I have on occasion presented students with the famous proofs for the existence of God. Many students are amazed to find that one can actually approach the question about God with reason and serious thinking and not merely with “feelings” or by sacrificing all rational thought in favor of believing “six impossible things before breakfast every morning,” as the White Queen says to Alice in Wonderland.
Many young adults in American society are essentially fideists; they think that you “just have to take things on faith,” which to their minds means without reason or intelligent thought. Reading Aquinas, especially his proofs for God’s existence, shows them pretty quickly – and for many, for the first time – that a person can approach theological questions with reason and intellect.
But I also have to report that even students who find these arguments valid do not always find them convincing. For some, the problem is that they don’t believe in logic. Logic, they assume, is just “word games.” Or they’ve been taught that logic is a patriarchal power play. But for others, the proofs are not convincing for another reason, and it’s important to understand why.
The problem with the “proofs” is not what they prove, but what they don’t. Because when my wonderful, bright-eyed students are asking about “God,” they’re not really asking whether there is a Prime Mover or the Source of All Being. What they really want to know is whether anybody cares; whether there is someone who watches out for them and will “be there” if everything else fails; whether there is an ultimate foundation of meaningfulness. And the Prime Mover just doesn’t get them that.
As Aristotle’s notion of the Prime Mover shows, you can have a Prime Mover that does not love you or even ever think about you. The Christian “God,” by contrast, is the Source of the Being of Everything, and not merely another more powerful “thing” or “person” in the world like Zeus or Apollo, but He is also personal and loving, like Zeus and Apollo and unlike Aristotle’s Prime Mover.
The world might be an ordered cosmos, as the ancients thought, but that doesn’t mean it would necessarily have selfless love. The ancients didn’t think so. This is why I tell my students that the question they must ask themselves is not whether they believe in “God” but whether they believe in love. Because if they can’t believe in selfless, providential love, then they’ll never believe in the Jewish-Christian “God,” because love and providential care are the central characteristics of that “God.”
But here’s the problem: How do you prove love – that it exists and that it’s meaningful and worthwhile – to people who don’t believe in it?
I was sitting at Mass the other day listening to one of those strange Old Testament stories wondering whether a sensible person could really believe all this stuff about God when I happened to see a father making silly faces at his young son.
There is something wonderful about watching parents with their children at Mass. Mothers and fathers hold their babies and kiss them gently, stroke their hair, and look directly into their eyes with love. Parents walk their children up to Communion, teach them to kneel respectfully and accept a blessing from the priest, sometimes proudly, sometimes shyly.
It’s love. Where does that come from? How does that exist? It’s real, but it’s mysterious.
And it’s not just in Mass. There is at least one insight in the movie Love Actually: namely, that when you see people greeting their friends and family at the airport, it makes you realize that love actually does exist; it actually is – all around. And if you can for a moment become convinced that love does exist, then you might, someday, wonder: How? Because there doesn’t seem to be any room for it in the universe that modern atheists insist upon.
Indeed, if at any moment the dedicated atheist were to engage in an act of selfless love, then would they not at that moment have “let the cat out of the bag,” so to speak? Would they not have shown that they too believe that the universe is more than just atoms bumping into one another and that living a full, meaningful life involves more than just will-to-power and preference maximization?
It’s not just Christians who think the basic, most essential, and meaningful force in the universe is love. Plenty of others do. It’s just that many of them hold views of the universe that cannot make sense of that love. Christianity has an account of the world that does.
The odd thing about what we call “the Paschal Mystery” – what makes it “mysterious” – is the claim that the Creator-God loves us so much that He became flesh and died for us and rose from the dead. If, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has claimed, “love alone is credible,” then how could God reveal Himself to us – not as a different sort of Zeus or a different sort of Prime Mover, but as the God of selfless love – unless by giving Himself fully in selfless love?
Without the events of Holy Week, we might believe in a “god,” but not the God who, as Pope Benedict XVI has written, “created the universe in order to enter into a history of love with humankind.” And without that love, how would we know, how could we even suspect, that “the universe is not the product of darkness and unreason.”
Because, as Benedict writes, “only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings.”
It is easy enough to believe in a “god” – a god of power – but a Creator-God of selfless love? It is, admittedly, “mysterious.” But perhaps, in the end, it’s the only thing that can truly make sense of a world with love in it.
*Image: Christ blessing Little Children by Benjamin West, 1781 [Royal Academy of Arts, London, England]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s Loving and Knowing God
St. John Paul II’s Conformity with God’s Plan