Arguing for God: A Reply to Ed

Over on the St Hilda’s House blog, Ed has argued that Christians ought not to use arguments for the existence of God. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with him. In good analytic fashion, Ed has laid out three clear points, making it maximally easy for me to refute him. In this post, I challenge his first point.

1. It is a part of God’s nature that His existence cannot be rationally demonstrated.

The idea here is as follows. To argue for the proposition that God exists to subject God to human measures of rationality. God cannot be subject to human measure. Therefore, we ought not to argue for the proposition that God exists.

This, however, is not the only way to describe what happens when we consider arguments for and against theism. The way Ed has set things up, human measures of rationality are set over against God. Why should we not rather say that divine standards of rationality are set over against human beliefs? I start out with my – human, fallible – beliefs about God, and scrutinise them according to our best epistemic standards, standards which, if indeed they are the best standards available to us who are made in God’s image, approximate the divine rationality.

Here is a legend. On my first day of secondary school, a friend had moved with me from our previous school was regaling one of our new classmates with stories about me. The classmate said ‘Who is this Siantonas? I don’t believe he exists!’. Was my classmate passing judgement upon me? I cannot bring myself to think so. If he knew me already, and refused to believe some story that put me in a good light, or all too eagerly believed some story that put me in a bad light, he would be passing judgement on me. But in judging either for or against my existence, he is just passing judgement upon my friend and his testimony. Until the question of my existence is settled, I cannot be said to stand under judgement.

Here is a more distinguished legend. The devil, in semblance of Christ, appeared to Brother Ruffino, an early follower of St. Francis, telling him that his pursuit of humility and poverty was all in vain as he was predestined to damnation. For a while Ruffino was hoodwinked, and believed that his encounters with the devil were really encounters with Christ. Francis, however, managed to persuade Ruffino that his visions were not of Christ: this despite Ruffino initially believing that Christ himself had reported that Francis was untrustworthy. The legend illustrates the importance of discernment, attested not only throughout the Christian tradition, but directly in Scripture: ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God’. There is no expectation that the knowledge of God will consistently seize us, in proper Barthian fashion – sometimes we must reflect, even test. Far from being a sinful challenge to God’s sovereignty, this is, or can be, a humble re-offering of his gifts back to his service.

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6 thoughts on “Arguing for God: A Reply to Ed

  1. Thanks for this Alec. May I add a brief historical point? In my period at least, the thinkers who make the strongest claims about the unknowability of the divine ousia (I’m thinking primarily of the cappadocians here, but it extends to others) all still agree that we can demonstrate gods existence with ‘arguments’ (although they also think that one would be patently mad to even require these in the first place-I mean, come on guys of course there’s a God!). My point is this. Contemporary advocates Of apophaticism often favorably quote or refer to these thinkers, but will then go on to make claims such as Ed’s, which is fine, but I do think one ought to acknowledge this difference. One cannot simply harken back to tradition when it’s convenient, then ignore stuff which doesn’t fit your system.

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  2. Also thanks! Clearly written, charitable towards my claims, and definitely an approach to the question I hadn’t considered. Very much looking forward to two more, if you have the time! Might try and work something short up as a response to this as well… Think there’s more to delve into here.

    Brendan: would you be able to write up a longer post on the subject of your comment? Would be very edifying for myself, and others… (On a personal note, I’m actually not much of a fan of apophaticism insofar as it equates to negative theology; but my knowledge of that tradition is completely nonexistent, so I’m not even sure if what I’ve just said actually makes sense.)

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