Proof-Like Things: Reflections on the Anguish of Proving that God Exists

By Derrick Peterson

Pop culture's attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God are curiously heady mixtures of confidence and trauma.  The glittering bravado with which the proofs are sometimes presented seem, at least in part, to be out of step with the anxious recoil felt by their lack of acceptance.  These elements sit very untidily next to one another. 

For if you believed you had a genuine and indisputable proof of God, it seems unlikely you would fear much at all. "Do not be afraid," after all, is the constant Biblical refrain, one typically paired with "for I am the LORD your God."  One would assume having a number of other formulae for much the same thing would only increase one's confidence. In the novel A Corner of the Veil Laurence Cross tells the tale of an indisputable proof of God that convinces without fail, imagining what it would be like:

Probably for a time, everything would come to a halt.  People wouldn't go to the office anymore.  The children would be sent to school, but they'd stop along the way, caught up by great circles of orators in tears.  People would talk on sidewalks, in the Metro, at church doors.  Ah, the priests wouldn't know where to start! People would talk for hours in the rain.  Neighbors who had always eyed each other with suspicion would be talking to each other.  Couples ten years separated would phone each other from distant places.  The post office would stay closed.  There would be a notice on the gate: HALLELUJAH.  On the other hand, the museums would never close again, nor the Metro, nor the public parks. ...

Yet despite proof (or disproof) being "a preachy genre" in the words of Nathan Schneider, it seems to constantly be paired to fear of some sort or another.  The famous mathematician Kurt Godel created what amounted to a mathematicized form of Leibniz' ontological proof of God, and yet he refused to publish it for decades for fear his colleagues might think "he actually believed in God."  This is an absurd instance, of course.  But it does bring out in the open the peculiar mixture of assurance and anxiety that comes with such things. 

Atheists often have a similarly conflicted relationship to their own brand of anti-proofs (and corresponding pettiness should these be rejected); indeed, by the way some atheists talk, it seems they would rather prefer God exist so as to be given an opportunity to hate Him (sometimes called misotheism).  Moreover, as several distinguished commentators  including Remi Brague, David Bentley Hart, Michael Buckley, and Rupert Shortt (among several others) have pointed out, it isn't totally clear that what is even at stake on either side of the debate is the Christian God as understood by a majority of Church tradition. 

God's Not Dead 2, which I had the misfortune of watching recently out of an ill-advised fit of curiosity, has both bravado and trauma in spades. Such a timely dialectic of smug self-confidence and anxiety at rumors of anti-Christian conspiracy are the most interesting aspect of the movie (at least from a sociological perspective); it therefore seems tragic that there was no self-awareness of this fact by the movie's creators, and the dichotomy is held up without irony.  To be sure, the movie is attempting to address the concerns of many, and insofar as it spurs dialogue about these issues we can rejoice (thank you, Philippians 1:15-18).  But why these concerns had to be imprisoned in such an ugly and plodding carapace as this movie is the real question and tragedy. 

As such, I'd rather use the movie as a brief springboard into the larger phenomenon of proofs and disproofs of God in popular culture. Friedrich Nietzsche once quipped by way of his madman in The Joyful Science, that Churches are little more than sepulchers of a dead God. Leaping from that metaphor to get our start: here the proofs appear only as they are torn from their original flesh and paraded like holy relics in the guise of data and argument.  But to this we turn in a moment.  For now, the movie.  

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More a fractured series of vignettes than a movie, God's Not Dead 2 is scotched-taped together by the hope that the main narrative's courtroom proceedings deciding whether or not Grace Wesley (played by Melissa Joan Hart) is guilty of promoting religion in the classroom, will make everything clear at the resolution.  Her crime? Answering a student's question about the connection of Martin Luther King jr., Ghandi, and Jesus, by citing a Bible verse.  Though the movie never asks us to take off our shoes, one can be assured that by talking about religion in the classroom we are here treading on holy ground (or, taking a cue from the Disney-esque music that plays during the pro-Christian testimony, we are skipping on holy ground as one would imagine a lovable cartoon puppy might).

The courtroom proceedings are not the problem, as cloying as this setting may seem to current Christian anxieties. Nor is prognostication upon religion in the classroom to be smirked at merely as Christians reeling in a post-Christendom situation (though as Kevin M. Kruse has pointed out, religion in the classroom has always been a point of contention between Christians, as much as it was between Christians and others (165-203)).  And for what its worth the movie does try to address important issues.  Legal proceedings are a time honored genre when it comes to God.  In the book of Malachi God himself takes on a number of roles: that of expert witness, prosecuting attorney, and ultimately judge.  The verdict being, of course: how could God's people ever doubt YHWH?  

God's Not Dead 2 mimics  as well such public spectacles of sacred and secular such as the Scopes Trial, or, more recently, the 2005-2006 Dover trials over Intelligent Design, among other things.  Indeed, one of the earliest instances we have of a proof for the existence of God (or the gods) links this discussion to the courtroom: in chapter 10 of Plato's Laws he informs us the root of all crime is disbelief in God, and therefore prescribes that lawbreakers must be forced to listen to lectures elaborating our reasons to believe God exists.  Watching God is Not Dead 2, I did vaguely feel I was being punished, so perhaps it has a more noble pedigree than many believe. 

The impression is hard to avoid that the courtroom verdict (and we assume, the very existence of God) will either be the glue that holds the personal struggles of the supporting cast at bay from consuming their characters, or the wedge that will ultimately shatter them.  Spoiler alert: they aren't shattered.  What was jarring as I watched was the fact that the movie did not appear to understand its own premise.  Perhaps I am being thick, but Hart's character is initially on trial for the propriety of reciting a Bible verse in the classroom to explicitly answer a student's question, right?  Not for the existence (or not) of God.  And yet by the end of the movie the bait-and-switch of God's existence has hit so hard and fast, that the courtroom verdict in favor of Hart's character is encouraged to be spread about by people texting everyone they know "God's Not Dead!" 

The apparent goalposts of the apologetic efforts here keep moving by leaps and bounds until we find ourselves in an emotional high at a Newsboys concert, miles from where we started. The whole thing comes off like carving a diorama of Homer's Iliad out of cotton candy: God's Not Dead 2 insists its themes are grandiose, but we are left with little more than a smoke of sticky sweetness as soon as we try to hold on to anything. One can imagine in fifty years or so, if this movie is looked upon as a piece of Christian anthropology, the discussion will not be on the merit of the arguments, or presentation, but rather about what on earth Duck Dynasty was, and how it must represent a primitive form of liturgy now forgotten.

This is also what I take to be the most disconcerting part of the movie.  Many have already critiqued it from nearly all angles: as a shoddy piece of art, or for its complete caricature of atheists (it is not quite the Christian's version of Zeitgeist, but it's close), its embarrassing failure to provide a coherent narrative.  All of these are true enough.  But if this movie fails (and it does, on nearly every level) it does not fail so much in the sense that it missed a mark it was aiming for--just the opposite.  The failure of this movie in my eyes is that it does exactly what it appears it was meant to do--soothe the choir with a sugary high (what former Norris-Hulse Professor Divinity at Cambridge, Denys Turner, called "bastard liturgies" whose rituals contradict what they intend to signify)--and this means the bar for Christian movies intended to reach (I assume) mostly white middle class evangelicals, is actually this low.

And this is the most bizarre part of all: Christian philosophy is actually flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic.  So one wonders why this hatchet-job of a movie has to exist at all?

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If one peeps past the veil separating more popular apologetic endeavors from the academic world, one will indeed find a renaissance of Christian philosophy in the English speaking world brewing since the latter part of the 1960's, after Alvin Plantinga published his first major work, God and Other Minds.  Eventually Plantinga's life work embodied in the completion of his trilogy with his work Warranted Christian Belief, would make "Reformed epistemology" so popular (that is, a theory of knowledge based upon principles built off of John Calvin's legacy, to put it crudely) that one would be excused for thinking God himself sported a Dutchman's beard. 

Across the pond at roughly the same time as Plantinga, in 1967 Richard Swinburne began his own prolific career in England, which would blossom a decade later when he finished his own trilogy on God and reason.   In 2008, William Lane Craig--now the most visible face of the Christian philosophical renaissance, especially for his revitalization of the Islamic Kalaam cosmological argument--responded to the famous 1967 Time Magazine cover which asked (referring to the faddish "Death of God' theology movement)  "Is God Dead?" in bold red letters relieved by a stark black background, by stating: "God Is Not Dead Yet."  One might remain curious why a man like Craig so renown for his attempts at polished argument would let a little word like "yet" hover so painfully awkward above what is otherwise a bold manifesto ("we've stabilized God's condition, but we'll see if he makes it through the night"), or, perhaps, why such a bland title was chosen--but Craig wasn't wrong.

In fact, just a year before the article was published, in 2007, as a crest in one of the many waves of Christian philosophical renewal, Antony Flew, probably the most famous atheist of his generation, came out stating he now believed in God with the publication, There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.  Indeed, as another atheist Quentin Smith, lamented in a famous article published in PHILO in 2001:

Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism, most influenced by Plantinga’s writings, began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians. Although many theists do not work in the area of the philosophy of religion, so many of them do work in this area that there are now over five philosophy journals devoted to theism or the philosophy of religion, such as Faith and PhilosophyReligious StudiesInternational Journal of the Philosophy of ReligionSophia, Philosophia Christi, etc. Philosophia Christi began in the late 1990s and already is overflowing with submissions from leading philosophers. If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that ‘no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,’ although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upperhand in every single argument or debate. God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments. [Emphasis added]

This is a telling concession.  But it does not tell the whole story.  Nicolas Wolterstorff, himself a major name in the Christian philosophical renaissance, does not believe that a similar turn has occurred in the continental philosophical tradition (155-156), but this is incorrect.  Continental philosophy has undergone its own sort of "theological turn."  Whether one understands this as merely a "philosophical reconsideration", as do J. Aaron Simmons and Bruce Ellis Benson in their excellent introduction on the topic; or, more provocatively, label this an "apologetic" movement in postmodern philosophy, as Christina M. Gschwandter does, the point remains: even Continental philosophy is getting its God on.

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Nor did this "Christian philosophical renaissance" spring newborn from nowhere. All of these movements in one way or another stem from earlier efforts from those like Etienne Gilson, or the Nouvelle Theologie (so-called) in mid-century France, or Protestants like T.F. Torrance and Wolfhart Pannenberg,  attempting to recapture the richness of the Christian past.  A Christian past--indeed a Western and Eastern cultural past--largely preserved from invaders and decay by the tireless labor of monks and Christian and Arabic scribes without whom, today, we would be infinitely poorer. Whether it be the surprise that analytic philosophers have expressed having found many of their supposedly modern concepts (including modal logic)  anticipated by Medieval thinkers like Abelard; or whether it is research displaying how modern science grew out of a medieval Christian theistic context; or the simple debunking of the notion that there ever was such a thing as a "Christian Dark Ages," the task of understanding God and His world is one that has been building upon a long line of sweat, tears, contemplation, and prayer.  

The same goes for the proofs of God, which did not merely fall pristine out of the air, but were living, breathing, things hewn from thought and worship, crafted and handed on like spiritual disciplines through Christian history by the equivalent of explorers thinking and feeling their way into the mysterious and infinite reaches of God.  I sometimes like to think of those moments of finding the "proofs" in history (if we insist on calling them that) as much akin to briefly glimpsing a lost city as one stumbles exhausted into a hard-fought jungle clearing; or perhaps it is a picture of finding a new and unbound sea, roiling upon mist-covered shorelines. 

Or, to use an example that frequents literature on proofs: it is like stumbling onto a pristine island within that same infinite sea.  A beautiful Islamic treatise on proofs of God by the philosopher Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl has its protagonist (fittingly named Alive, Son of Awake), suddenly find himself brought to existence quite mysteriously on an island; he concludes he could not have just popped into existence for no reason--rather, both he and the island must have a cause.  

St. Anselm, on the other hand, also talks about an island. Guanilo objected to Anselm's ontological argument that we have not proven God exists by being able to conceive of 'That Than Which No Greater Can Be Thought,' precisely because one can conceive of a most perfect island as well, which thereby does not guarantee that the island actually exist.  In response, Anselm says God is not like this island--or any created thing--because their perfections are not essentially part of what they are, nor is it clear that the concept of a created thing being "perfect" has a non-arbitrary point of termination (translation: one can always picture a slightly better island), whereas God is not God without perfection, and would not be God without being by definition the most perfect "than which none better can be thought" precisely because God is the limit that makes being and thought and perfection possible.

This rebuttal by Anselm has produced no little debate, of course (Arthur Schopenhauer once called it "a charming joke").  Immanuel Kant, who destroyed the credibility of the proofs of God for quite some time in the modern period, wrote in his Critique of Pure Reason of human thought, describing it as "an island, enclosed by nature itself within inalterable limits."  If humanity was to try and stray beyond the island's shores to find God, he will only run into "fog banks and many swiftly melting icebergs giving the illusion of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes ... unable to complete the task" (A235/B294-A236-B/295).  And, of course, Charles Darwin, who is sometimes mistakenly thought to have destroyed any proof of God, and made it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist" (as Richard Dawkins once put it), did so by his observation of species on the Galapagos Islands as he sailed on The Beagle as a young man.

To fail to see these proofs (and their disproofs) as part of the great intellectual and spiritual labor and debate of Christian history is no small thing--and is perhaps the greatest failure of God's Not Dead 2 or other popular presentations like it.  To present the proofs of God in the context of the culture wars so easily polarizes the nuance of the arguments on all sides, and brings out the arguments to be paraded like bones picked clean from their meat, carved and sharpened from prayers into weapons. Writing of his experience living among an order of Cistercian monks, Nathan Schneider (in one of the most beautiful recent works on the proofs of God, God in Proof) writes, "chanting in the choir, or working in the bakery we were building our proofs together."  Indeed, "like most love stories that end with the first kiss, conversion stories usually stop with conversion ... Proof is what comes afterward, after birth and rebirth, through practice and entropy.  It is the reconstruction, the tale we tell ourselves ... in the years and centuries that follow" (47, 60).

Undoubtedly the church fathers and mothers were not themselves immune from sharpening their rhetoric (to put it mildly) when the polemical context allowed.  The difference here comes (apart from the fact that the Fathers, Mothers, and Reformers of the church had a lot more style in their insults than we do today) when one notices how often the "proofs" were accompanied also by an acute sense of dismay at just how little they gave us of the living God.  The Thomistic scholar Fergus Kerr notes in his book After Aquinas that, "even the theologically oriented metaphysics of antiquity ... the best reasoned knowledge of the existence of [The Alpha and the Omega] could only leave on in a certain 'anguish'" (66).  And the great French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, himself no stranger to proofs of God, could write in The Discovery of God: "The more we feel the proof as proof, the more conscious we become of the misery of the human condition which obliges us to resort to it, and which remains after it has been provided" (43).

For example, after his first book, Monologion, consisting of several proofs for God, Anselm was dissatisfied by what he saw as a clumsy array of proof-like things that he hoped to simplify into a single, grand proof "that needed nothing but itself alone for proof" (Proslogion, preface).  Despite Anselm's elation at finding his ontological argument, the Proslogion is nonetheless full of lament--there is an almost palpable sense of angst as he writes.  "I have never seen you, O'Lord my God.  I do not know your form" (i.4).  Even his prayer seems like labor: "Amid what thoughts am I sighing? I sought blessings, and lo - confusion" (1.5).  He continues later in the book "How long, O'Lord, how long will you forget us and turn your face from us?"  And "but if you have found Him, why is it that you do not feel Him?  Why O'Lord, does my soul not feel you?" (XIV.21).

One almost wants to take poetic license, and picture him throwing books and overturning podiums in his study as he shouts these lines to the night.

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Of course, things have changed.  It is much easier, no doubt, to announce so honestly the shortcomings of one's proof for God in a context where atheism was quite literally unthinkable as a live option (and certainly not as a viable thing to announce in public).  The burden of proof has migrated from being an intricate set-piece modifying, and modified by, a greater theological vision, to the evidential bedrock upon which theology is often built.  Under such stresses the proofs inevitably hardened, and become more rigid and demanding.

Paradoxically, just so they often became more theologically brittle.  For the sense of God's absence, or--perhaps better--His great mystery, must always remain a vital aspect of Christian theology.  Confidence and fear always mingled in the history of proofs.  But in the modern day the fear still exists but has been driven underground as an unwelcome guest, as it seems to be in God's Not Dead 2.  But when one does not admit doubt into the proofs themselves, when one removes the proofs from their spiritual context, or out of the immense intellectual labor that goes into them, they cannot help but hold up a caricature of the God they intended to defend like fodder. 

As Amos Funkenstein wrote regarding a large tendency in Christian history (my paraphrase), when our concepts of God as proofs attain a high degree of precision and specificity in "locating" God, it makes it that much easier for us to find God and kill (the concept of) him.  We did find and kill God, of course--but this was Christ crucified.  If history is littered with god-like corpses, these were only idols.  We should rejoice in their passing, and help light the torches for their funeral pyres.  For these were not the God described in early proofs, who "makes darkness His covering," (Psalm 17:12), or whose empty tomb leaves trembling and astonishment, where silence takes the lips of God's disciples "for they were afraid" (Mark 16:8), where doubt always lingers and intermixes, like dark with light.  "The hidden God, the mysterious God, is not distant and absent; He is always the God who is near" (Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God, 93).

 

{Photo Credit: Mads Oliver]