In a May 9th comment Autumnal Harvest quoted me as saying: "That challenging fusion of belief with uncertainty is what makes faith a virtue." Then he asked: “Why is this a virtue? Normally holding a belief and acting on that belief, when there's insufficient evidence for it, is considered an error in judgment, not a virtue.”
In an April 28th comment P. Coyle said: “Here is a theological possibility for you to consider: What if the reason we don't know how God created the universe is not that we're too dumb to understand it, but because God does not want us to know? Would that not be consistent with your position, as the "believing agnostic," that we cannot know whether God exists? Doesn't your theology imply that, if we cannot know whether God exists, surely that must be because God doesn't want people to know that he exists?”
Both are thoughtful challenges. The following essay, which I wrote and posted before the questions were asked, explains why I see faith as a virtue and why I think God doesn't want people to know (be able to verify with certainty) that he exists.
How the Improbable God
A World View and a God Hypothesis
Here’s a world view in a thousand words – and it took me only fifty years to compose it. I offer it as a hypothesis – my effort to explain how God must think and act if we are to reconcile his existence with the world, and human life, as we find them. In part they are speculations about the mind, the values, and – to use a crude term for want of a better one – the personality of God. (If he is a person, must he not have a personality – “the complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual”?) Assume each part is true till you get to the end. Then, when you view it whole, decide if it might possibly account for what we see and what may be behind it. For me it does.
The Personality of God
There is a cosmic intelligence, an all-powerful personal God who created the universe. The Big Bang, evolution, and natural selection may have been his modus operandi. His mind is infinite, and his methods are very subtle. A sense of humor is one of the finest aspects of human intelligence, so we should not suppose our creator is without one. Irony, and a predilection for the incongruous, the unexpected, the mysterious, and the imponderable are manifest in all his works.
He has made some of the greatest truths about his world – from the roundness of the earth, and the stillness of the sun, to his own invisible existence -- appear improbable. He reveals himself, but always under a cloak of ambiguity that lets us explain him away, if we want to. He does this not maliciously, but with a benevolent purpose that has something to do with freedom and what might be called soul making. His “heart” is as vast and limitless as his mind.
Man is the creature in whom he takes the greatest interest, because man is the most Godlike creature – the most able to reflect on his condition, and alter it by using his mind and his power of choice. Man is the only creature capable of knowing God and forming a relationship with him. The only creature with a sense of humor.
The Values of God
God loves all of his creation, especially man, and he has made man more capable of love than any other creature. He can love not only himself, his mate, and their offspring (as other mammals do), but a wide circle of other human beings – potentially all of them. And God made it possible for man to love him. He has made love crucial to a healthy human psyche. We are happiest when we love God and other people, but we are free not to.
Such choices are the essence of morality, and God constructed the universe around them. Despite the vast sweep of its galaxies, it is essentially a moral universe – designed to provide moral challenge and opportunity, to require moral striving, and to produce in every life a measurable degree of moral success and failure, which are of keen interest to God.
Our happiness is important, but must often be deferred. God is eternal – he takes the long view, and requires that we learn to. The long view includes both life, which is brief, and its Sequel, which is endless. Though the Sequel is infinitely larger than life, it’s as invisible as God, therefore easy to forget or not believe in.
Deceptive Appearances, Hidden Truths
God has filled his universe with ironies. The principal irony is that often things are not what they seem. Learning to deal with that is a great moral challenge. We must learn to “see” the invisible, to “hear” the inaudible, to grasp what we can’t touch, and to believe what we can’t prove. The most important reality is God, but he’s hidden from us. Deliberately, maddeningly, and distressingly hidden. The shining Sequel to life -- its fulfillment, point, and purpose -- is so out of sight as to be generally out of mind, even for those who expect it.
God has made it possible for man to know a great many things with certainty. We know obvious things by simple observation. Much that is hidden can be learned by study, experiment, and the exercise of reason. At its best, reason is so amazing that we’re tempted to think it’s the only human faculty that can lead us to truth. In fact, it can lead us to only certain kinds of truth: practical, theoretic, scientific. But the ultimate truth – interpersonal and mystical -- is quite beyond its reach. We can reason to the possibility of God, but he has strewn other possibilities in our path, so that certainty about his existence and our origin cannot be had.
Unprovable, but not Unreachable
Dealing with this uncertainty is another moral challenge. God has made himself not only hidden but unprovable. The only way to connect with him is by believing what we can’t know. Those are his terms and we must accept them or reject him. When reason brings us to God’s threshold (he is one possibility among several), other faculties must carry us across, and if we disdain them we’ll never reach him. They may work in this sequence. Hope says, “I wish there were a God; I want there to be a God; I hope there is a God.” Love says, “I find the idea of God wonderfully appealing; I love the idea of God; I love the possibility of God.” Then faith says, “I extend my hand into the darkness; I believe in God” -- and the divine connection is made!
Humility and Truth
The ancient mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing said: “By love he may be gotten and holden, but by thought, never.” John said, “God is love.” The atheist Bertrand Russell said, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,” to justify his unbelief. Believing requires not only an act of faith but an act of humility. The prouder we are of our intellect, of its superiority to lesser minds, and of the dazzling science it produced, the harder it is to humble ourselves and believe. Yet the Designer of the Universe arranged it so that he, his ultimate truth, and life’s shining Sequel can be found only by the humble and believing.
We cannot accept his love unless we acknowledge his existence. We can brush aside the outstretched hand. He will neither compel faith, nor make it unnecessary. On those terms, we can take him or leave him. Receive his embrace or turn away. Our decision is our fate.