Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On the Existence of God as the Ground of Freedom and Love

Even if metaphysical questions are not rejected in principle, there is a second objection to the God of revelation. This was already formulated in the philosophy of the ancients, but it has acquired far greater force in the modern scientific and technological world.

It can be put like this: a rationally constructed world is determined by rationally perceived causality. To such a scheme the notion of personal intervention is both mythical and repugnant. But if this approach is adopted, it must be followed consistently, for what applies to God also applies equally to man.

If there is only one kind of causality, man too as a person is excluded and reduced to an element in mechanical causality, in the realm of necessity; freedom too, in this case, is a mythical idea. In this sense it can be said that the personalities of God and of man cannot be separated.

If personality is not a possibility, i.e., not present, with the ‘ground’ of reality, it is not possible at all. Either freedom is a possibility inherent in the ground of reality, or it does not exist. Thus the issue of prayer is intimately linked with those of freedom and personality: the question of prayer decides whether the world is to be conceived as pure ‘chance and necessity’, or whether freedom and love are constitutive elements of it.
Joseph Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, p.20

Reflection – The attitude that the future pope Benedict describes here is not a relic of 19th century positivist philosophy. It is alive and well in the new atheism of our day. It is, in fact, the essential premise on which the supposed opposition of religion and science, faith and reason rests. Scientists and those who use their reason (we are told) believe in an ordered universe of empirically observable and rationally provable causes and effects, predictable and unswerving sequences of events based on the interplay of natural forces.

Religious people (who don’t use their reason) believe that Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread, walked on water, and raised the dead. And so, in the rather crudely thought out dialectic between science and reason, religion and faith, it is the former that has all the credibility, the latter none.

Ratzinger identifies well what is wrong with this rather simplistic division. Leaving aside the obvious fact that many people of faith have been people of science and reason as well (a fact borne out by any study of European intellectual history), and so existentially there is clearly no real opposition between the two, there is also no rational opposition between them either.

God establishes a universe that runs, to a large degree, along basically mechanistic lines, that has an ordered course of operation that can be studied, learned, predicted, and then channelled to serve particular human ends—science and technology, in a nutshell.

But the God who ‘built’ the machine is also a Person not defined or limited by the machine, any more than a human being who makes a machine is not a slave to that machine. So this God can act, for reasons of His own, in the universe He made, to achieve this or that end.

Miracles, by the way, are not limited to biblical manuscripts or medieval legends. There is a chronicled, documented history of miracles that is fairly consistent from the time of Christ up to the present day. Atheists are sublimely uninterested in all that, by and large. Personally, I have seen physical healings following on prayer; people I know have experienced first-hand the miraculous multiplication of food, generally in places where the poor are served. Perhaps atheists are not aware of that because they don't tend to hang out in those places...

But all of that aside, Ratzinger makes here the very good point that to exclude this out of court as an absurdity really does not end with God and prayer and miracles. It extends, by strict logical necessity, to excluding real human freedom from the scene, and with the exclusion of freedom, love too is a casualty of atheistic materialism.

If there is nothing but matter and physical forces playing against each other, if all reality is to be interpreted only in this rubric of mechanism and strict necessity, then human beings too are machines, essentially, and consciousness and all that goes with it (the illusion of freedom, the illusion of love, the illusion of spirit) is merely a spandrel, a meaningless by-product, an emergent property that has no real significance or actual reality.

And if that is repulsive to us (and I think it is both that and utterly ridiculous to boot), then where on earth does freedom, love, and spiritual being come from in a materialistic universe? If we are not just machines following our programming, then how can the universe that produced us be only a machine, and how can there be nothing else besides us that transcends the machine?

If we lose God, we lose humanity. If we retain humanity, God sneaks in by the back door. And not one word of this, not one implication of this, in any way, shape, or form, weakens the commitment to scientific rigor, reason, or advance. It never has, never did, never will.