Does God exist? It’s a fair question. I am not a betting man but I can do the arithmetic of chance versus reward. And this is quite straightforward. I can decide that God exists and, if I’m right, I have the prospect of eternal happiness. If he does not exist then I will return to the same nothingness that I had before my conception.
You will of course have recognised my version of Pascal’s Wager. Philosophers have argued its validity but there was an occasion, 20 years ago, when it was useful to me. I was lying in my bed, somewhat sedated, waiting for open heart surgery. Although the risk of mortality was small I had made my general Confession and written a farewell letter to my wife, with messages for the children. Would I still exist by the end of the morning? Then Pascal came to my aid. If he was wrong, it didn’t matter for I would never know. If he was right, then I was prepared. My mind was now at ease, and I dozed off.
Of course there are specific ways of demonstrating the existence of God; we are in debt to Aquinas for the most traditional. The concept of the first cause seems the simplest to me: everything comes about as a result of causes. It follows that nothing would exist if there were not an uncaused first cause. That first cause is what we call God. Neat, but few are convinced. A different approach is the argument from design. Were we to find a pocket watch we would not suppose that its precise mechanism has come about by chance; it has obviously been designed by some intelligence. But the whole of our world, from the overall to the detail, is a mechanism. We must surely accept a designer, whom we call God. Again, there are sceptics; they suggest evolution as the impersonal agent of design – and perhaps point out natural disasters as evidence of, at least, a poor job.
I am attracted by the ‘ontological argument’ which seems to have first been formulated by St Anselm in the 11th century. He said that our concept of God was that of the greatest being. But since existing was greater than not existing, God must therefore exist. This is a tricky one: Bertrand Russell said, in his History of Western Philosophy, that although it seems to us to be fallacious it is hard to detect where the fallacy lies. It implies that the human mind, by its nature, has a grasp of the existence of God. Ontology was further developed but in the 19th century the Holy Office demurred. Fallacious or not it does point to our recognition that there is something over and above our material experience, and toward which we are drawn.
We are concerned to find meaning. But a world limited to the material can display no overall meaning. We have a concept of infinity but we have no way of grasping or even visualising it. We explore the spiritual in many manifestations, and we experience it as both other and higher than the material world. We recognise the unique qualities of love and we have an imperative sense of right and wrong which transcends the utilitarian. While none of these can be described as concepts of God we are left wondering why human beings should be drawn to elevate such internal phenomena unless they point in God’s direction.
Our own answer may be that proofs of God are not significant: after all we have faith. But even that requires investigation. The word itself is a general one. To say that we believe such and such a thing to be true is not to say that we know it to be true, but rather that, despite the gap between the evidence and the conclusion, we have chosen to accept the conclusion. Even to use a word like perception does not, on analysis, get us any further. We simply trust the conclusion to be true.
As a born Catholic the evidence for my religious faith came from my faith in my parents, although I had to re-work it as an adult to give it a rational basis. Others will have come to this through experience, reflection or the influence of a respected person. But the gap remains and, in the end, a choice has to be made. But here we consider the effect of grace, because our decision to relate to God requires it. But grace is not of course an extra push towards our belief. We know, though we cannot understand, that our engraced personalities remain wholly us, while wholly the work of God. I rely on Paul’s dictum: “I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.”