Friday, 30 March 2012

God is not the 'god' of Philosophy: Part 1 Reasoning From Ourselves

I may be a computer scientist, but philosophy has been one of my casual interests for a few years. Recently, however, there's something about Western philosophy that bothers me. Western philosophy spends a lot of its time debating questions about God and whether God exists, which is fine, it's the most important topic there is, but the more theology I read, the more I feel that philosophy doesn't do a good enough job. In fact, what I've come to think, is that the approach to the question is fundamentally flawed.

It's a bit of a long old topic, so I'll do it over two posts, but I want to look at the key points that we really need to know about God that we just can't get from philosophy, and why.

Problem 1: Reasoning from ourselves
Philosophers are the intellectual descendants of the Greeks, via the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. What this means is that rationality is terribly important. In other words, if I think long enough and logically enough about something, I can work it. Well, that seems fair enough - that's basically how science works (with the addition of using experiments to establish the validity of the reasoning). But the problem is that it's actually a bit of an arrogant attitude, believing that everything is within the capacity of human thought - and so it works fine for the world around us that we can grasp, but when it comes to the transcendent, things beyond our environment, it's simply not enough.
'School of Athens' by Raphael - Aristotle & Plato in the centre. Source here.
I'll be frank, I'm fully convinced that we can establish the existence of a deity by looking at the world around us. I think it's patently obvious - and I think there's a certain degree of wilful blindness going on when it comes to thinking otherwise. However, even accepting that, it's difficult to go much further than that if we start from ourselves. Starting from me and my experience of the world, plus the experience of others, just doesn't give us enough.
Using the world and our reason as our only sources of information about a god leaves us with an open question, such as the Buddhist answer (the Buddha is quite an adept analyst of the problematic state of the world and how it seems to work, but Buddhism doesn't give us a lot of concrete answers about why it's that way), or perhaps with the polytheism of the ancient world (we laugh at the Greco-Roman ideas, but it had a certain logic to it - they were simply interpreting the world as they saw it), or perhaps the atheistic approach - which rather than explaining everything with lots of gods, tries to explain everything with no gods at all. These ideologies get some things right - they all identify that life is often full of difficulties and suffering (esp. if you live outside the shelter of the first world middle classes) - but they conclude that therefore, the ruling force behind it all is of the same temperament. The Greco-Roman gods were capricious and cruel, the blind forces of evolution are bloody and thoughtless, the machine of Karma is, whilst fair, unmerciful.
The Buddhist Wheel of Life, depicting the cycle of reincarnation. Source here.
But what if God is deeper than that? What if the state of the world as we perceive it doesn't tell the whole story? What if, in fact, this is not the way things were to start with, and the confused state of the world reflects a bigger picture?

The Bible paints a picture of a God love and mercy, who created the universe by His power for the enjoyment of the creation. The purpose: to display His glory - which is exhibited first and foremost in His love. 1 John 4:8 says 'God is love'. Love is the very essence of who God is, and He created the universe to display His love. The pinnacle of that creation? Humanity, made in His image, to enjoy a relationship with Him so that they can have the joy of marvelling at His greatness and knowing Him personally. That, however, is a far cry from the world we live in. A world of disease, disaster and death hardly seems the work of such a God. The answer in many ways is a simple one, sin. Mankind's rejection of God's love and God's wisdom, pursuing self-interest and self-gratification. Buddhism spots this problem of sin and the selfishness of mankind. Karmic justice is its answer - bad actions now mean a bad life later, good actions now, a good one. The ultimate goal? Escape the cycle into oblivion in Nirvana. However, there is no explanation (as far as I know) as to why the world is this way. The Bible tells us why - Adam sinned, and from that the whole of creation is fallen, destined for destruction - it's been ruined. But the Bible it also gives us hope. It doesn't tell us to do everything we can to escape existence, rather it gives us a promise of a new creation, populated by those who have been saved from the horror of sin. And that hope comes because of the death and resurrection of Jesus taking the place of punishment and rejection that rightly belongs to those who have wrecked God's perfect creation - in other words, us. God has not given us up to destruction - He is redeeming and renewing us. All who put their trust in Jesus and His perfect work, rather than relying on themselves, are forgiven, made new - and will have eternal joy in the new Heavens and new Earth.
And this is where philosophy fails us. It cannot tell us any of that. It can only look at a snapshot of the part of the world we can see. So you have to go a step further - rather than starting with man and reasoning to god, go to the source of knowledge - start with God and work back. To do that we need God to reveal Himself - who He is, what His plan is, what He is like. God has done just that. Through His words in the Bible, and in person and in action through Jesus Christ. Jesus claimed that if you have seen Him you have seen the Father (John 14:9-11) - in other words, Jesus is God, and thus He reveals God and His character to us.

How is that character displayed? What is God like? Jesus displays God's character and heart on the Cross. When the Son of God - through whom the very world was created (see John 1) - humbled Himself to become part of His creation and the immortal, eternal God was killed - by His creation, by those very people He came to save - in order that they could be saved from the destruction that they had wilfully brought upon themselves.
As I commented the other day, our God, the true God, is humble and powerful, but, above all, love. More on that in the next post.


  1. It has always seemed to me that philosophers like to ask questions and discuss them, but don't want the answer. Its about the search, not finding the way.

  2. well, that is quite often true, although some do actually come up with what they think the answers are. but because the frame of reference is wrong they have no absolute means of arbitration to say who is right. reason isn't enough and science is too limited.

    it's like a comedian once suggested about Wikipedia articles, they should preface everything with "I reckon..."