One of the arguments that skeptics bring against God is that if he really wants us to believe in him, he ought to make it clearer that he exists.
He should, for example, manifest himself in the skeptic’s living room to toss ideas around over coffee, or present himself for scientific testing in a prestigious university laboratory.
Such suggestions, however flawed, give us some ground on which to talk seriously about why God demands a leap of faith.
The God in these scenarios is something less of a God than the one we believe in.
Consider the slipper-clad God with a pipe in his hand defending his existence against a professor of modern philosophy. Such a God so closely resembles the professor himself that he becomes laughable as an image of divinity.
More importantly, though, he is a conqueror, not a courtier. Imagine a young suitor who arrives seeking the hand of a princess. After a period of exchanged glances and slain dragons, she invites him to visit. And so he does — bearing a three-volume tome detailing the reasons why she is compelled, by reason and the threat of eternal unhappiness, to love him.
Our initial reaction to this man would be laughter, but if, for some reason, we were forced to take him seriously, we would consider him a presumptuous, unromantic jerk.
The God of the laboratory is less conceited, but is even more unconvincing.
Like a trained dog, he comes and demonstrates a bevy of miraculous powers in a measurable scientific fashion. He will have to do this not only once: The scientific method depends on the duplication of results. Thus, he will have to come every time a man of science wishes to make further tests of God’s reputed omnipotence.
Apart from the fact that this would grant so much power to scientists that science would quickly come to resemble medieval sorcery, it would also cause God to cease de facto to have any free will. This scientifically quantifiable God would lack any personal characteristics, and science would almost certainly conclude that he was not a personal creator at all, but a little understood phenomenon of the natural world.
The problem in both cases is that God is treated as a proposition to be proven beyond the shadow of doubt, or rejected as fancy. Each fails to realize that God is a person, and ignores his relationship with us as Father and Bridegroom.
In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, there is a sequence in which the devil appears to the atheistic Ivan, dressed “as a well-dressed sponger.” The consequences of this bizarre visitation illustrate perfectly why the sort of encounter the skeptic asks for would ultimately be ineffective.
Ivan simply does not believe it. The devil pontificates about his own existence, and Ivan replies, “It is I, I myself who am talking and not you! I’m going to dip a towel in cold water and put it on my head, and perhaps you’ll disappear into thin air.”
Numerous people have witnessed the supernatural, and have rationalized it away. Faith cannot be founded on the miraculous. If it is, it can only be sustained by a constant infusion of miracles. If God forces himself on the human mind, he must continue to act in an intrusively supernatural way to prevent the relationship from floundering.
This is analogous to a relationship in which a woman marries a man for the trinkets and fancy dinners he buys her. The husband must perpetually provide more and more valuable baubles, or lose his wife — but he will never really have her. Her love is not for him as a person, but for the things which she craves, and which he gives her.
For the skeptic, the thing craved is certitude.
If God were to sit on the skeptic’s sofa, drink his coffee, and philosophize with him, he would have unanswerable arguments to support his new-found belief. He would not have to risk being wrong. Furthermore, having been so graced, he would likely do what Ivan Karamazov does when faced with the devil: decide that the being who appeared is not God at all, but a figment of his own imagination; an outward manifestation of his own subconscious genius.
In fact, we already know what would happen if God brought himself down to our level, spoke with us and ate our fish. He did so — and the majority of the people who saw him, saw only a man.
Others despised him enough to want him crucified, and when they had their way the skeptics stood about taunting him to come down from the cross and prove his divinity.
Next week, we’ll look at the sort of proof that can be provided, and how to make it convincing.
Melinda Selmys writes from