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Can we rediscover God?

A recent article in the Irish Times, querying why First Communion is still so popular, quoted a boy called ‘Aidan’ (14) as saying that he is an atheist, as he hasn’t found any evidence for God.

Inevitably I found myself thinking about my own beliefs at the age of 14, growing up in the 1950s in Dublin. For me and for all my peers the existence of God was not only taken for granted, but it played a huge part in our daily lives. Missing Sunday Mass was out of the question, as was eating meat on Friday. We were all active members of our local church. Calling into the local church to say a prayer was as natural to us as would be dropping into a pub or a coffee shop today. We went on silent retreats, organised by our schools, and sat transfixed in the Dominican Church in Tallaght as the friars sang Gregorian Chant. For us, God was in the very air we breathed. So how could perceptions have become so different in the space of sixty years? For it is likely that Aidan’s views are now common among Irish fourteen year olds.

Young people today may point to advances in science, with so many mysteries of our planet and of the universe gradually being clarified or resolved, mysteries that some may have resolved by reference to ‘God’ in the old days. But the 19th and 20th centuries were also periods of rapid scientific development. Evolutionary theory was first proposed in 1840, the special theory of relativity in 1905, black holes in space and quantum mechanics in 1916, the Big Bang (under another name) in 1931. The atom was first split in 1917. Many young people in the 1950s had to grapple with many of the same questions as their counterparts today. As a small boy I remember trying to reconcile a Bible commentary which gave the age of the earth as about 10,000 years, with a book I got as a Christmas present giving its age as many millions of years. Although I opted for the latter opinion, it did not cause me to lose my faith. Why the difference between then and now?

A key word in Aidan’s short statement is ‘evidence’. In many different fields, views on what constitutes ‘evidence’ have shifted significantly in the last 70 years or so. The period 1800 to 1945 was characterised by great flights of ‘rationalism’, which saw the human mind as capable of discovering great truths without any ‘hard’, ‘empiric’ evidence i.e. something accessible to the senses that could be observed and measured. It is tempting to dismiss or downplay rationalism, but there is no doubt that some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs have been made by the power of reason alone, even though these insights had later to be tested by scientific experiment, and might have been prompted by prior experimentation. Well-known examples of such insights are the theory of Archimedes, most mathematical breakthroughs from the time of Pythagoras onwards, and in our own times Einstein’s special theory of relativity (E=mc²), as well as quantum theory.

However many unverified, and often unverifiable, theories about the whole of reality were put forward by a number of 19th century rationalist philosophers, particularly by Hegel. Some of these were taken up and developed into specific theories of historical determinism (the idea that the outcome of history is inevitable) notably by Marx and Hitler. Directly or indirectly political actions inspired by theories of this kind led to death and destruction on a global scale. These outcomes led to a deep distrust of rationalistic mega-theories. And religion has undoubtedly been one of the casualties. The problem for religions is that they are rarely if ever based on the kind of hard empirical evidence demanded today by the natural sciences. Many religions are based on documents, such as the Bible, whose origins are shrouded in some mystery or are often subjected to greater critical forensic examination than they can bear. These documents often speak of ‘supernatural’ events which are outside our normal experience and which are not now amenable to closer examination and verification. To add to this, much theological and spiritual writing seems to take place within a closed system with many premises and dogmas taken, literally, ‘on faith’, and such writing can come across as relying on speculative reasoning rather than empiric evidence. Reliance on tradition, and on authority, are two further dimensions of religious belief which distances it from the world of science today. It is a bit of a mystery why these considerations did not bother us in the 1950s. Perhaps the scientific culture was simply not as all-pervasive as it is now. And undoubtedly increased access to education has made young people more questioning – in the 1950s most Irish children finished their education between the ages of 14 and 16.

In considering the existence or non-existence of God, the starting point for Aidan and myself may well be the same: Why is there something rather than nothing? – a question first formulated by the German thinker Leibniz in 1714. Even this question has to be rephrased, as some scientists, such as Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, 2014) are redefining ‘nothing’ to mean space, which contains some atoms of matter. So the question is rather, ‘Why is there something?’ In the 1950s it was the first question in our catechism: Q.: ‘Who made the World?’ Ans.: God. Q.: Who is God? Ans.: The omnipotent being, the creator and Lord of heaven and earth. It was not considered necessary to put forward any empirical evidence for the answers. These were based on the opening words in the Jewish Old Testament, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” and were therefore seen as ‘revelation’ i.e. truths revealed to us by God. When the relevant part of the Old Testament was written down (about 700 B.C.) there were a number of ‘creation myths’ in circulation in the Middle East and this simple statement was intended to clarify or sweep aside all of these.

On reflection, it is implicit in the answer given above to the question ‘Who made the world?’ that ‘God’ could not be just another ‘being’ since that would lead immediately to a further question, “And who made God?” and so on to infinity. This realization led one celebrated Christian writer of the 5th century, Pseudo-Dionysius, to declare that it is not correct to say that God ‘exists’. “Knowledge is limited to what exists; now as the cause of all being, God does not exist, or rather God is superior to all oppositions between being and non-being”. (Quoted by V. Lossky in The Vision of God, 1963). Dionysius was one of the main proponents of what is called apophatic theology, which stresses the unknowability of God. In this view, we can only say what God is not, rather than what God is. In the words of St. Augustine, “if you have understood, then what you have understood is not God” (Sermo 52). There is no point in using human terms like Just or Cruel or Male or Female or even Good to describe God. To quote Dionysius again, “God cannot be known by the senses, nor in an image, nor by opinion, nor by reason, nor by knowledge”. However this tradition of theology, which is more popular in the Orthodox Church of the east than in western Christianity, does not say that God is incommunicable, and teaches that God communicates himself by his energy or ‘grace’. It is important to say that the main tenets of ‘apophatic’ theology are found in the Bible; for instance St. Paul states that “God lives in unapproachable light; no man has seen him or can see him”.

All this may not be very convincing to people like Aidan, but it may give a glimpse of the kind of deep reflection that is necessary before lightly discarding the concept of God as it is found in many of the world’s great religions. Theologians, philosophers and mystics have struggled to find terms that might hint at the nature of God, terms such as ‘ground of our being’, or ‘uncaused cause’ or ‘prime mover’. We could say that in order to ask ourselves the question, “why is there something?” it is necessary to shift our minds into a completely different dimension. Certainly, ‘apophatic’ theology encourages us to think outside the narrow box into which some modern writers are apt to confine God, as for instance when they evaluate the likelihood or not of ‘God’ as some kind of force micro-managing evolution.

It is a commonplace to say, but may be still worth repeating, that there was far more time for reflection in the Ireland of the 1950s than in the 2010s. This was a world in which there was no TVs or zappers, no headphones or computers or tablets or smartphones or even mobile phones, no ‘social media’ or internet or email, very few radio channels especially for popular music, and very little money. Young people may ask, what did you do all day? Although it is impossible now to remember our thought processes, it may be that we found more time and space for active reflection than is possible today. It may be that sixty years of technology have changed our habits and rewired our brains in a way that puts the concept of God almost beyond our reach.