St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
May 11, 2003 (Mothers' Day)

 

"CAN YOU PROVE GOD EXISTS?"

 

I've heard it said that ministers whose addresses are printed are big-noting themselves!  That comes generally from lazy or short-sighted individuals who don't complete a full script, or who fail to see the possibilities of getting stuff into circulation. My lunch-hour addresses at the University of Melbourne were printed, and brought correspondence from around the world.  I say this as encouragement for you to get the St David's addresses into circulation. 

 

A former colleague in Adelaide, whose sermons are printed, told me this.   A man in his congregation who rarely misses a service, but whose wife seldom attends one, recently said to him, "Immediately I get home Sunday, my wife demands the printed sermon, and then devours it.  I should add, of course, that she considers herself an atheist!"  An 'atheist' is the opposite of a 'theist'.  A theist says the term 'G-O-D' has some reference point in reality; it denotes something eminently real. An atheist says the word has no counterpart in reality; it's just a meaningless handful of letters 'dog' spelled backwards! 

 

That man's wife typifies a complex mix of attitudes.  She is eager for spiritual nutriment, but she doesn't go to church for it.  She looks for a deeper meaning in life, but stumbles over the 'G-O-D' question; certainly the way she remembers churches talking about God, any how. And yet, she reads the addresses of some-one who talks unabashedly about God.  She belongs to a growing number.

 

Behind this series we introduced last Sunday is that the major issue for believers in every faith community is what we think we mean by 'G-O-D'.  Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims yes, and some Buddhists have grown up with meanings attached to that word which are now open to question.   Questions arise out of a new appreciation for other faiths, a new appreciation for what science and cosmology can show us about how the universe works and a deep dissatisfaction with much of the old language of godtalk.

 

Take one example: an important one on Mothers' Day!   There's a body of well-educated, intelligent females in the church reminding us that most godtalk (including scripture) comes from males who resort to male experiences of maleness for language to describe this Mystery we dare to name.  John's gospel uses a metaphor from female experience to describe the divine touch upon us getting 'born again' by the Spirit!  We'll come back to this in a few weeks: how much we are bound to traditional metaphors.

 

But for today I want to address this question of whether it's possible to speak of God with people like that woman who reads the addresses but says she's an atheist.  If you think there are unassailable proofs for God, it's not that simple.  I want to make four points, with the help of a story or two. 

 

I

 

First, any debate on this assumes we know what we mean by 'God'!  To argue whether or not anything exists implies that we know ahead what this thing or entity is!  It's tricky, you see.  In marshalling a case for or against the existence of God, we need to be able to say first what we mean by that word!  That determines the outcome of our conversation.  Let me try to show you.

 

In his book "A Brief History of Time", Stephen Hawking tells about the woman who interrupts a lecture on the universe.  She says the world is really a flat plate resting on the back of a giant turtle.  When she is asked by the lecturer what the turtle rests on, she says "It's turtles all the way down!"  It seems to me that if you say that God is a tower of turtles holding everything in being, you have at least a starting point for the argument and can probably guess the outcome!

 

Many people think God should be a sort of giant-size copy of their parents, when they were little.  Their parents protected them, directed them, corrected them; rewarded them when pleased and punished them when angry.  They provided a structured, secure and predictable environment.  More than this: they guarded us against adversity and against enemies.  They shielded us from pain, and gave us nice things.  We grew up thinking God was like that, or should be!

 

If that's the sort of God you want to believe in, there's compelling evidence against the existence of that God.  This is the atheists' biggest weapon.  They say, "How can you believe in that sort of entity when the world is malfunctioning; when there is so much bad stuff?  How can you believe in a God like your mummy and daddy when you were little squirts, in the face of such evidence?"  A lot of people become atheists over just that problem.

 

What we're saying is that arguing whether or not God exists assumes we know what we mean by 'God': what sort of a God we're trying to prove exists!

 

II

 

Second reason it's not entirely straightforward: this isn't something you can subject to laboratory testing.  You can't verify it in the scientific sense but then neither can you falsify it in any scientific sense.  It can only ever be one of those things you decide to believe (or not believe) on the basis of evidence available.  But remember this: evidence is not the same as proof.   In fact, there are heaps of things we believe not on unassailable proof, but on evidence. 

Let me try to illustrate. Suppose in my declining years I start to get a bit paranoid, accusing my offspring of not loving their old dad any more.  One of them protests.  "But we visit you, or have you over to visit us, just about every week.  If you stop overnight, we bring you breakfast in bed and the paper.  We remember your birthday and we fuss over you if you get sick.  What else must we do?"  "But you don't love me."  "How much proof do you need?  Isn't all that worth something?"  "Well, I guess it could be evidence of something like love but it's not proof.  You may do all that just to stop me complaining, or because you were rotten kids and feel guilty."  "OK, have it your way.  We probably can't prove that we love you.  It's something you either believe or you don't."

 

In fact, that's not such a bad illustration.  Whether or not to believe in the love of another (our kids, our fathers or mothers) is in the end 'an act of faith'.  It's the same when deciding if we think there's anything we can call 'G-O-D'.  We certainly have what can be called 'evidence', which we're talking about next Sunday.  But evidence is not the same as proof.  From evidence you can infer that there's something to explain the evidence.  You see smoke, and you infer the existence of fire.  You may act accordingly.  If it's your offspring, you believe they love you and you act accordingly.   If it's the existence of God, you believe this to be so and act accordingly.

 

III

 

So to my third reason why arguing the existence of God is tricky: awareness of God may be (wait for it) 'non-algorithmic'!  What ever does that mean?  Mathematicians and computer people know.  'Algorithmic' means a process like saying 6 plus 9 equals 15, divided by 5 equals 3, which is half the number you first thought of!  It's a way of thinking that follows steps rather like solving a mathematical problem or like a computer.

 

Alongside me as I wrote this was a beautiful and fascinating book called "Music of the Mind".  It was written by the late Daryl Reanney, who lectured at La Trobe University in microbiology and biochemistry.  Reanney's passion was to bring together the insights of science with those of the sacred traditions.  In "Music of the Mind" he wrote this about the way our minds work:

 

"The mechanism of consciousness is at root non-algorithmic (my emphasis), which means that consciousness cannot be reduced to purely computational principles, although it can and does use computation." (p.11)

 

Daryl Reanney went on to point out that poetry and music tap into the 'non-algorithmic' in us.  He would have said that awareness of God is likewise 'non-algorithmic' not one of those computational functions of our consciousness.  I will be coming back to this next week, but must hasten on.

IV

 

There is one other reason we should be cautious about debating the existence of God.  There may be something very arrogant about this!  To illustrate, the story of one of my most memorable experiences: one of those occasions when your thinking seems to take a giant leap from which you can't turn back.  I'm sure you've all had this kind of experience now and again. 

 

In 1989 I first met Manfred Clynes, a visiting professor at the University of Melbourne.  Manfred had been known to my generation as a prodigiously gifted concert pianist, who hit the musical world about fifty years ago with an impact similar to that of Yehudi Menuhin, Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline Du Pre and others.  As a young man he went to the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

 

But Manfred changed direction.  He became a professor of neurophysiology.  When I met him, he had spent a quarter-century studying patterns of brain activity in emotional states: specifically anger, hate, grief, love, sex, joy and (wait for this) reverence.  He said to me, "I think the Creator would have been very surprised to discover these things had developed accidentally.  They were meant to be."  In other words, he was saying we are somehow 'programmed' with the capacity for reverence as well as those other capacities.

 

Up to that point I had not asked if he thought there was a 'God', but I took this as my cue.  "Then you think there's something we can call 'G-O-D'?"  "That's a silly question!" I was a bit stunned. "Why's it a silly question?" "You should know why it's a silly question!"  Since it seemed I would get no further by insisting on an explanation, I decided to guess at one, and try it on him next time.   I guessed right.  What Manfred had been trying to tell me was that there was something arrogantly pretentious about two men sitting on the floor, thinking they had the right to decide if God existed or not.  It was like two Beethoven sonatas taking it on themselves to decide whether or not Beethoven existed!

 

After all, it's not we who decide whether God should exist.  It is God who decided that we should exist, and exquisitely fine-tuned the cosmos to bring this about in the fulness of time, forming us out of star dust.  And that really inspires reverence!

 

Scriptures

Psalm 22:1-8    The ancient bard admits to doubt about God

Hebrews 11:1-3    Believing in God as an exercise of 'faith'

Luke 12:22-28    Jesus sees evidence of God everywhere

 

 

An address given by Rev Dr John Bodycomb in St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury,

on Sunday, May 11, 2003.  MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT.