each other. The failure to subdue the self was the fact of sin that constituted the loss of the experience of imaging the Three. Man lost the experience of the “I” and forgot who he was. Go to Percy’s “Lost in the Cosmos.”

Wojtyla/John Paul II explicitly links the Magisterial GS #24 with his understanding of self-determination: Hence: The Personal Structure of Self-Determination: …. This must be connected now to prayer as the supreme act of self-transcendence. Hence, Ratzinger:
Prayer as the Experience of God In Myself
“Thesis 3: Since the center of the person of Jesus is prayer, it is essential to participate in his prayer if we are to know and understand him.
Let us begin here with a general matter of epistemology. By nature, knowledge depends on a certain similarity between the knower and the known. The old axiom is that like is known by like. In matters of the mina and where persons are concerned, this means that knowledge calls for a certain degree of empathy, by which we enter, so to speak, into the person or intellectual reality concerned, become one with him or it, and thus become able to understand (intellegere = ab intus legere).
We can illustrate this with a couple of examples. Philosophy can only be acquired if we philosophize, if we carry through the process of philosophical thought; mathematics can only be appropriated if we think mathematically; medicine can only be learned in the practice of healing, never merely by means of books and reflection. Similarly, religion can only be understood through religion --an undisputed axiom in more recent philosophy of religion. The fundamental act of religion is prayer which in the Christian religion acquires a very specific character; it is the act of self-surrender by which we enter the Body of Christ. Thus it is an act of love. As love, in and with the Body of Christ, it is always both love of God and love of neighbor, knowing and fulfilling itself as love for the members of this Body.
In Thesis 1 we saw that prayer was the central act of the person of Jesus and, indeed, that this person is constituted by the act of prayer, of unbroken communi- cation with the one he calls "Father". If this is the case, it is; only possible really to understand this person by entering into this act of prayer; by participating in it. This is suggested by Jesus' saying that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him (Jn 6:44). Where there is no Father, there is no Son. Where there is no relationship with God, there can be no understanding of him who, in his innermost self, is nothing but relation- ship with God, the Father--although one can doubtless establish plenty of details about him. Therefore a participation in the mind of Jesus, i.e., in his prayer, which (as wc have seen) is an act of love, of self-giving and self-expropriation to men, is not some kind of pious supplement to reading the Gospels, adding nothing to knowledge of him or even being an obstacle to the rigorous purity of critical knowing. On the contrary, it is the basic precondition if real understanding, in the sense of modern hermeneutics--i.e., the entering-in to the same time and the same meaning-- is to take place.
The New Testament continually reveals this state of affairs and thus provides the foundation for a theological epistemology. Here is simply one example: when Ananias was sent to Paul to receive him into the Church, he was reluctant and suspicious of Paul; the reason given to him was this: go to him "for he is praying" (Acts 9:11)…. Paul is moving toward the moment when he will be freed from blindness and will begin to see, not only exteriorly, but interiorly as well. The person who prays begins to see; praying and seeing go together because-- Richard of St. Victor says--"Love is the faculty of seeing". Real advances in Christology, therefore, can never come merely as the result of the theology of the schools, and that includes the modern theology as we find it in critical exegesis, in the history of doctrine and in an anthropology oriented toward the human sciences, etc. All this is important, as important as schools are. But it is insufficient. It must be complemented by the theology of the saints, which is theology from experience. All real progress in theological understanding has its origin in the eye of love and in its faculty of beholding (J.Ratzinger, "Behold the Pierced One" Ignatius 1986, pp. 25-27).

"At the end of the second millennium, we need, perhaps more than ever, the words of the Risen Christ: 'Be not afraid!' Man who, even after the fall of Communism, has not stopped being afraid ...” (Crossing …” p. 221)
Of what? Of the call to cross the threshold of hope...: " following Jesus Christ so closely that you become one and the same thing with Him. "Do not be afraid of God who became a man! It was precisely this that Peter said at Caesarea Philippi: 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God' (Mt. 16,16). Indirectly He affirmed: You are the Son of God who became a man. Peter was not afraid to say it, even if these words did not come from him. They came from the Father. 'No one knows the Son except the Father; ...(cf. Mt. 11, 27).
"Peter was not afraid of God who had become a man. He was afraid, instead, for the Son of God as a man. Peter could not accept that He would be whipped and crowned with thorns and finally crucified. Peter could not accept that. He was afraid. And for this Christ severely reproached him, but He did not reject him" (p. 7).
Returning to p. 222: "Peoples and nations of the entire world need to hear these words. Their conscience needs to grow in the certainty that Someone exists who holds in His hands the destiny of this passing world; Someone who holds the keys to death and the netherworld (cf. Rev. 1, 18); Someone who is the Alpha and the Omega of human history (cf. Rev. 22,13) - be it the individual or collective history. And this Someone is Love (cf. I Jn. 4, 8,16) - Love that became man, Love crucified and risen, Love unceasingly present among men. It is Eucharistic Love. It is the infinite source of communion. He alone can give the ultimate assurance when He says 'Be not afraid!'
Crossing of the threshold seems to mean bursting out of being retained within the individualism of the self. It means stepping out of oneself to serve the others... To do that, one experiences being Christ and therefore is able to say: "Father!" He is the God of Jesus Christ.

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