I believe in God
By Br Cuthbert Hartley | If we were to travel back to the origins of the very first city the first sign of its emergence would be a simple structure. The first time that human beings left a permanent mark on the landscape for a purpose other than mere subsistence or housing would be a little shelter within which is a raised platform.
If we were to travel back to the origins of the very first city the first sign of its emergence would be a simple structure. The first time that human beings left a permanent mark on the landscape for a purpose other than mere subsistence or housing would be a little shelter within which is a raised platform. Several times each year people gather here to share, with some ceremony, a feast of fish drawn from the waters of the clear freshwater lake, the Apsu, that this place, Eridu, is built next to. As the culture grows over the centuries this ceremonial space is rebuilt over and over again and new cities are founded, with temples like it at their heart. Each retains those initial features of a pool of fresh clean water at their threshold, and ceremonial meals at their heart. It is a pattern of religion anyone familiar with churches today would recognise.
In the earliest stages their worship was not, so far as we can tell, of any idol or anthropomorphised figure but simply an act of gratitude and appreciation for the providence of that place. It was the best location amidst hundreds of miles of salt marsh for fishing, farming and ultimately for human thriving. It was here that the abundance of life gave people the freedom to explore and stretch their potential, to experiment, grow and prosper; they could be more human. Almost everything we now associate with urban living from writing to arithmetic was born here. Their religion, such as it was, seems simply to have been an act of gratitude for that opportunity, for their potential, for their very being and the gift of their world.
As the centuries pass idols are added, the apparent purity of the initial worship is marred by divisions as each city credits a different patron, but in that initial religion we can recognise something of the Christian understanding of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “In many ways, throughout history… men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behaviour”, and in Dei Verbum “wishing to open the way to heavenly salvation, he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning… God buoyed them up with the hope of salvation.” The Church’s understanding of God is therefore not just limited to the Scriptures, the covenants with Noah and Abraham, the words of the prophets and ultimately the Incarnation of Jesus, essential though they are. There is a more fundamental issue, of the being of God, that all humans are by nature able to know.
Looking at the world through the eyes of history can, as shown above, be one way to see that there is more to the human story than the material components. For many people it is by observing the world, its beauty and rules and processes, through artistic expression or scientific investigation, that the reality of God is made clear. However, it is the special intention of philosophy, particularly philosophy of religion, to try, without necessitating prior faith, to give the fullest possible account of God, to propose proofs of Him, and so it would be proper to summarise a Catholic attempt to do so science is a wonderfully useful tool for answering the kind of questions it wants to ask. It wants to give a complete account of material cause and effect and of the processes of development and change of energy and matter. It has the tools to investigate such questions thoroughly, and with ever increasing detail. It can answer nearly every question of ‘What?’ a thing is, and many questions of ‘Why?’ things happen and ‘How?’.
However, because there is no context for external observation of existence itself, science tends to need to avoid the question ‘How come anything exists at all?’ Even when physicists probe the origins of material space at the Big Bang they are looking for mechanisms, not for reasons for being. The ‘how come?’ question is not irrational, it simply asks about a layer deeper than mechanism, it recognises that causation is not simply a matter of temporal relationships. A mechanism needs a medium in which to work, needs there to be a thing to change, and the ‘how come?’ question asks why there is anything to change at all. It is at this point, when we strip back even the most fundamental scientific account of being, more basic even than quantum fluctuations and mass-generating Higgs Bosons, that we can ask why a thing exists.
The principle that differentiates Being from not Being, is the first cause; “that which everyone calls God”, as Thomas Aquinas puts it. We must be clear what God is not. He is not like a sculptor with materials in front of him that he shapes. He is not like a man sitting on a cloud moving pieces about on a board-game-like world below him. He is not like the Olympian gods, he is not a powerful being subject to emotions and changes in the world. Indeed, if he is to answer the question of “How come the world is?” He must not ‘be’ at all. He must not be included in the everything of which He is the cause. God must be no-thing, he cannot stand alongside the universe or be a bounded thing we could point to. Yet He is causing all things to be. He did not just create them at an initial moment in time, but the ongoing existence of all space and time and matter, the “How come?” of any and all things is answered by the principle that they are being, that they are existing, the principle which we call God. This is simple, yet never wholly graspable. As St John Chrysostom tells us, our language is too limited to speak about God accurately and “we must continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God- ‘the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable’ – with our human representations.
The philosophical route to God does not therefore require a particular understanding of history, nor a particular scientific account of the world. Rather, it simply requires the acknowledgement that certain questions are valid questions, but that the answer cannot be provided by empirical measurement or observations of matter. As soon as there is a question posed about why a thing is, to which the answer is the simple principle that things exist, God has been met. In order to go further into any particular religion, an account of history, scripture and revelation will all need to come into play, but the possibility of faith is present in all human beings. Our encounter with the Christian God can therefore begin as the rational answer to a rational question, which we simply have to choose to ask. And He will respond.