Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Faith Seeking Understanding

The contemporary way of looking at God seems to be exactly upside down. Traditionally, it has been held that God, being omnipotent, creator, sustainer, and lawgiver, was the judge and we were the ones on trial. Now, it seems that we, being good self-made modernists with a healthy dose of skepticism and hard-nosed questioning, have put ourselves on the bench and God on trial, doubting His existence and libeling His character (“if God is good, how could he let such and such happen?”).

Needless to say, if God actually is the one in charge, and we're...well...not, then we should probably give him back His spot.

"Proving" God

I think, therefore, I am. I think...
The problem with so many well meaning Christians today is that we agree to start at the wrong place in reasoning our way to God. We begin with doubt and set off on a path to knowledge that seeks to satisfy our objections and fit within our paradigm. This mode of thinking can be traced back to the philosophy of Rene Descartes, who resolved to empty himself of all preconceived notions about God and reality and reduce philosophy down to one irrefutable statement – “I think, therefore, I am.”

The problem with beginning at “I think, therefore, I am” is that it starts with man rather than God. It argues that man's existence is the fundamental starting point for all inquiry, and that God is something to be “proved” and added to man's understanding of reality. If man, for whatever reason, decides that the “proofs” for God's existence don't jive with his particular conception of reality, he can expel it from his worldview.

In short, Descartes, though well-intentioned, attempted to derive the existence of God from his own existence, a project that was destined to fail (especially since, as hard-nosed naturalist philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out, his basic premise was flawed – Descartes can technically say no more than “thoughts are being thunk”). Given that Descartes is considered the “father of modern philosophy,” it's safe to say that modernity is pretty much hosed.

But there is another option. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, adopted the motto of “faith seeking understanding” in his apologetics. For St. Anselm, man starts with the self-evident truth of God's existence, and then seeks to understand himself as he relates to God. Philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, it exists to illuminate the truths of a world that is founded on the reality of God. It starts by accepting the truths of Scripture in faith and works its way outwards from there. 

In a culture of religious pluralism like we have today, such a way of thinking about God is a bit more difficult, but not quite impossible. When defending the faith, we should be wary of the non-believer who wants to start with a blank slate and work his way up to God from there. We need to be open and honest about the fact that all of our reasoning is inextricably bound up in the reality of God. Our task is not to start from ground zero and build a case for God. Our task is to help take off the blinders that unbelievers have constructed in their resistance to God. We demolish arguments that set themselves up against the knowledge of God, so that a reality bursting with His glory and handiwork can shine through.

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. Couldn't it be said that a greater underlying problem with Descartes is his rampant skepticism? Surely it's not _necessarily_ a problem to begin reasoning with one's existence. I think, therefore I am, I didn't create myself, therefore there must be a Creator...?

  2. I am personally a Descartes fan. He was trying to prove that even if you only believe in yourself, you can get to the point where you can believe in God. Descartes wasn't the ultimate skeptic, he wanted to develop arguments that could help the skeptic see that there is a God.

    I think therefore I am was the first step in his "Proof of God and the Soul."