In the interest of full disclosure, I never watched the X-Files, the science fiction television series about an alien plot to destroy the human race. But, the tag line of the show has entered the public sphere — The truth is out there — so I feel free to appropriate it.
As we saw in the previous essay [Believing Impossible Things], St. Paul would agree: the truth of God — at least the partial truth of God — is out there and may be observed by all people, so that God’s “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” (Rom 1:20, ESV throughout unless otherwise noted). This is an objective, rational knowledge of god that supplements our philosophical reasoning.
But, the truth is also in here, within each of us and all of us, a subjective rational knowledge that contributes further to our reasonable understanding of god. In what follows, I draw heavily upon C. S. Lewis — with a nod toward John Henry Newman — and his masterwork of apologetics, Mere Christianity. You would be better served by reading it rather than this, though this essay has the sole advantage of being shorter.
Human beings have certain appetites: some physical, some emotional, and, I will argue, some spiritual. We have an appetite for food, at a basic level (physical) merely to sustain us, and at a more refined level (physical and emotional) to please and satisfy us. We have an appetite for companionship. At a physical level this may manifest as sexual desire; at a more refined, emotional level as friendship.
It would be odd for creatures to evolve — or to be created, but that is still a good way off in our discussion — with appetites that could not be satisfied. Why the craving for food if no food could be found? Why, indeed, a stomach at all, if there were nothing to fill it? Why the longing for sex or friendship if there were no others to share and satisfy these longings?
So, I suggest that these deeply fundamental human appetites/longings point toward the existence of that which is necessary to satisfy them. Now, we must not push this too far. There are certainly things which humans might desire —the ability to disappear, for example — for which there are no corresponding satisfactions. But, these are whims, hardly inherent and fundamental appetites, and they do not impact our argument at all.
Here is the important point: the universe exists in a form that satisfies these human appetites: that satisfies them. A meal, even an unpleasant one, can satisfy the body’s need for nutrition and can silence a rumbling belly. We eat, we are filled, and we want no more for a time. In the presence of a friend, our emotional need for companionship is satisfied. Later, when our friend is absent from us, we may find ourselves lonely, but not in the friend’s presence. What is available to us in food and friendship is enough to satisfy us.
But, there are other human longings that are at a different pitch altogether, perhaps more abstract, but no less real — goodness, truth, and beauty, for example. Are these as fundamental as food, sex, and friendship? I suggest that their centrality to human culture and their necessity for human flourishing answer yes, these appetites are as inherent and fundamental as any others. But, there is an important difference. These appetites are not — and cannot be — completely satisfied by anything present to us in this world. At some point in a meal we may say, “I couldn’t eat another bite,” meaning, of course, that we are completely satisfied. But, in the presence of beauty, we never say, “No more; I am full of beauty and can take no more.” Instead, the beauty we see or hear fills us with a longing for more; these appetites are mere appetizers. They do not satisfy, but rather stir up longings that cannot be satisfied by the things of this world. These are the spiritual appetites.
I would still argue — and I do — that the presence of these universal, fundamental, and inherent human longings implies the existence of that which will satisfy those longings. If the satisfaction is not imminent, present here with us — and it is not — then it must be transcendent, something beyond this physical world. Satisfaction lies where god is: not in or with beings in the world, but in the source and ground of being. While we may not, in our argument, be ready to jump directly to St. Augustine, we can at least sense that he was on to something when he wrote in The Confessions:
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Transcendent spiritual longings imply transcendent spiritual satisfactions.
But, there is more. We not only long for goodness, truth, and beauty; we also long to be treated fairly. Justice is another transcendent longing. This is important. If the longing for justice is one of the inherent fundamental human appetites — and its prevalence across cultures and times suggest it is — then the moral sense that underlies it, must also be fundamental. We know when we have been wronged. Think of a time yourself. Would you have accepted this justification from the one who wronged you?
“Well, you think I wronged you, but I disagree. You have the right to your opinion and I have a right to mine. If you feel that my taking what belonged to you is wrong, that is just your subjective judgment, but it is not in any way binding on me.”
Of course not. Because we believe — or at least we act very much like we believe — that fairness — right and wrong, if you will — transcend individual opinion and even cultural convention. If we can even imagine a culture that had normalized rape, murder, and torture by cultural consensus, we would still judge those things to be wrong and that culture to be immoral, all their appeals to moral relativity notwithstanding.
We do believe in fairness, which means that we also must believe in an objective moral standard that seems not to have originated with us, though all humans recognize and agree with its general outlines. To bolster this claim, now think of a time when you did wrong to another or did wrong in relationship to another. Perhaps you lied or promised something that you failed to deliver. It need not be grievous, only wrong. Here’s the problem. No amount of self-justification let’s you off the hook — really. You may tell yourself it was a minor transgression or that everyone does it, that even the truly good man next door would have done in your situation. But, no good. You know. You stand convicted. But convicted before what judge? Not before yourself, or you would certainly let yourself off. Not before your neighbors since you suspect they might have acted similarly. No, there seems to be — and is — a transcendent judge before whom we stand, a judge whose representative we find within. If a name is needed, we might as well use the conventional one: the conscience.
Thus far, we have been speaking entirely about justice. But even deeper within us there is the longing for righteousness. Let me explain the difference. Justice recognizes a wrong done and may even punish the perpetrator. That is often within human power, though tragically it seems so often just out of reach. A driver under the influence crosses the median into oncoming traffic and kills another driver. Justice requires recognition of the wrong and a proportionate penalty. But, what penalty is proportionate? What we long for is the wrong be “undone,” put to rights again. And that is precisely what typically cannot happen. Once again we find ourselves with a transcendent longing, a longing whose satisfaction lies beyond us.
Why is this important? It seems like the universe is not only physical, but spiritual (goodness, truth, beauty, etc.) and moral, as well. And, if the universe reflects the source and ground of being which actualizes it, then it is reasonable to conclude that god is the source of the spiritual and moral. Again, we have not concluded that this god — the ground and source of being — is the God that Christians worship. But we have shown that postulating such a god is philosophically rational and corresponds to our experience of the world. Further, we can show that the characteristics of god correspond, thus far, to the characteristics of the God revealed on the pages of Scripture: goodness, truth, beauty, justice, righteousness.
Have we gone as far as we can using reason alone? No, but perhaps we have gone far enough. My purpose was never to prove absolutely the existence of God — I can’t — or that the Christian concept of God is correct, but only that the existence of god is a rational explanation for the existence of the universe, that we can reason from that universe — without and within — some of the characteristics of god, and that those characteristics correspond to God as revealed in Scripture. We have not yet “won the argument,” but I think we have won the right to be taken seriously in any rational discussion of the nature of being.