YOU PROVE GOD EXISTS?"
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
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
mechanism of consciousness is at root non-algorithmic
emphasis), which means that consciousness
cannot be reduced to purely computational principles, although it can and does
use computation." (p.11)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
in God as an exercise of 'faith'
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.