I want to prove that God exists. By God, I mean a singular being, an entity who is responsible for the world and all of the things in it. Such a being could only be responsible, could only take responsibility and be obliged toward this earth and us, if that being met certain criteria. So before I can even prove that God exists I must know what God is, and to know what God is also means knowing that God is.
Let me start over, I want to prove that God is real. God exists, unicorns exist, vampires exist, square circles exist, toaster ovens exist, but we do not think of all existing things as real in the same way. I think that toaster ovens are real and that unicorns are not real. Reality is a measurement of how well we can interact with a thing. The more real something is, the more kinds and types of activity will allow me to engage with it. Less real things can only be engaged in a few ways. So a toaster oven is real because I can use my senses, my imagination, my beliefs, my theories, and my intuition to grasp it. It is also real because what I grasp about toaster ovens is similar to what other people grasp about them. The toaster oven is available to my mind and my body in almost every way in which an object can be available. Plus it is also available to my social sense of what others think.
Unicorns exist, but they just are not very real. I can imagine but not sense them, except insofar as I can sense artistic representations of them. I can form beliefs about unicorns and these beliefs may be similar to other people’s beliefs, but there will be a great amount of disparity between belief systems (there always is after all). I cannot rightly come up with any theories about unicorns since theories require testing, and without the use of my senses my theories will be generally un-testable. I don’t think I can have intuitions about unicorns either, as an intuition is an immediate grasping of an obvious truth. I do not immediately know anything about unicorns, except perhaps for what the word itself signifies, which is a creature with one horn. There are of course any number of creatures that would fit that distinction so it is quite useless as a term. My most reliable source of data on unicorns is what I glean from my interactions with others, and so my knowledge of the unicorn is almost entirely social. Yet I suspect that everyone’s knowledge of unicorns is ultimately dependent on the imagination of a clever inventor somewhere in history. So the unicorn is real, but its reality is that of the imagination, and is therefore of the lowest kind of reality and the least amount of truth.
So the question I put to myself in other terms is this, is God a unicorn or a toaster oven? Is God real or imaginary? If I ask this question honestly I may find that I am done before I begin, but let me try to be dishonest for a moment and give the teleological argument for God’s existence.
The idea behind the intelligent design movement, and one of the oldest ways of proving God’s existence is the teleological argument. I do not think that it originates with Thomas Aquinas, but he certainly did come up with a famous variation of it in his famous Five Ways, in the Summa Theologica. In Question 2, answer 3 of his Treatise on God, Aquinas argues that you can prove that God exists, by which we understand him to mean that he thinks that God is real. The last of his five ways is known as the teleological argument, from the Greek word telos meaning purpose or design. Let me sum up his argument here like so:
Things without knowledge act for an end, since they act always in the same way to obtain the best result, hence it is plain that they achieve their end by design and not fortune, and whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end unless it is directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence, Thus God is the intelligent being who directs all natural things to their end.
Things in the world have a purpose which they are trying to fulfill. Prior to the advent of natural science, teleological thinking was used to explain everything from agriculture to gravity. The popular theory about rocks was that it was their purpose, or telos, to be at a state of rest. So whenever rocks would find themselves in the air, or sliding down a mountain, they would always rush to get to the bottom so they could be still again.
We no longer think of rocks as trying to fulfill their purpose, but the theologically minded, and even the scientifically minded, still employ the language of purpose to explain how and why things in the world are the way that they are. The scientist will say that the giraffe likely evolved a long neck, thanks to environmental conditions, genetic variances, scarcity of resources etc., for the purpose of eating the leaves at the tops of trees. This better enabled it to survive…on the savannah…where there are not that many trees? Well the point is still the same, we tend to think that evolutionary biology can define the species that survive as those who are best fitted for the purpose of survival. In all fairness to science, none of this is quite right, but this kind of everyday way of talking about things in the world as purposeful actually comes from a very scientific way of thinking, a technological way of thinking.
Instead of looking at the things in the world, as though they had a purpose they were trying to fulfill in and of themselves, the technological way of thinking sees the things in nature as fulfilling their function. Function is not quite the same as telos, since function has to do with the kinds of activities which an entity is best able to carry out when it is properly pressed into service. For example, an apple tree can bear fruit, but it can also bear no fruit, much fruit, or little fruit. Yet when we turn the technological gaze on an apple tree we see a thing whose function is the bearing of fruit. If indeed that is the function of the tree then the good tree, and the one we will do our best to grow, is the one which produces much fruit. What’s more we will decide that the best apple tree produces the most fruit of the best quality. So the good tree, in some moral sense of the term, will be the best tree. Therefore, the work of agriculture becomes the creation and cultivation of the best trees we can possibly create. This attitude becomes self-justifying and we begin to see the trees in the world as existing solely for the function of producing the most fruit of the best kind.
Telos resists this idea to a certain degree, but only because telos is supposed to be natural. The purpose of a bird is not what kind of use or function to which we can put the bird. The purpose of the bird is to be what it is, and to be what it is in some original and almost poetic sense. Modern science, and also modern theology, still use the language of purpose but they have now conflated it with the language of function so that they both claim there is only really function. This is what makes the teleological argument so problematic.
If I know that God exists because things in the world always carry out their function, then I have a God who has made everything in the world to carry out its true and essential function. This also means that animals, plants, and even people exist for only one function, and that function is finally dictated by God. Well of course if God is a creator then we should have no problem with this idea, for certainly the creator may create as He chooses. The analogy of the machine, God the watchmaker, is the one we then apply to the natural world. In so doing we see a world of functioning entities each working in perfect harmony and synchronization to enable us, the lords of the earth, to recreate the imperfect world before us as a perfect monument for the glory of God. In this way, despite all of the other problems which may persist for this argument, God becomes little more than a petty engineering tyrant. There is no redundancy in nature, no excess, no defect, but all that exists functions as God wills it. Everything is just one more perfect piece in the divine machine.
If this is the argument for God, then the rest must surely follow. So then do beings have freedom? No, all beings are strictly enslaved by God into fulfilling their singular function. Then do human beings have freedom, since surely we must exist in order to enable the functioning of the world to serve God’s glory? No, humans are the most enslaved beings since humans are thinking beings and thus would be capable of freedom. Yet humans seem to be able to rebel, and thus aren’t humans free? No, since human rebellion is punished with death and hell and the only good humans are those who completely subordinate themselves to the all crushing will of God. Yet if God is so powerful then he does not need us to be subordinate since he could recreate everything in one instant, then isn’t his power limited? No, since all that happens is in fact, and in every way possible, part of God’s machine and part of his master plan. He does not need us, but since we do exist then we are enslaved to the functioning of God’s great machine, and in fact all of our actions serve that function whether we like it or not.
However, the way out of this might be a return to the idea of telos that we find in art, and that idea is the idea of exchange rather than imposition. God as a technician would create a machine and that machine would have a singular and limiting purpose. Yet what if God is no technician, what if God is an artist?
The artist does not impose, they reveal. The artist does not enslave, but rather they give and receive in turn. The artist approaches the empty canvas and allows the idea, which the paints, the brushes, the canvas, and the artist’s own artistic inspiration elicit, to emerge onto that canvas in some rough and unfinished form. Art is always in process, never finished, and is thus always open to being revised, changed, expanded, or redirected. The artist may add and take away, but each movement of the brush and paint against the canvas uncovers another layer of the artistic work. In this case the painting is hidden and concealed within the work of the artist, and the finished painting which is put on display is only ever one way of seeing that true and hidden aspect of the work of art. Yet there are always other works of art present in a painting, and there are always more directions to go. The work of art has no function precisely because its purpose is a true telos. The work of art exists for a purpose that is its own, remains its own, and in so remaining in its own-ness remains open and unfixed.
So then how can I know that God is real? I could use the teleological argument and try to convince you that God is a machine builder and you are a cog in his machine. Then I would try to get you to understand how perfect is the machine, and how it lacks for nothing. Your simple response would then be “what about pain, disease, and death?” My clever retort would be that these are likewise necessary functions of the great machine. You would then either bow before God the gear grinder and beg to be ground up in his wheels, or you would walk away in disgust and anger at a being who cares nothing for the universe or its people.
Yet if I say that God is real because of the aesthetic argument, I would take a different approach. I may direct you to the beautiful imagery and imagination of the opening lines in the book of Genesis. I would ask you to read them and think about how the artist would go about creating the world. Look at how the world begins as formless , with empty void and unclear waters. Then God begins with light, and into that negative space he pours out the contrast of positive space. Yet that space cannot, and does not, cancel out the negative, the waters remain and so does the void, but now there is contrast and diversity. The rest of the story is such an inspired piece of poetry that I would beg for you to leave your theology behind when you read it. Then I would ask you to look at the natural world in which you live, and consider the beauty you see. I would advise you to seek out symmetry, as well as asymmetry, and to look for color and shape. You will find that in nature exists all of the grand strokes of a master artist.
Yet the most telling thing about the idea of God as an artist is that God’s sovereignty is not the same as the idea of God’s supremacy. God the artist is sovereign, and in so doing is the responsible party for the condition of the world. Yet that condition exists as an exchange between the strokes of the artist and the way that the natural world chooses to give out, or withhold itself. There is no moral relationship here, God has no claim to the world itself, only to the art which he has created. That claim is also only one of authorship and not one of mastery. In light of that God’s love makes more sense, since it is possible for the author to love the characters of his work of fiction, and yet to feel powerless to change their fate.
Yet you may say, that I have not proven that God exists, and my argument does not overcome the logical opposition of the various arguments for atheism. My response would be that I have no interest, nor the ability if I had the interest, in converting atheists. The work of art is just as beautiful and just as enjoyable even if you do not know its author. Besides, I may be wrong and there is no God and the universe then is only a machine with no creator. Too many atheistic arguments seem to insist that the universe is a structured machine which follows rules. In that case the machine may be conquered by us, and we may gain mastery over the universe, the ultimate goal of all technological thinking. Or we may step back and rather than mastering the universe simply try to make an exchange with it. If we make that exchange in good faith and on fair and equal footing then we may yet find ourselves taken into a more original way of seeing and knowing the world. This way need not be ignorant of all that we know, but it also need not be arrogant or domineering in that knowledge either.
Whatever you believe or know about God or the lack of God, I say to you, peace.
(I am indebted to the work of Martin Heidegger and Thomas Aquinas for the inspiration for this essay.)