Recent conversation has brought to mind the question of knowledge, particularly of knowing with certainty. There are a lot of people who fall under agnosticism because they hold that one cannot have any real certainty that there is a God, or, if there is, that we cannot have any certain knowledge about this God. There is such an intense focus on whether or not one can be certain that it has become an all-or-nothing question. This is because the question of certainty is directly connected to the question of reasonability. The question of having certain knowledge has become equivalent in the minds of many (unconsciously so) with the question of said knowledge being reasonable.
Among the pop-philosophy intelligentsia, it is no more or less reasonable to believe in God than to believe in magical unicorns or that we are all brains in vats. We cannot disprove that we are brains in vats, that there are magical unicorns, and we cannot disprove the existence of God. The argument for God is seen as a self-enclosed argument. But this is not actually the case. If we ask if it is reasonable to believe that there are magical unicorns or that we are brains in vats, we must emphatically answer “no”. If we ask if it is reasonable to believe that God exists, we must emphatically answer “yes”. Why? To hold to either of the former beliefs is to hold to something for which we have no evidence. To hold to the latter is to hold to something for which there is evidence. It is reasonable to believe that God exists because there is evidence that God exists. It is unreasonable to believe that we are brains in vats because there is no evidence that we are. One should be able to easily distinguish this.
However, the problem here is not simply of intelligence. There is also the problem of virtue. There are many who can see the difference between these questions if they listen. But then they will still hold that they cannot be certain, and, in their uncertainty, they will freeze in cowardice. It takes courage to follow the evidence. To how many in modern society can the words of the psalmist be applied: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'”?
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One of the Patristic quotes I see most often is from St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” This is almost always taken out of context – not just it’s immediate context but also the context of the whole work in which it appears, Against Heresies – and it is not even the most accurate translation: “The glory of God is a living man.” See here. However, I’d like to address the way it is almost always used today.
Over the past few centuries in Western thought a divide has been expanding increasingly between God and man, resulting in God being thought to be impersonal. God is not thought of as someone, but rather as something and how you perceive this “thing” determines how it is finally to be grasped. For many God is the clockmaker whom we cannot know, but we can know its creation and by knowing its creation we become fully alive because we also come to grasp the mind of God. (Stephen Hawking is a good example of this, though he does not believe in a clockmaker God. Rather as an atheist he reduces God to the laws of physics). For others God is agnostically unknowable, but is most visible through the achievements of man both as individuals and as a whole. This applies not just to technological and scientific progress, but especially to moral and spiritual issues, a life lived in acceptance and tolerance. Here God is reduced to an idea that is manifested in our lives, again both as individuals and as a society. It is in this context, especially that latter, that people apply their meaning to “the glory of God is man fully alive.” For most people who give this quote it is not actually about God and His glorification. Rather it is about man and our glorification.
This view unfortunately is held unconsciously by most Christians. It is all the more unfortunate since it is the grossest type of blind optimism. Through the lens of God being distant (a deist view of the world) there is absolutely no evidence from human history to warrant someone having a reasonable hope of mankind achieving any kind of utopia, especially one in which man has attained full knowledge of all the universe or universes. To correctly understand Irenaeus’s words and for them to express true hope for us today there is much we must keep in mind, but for now a good start are these two:
1) “The glory of God is man fully alive,” must always be understood with the words of Pope Francis: “We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 8)
2) Number one is only possible if God is not distant. He is truly imminent. Not just in a philosophical sense of being within all and grounding all, but in a personalist sense. He is truly active in our lives not as a force, but as One Who is truly personal and relational, and of Whose life and nature we are called to share in.
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