Saturday, 18 September 2010

The God debate – why does it leave me cold?

There's something about the God debate that troubles me. The atheists demand evidence for God, and trumpet their confident assertions that he doesn't exist. The Christians (why aren't Muslims and Jews involved in this debate more?) argue back, fighting the battle on God's behalf. It basically boils down to the atheist argument that it is possible to explain the emergence of the world in its own terms, whether through physics (Hawking) or biology (Dawkins), with the religious coming back with the argument that even so, how can something emerge out of nothing? However the laws of evolution or gravity might provide a complete mechanism for launching the world and developing life, it is still hard to conceive of something appearing out of nothing at all, the basic problem the atheist argument has yet to answer properly, in my view at least.

Nonetheless, all this does slightly leave me cold and misses something essential about the nature of Christian faith and theology. Even if it were established by proper argumentation that God existed, if Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and friends suddenly announced that after all they were convinced and that God did exist after all, what difference would it make? Arriving at the conclusion that God exists is a long way from Christian faith. And of course it could never really happen that way anyway Jesus says: "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." (John 7.17). In other words, it is only when I begin to act on the words of Jesus, to live as if it might be true that God is there, loves me, you and the world, that I will begin to know for sure whether Jesus and all those who say there is a God are right or not.

Christian belief is the kind of thing that only comes into its own, only becomes real when activated by practice, not just by assent. Until then, the arguments seem rather sterile. It is why when Christina faith becomes inactive and discipleship ceases, before long people often stop even believing in God in any substantial way. As George Bernanos once put it: "Faith is not a thing one loses. We merely cease to shape our lives by it." Jesus also says repeatedly '"Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." (Lk 11.28). It is only when hearing translates into doing that we begin to understand. Christian theology cannot be separated from Christian practice, and for that reason, arguments over the existence of God that lack that dimension, that fail to emphasise that you only begin to know God when you obey him, will always ultimately miss the point.


  1. "A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer. (Karl Barth) It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. _Practice_ gives the words their sense." (Wittgenstein - and he later confessed he might have been being unfair to Barth)

  2. Preaching on Creation / evolution tomorrow at Ps and Gs and have come to the same conclusion!
    Dave Richards

  3. "you only begin to know God when you obey him"...fair enough. It seems to me though that arguments around creation are important for Christians to engage with both from a pre-evangelistic point of view but also to push back against the corrosive "science can explain everything" zeitgeist.

    Paul talks about how "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" Rom 1:20. Where Dawkins et al started from was from an admission that pre Darwin, the creation (especially of complex life) was a challenge to unbelief. As Paul says, "men are without excuse". Dawkins argument is that since Darwin we can understand complex life as a purely random evolution and so it is possible to be, in his words "an intellectually satisfied atheist". In other words before (or without) Darwin there was a problem for atheists....they were "without excuse". Darwin, he asserts gives them an excuse - at least as far as complex life goes.

    Hawking is trying to tackle the other main intellectual problem for atheists, the beginning and fine tuning of the universe. He is again trying to provide an "excuse".

    You may say these attempts are futile but I sense that they introduce stumbling blocks to the seeker and doubts about the authority of scripture to the faithful.

    Though some UK based Christian scientists disagree, I feel that the intelligent design movement is doing us a tremendous service in pushing back against the arguments of Dawkins in particular. In a nutshell they are saying that far from science increasingly revealing a universe not in need of a creator, it is revealing a universe full of strange and inexplicable departures from the randomness that should be expected. This can be seen not only in the creation of the universe itself in the fine tuning of the gravitational constant etc. but also in the creation of life where even the simplest life form contains a quantity of information that far, far exceeds the computational resources of the universe to put together by chance - let alone complex life forms.

    In other words men truly are "without excuse". This is an important truth too to Christians who are constantly bombarded with the "science can explain everything" message. It is a message that is corrosive to faith and we need to explain why it is not true.

  4. I think your view is interesting, and ultimately it is the unanswerable question. It does, as you say, seem to have two definite sides though, but whether we'll ever come to any sort of logical conclusion on it I just don't know.


St Mellitus - a Story of Redemption

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Paul's Cathedral on Thursday 2nd May 2019, when  the  Cathedral was celebrating St Mellitus...