Marcus Chown is one of my favourite atheists. Not for him the haughty ridicule of people of faith as infantilists with the intellectual capacity of a disadvantaged slug. He shows some considerable restraint in that, since I’m pretty sure that’s a fair description of some of my faith-comrades, but I’m grateful nonetheless. His recent review of Bernard Haisch’s book The Purpose-Guided Universe concludes with, “When [Haisch] looks out at the universe he thinks, ‘Wow, what an amazing place God has created.’ When I look out at the universe, I think, ‘Wow, what an amazing place.’ I suppose you can take your pick.” Hard to imagine a more elegantly dispassionate statement of the choice that confronts us all.
Except, although I claim the mantle of “person of faith”, that’s not the choice that I think I’ve had to make. Or, perhaps to be more precise, I doubt that the choice I have made is the one that is implied by the question Marcus so elegantly posits. To begin with, I’ll bet that anyone confronted with the statement “what an amazing place God has created” would assert that the person making that statement would also agree with the statement “God exists”. How could it be otherwise? Well, because the statement “God exists” is to me an oxymoron. In the existentialist theology expounded by John Macquarrie, itself derived from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, existence is defined as the quality that all the things that exist have in common, and this quality is an aspect of God. If God is simply another thing that exists, albeit a grander and more wonderful thing, then He is merely primus inter pares. (I use the capitalised pronoun “He” as a convention to indicate that he as applied to God is in an entirely different category than the he that might be applied to something that exists. It has no implication of gender, or of personhood.) I am acutely aware of how quickly one can find oneself stuck obstinately up one’s own arsehole when one tries to make distinctions like this, but I never claimed faith was easy. God is not a being, merely one of the myriad things that exist; rather He is an almost theoretical answer to the old, but still fundamental, question, “Why something, why not nothing?” This, I think, is what is being hinted at in the Bible when it says that, “without Him was not any thing made that was made.” So perhaps I would posit a slightly different question from that posed by Marcus. For me there are two possible answers to the question, “Why something, why not nothing?” One is, “Fuck knows.” The other is, “God.” For many people those two answers are, to all intents and purposes, the same. For the person of faith, the answers are fundamentally different.
For a Christian, (well, the slightly idiosyncratic Christian that I suppose I am) the leap of faith is nothing whatsoever to do with a decision about whether or not one believes that God exists – for me a meaningless concept as I’ve tried to indicate above – but rather about whether or not there can be any access by something that exists into the “nature” of existence itself, or to put it poetically, into the “mind of God.” The Christian answer is, “Yes” and that access is provided through the person of Jesus Christ. If it were possible for God to exist, then He would be like Jesus. So, it’s almost as if God exists.
The key point is that we are at the absolute limit of language as a means of conveying meaning. All, and I mean all, statements about God are metaphorical, or poetic, or lateral, or imaginative, or “as if” statements. The problem arises when we mistake these religious statements for statements that are analogous to the ordinary statements about ducks, or rocks, or electrons. So when Marcus Chown says of Haisch that he has “a deep desire to square the science he pursues with his religious conviction” I wonder if that means what it seems to mean. Certainly for me, there’s no “squaring” to be done. Science is science. Religious faith is religious faith. If I have questions about how the universe is constructed, how it works, its history or its physical future, I’ll consult the former. If I have questions about how I should live in that universe, I’ll consult the latter. As a meerkat might say, “Simples!”