God as Beneficent Father? A reply to Heather Mac Donald

During our hour-long Templeton Conversation at the Harvard Club (September 17), Heather 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, so let me try again. There are two lines of reply. One is 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 (drawing toward 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 “necessary” form of existence, 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 remain superabundant. 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” comes from Jewish and Christian faith, not unaided reason. Therefore, it was not the proper focus of 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 giving 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.

Yet as I wrote many times in No One Sees God, a reasoned defense of the Christian faith (and in my case specifically Catholic) 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.” Because

Jewish-Christian revelation depends for its reception on the reliability of human intelligence to reach at least a rudimentary knowledge of God, finding a way to this rudimentary knowledge through reason is an important exercise for Jews and Christians. Also, since dialogue is most fruitful when participants are willing to meet each other “where they are,” that ancient form of theism (through reason alone) is what No One Sees God aims for at 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 been largely 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. Many unbelievers, then, join Aristotle and Plato in following the evidence where it takes them: to knowledge of the Source of all that is, was, and imperishably will be.

Published in The Catholic Thing September 23, 2008