Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"God Does Not Exist"

Kids, they say the darndest things.

In a recent conversation with my boys about God, the fruit of my loins offered up their perspectives on the nature of the Creator. These are, shall we say, rather non-dogmatic conversations. I realize my task as the father of two PKs would once have been to require the boys to memorize the Larger Catechism late into the night whilst hovering over them ominously fidgeting with a thick black belt. This is not my parenting...or I do share with them what I believe, but will not force them to believe it. I listen. We talk.

Twelve-year old son number one, the big-hearted rationalist tweener, halfway between being a man and being a child, explained that he is essentially an agnostic. "How can I ever be certain," queried he. "How can you even know, especially in the face of a world where so many bad things happen?" This is more or less where I was throughout my teen years, and I agreed that finding that place where you are 100% certain is very very hard, if not impossible.

Nine year old son number two, whose thought processes are a whirl of convoluted intuitions, explained his position thusly: "God does not exist, and I believe in God." When his brother arched an eyebrow and asked him to unpack that paradox, the little guy went on. In order to exist, something has to be part of the universe. Because God made everything in the universe, God cannot be part of the universe. Therefore, it is not possible to say that God exists the way that a tree or a rock or you or I exist. But because the universe does exist, and something that is not the universe made it exist, he believes that there is a God.

Here, the little guy seems to be channeling Paul Tillich. I can't imagine where he might have picked that up. Ahem.

Tillich, a 20th century Christian existentialist theologian who occupies a significant portion of my study bookshelf, makes exactly that same statement in his three volume Systematic Theology. He says "God Does Not Exist" on Page 205 of Volume One, to be precise. This has not exactly endeared Tillich to modern literalists.

But in saying "God does not exist," Tillich was not being a heretic. He was also not being atheistic. He was being profoundly orthodox about the nature of the Creator.

Existence, for Tillich and for my son, means being part of space and time. There is no other way we can describe it. As creatures who are bounded by the parameters of the spatial and the temporal, we have no other ways to rationally conceive of being. If the Creator is to be understood in the way that Christianity describes, then God is not a being among beings, sitting on a vast throne on a moon orbiting a gas giant on the outer rim of the Andromeda Galaxy. God is also not all of time and space itself...because that would imply that God was governed by the rules and structures of physics, rendering God not God, but simply part of a process.

Neither of those two ways of conceiving of God reflects a classically orthodox Christian position. That doesn't stop hundreds of millions of Christians from believing those things, of course. But it ain't where the meat of two thousand years of Christian theology points us.

This is why Tillich obscurely described God as Being Itself...which means not all that is, but that which both transcends and underlies all that is. All that we know and can possibly know is part of God's own self-expression...but God goes infinitely deeper than that, into "places" that stretch and shatter the mechanics of the universe that frames us.

Grasping that, as son number one so astutely noted, is well beyond the capacity of reason. It is the realm of faith.


  1. When you make claims about God's intentions, or perceivable presence, or meddlings in the our contingent middle-earth world, don't you end up claiming that he does exist after all?

    It seems to me that claiming that he "doesn't exist" -- thereby supposedly putting him safely beyond the reach of reason and it's irritating questions -- is a bit of temporary misdirection. Any minute now, you'll be telling us what he wants, or feels like, or does, or did, making him once again into an existing being.

  2. @ Browning: I would never engage in such temporary misdirection. That's your job. ;)

    Seriously, though, you've surfaced a significant issue, both rationally and theologically. If God is as Tillich describes, what is the possible point of connection between such a "Being Itself" and humankind, or even the universe as a whole? How can the Infinite interact with the finite, without itself being finite?

    If you're an Enlightenment Deist, this isn't so much a problem. Christianity, though, does claim that such interaction is possible...and when Little Miss Questions asks, it needs to have an answer.

  3. Well, the first step is always to admit that you have a problem.

    (Re: misdirection. The old "I'm rubber, you're glue" defense. A classic!)

  4. @ Browning: Yup. Knowing the parameters of a particular issue really does help. This one is resolved quite well in the later volumes of his systematics, and in Tillich's understanding of both the nature of faith and the role of doubt in our approach to the infinite.

    And yeah, that's a classic, innit? I think it was first used by Euthanatos of Thebes

  5. You still haven't answered my question though.

    You've acknowledged that it's a good question, and that it deserves and answer.

    And then you've alluded to an answer in the "later volumes of Tillich's systematics." (A common theist rhetorical tactic, by the way. The vaporware of "sophisticated theology." There is an perfectly good answer to your question, and it speaks ill of you that you don't already know it. QED. Argument by absent authority. Which is kind of like theism itself really, if you think about it.)

    And you've responded to my suspicion that this "non-existent" God is temporary misdirection by saying, in essence, "I know you are, but what am I?" (Which is not only a baseless accusation, but is also, ironically, a perfect example of misdirection.)

    But you haven't offered anything like an actual answer.