Believing Impossible Things

“There is no use trying,” said Alice;”one can’t believe impossible things.”  “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day.  Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I think the Queen is right; I have seen people believe impossible —and impossibly contradictory — things as if it were nothing at all.  Nonetheless, it is with Alice that I want to take my stand.  I don’t want to believe impossible things.

In an earlier essay [Apple Pies] — following an argument by St. Thomas Aquinas — I suggested that a transcendent, non-contingent source and ground of being is not only rationally plausible, but philosophically necessary for the existence of a contingent universe:  not a being in the universe, but the very essence of being itself that actualizes the contingent universe and all beings in it.  I then tipped my hand by showing that Scripture — both Old and New Testaments — speaks of God in these same terms:  the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis, the Prologue of John’s Gospel, Paul’s speech to the Athenian philosophers.  That does not “prove” that the transcendent, non-contingent source and ground of being is identical with the Christian God, but it does show that, so far, the two are not incompatible.

I don’t want to establish false expectations which I cannot satisfy:  much better it is to underpromise and overachieve.  I cannot “prove,” as if by syllogism, that the Christian God is this source of being.  What I hope to do is much more modest.  I can show that Christians, rightly or wrongly, understand God to be this source of being, and that the characteristics we might expect this “un-caused cause” to have are precisely those characteristics Christians attribute to God.  Here, I will be following a path St. Paul blazed in his Epistle to the Romans:

Romans 1:18–20 (ESV): 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 

We’ll set aside wrath for a bit to focus on St. Paul’s larger claim:  that certain characteristics of god may be known by all men simply by observation and reason.  I have chosen to use god — lower case — at this point because we have not yet shown sufficient correspondence between this ground of being and the Christian God to justify use of God, upper case.

To St. Paul’s point:  through their perception (observation and reason) of the universe, man can infer god’s eternal power and divine nature.  If scientists are correct — and I have no reason to doubt them on this — the universe is some 13.8 billion years old.  This means that the universe itself is not eternal.  It is not the essence of the universe to be; it is contingent.  To the contrary, being non-contingent, god must necessarily be eternal, if by that we mean something like necessary, sufficient, and transcendent — outside of and not constrained or defined by time.  By observation we can know that god is old (at least 13.8 billion years).  By reason we can know that god is eternal.

Nor can we reasonably doubt that god is powerful.  In our argument from contingency, it is a mistake to consider the universe as a grand array of dominoes and of god as the “tipper” of the first in the series, who then “sits back” uninvolved, watching what will happen.  Rather, god actualizes the universe in each moment, in each particular.  As I write this, all the contingencies necessary for me to do so are being actualized by God, which means all the contingencies necessary for the universe.  As you read this, the same is true for you.  In god — and St. Paul will say, “In God” — we live, and move, and have our being.  The universe exists in each instant solely because all necessary contingencies are being — not “were,” but “are being” — actualized by god.  “Power” seems as good a word as any to describe the ability to actualize a universe.

St. Paul does not define here for the Romans what he means by “divine nature,” and we do not want to get out in front of him too far.  For now, it seems enough to realize that St. Paul is contrasting God’s nature with anything found in nature.  St. Paul’s god is not man writ large as were the Greek and Roman gods.  Nor is god a personification of various aspects of nature as were/are the pagan gods.  god is something different, of a different order entirely:  as we have said before, god is not one being among others in the universe, but is the transcendent “to be” itself.

So St. Paul insists — and our reason confirms — that god, the source and ground of being — is eternal, powerful, and other (transcendent).  Again, this does not prove that god is God, but it does show a significant correspondence between what must be true of god and what Christians claim is true for God.  But there is more, and for that we turn to science and to St. John.

The prerequisite for science — the necessary condition for doing science at all — is the regularity and rationality of the universe.  Carl Sagan called the universe “the Cosmos,” and he was right to do so.  Cosmos implies order, pattern, and structure and is contrasted with chaos.  If the universe were chaotic, unpredictably irregular rather than ordered, then science would be impossible.  Science — and reason itself — is predicated upon order and pattern.  No theory of gravitation would be possible if, for example, dropped objects sometimes fell and sometimes rose unpredictably.  No mathematics would be possible if when a = b and b = c, a is not always equal to c.  Order is a necessary condition not just for science, but for the existence of the universe itself.  Natural law is simply an expression of that inherent order.

The god who actualizes the universe is the god who actualizes its order.  That is, it is reasonable to infer that god is the source and ground of the order in the universe, which brings us to St. John:

John 1:1–3 (ESV): 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

When St. John writes, “in the beginning,” he does not mean “from the beginning of the universe.”  Rather, he is emphasizing the eternal, transcendent nature of “the Word” which brought into being all things, i.e., god.  The English “Word” translates the Greek λόγος (logos), a philosophical term implying order, pattern, structure.  What St. John claims is that order is an inherent characteristic of god which is then reflected in the universe god actualizes/creates.  Once again, there is a correspondence between the god of our observation and reason, and the God of Scripture.

We still have quite a way to go, but we have made some significant headway.  We have not — and cannot — prove that the god of our reason is the God of Scripture, but we can — and have begun to — show a strong correspondence between the two.  There are characteristics of god that we can know through reason, and these coinhere with the characteristic of the Christian God.

Thus far we have looked without for knowledge of god; in the next essay it is time to turn our gaze within.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
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