Is There a God?

Is There a God?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 7 1996 3:30 AM

Is There a God?

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Andrew:

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       You have a charming habit of evading an issue by defining it away. Let me restate my position. I don't claim that unless God is within our comprehension, he can't exist. I can imagine that, if he existed, he might very well be beyond our understanding. The world is a wondrously complicated place, and lots of things that are undeniably a fact--Sylvester Stallone's success, for instance--may permanently elude human understanding. That doesn't mean we have to take it on faith that he has been a success.
       Likewise, even if God is incomprehensible, his existence could be plain. You define him to make that impossible, but I see no reason it is necessarily impossible. It is certainly convenient for someone trying to explain his elusiveness. But if he can reveal himself in a concrete and undeniable way to us after we're dead, why not while we're alive? Surely you wouldn't argue that the "Being beyond all beings" is helpless to manifest himself in some tangible way, which would shut up carping pipsqueaks like me?
       In fact, you more or less concede that he could indeed manifest himself. You even concede that he did, in the form of Jesus Christ--not to demonstrate his existence but to demonstrate his concern, as you put it. I ask again a question you neglected to address: Why would it be "silly" (your word) for him to take on human form for the former purpose, but not for the latter?
       Once you've answered that question, I have another. On the one hand, you said that God appeared in the world to show his concern. Now you say he can't reveal himself, to preserve for us the option of voluntarily loving him. Either he has or he hasn't put in a cameo; either he demonstrated something or he didn't; either his peculiar method (making the personal acquaintance of a tiny share of the people who have ever walked the earth) is reasonable or it isn't. Again and again, you try to have it both ways. (I stand accused of emulating the Grand Inquisitor. Sorry, but he's one of yours.)
       As for the argument that God can't reveal himself fully because it would deprive us of the option of choosing to love him--huh? Meeting God face-to-face would not preclude anyone from declining to love him. I've met Bill Clinton, and I managed to suppress any urge to worship and adore. If your point is that we would all feel obliged to pay homage to the Christian God if he came crashing out of the sky, and we were suddenly presented with the immediate prospect of going to hell, I agree. But that's not the same thing as loving him. And he could solve that problem by removing the threat of punishment.
       I don't follow this "choosing love" business either. I, like most atheists, have known love, but that doesn't seem to make it any easier to believe in God. Or maybe you mean I have to choose to love God before I can know him? I've tried that too. At any rate, this process seems to make sense to you only because it makes no sense. You wouldn't choose to love a fellow human being whom you had never met, conversed with, or laid eyes on--whose very existence was a matter of pure speculation. But you ask people to do that with God--notwithstanding vast evidence that if he exists, he sure isn't very lovable.
       I am supposed to be encouraged by your pledge that God will make himself known to me soon enough, once I have taken my leave from this world. Actually, if I remember my theology correctly, it won't be soon enough. Assuming your prediction comes true (and I'm betting my immortal soul that it won't), I will be cast into the depths for daring to doubt the existence of a Providence who never gave me any earthly reason to believe in him.
       What I find in your latest missive is what I have found in the previous ones--a lot of description of faith, but very little in the way of justification of faith. You have told me what the Almighty is like. A last question: How do you know?

Patiently,
Steve

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and Andrew Sullivan is former editor of the New Republic.