God as Beneficent Father? A reply to Heather MacDonald

During our recent (September 17) Templeton Conversation at the Harvard Club, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Heather MacDonald kept coming back to this question: “What is the evidence for your statement that God is a loving, beneficent father?” I do not think I answered her well at the time. It is a crucial and frequently misunderstood point. So let me try again here.

There are two lines of reply. One stems from reason alone, the other from Jewish and Christian faith. Plato and Aristotle were led to believe that contemplating the Divine is the greatest of all forms of happiness, since in that union of mind with Mind, human minds rest in union with the greatest of all Goods (which draws towards itself all lesser goods), and the most luminous of all Sources of the intelligibility found in all things, and of the intelligences that grasp it.

They argued that the existence of contingent things raises the reflective mind to the Source of all existents: self-subsisting Being, immaterial, unchanging, more like “spirit” and “mind” than like any changeable, material, dependent thing.

They reasoned that the existence of things that can perish implies a sturdier form of existence, necessary being, which persists through the coming and going of contingent, material existents.

Finally, they observed the abundant (not to say overwhelming) beauty of earth and starry sky, sparkling oceans, and flames in the fireplace. They observed the virtue and goodness of some men, even heroic virtue, and great deeds. These observations led them to thoughts of the “immortals” and the endurance of good over evil, of being over nothingness, of beauty over ugliness. To be sure, this is just a tipping of the balance, since evils and tragedies also remain abundant. But enough to give thanks to the Divine, and to see the natural world as, on balance, tipped toward benevolence rather than malice.

Not all women and men of reason agree with the ancients in this way of addressing the problem of evil. Philosophers only rarely agree on important points. For the Greeks (and Romans like Cicero and Seneca), the practical imperative was: Trust human inquiry, human liberty, and the prevalence (or at least the lasting beauty) of nobility of character.

The other way of coming to a conviction of the ultimate “fatherly benevolence” of the divine comes from Jewish and Christian faith, not unaided reason. Therefore, it was not the proper focus of my recent book, No One Sees God. Heather’s question, therefore, asks for a reasoned defense for trusting in the Jewish and Christian God—that is, for placing one’s faith in Him. No fully developed adult should place this trust without having reasons. For the supposition that the living Source of all things (knowable through reason alone) can address human beings through “revelation”— words—is that human beings are capable of hearing and observing, gaining insight, making judgments about what is true and what is false, and of giving a reasoned account of each step in their journey toward faith. Being “capable” of such things does not mean that every believer will in fact be able to give a fully reasoned account. As we see every day, real philosophers are few whether they are believers or non-believers. Still, all will have reasons that in their own fashion provide a foundation for belief.)

Yet as I wrote many times in No One Sees God, a reasoned defense of the Christian faith (and in my case specifically Catholicism) must await another book. No One Sees God is about the God known by reason alone. It is not about what we learn about God through faith.

Judaism itself offers crucial lessons for all humankind (the Creator of all, who calls all to truthfulness and good will). Christianity adds its own “good news” to what humans know through reason. Both Judaism and Christianity have as their presupposition the divine predilection for addressing humans through “the evidence of their own minds” (Thomas Jefferson).

I have gained the impression through e-mail exchanges with Heather and through our one and only face-to-face conversation, that she might well accept a deist conception of God. What she cannot accept is the Christian conception of a “benevolent father.”

The ancient form of Deism is what No One Sees God aims at for the moment, a modest and limited goal. But that goal, illuminating the road toward the reality of God as grasped by reason alone, is ambitious enough. In recent generations, it has largely been neglected.

A recent Pew poll of over 30,000 respondents reports that over one-half of agnostics actually believe in such a God (but not the Jewish-Christian God), and one-fifth of all atheists do the same. Deism may be an unstable conclusion of reason, tending toward indifference first and then atheism – or maybe another resolution awaits it.


Michael Novak was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.