They say we never quit trying to resolve the tensions between our parents. I find in this stray thought some explanatory power: a devotedly Christian mother and a defiantly unbelieving father would, indeed, have predisposed be toward quite a bit of God-talk, of theology. Even extraordinarily bad God-talk, as that I came across on the Internet the other day- but where else, indeed, would one find it?
In some forum discussing the latest scientific finding that would seem to support the theory of evolution, avowed atheists and intelligent design folk were having another go-round about the place of science and religion in society and the issue at hand. In typical bold form, the theists were all delusional hucksters to the anti-theists, who were in turn anarchists aligned with Chairman Mao and Josef Stalin in some form or other.
The arguments weren't all bad, of course- there was one analogy particularly, no doubt copied from a bestselling author, where science shines the flashlight of reason into the darkness of superstition and ignorance. As the flashlight gets brighter and its beam gets wider, more and more of religion disappears as so much shadowy manipulation- despite the pious denials of the devout. Eventually, I suppose, the spotlight of enlightened man reveals us and the world exactly as we all are.
Goddamn metaphysical realists, I thought.
This will take some explaining. All of the arguments on the forum, all of them for theists and atheists alike, even those who might have read something from Aquinas at some point, looked for proof of God in the form of evidence - whether through miraculous occurrences, or the sort of God of the gaps argument that comes from the margins of scientific understanding or, from the anti-side, the ability of science to explain extraordinarily complex and mysterious phenomena through the accumulated workings of natural processes.
They were all looking for, in other words, God as some kind of invisible thumbscrew- or, if you prefer, a Flying Spaghetti Monster. If we could just find the thing, everyone seemed to think, then we could settle this once and for all. I was reminded of Penn Jillette's popular essay about his own atheism- we can and should be able to look for God in the trunk of a car. Anything else is moving the goalposts, even more flim-flam trickery to get your offering money, or whatever power people think the church still actually has these days.
But this is absurd, I thought. It should be patently obvious to everyone that God's a little hard to track down. Clearly if God is omnipresent, but also present especially in the Eucharist, in prayer, in incarnation, in the body of Christ, but came once to Bethlehem and is gone again before God returns, all while being here the whole time- this is all a little bit more complex than some kind of binary yes/no distinction. By scriptural understanding, if you're looking for God as an invisible thumbscrew, in other words, you're never going to find God at all.
Metaphysical realism is the belief that reality exists independent of ourselves and our interference and our understanding. That sounds fine, even to me, but it comes packaged along with all kinds of other notions, such as the puncher that every statement is demonstrably true or false. ('Snow is white,' they say. To which I reply 'Ever look up during a daytime squall?'). Nearly every scientist that you will ever hear talk about evolution is some form of metaphysical realist. Of course, so is nearly every Christian- which is why there seems no way of finalizing the debate. Everybody's wrong to start with.
Take, for example, America. The United States undeniably exists apart from my understanding of or belief in it. But where would I find it? In the Constitution- but what if no one followed our law, would American exist then? In the people, perhaps- but who? America's people change all the time, and we still aren't sure which of them are actually American. In the land, then, in our geography- but I bet the Indians might not have gotten to the same separation of power that we did.
Have any other candidates? Prove it. Put America in the trunk of my car.
So is this all relative, then? Does this reduce America to some kind of vaporish, wishy washy metaphysical status? The people of Iraq, I'm willing to bet, would beg to differ. The things we cannot prove still can kill us.
All of this is not to equate God and country. It is to say that many people conflate the two because they ask the wrong questions about them, and that we understand them in many of the same ways because we have so few ways to understand them.
"But God doesn't exist! Get over it!" one of the atheists actually said. Naturally, I could only agree. Of course God doesn't exist. The Scriptures are full of mentions of God hiding God's face and turning God's back. People spend a great deal of time looking for God and wondering where God went. How else do you explain the Holocaust? Why else would anyone say that everything is meaningless? All religion is entirely a human fabrication. Regardless of whether one thinks it good or ill, one can very clearly see the hand of man overwhelmingly present in the history of spiritual traditions.
Of course, all of this would also be true if God. Human hands are the only ones that could possibly make religion- whether it makes any reference go God or not. A God blindingly present would be equally gone from our experience not because of the reality or non-reality of God, but because of the blinders of human understanding. In other words, religion only dwindles in the face of the enlightening flashlight if it believes God is a synonym for some grand metaphysical unknown- not, as I do, a synonym for the line between darkness and light itself, a reference to human limitation in the face of infinite reality.
The question, you see, is not whether or not God exists (see the desert mystics) but whether or not God gods. Just as the question is not whether America exists or not, but whether or not it americas, a question we seen to have a big long conversation about every four years or so. The things that dwell at the limits of our understanding need not and ought not remain at the margins of our lives. They are the most important things. Just ask your spouse.
In still other words, the opposite of God is not the abyss. Ask the desert mystics. I am not be the first person to have found God in the void of God's absence. As Kathleen Norris wisely notes, the opposite of God is indifference- to God and void alike. Seeing on the television that a few more thousand children have starved in Africa, the opposite of God neither declares God's death nor laments this hole in God's provision and our humanity. Rather, the opposite of God changes the channel, utterly unmoved.
Now the metaphysicians would object that I'm also confusing things here. There are obvious distinctions between presence and being, between absence and non-existence. But I would assert that for all practical purposes, and for realities of liminal and relational substance, the practical difference is much harder to see. "If you do it right," says Bender as God in Futurama, "they'll never know you did anything at all."
This is why, in short, we have faith- not that we somehow finally have our hands on the invisible corkscrew, but so that we can get beyond these insipid questions and start talking about and living love, the greatest of these. After all, the love of my mother may have gone a very long way toward convincing me that God, but no omnipotent corkscrew could convince me that God cared about me, and that I should care about others.
It's not an intelligent designer I'm looking for, I suppose, so much as I'm out for a Steadfast Lover.
You know, it's odd. Scientists look at the design of the human eye and feel, or really seem to feel, awe and wonder at the complex and extraordinarily prolonged processes of evolution. Theists look at the same eye and feel awe and wonder at the intricate works and purposes of God. Some people believe we ought to "teach the debate," to preach both of these metaphysical understandings to our children and let them decide.
And sometimes I wonder if we ought not to do the simpler thing with schools, and just teach wonder and curiosity to our children instead.