“I see no God up here”: Gagarin and the Invisible Gardener


After Yuri Gagarin’s famous flight into outer space, Nikita Khrushchev addressed a plenary session of the Central Committee and vigorously commended Communism’s campaign against religion: “Why are you clinging to God?” he asked. “Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.”

The quote brings a smile to our faces. How utterly silly, we think. Of course Gagarin did not see God, and as a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, he was not expecting to see God (hence the improbability that he ever said such a thing). The transcendent Deity is not to be found out among the stars or in any place. He is, after all, invisible, incorporeal, immaterial, spiritual. He is the maker of space and time. He is a supernatural being. He can be neither apprehended by our senses nor measured by our scientific instruments.

A good atheistic philosopher, however, would immediately pounce on our response. “All you have done is posit a being whose existence can be neither proven nor falsified.” When I was an atheist back in my college days, I loved to cite Antony Flew’s famous parable of the invis­ible gardener in arguments with Christians. It goes something like thisGod2_zps0225be92.jpg:

Two people return to their long neglected garden and find, among the weeds, that a few of the old plants are surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other, “It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these weeds.” The other disagrees and an argument ensues. They pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer remains unconvinced, and insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The skeptic doesn’t agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differs from an imaginary gardener, or even no gardener at all.

If we are honest, we will admit the force of Flew’s argument. We no longer believe in fairies and leprechauns. Why should we believe in an invisible creator? We no longer believe in Zeus or Thor. Why should we believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? As Richard Dawkins quips, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

During spring break of my junior year at Bard College, I called Dr Henry Veatch, head of the philosophy department at Georgetown University, and asked for an appointment. I had recently read his book Rational Man and wanted to talk to him about Aristotelian ethics. My good friend Jim Cottrell accompanied me. Arrogantly assuming that any elite philosopher would also be an atheist, I trotted out Flew’s gardener parable, fully expecting that he would nod his head in approval. Dr Veatch smiled, turned to Jim and remarked: “Mr. Kimel thinks he has presented a knock-down argument for his atheism, but he has failed to notice …” and then proceeded to demolish the parable. I wish I could remember his argument, but I do remember being shaken by the discovery that he not only believed in God but was also a Christian. Fifteen months later, having graduated from Bard, I returned to my parents’ home in Arlington and began attending the 11:15 Solemn High Mass at St Paul’s Episcopal Church on K Street. And lo and behold, there was Dr Veatch! We briefly chatted. I would visit him at his office one or two more times. The following September I began attending Fr James Daughtry’s inquirers’ classes, and in late Spring of 1976 I was confirmed by Bishop Creighton at the National Cathedral. The rest is history.

Jumping back to the Dawkins’ quip—notice the lower-case “god.” Here is our opening, if we are shrewd enough to walk through it. Thankfully, David Bentley Hart has seen the critical weakness in popular atheistic propaganda:

Beliefs regarding fairies concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of inten­tion­al and rational shape as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or wheth­er there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same concep­tual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found.

God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for photons and (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, act and potency, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, pervades every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us. (“God, Gods, and Fairies,” expanded in Hart’s book The Experience of God)

God is not a god. But how do we stop thinking of him as one?

(19 November 2013; rev.)

(Go to “God is not Odin…”)

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17 Responses to “I see no God up here”: Gagarin and the Invisible Gardener

  1. Didn’t realize you had gone to Bard. My younger daughter went there and still lives in the area. Beautiful countryside, tho the summers and the winters both want a piece of you…

    I hope that someday you write (if you haven’t already) about your journey from Episcopalianism to Orthodoxy. Certainly – at least in my experience as a no-longer-practicing Episcopalian – the modern version of that brand of Christianity is remarkably non-orthodoctic. It welcomes believers (or fellow-travelers) with a wide range of beliefs. I’m far from an expert on Orthodoxy, but I can’t think offhand of a single item of individual belief in Orthodoxy that one could hold that would render him or her unwelcome in an Episcopal congregation. There are institutional definitions, of course: that the Orthodox Church is the sole Christian church; the role of church councils versus other sources of spiritual understanding, etc. I’d doubt that I’d be your only reader who would be interested in this.

    On to DBH’s point. I read his book and enjoyed his clear prose and intellectual saber-work, but at the end, did not find his definition of what God is – as distinguished from the easy part of what God isn’t – intellectually helpful. My initial reading of it was that he was in Spinoza territory or some other form of pantheism or panentheism, but your recent blog post emphasizing the distinctness of God and the material (perceivable to humans or not) universe convinced me that my initial reading was not really accurate.

    So, are we in the universe of one-way mirrors – i.e., we are entirely knowable, indeed entirely known to a God who is beyond our perception or conception? Well, maybe that’s a little closer but if that were truly correct, there would be little point to your or DBH’s writings about God, since you’d be writing about something you couldn’t perceive or imagine. The technical term for that is writing fiction.

    Where that seems (to me) to lead is to an insight I got from a Ken Wilber writing some years ago. Writing in response to some Khrushchev-like question, Wilber said (loose paraphrase alert!) you can’t perceive or measure something unless you use the right modality to encounter it. You need the right way to approach it and sufficient time to sensitize yourself to perceive it. You can’t say that there’s no such thing as the color blue because you can’t taste it. (modality) You can’t say that it’s impossible to make music on a violin unless you get a violin, take lessons, and study and practice for years.

    What Wilber was talking about specifically was the perception of different states of reality from normal human experience by meditation practitioners who had reached a certain level of practice. His observation was the the scientists who challenged the reality of the meditators’ perceptions in the face of the extraordinary congruence of the meditators’ reported experience were making a basic “black swan” mistake. Their experience of normal reality was whatever it was, but if they did not test what would happen to that perception if they (or test subjects supervised by them) if they did what the meditators did,

    Now there are wrinkles even in that: I take lessons and practice for years, but it’s highly unlikely that I would be able to play a difficult violin piece in a way that a person not related to me would listen to voluntarily, but let’s leave those aside.

    What I guess is left is that there is a route from human awareness to God by a contemplative route. Maybe that’s the sole route – I don’t know. Am i missing something in the descriptions?

    Thanks for the kindness and patience that let you read this far.


    Liked by 1 person

    • “So, are we in the universe of one-way mirrors – i.e., we are entirely knowable, indeed entirely known to a God who is beyond our perception or conception?”

      My thought, for what it’s worth, is that our relationship to God, as creature to Creator, is such that He can known us fully in a way which we cannot know Him fully: that His knowledge of ourselves is primal to our being, and to our knowledge of our being, and that it is also through His knowledge of Himself that we can know Him. We do not know Him as He knows us, of our own accord, as He knows us and Himself of His own accord, but we can know Him as He is to the extent that His Spirit indwells ours and makes us one with Him: thus, on earth, He knows us as we are, but we know Him only dimly. At the same time, we can know Him – through His knowledge – on earth.

      I think what might be considered a contemplative route is, sooner or later and in some places and times, necessary to human awareness of God. However, I do not think it is the sole route to our awareness of Him.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      DBH’s book essentially highlights and corrects (in a lot more detail) the same misunderstanding as to what “God” means that the above article does. If you are not already making the same mistake it’s interesting but is not going to be any great revelation.
      I’d agree you can’t know God through intellectual argument, but the you need the theological / philosophical analysis so you know what you are looking for and recognise it when you find it.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “So, are we in the universe of one-way mirrors – i.e., we are entirely knowable, indeed entirely known to a God who is beyond our perception or conception? Well, maybe that’s a little closer but if that were truly correct, there would be little point to your or DBH’s writings about God, since you’d be writing about something you couldn’t perceive or imagine. The technical term for that is writing fiction.”

      Stephen, I’d like to challenge the last sentence of the above paragraph. The God is infinite, transcending every boundary and definition, and therefore incomprehensible, is a fundamental conviction of the Church Fathers and medieval Doctors (e.g., St Thomas Aquinas), yet clearly they did not believe they were writing fiction. They firmly believed that the God whom they loved and served was real, even though they could not state what he is. St Gregory of Nazianzus devoted his second theological oration to this theme (see my 3-part series on Oration 28). In Gregory’s words: “No one has yet discovered or ever shall discover what God is in nature and essence.” A person who writes fiction knows he’s writing fiction; hence your objection is unfounded. After all, neither you nor anyone else can know that a transcendent Deity does not exist.

      Why did the Church Fathers know that God is incomprehensible? Because they confessed him as the One who had freely created the cosmos from out of nothing. The logic of divine creation, therefore, entails that he is not an entity within the cosmos and therefore cannot be discovered by empirical means.

      Why then did they believe that this unknowable Deity exists? As far as I know the Church Fathers, unlike the Latin scholastics, do not spend a lot of time trying to prove God’s existence by philosophical reasoning. It’s a given of the biblical story that has captured their hearts and minds. That is to say, the infinite and unknowable God has made himself known in his incarnate Son Jesus Christ and the history of Israel.

      A modern atheist, of course, will not find the claim that God has revealed himself in his creation and the person of Jesus persuasive; but that is a different problem. In this series I am merely attempting to distinguish God from the gods. Perhaps the next article (to be published tomorrow) will bring a bit more clarify.


  2. arthur ja says:

    So you’re a former atheist turned Orthodox priest…
    I find that absolutely fascinating.
    I’ve always been impressed by people who go from radical unbelief to strong belief in God…
    I hope we’ll be able to read more about your intellectual evolution towards faith in the future.


  3. “He can be neither apprehended by our senses nor measured by our scientific instruments.”

    So, how does this work with the claims of the bible? It, and many Christians, claim that this god can be heard by them, seen by them, constantly interferes in the material world, etc.

    Who is intentionally making false claims, you or the authors of the bible?

    Liked by 1 person

    • TJF says:

      Why would either have to be making false claims?


    • Grant says:

      Well to your first point of that God cannot be apprehended by our sense nor scientific instruments (which would be an extention of said senses and their measurement they provide) and where this is in the Bible well it’s point is made fairly regularly, as in this sample of verses:

      Colossians 1:15
      He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

      Hebrews 11:27
      By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen.

      John 1:18

      No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

      1 Timothy 6:16

      who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.

      Job 9:11

      “Were He to pass by me, I would not see Him;
      Were He to move past me, I would not perceive Him.

      Job 23:8

      “Behold, I go forward but He is not there,
      And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;”

      John 5:37

      And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form.

      1 Timothy 1:17

      Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

      1 John 4:12

      No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

      Romans 1:20

      For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

      Again is this not to say you need to agree with the above verses, but they provide fairly copious examples of this conception in the Biblical corpus (particularly the NT) and right at the beginning of Christian thought (as that history moves on you find it touched on again and again fairly explicitly through the patristic and medieval periods and in mystic reflections (references to the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and so on relates to this idea). So I’m not really sure what you mean you say to square these claims with the Bible or Christian thought, and into this I would also suggest to consider what is the Bible to Christian historically, and what does it and has it meant to Christians to read it as Scripture.

      I may be misunderstanding you, but I suspect you read and see Christians overall and throughout history approaching the Bible as do modern Christian fundamentalists with current concepts of biblical inerrancy in that (and to be fair, there is more nuance to this among those who do view this way sometimes) every word in each book is directly reflecting God, essentially dictated by Him and each book and word on it’s own is His Word (when in Christian thought only Jesus is His Word, His Logos, but let’s continue) and paints inspired and historically accurate painting of God’s dealings and each is on it’s own inspired work reflecting God and His nature and character.

      However, this just isn’t an accurate picture of how Christians have for most of the last 2000 years understood the Scriptures, or inspiration. It is a very modern concept, born of the Enlightenment period (thus it isn’t really to surprising that a Christian fundamentalist or secularist both read it the same way and insist it how it must be interpreted). To being with, for the Christian tradition (I can’t speak to much to the rabbinical tradition though it too doesn’t interact with them in such simplistic manner either) interpretation was the encounter of the text with the read in the life of the Church, inspired and illuminated by the Holy Spirit to give an inspired interpretation (though not a exclusive one), and that this would be in the late antique and medieval world to read the text literally, to read it’s real meaning pointing to Christ (not necessarily the plain reading of the text), that would be it’s inspired reading (which is why allegorical, typological, figurative and spiritual readings so predominate through these periods). Instead for the start what guides Christian reading is the centrality of Christ, which is principle founded in the NT documents, in Gospel according to St Luke, two disciples encounter Christ on the road to Emmaus after the Resurrection unknowingly, telling Him of Christ’s death and wondering why it happened, in it Christ tells them why it had to happen and shows how all the OT related to Him and is about Him. This again is shown in each Gospel in their use of the OT in which it all refers to Christ and the Gospel everywhere it is used and quoted (with quotations that in their original context could have no conceivable ‘Messianic prophesy to them), to Christ own use in it of the OT (see the use of Jonah). It is evident throughout St Paul use of OT Scripture, where he relates that those reading Scripture without seeing Christ do through through a veil not understanding what it was truly saying. This is referencing the veil that Moses placed over his head when descending the mountain now lies over Moses (the text), so that the glory contained therein is not revealed until the veil is removed by turning to Christ. This view can be seen in every one of his uses of it, relating to Christ, the Gospel and the participation in the life of Christ in the Church (for example his use of Sarah and Hagar, the passing of the Red Sea being about Baptism, seeing verses of violence and subjection as about the conquest of death by life in Christ and the freeing of creation from bondage and so on). The letter to the Hebrews puts it clearly, that what was written in the OT wasn’t for them but for present Christians, that in the past they could only perceive shadows, like those seeing shadows on the wall in Plato’s story, but in the light of Christ now Christians could reprieve and see beyond the surface shadows on the page to He who casts them.

      This both was rooted in understanding present at the birth of Christianity that the true or full meaning and understanding of Scripture was hidden seen in such texts as Daniel ‘Shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things’ (Dan. 12:4, 7); and likewise by Jeremiah: ‘In the last days they shall understand these things’ (Jer. 23:20). We see this view firmly expressed St Ireanaus describing the Scriptures as a mosaic portraying Christ when seen according to the right ‘hypothesis’ or approach so that with Christ it can be formed into correct image of the King (but without this understanding you could for other distorted images), and saying that Christ is the treasure hidden in the Scriptures: he was hidden there, ‘indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord’ (haer. 4.26.1).

      So in view of the above, when you contrast the view put above (fairly uncontroversial statement of classical theism held by most Christian confessionals now and historically) with some biblical authors (well many authors, editors and transmissions with the OT) that is true but also is no real counter-argument to any Christian who isn’t committed to recent fundamentalist views of biblical inerrancy (as said a fairly recent and mostly Anglo-American phenomena and one that departs for classical Christian approaches to Scripture). The OT is full of various traditions and views, early Yahwahist trends in which the views reference Yahweh as a storm and war god full of fury and battle (much like similar gods or views of gods of the people of that region in those times, including other groups who also worshiped a Yahweh figure), to later trajectories and developments of into early Judaisms, of elements of conflicts between Jerusalem and Judah with northern Israel played out in the development of the Exodus story with the golden calf supporting the authority of Jerusalem over the traditions in kingdom of Israel and so on and so on. And really it just produces a yes, and so what? The documents themselves are just ancient documents, to Christians they only become Scripture when read in light of the above, from a tradition rooted in the earliest Christian emergence, as being about Christ, His Gospel, His revelation and the life of the Church and creation in Him, and is only to be read in His light, and that of the inspired reading of text and reader in the life of the Church, by the Spirit towards Christ.

      In the long history such usages were understood as figurative images even within NT usage to point to the infinite and invisible God, they gave analogical understanding but were never to be taken literally see St Issac the Syrian (from the 7th century) for example in terms of anger, wrath extra to God (and similar could be said of surprise and so on:

      ‘Just because the terms wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His true nature. And just as our rational nature has already become gradually more illumined and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in Scripture’s discourse about God—that we should not understand everything literally as it is written, but rather that we should see, concealed inside the bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all—so too we shall in the future come to know and be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in our supposition about Truth. For there are many, indeed endless, things which do not even enter our minds here, not even as promises of any kind. (II.39.19)

      Basically the concept of analogy was central in that (and obviously for Christians) in Christ gave a supremely true understanding of God, but it was by analogy, for likeness within the greater dissimilarity between the created and the Creator, between the finite and the infinite who cannot be comprehended as He is, but can be comprehended and as revealed Himself analogically. To say God is good isn’t to say it is unlike our understanding of goodness (so that it’s wholly alien, where cruelty becomes good for example) but is that but much fuller and beyond what we can perceive, what we perceive as good participates in His Goodness, of Him who is the Good.

      many Christians, claim that this god can be heard by them, seen by them, constantly interferes in the material world, etc.

      And to the view that this understanding of God prohibits people perceiving or ‘encountering’ God, or the idea that He ‘interferes with the material world is I think a strange misunderstanding. God as ‘the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all’ is by definition always ‘interfering with the world, because the world, creation is not something separate which exists on its own right. This view still seems to mistake idea for a god, a Zeus, or some-such, such as the watchmaker god of Deism, which makes a universe which then operates independently from Him. No, as said He is what makes it possible (from our finite perspective in time) continually for anything to ‘be’ at all, He is Reality itself in which as St Paul says, we live, move and have our being, and is continually bringing creation to be from nothing. Everything that is, from the photons and quatam quarks to stars, black holes, humans, angels and any spiritual agencies if the exists, flying spaghetti monsters if they exist, all time and space and every moment of their exist He is bring them into exist from nothing, the whole of finite creation throughout all it’s time and space, all moments are one creative Act (in this view) brought into being by God. Creation isn’t some moment in the past, it is the constant reality, and therefore all properties and natures He brings into being and makes possible, and because He is so Other and transcend He is because of that very fact and the fact He is the Source of all that He is utterly imminent, closer to you (or to a photon) than you are yourself, enabling you to be. By definition He would be always ‘interfering’, and in such dynamic participation, and intimate closeness God could be somewhat comprehended, and could make Himself known, persons could be aware of the deeper reality and dance they apart of, their consciousnesses perceiving Him in the specific and the actual (we do this to degree in Christian thought every time we perceive beauty, or truth or goodness we are perceiving to a limited way God and however confused and limited hearing Him speak. And to say that God on this view couldn’t make Himself somewhat known, or accommodate to a revelation and encounter would again say He is just a god, separate from the universe (rather than all things existing only by participation in Him).

      This of course is always analogical, a finite and limited comprehension of what ‘the Spirit is saying’, and seen through a ‘glass darkly’, by both a finite and current misguided and limited understanding, we cannot understand God as He is. But He can make Himself known through our participation and by analogy, which is a golden thread that spans the infinite gulf between creation and Creator, between the finite and the infinite, allowing true and genuine things to be said of Him and by which He has given true, if analogical understanding of and disclosure of Himself (of course all these, including what Christians might feel they would hear or perceive is still subject to our interpretative comprehension and understanding, with all the complexities, limitations, biases and such that gives at different times and places). I mean, this is nothing less than the central claim of Christianity, that God has revealed who He is through Christ, the ultimate analogical revelation of who God is as the human Jesus of Nazareth, image and likeness of God. That is the Logos, God self-understanding through which all things come to be and in which all things have their being, the Logos which underlines and unites the logoi of all specific finite things.

      I will say though that this point, of how an infinite God could make Himself known and be present to people is basically some of great discussions and controversies of the early centuries of Christianity. It was what the development of the Logos metaphysics was about, and what the Christological controversies centred on, was the Son God Himself or a subordinate creation who acted as the mediated and intermediary between the infinite God and creation (problem is that creates infinite regress, since you would need ever more mediates between God and finite creation). It lead to the revolution of the Logos metaphysics and to the full understanding and view of the principle of analogy, I think St Gregory of Nyssa, deeply involved in these controversies, helped defend this concept and principle of Christian thought. That said, for us Christians that is an old argument, and not anything new.

      I know that was a bit a long response, but I think you are reacting to a fairly recent understanding of some Christians in the last two or so centuries (and often in Anglo-American spheres) that is a product of the birth of modernist and the break within some Christian communities with the older tradition (which remains fully alive and vital elsewhere). Basically, what is said in this article is just articulating classical Christian understanding of God, and is present in most confessions or articulations of their faith, and have been so for centuries. If you wish to understand more, there are copious resources to understand Christian (or for that matter Jewish, Islamic, Hindu etc) thought and metaphysics, for a good start just peruse this blog, Father Kimel has put quick a few posts up about this which will inform you quite well about Christian thought and understanding here. Even if it’s just to known that which you would critique it’s always better to be better informed.


  4. I really like the David Bentley Hart excerpt at the end. Yes! Exactly! God is not a part of creation. As one writer has said, “If other things can be said to exist, God does not exist. If God exists, other things do not exist.” His existence is essentially different than all other existences. Isn’t that what transcendent means? I think a lot of Christians can work on better understanding God as, well, as God, not a god, too.

    I liked the article!


  5. Robert Fortuin says:

    This is all very disappointing – was hoping for a more tangible, “hands-on” type of god. This Christian God is not so easily manipulated.

    But then again, I have enough idols, so maybe this is a good state of affairs after all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robert Fortuin says:

    “I see no God up here” – what was he expecting? If this response was in earnest, then one cannot expect to find God among the stars if one can’t see God in the marvel that is the honey bee.


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