Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How to Know About God

Some of this post may look familiar. I put links to Wisdom 13:1-9; Acts 17:26-28; Romans 1:19-20; and Catechism of the Catholic Church, 31-35; under "Background" in my November 16, 2011 post.

The heading for that part of the Catechism is "II. Ways of Coming to Know God."

That sort of thing, 'ways to know God,' used to strike me as being presumptuous. Or simply silly.

Finite Meets Infinite

I'm a human being: a creature with finite abilities. We do our thinking with a network of about 100,000,000,000 neurons, weighing in the neighborhood of three pounds.1 That's enough for us to write poetry, study physics, and wait for the light to turn green before crossing.

But use what's inside my skull to understand the eternal, infinite, incomprehensible, almighty, and ineffable God? (Catechism, 202) That seems like a lot to ask of a few pounds of neural circuitry: no matter how wonderfully complex and adaptable it is.

Barring divine intervention, I don't think I can wrap my understanding around God. But it turns out that folks can learn something about God, starting with what's in and around us.

God, Proofs, and Definitions

I've heard people call these 'proofs' of God's existence. That's accurate, but potentially misleading:
"Created in God's image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of 'converging and convincing arguments', which allow us to attain certainty about the truth. These 'ways' of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world, and the human person."
(Catechism, 31) (emphasis mine)

The Physical World: Order, Beauty, and Getting a Grip

Catechism, 35, points out that "real intimacy" with God depends on God's revealing Himself to us: which doesn't mean that faith is something that won't make sense unless we get zapped by the finger of God.
"Man's faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. ... the proofs of God's existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason."
(Catechism, 35)
That runs counter to the notion that religion and science, faith and reason, get along as well as cobra and mongoose.

It's one of those things that 'everybody knows,' that folks must either:
  • Be 'religious'
    • Denounce Godless scientists
    • Devoutly insist that
      • Evolution is a Satanic plot
      • The Sun goes around the Earth
  • Be 'rational'
    • Denounce ignorant Christians
    • Devoutly insist that
      • Religious beliefs are a psychiatric condition
      • God
        • Doesn't exist
        • Doesn't matter
        • Isn't 'scientific'
That's an oversimplification, but the notion that faith and reason, religion and science, are incompatible is pretty deeply entrenched in American culture. I think it's fallout from a Victorian-era snit among British gentlemen. And I've been over this before. (March 20, 2009)

Truth, Beauty, and Using My Brain

I can understand, in a way, why dedicated secularists insist on believing that Christians are ignorant dolts. What impresses me is that how many American Christians say the same thing, although they express the idea a bit differently.

By the way, I'm not making up that bit about the sun going around Earth, rather than the other way around. The idea's 'Biblical,' in a Western-literalistic sort of way: 1 Chronicles 16:30; Psalms 93:1, 96:10, and 104:5; and Ecclesiastes 1:5. It's also something I mentioned last month. And that's another topic.

I didn't convert to Catholicism because there's a science academy at the Vatican. But I didn't have to stop thinking to become a Catholic, either.

Here's how we can start learning about God by studying what He made:
"The world: starting from movement, becoming, contingency, and the world's order and beauty, one can come to a knowledge of God as the origin and the end of the universe...."
(Catechism, 32)
I've wondered if the 20th-century fashion of insisting that art wasn't "art" unless it was bug-ugly is connected to the Church's observation that order and beauty are characteristics of creation: and that's almost another topic.

God, Creation, and High Stakes

The good news is that God left fairly obvious (my opinion) clues about Himself in His creation. The not-entirely-pleasant news is that a whole lot rides on what we decide to do with that evidence:
"For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened."
(Romans 1:19-21)
So, what's the worst that could happen, if folks decide that they don't like God's evidence, and that they'd much rather live in an ugly, chaotic, world?

I mentioned fire and brimstone preachers last week. Briefly, I don't think scaring folks silly is a good idea. It's the "silly" part that bothers me.

Being aware of possible consequences? That's why we started using warning labels. When it comes to deciding that God shouldn't exist, there's a lot more at stake than setting fire to one's house:
"12 The wrath 13 of God 14 is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness."
(Romans 1:18)
I really don't think that Romans 1:18 means 'be ignorant of God's creation, and shield thy eyes from facts, lest thou learn.'

I also think that saying 'because science finds order in the universe, God doesn't exist' makes as much sense as saying 'because there are hammers, there are no architects.'

Pretty-much-related posts:
1 More about the human brain:
  • "Fun Facts"
    ("Brain Facts that make you go, 'Hmmmmm'.")
    Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D.; Executive Director, Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering; University of Washington, Seattle, Washington


Brigid said...

An orphan footnote: "'12 The wrath 13 of God 14 is indeed'"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


I see what you mean: but that's the way it is in the original. I checked the links, and thanks!

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