Two A.M. Doubts about God

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English: This is the portrait of Mother Teresa

English: This is the portrait of Mother Teresa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Mother Teresa‘s diaries were made public, it surprised some people that she admitted that at times she doubted the existence of God. How could such a saintly woman have such doubts? When I have expressed my own doubts to others, some people react defensively or tell me I should repent and pray since doubting God’s existence is a sin. As well meaning as that response may be, it is wrong-headed.

First, it is difficult to believe that there are Christians who have never doubted the existence, or at least the goodness, of God at some point in their lives. Beyond the doubts that often come after tragedy, there are the doubts that invade at two a.m. in the darkness of night when trivial concerns of the day have dissolved and the ultimate questions come to mind. “Is there really a God? Everyone dies, everything changes. How can there be an eternal mind? If it is just mind, how can it exist at all? If God does not exist, there is no life after death and when I die I’ll be dead like Rover, all over, annihilated–no thoughts, no memories, no feelings, sheer, absolute nothingness.”

Although most people may not ask questions at that level of sophistication or have existential anxiety that intense, it would surprise me greatly if a large number of religious people had no doubts at all. If Mother Teresa had doubts, as good as she was, I am sure the average Christian has doubts.

Although atheism is foreign to Holy Scripture, it is clear in the Psalms that some of the poets had doubts concerning the goodness and faithfulness of God. Although these are resolved in most of these psalms by a confession of faith in God’s future deliverance, one psalm, Psalm 88, offers no hope at all. The end of life for the righteous and the wicked is the shadowy realm of Sheol, where the dead slowly fade away as people forget them, fading eternally without being wholly annihilated. In the Christian tradition, John the Baptist doubted that Jesus was the Messiah to the point that Jesus sent a message concerning His mighty acts to John via His apostles. The Apostle Thomas is the most famous example of doubt, and he ceases to doubt when he sees the resurrected Jesus in person.

In Christian mysticism, the withdrawal of God in the dark night of the soul (St. John of the Cross) may lead to a state in which God seems absent. Perhaps that is the state in which Mother Teresa found herself when she doubted the existence of God. This, according to St. John of the Cross, is a necessary though painful stage on the way toward union with God.

Existential anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, as the atheist philosophers, John Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger recognized, Heidegger noted that human nature (Dasein) is “being toward death,” and to fail to recognize this obvious fact of life is to live in an inauthentic fashion (Sartre would say, “live in ‘bad faith'”). Perhaps Christians to deny any doubt are not living authentically, not allowing their faith to be put to the test. Such “faith” would never stand a major life crisis. Facing one’s potential annihilation head on is a necessary step toward living an authentic life, and for some people it may be an essential step in finding true faith. I have no problem with the advice to pray about doubts — if Christian claims about God are true, He will provide comfort during times of distress and doubt.

For intellectuals, studying the classic arguments for God’s existence may be helpful, especially for those who do not have a Humean or a Kantian bias against the arguments. These serve as “preambles to faith,” as Aquinas noted, but they also can help to restore faith, at least at an intellectual level. The emotional level arises through prayer, participation in the liturgy, and helping others and treating them with respect. One’s faith will most likely be stronger, rather than weaker, after a period of doubt. Those Christians who doubt the doubters should keep that in mind.

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Cosmological Arguments Based on Sufficient Reason are Flawed

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One of the most popular family of cosmological arguments for the existence of God is based on the principle of sufficient reason. This principle dates back to at least the time of Leibniz, who used the principle to argue that contingent beings must have a sufficient reason for their existence, and that reason is God. As much as I love the cosmological argument based on neo-Aristotelian notions of cause and effect, the argument from the principle of sufficient reason fails.

Leibniz’s own argument fails, first of all, because his notion of “contingency” is only an epistemological, not a metaphysical, notion. Beings and events are contingent only from our limited human point of view. But every object and event is logically necessary given God’s preestablished harmony between the monads, the ultimate (non-spatial, non-temporal, windowless) bits of “mind-stuff” that are the basis of all being. Leibniz was such a determinist that he believed that if at time A, person B had one less hair on his head, he would literally be a different person. Thus the contingency of being is only an appearance, only a quirk of human beings’ limited capacity to know a complex world, rather than an actual state of finite beings. Leibniz’s distinction between contingent and necessary being collapses into only necessary being, and since the distinction is essential to his cosmological argument, his argument fails. A similar criticism applies to all arguments from sufficient reason that posit a necessary connection between reasons in a deductive logic framework.

A major problem with all arguments based on the principle of sufficient reason is that this principle, beloved of many rationalists, subsumes causes under reasons. But not all causes are reasons and not all reasons are causes. The cause of the late President John F. Kennedy’s death was the bullet that caused fatal brain destruction. The reasons for his death are more complex and involve the motives of Oswald, perhaps too lax security, and so forth. It is true that we talk of reasons being causes in a loose, extended sense and vice versa, but this does not imply that the distinction is illusory or unreal.

If a cosmological argument for the existence of God is to be sound, it must start from cause and effect among finite beings, with the finite causes being contingent because they do not have the cause of their existence within themselves, and therefore they are liable to change, decay, and in the case of living things, death. Aquinas’ Five Ways to prove God’s existence are examples of arguments based on traditional Aristotelian causality. Of course the arguments will have to be updated to some degree due to their statement in terms of outmoded Aristotelian science, the substance of those arguments are correct–but that discussion is for another day.

The Warren-Flew Debate: Thirty-Five Years Later

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The Warren-Flew debate on the existence of God took place from September 20-23, 1976, on the campus of North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas. Affirming the existence of God was Dr. Thomas B. Warren of the Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee. Denying the existence of God was Dr. Antony G. N. Flew of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. Both men have passed on now, but to this day that debate has influenced me–and is one of the main reasons I am a philosopher today.

Even as a child I was tormented by doubts about my Christian faith, doubts that continue to haunt me today. In junior high and in high school I wanted to defend the existence of God against atheists, at the time focusing on science. Although I do not agree with my position then, I fell in love with the young earth creationism of Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and the members of the Institute for Creation Research in California. I wanted to get a degree in one of the sciences–my childhood dream was to do what Hugo Ross is doing today–get a Ph.D. in astronomy and defend the Christian faith. Thank God I later recognized that young earth creationism is false–but by then I had an alternative field–philosophy. And it was the book on the Warren-Flew debate that led me into the field.

Memory fails me regarding when I received the book–perhaps it was a Christmas present. I was in the middle of the ninth grade. The first thing that impressed me about the book was its dedication by the publishers–“To all who love truth and are willing to make the search to find it.” It was truth I had always sought–what was and is important is that God exists in truth, in extramental reality. As I read on, I believed (and still do) that Dr. Warren got the better of Dr. Flew in the debate. Perhaps Dr. Flew was not ready for an American style of all-out debate rather than a quiet discussion of the issues. In any case, I admired Warren’s chart of “Chinese Boxes,” each of which Flew had to know to know that God does not exist.  The idea of consciousness arising from that which has no consciousness or intelligence from the non-intelligent still seems fantastic to me today.

This is not to say that Dr. Warren did not equivocate–many of his arguments are vulnerable to attack. Warren’s pseudo-dilemma about which came first, a human mother or a human baby, and how it is impossible for a nonhuman mother to bear a human baby misses the point of evolution. Flew noted this weakness but did not do an adequate job of refuting Warren’s point. Later, Wallace Matson in his debate with Warren offered an effective argument from an analogy with language: “When did Latin become French.” Just as it is impossible to say at what exact point Vulgar Latin ended and Old French began, so it may not be possible to determine when an ape-like primate ended and a human being was born. Despite these flaws, I admire Dr. Warren’s use of logic, his consistent evidential apologetic position, and his willingness to stick to his guns and debate the leading atheists of his day. Reading that book first gave me a love for philosophy that remained in the back of my mind and finally came to fruition when I took some philosophy classes at David Lipscomb University (although my major was Biblical languages) and especially when I took Dr. Harold Hazelip’s classes in the philosophy of religion at Harding Graduate School of Religion, Dr. Warren’s old school. By the time I entered Vanderbilt University for an M.A. in Religion, most of my courses were in philosophy as well as my thesis. By then the course was set, and I thought of Dr. Warren and his debate the day I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from The University of Georgia.

If Dr. Warren were alive today, he would be disappointed in me–he was an old-fashioned believer in the New Testament as a constitution-like document with a set pattern for doctrine and practice that he believed was only fulfilled in the present day through Churches of Christ. In 1983 the paper The Firm Foundation published Warren’s article, “The Only Christians” that argued that the only Christians were members of the Churches of Christ. The article contained a great deal of equivocation on the term “Church of Christ.” Sadly, Dr. Warren would think, if he were still living, that I am on the road to hell. He was man consistent with his convictions to the end of his life, and I admire that. But I believe that it was proper to offer a tribute to Dr. Warren for being, unknowingly, a major inspiration for my decision to go into the field of philosophy–and I thank him.