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 this:
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.)