Sunday, May 29, 2011

Atheists, Agnostics, Dogmatists And "The Unknown God"

When St. Paul brought the gospel to Athens,
he found a wonderful point of contact.
All around the city were altars to Zeus, Athena, Hermes,
Aphrodite, Ares and the rest of the gods.
But in one Athenian temple, Paul found something mysterious
-- yet somehow familiar to him as a Jew.
He saw an altar dedicated to “the unknown God.”
So when Paul was given a chance to explain his new religion,
he told the Athenians he worshiped the unknown God.

In my line of work, people sometimes ask me,
“So how do you know there is a God?”
And I always think silently, “How do any of us know anything?”

Bear with me, I have to review just two minutes of philosophy.
The father of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant,
divided reality into two categories.

One category was everything we know
or, at least in principle, might someday know.
The other category was the mystery, all the things
that we do not know and will never know.
As a matter of logic, we can never know
what unobserved butterflies are up to.
As Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti put it,
“The eye cannot see itself.”

Kant demonstrated 300 years ago that
there is relatively little we can actually know.
What we can know is limited to our own subjective experience,
but the realm of the unknown and the unknowable
is infinite.

20th Century physicist Werner Heisenberg discovered
that Kant was right even in physics.
Some things just can’t be known.

Around that time, philosopher Martin Heidegger showed
how the things we know create a kind of box
that we can never think completely outside of.
He and Ludwig Wittgenstein also observed
that we think in language
and the very structure of language
limits what we are capable of thinking.
In short, the mystery is vastly larger than the little piece of reality
we can see, hear, touch, and measure.

What does that have to do with God? Short answer: everything.
Roman Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner said,
“(human) knowledge is only a small island in a sea
that has not been travelled. . . .
The question is:
Which do (w)e love more,
the small island of (our) so-called knowledge
or the sea of infinite mystery?”
Religion is our attitude to that sea.

Protestant Theologian Gordon Kaufman says
that God begins where our capacity for knowledge ends.
The knowable world rests on a foundation of mystery.
It comes from mystery.
This is what Paul means when he says,
“In God we live and move and have our being.”

Whether the universe had a beginning or not
is something we didn’t know until very recently
but it was always something that could in principle be proven.
Now it has been and we know that the Big Bang Theory is right.
That’s how the universe began.

But what was there before the universe?
What happened five minutes before the Big Bang?
Who lit the fuse?
That is beyond the reach of human knowledge.

We can get hints of what the mystery is like
from the things we can know and experience.
The Anglican poet T. S. Eliot called our religion
“hints and guesses.”
There is some reason to believe the mystery
is creative and generous, kind and merciful.

We may be wrong.
But spiritual masters through the ages and around the world
have believed those good things
even though they cannot prove them.
Those who gaze in awe at the mystery, those who love it,
call the mystery “God.”

Agnostics are a little different.
Intellectually, they are absolutely right.
God is not a thing you can prove or disprove.
They are intellectually right.

But emotionally, they are like a man
who cannot let himself fall in love with a woman
because he can never be absolutely certain
what is in her heart.
Agnostics cannot love the mystery
because they don’t know enough about it.

Atheists are another matter still.
I like atheists. They are good for us.
The good thing about atheists is they smash our idols.
They take our too small ideas about God
and show that they don’t make sense.

So atheists do us believers a good service
by setting us free of idolatry.
But most atheists are intellectually arrogant and small minded.
You can see it in the mean spirited style of their writing.

Atheists deny the existence of God
because they can’t find his footprint like that of a Sasquatch
or get a picture of him at the Oscars.
They deny God because God is not on their little island of knowledge.
God is the sea on which the island floats.
God does not dwell inside the box of things we know.
God is the air outside the box extending infinitely into space.
The problem with atheists is they worship the box.

Paul, as a good Jew, knew that God is mystery.
That’s why the God of Israel had no name and no image.
You could not say he is this or that.
You could not carve a statue of God.

In the Jerusalem Temple, the Ark of the Covenant
served as God’s throne.
But the throne was empty.
A conquering general once marched into the Holy of Holies
and came out contemptuously announcing
there was nothing there.
Other nations who had a pantheon of little gods
called the Jews atheists because they had
no god with a name and a statue.
What the other nations didn’t get was that Jews were worshiping
“the unknown God.”

The greatest Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas
and the greatest Protestant theologian Martin Luther
both called God the “deus absconditus” – the hidden God –
because God does not fit inside the human mind.
The human mind fits inside God.

That’s why any religion that claims to have all the answers
is to be avoided at all costs.
Such religions are mind killers and soul shrinkers.
True religion stands in awe at the shore of oceanic mystery.
We don’t have all the answers.
We have very few answers.
But we have a warehouse full of marvelous questions.

Our doctrines are not platitudes to satisfy the simple mind.
They are puzzles and enigmas
– a God who is three and one;
a savior who is fully human and fully divine;
a God powerful enough to create the universe
but vulnerable enough to hang on a cross.
Whatever we say about God is not to define God, to pin God down,
but to make us shake our heads
and know that we do not know.

What is the point of a religion that stands in awe
rather than certainty?
The point is that it leads us outside our selves,
outside the walls of what we think we know,
beyond the prison of our pride
into something larger, vastly larger, than all the ideologies,
all the self-help guides to fixing our own lives,
all the programs and platforms humankind can imagine.
It leads us into wonder, inexhaustible wonder.