How God Does (and Does Not) Exist

(This is a still busy Neil.) Last October, I excerpted part of a Marilynne Robinson review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, in which the novelist and critic took Dawkins to task for failing to grasp “an ancient given of theology,” namely, that “God exists outside of time as its creator” (my emphasis here). In this Sunday’s “Credo” column in the Times, the Dominican priest and philosopher Brian Davies suggests that atheists often fail to grasp another given of theology – that Christians, Jews, and Muslims actually agree with them that “there are no gods.” If someone wishes to propose, however piously, the existence of a “God” who is an extraordinarily powerful “being among beings,” the most resplendent “member of the world,” Christians, Jews, and Muslims will disagree with this person just as much as Richard Dawkins. God does not exist as a creature. But (and here we part with the atheist) God does exist as, in Aquinas’ words, the “cause from which pours forth everything that exists in all its variant forms,” outside of the realm of existents.

What does this all practically mean? Fr Davies puts it nicely when he tells us that we can only begin to focus on the “unfathomable mystery” that is God when we stop being fascinated by “extremely powerful creatures.” Here is part of Fr Davies’ column:

[Thomas Aquinas] never thought of God as an entity seriously comparable to what we find in the Universe. He took God to be the cause of everything real and imaginable to us, the cause of all natural kinds and their members, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. Aquinas, of course, realised that when we talk of God we are forced to make use of words we have come up with to name and describe what we find in the world in which we live. And since he took people to be higher forms of being than anything else around us, he naturally ascribed to God what we most value in ourselves — such as intelligence. But Aquinas was equally keen to emphasise that God is not a creature, not a member of the world, not a being among beings, not, in this sense, an existing thing. God, he says, “is to be thought of as existing outside the realm of existents, as a cause from which pours forth everything that exists in all its variant forms”. For Aquinas, there is a serious sense in which it is true to assert that God does not exist. He would readily have agreed with Kierkegaard’s statement: “God does not exist, he is eternal.”

Or we can put it another way. There is a sense in which Aquinas holds that only God really exists. Creatures are there, right enough, but, for Aquinas, their being is derived or dependent. All that they are and do is God’s work in them. They have no reality from themselves. Creatures are temporal, finite, and caused to exist, while God is none of these things. Aquinas puts all this by saying that God’s existing does not differ from his substance, that God, and only God, exists by nature, that God is “subsistent being” while everything else “has” being — has it as given to it. You can find a similar line of thinking coming from St Anselm of Canterbury. God, he declares, is “the being who exists in a strict and absolute sense” since with Him there is nothing temporal and nothing received.

Traditionally speaking, therefore, it makes sense to say both that God does not exist and that only God exists, which means we should be careful when it comes to what we mean when we declare ourselves atheists or not. And there is surely a further sense in which all Jews, Muslims, and Christians can be thought of as atheists. For they do not believe there are any gods. They believe there is a Creator of all things visible and invisible, not that there is a class of gods to which the Creator belongs. The first of the Ten Commandments tells us to have no gods. It effectively tells us to be atheists, to stop being interested in extremely powerful creatures and to focus instead on the unfathomable mystery behind and within the world that we can, to some extent, fathom. God the maker of all things cannot be a part of what He brings forth. He belongs to no category. He is not a god. There are no gods. 

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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7 Responses to How God Does (and Does Not) Exist

  1. tom says:

    nothing = “outside of the realm of existents”

    God is an allegory used to describe the forces of nature.

  2. Chris Lawrence says:

    Very interesting. I remember reading Davies’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion many years ago, and finding it very lucid.

    I think though the point about the ‘new atheist’ critique is that it needs to be seen in the context not of what sophisticated theologians think & believe, but of what the majority of believers think & believe. Eg the 34% of Americans who, in 1991, agreed with the statement: ‘The Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word’?

    Thanks,
    Chris Lawrence.
    thinking makes it so

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Chris Lawrence,

    Thank you for your very kind reply. I am not sure if I have seen the distinction between “sophisticated theologians” and the “majority of believers” in the new atheists themselves. (Perhaps this is because of a gap in my reading.)

    Furthermore, I am not sure if I know what the majority of believers think and believe. Christianity can be “understood” and “communicated” in other ways than as a set of ideas. I suspect that the majority of believers would explain what they believe through story or by describing a set of practices. I wonder if many of them would implicitly agree with Davies, but could only make this (at least somewhat) clear by talking about the Incarnation, or how “God is light,” or how, to take words from a Wesley hymn, “Thy universe is full of thee and speaks thy glorious name,” or – should they be Orthodox – how icons make sense.

    For instance, regarding the statistic you mention, I have met Christians who would adhere to the statement about biblical literalism – and even spend time trying to reconcile the accounts of the Resurrection in different Gospels, but show a great deal more interpretive flexibility when reading Old Testament wisdom literature and apocalyptic. The problem is that they have a very difficult time expressing what they believe through a clear set of ideas about hermeneutics. One could only figure out what they believed by, say, spending time in a weekly Bible study with them.

    I hope this answer is not completely inadequate.

    Best,
    Neil

  4. Chris Lawrence says:

    Thanks Neil – not at all inadequate!

    You’re probably right. The ‘new atheists’ themselves (Dawkins, Dennett et al) may rarely draw the distinction. My point was more about the counter-responses I have seen from the likes of Terry Eagleton, John Cornwell & Keith Ward, who often exclaim ‘But no theologian thinks that!’ when recoiling in shock at the apparent crudity of how religious belief has been portrayed by the opposition.

    I am not that familiar with Aquinas, but I can see ways in which a statement like ‘there is a serious sense in which it is true to assert that God does not exist’ can be both significant and profound. It resonates with a lot of what I have read of Don Cupitt, for example. But I cannot say it resonates with the ways most of the believers of my acquaintance (& of various faiths) speak about what they believe.

    You’re right – we could speculate all day about what the majority of believers think & believe. But that 34%, given the specific wording of the question, seemed both pertinent and unsurprising.

    Perhaps most importantly of all, that Aquinas/Davies statement does rather seem at odds with the bulk of the material used to educate children in the faiths of their parents. Which is ironic considering that childhood is probably the time a person is most likely to understand it!

    Thanks again,
    Chris Lawrence.
    thinking makes it so

  5. Neil says:

    Dear Chris Lawrence,

    Thanks again for your response.

    If the “new atheist” critique is, as you write, to be “seen in the context not of what sophisticated theologians think & believe, but of what the majority of believers think & believe,” it might be suggested that the real target of their criticism is theological illiteracy. The Catholic theologian Denys Turner once gave a very interesting lecture on “How to Be an Atheist” – perhaps we can expect one of the “new atheists” to eventually give a very useful talk on “How to Be a Theist.”

    However, I must admit still having a difficult time believing that the majority of believers hold that God is “a member of the world,” “a being among beings,” even if they cannot properly express their beliefs as a set of ideas. As I’ve said before, I think that it is hard to reconcile the belief that God is a creature with particular Christian practices.

    Furthermore, it really does strike me that the belief that God is a creature is spiritually unsustainable. As Rowan Williams said in his 2004 conversation with Philip Pullman, Pullman’s very interesting work is what you “get I think, if you have a view of God, which makes God internal to the universe.” That is, if God is an authority “internal to the universe,” his authority is less than real, and “someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.” We are obligated to carry out a “cosmic revolt,” for true wisdom then becomes a process of “unmasking.” How could one not be an atheist?

    The world cannot be fully seen as gift if God is just an arbitrary Zeus-figure. And, if a somewhat common – if fleeting – religious experience is to perceive this world as the gift of a good God, it is difficult to imagine many believers holding that God is just an existing thing within this world, with, presumably, a particular agenda and inevitably questionable motives.

    You’ve mentioned the 34% figure. I don’t mean to be stubborn, but the significance of that figure depends upon what the respondents mean by “literally.” Does it exclude any sort of recognition of the figures of speech and literary forms of the Bible?

    For instance, Andrew Village published a study in 2005 in the Journal of Belief and Values which measured “biblical literalism” among the laity of the Church of England. But “biblical literalism” in this study was measured by asking respondents whether they held certain biblical “events” to actually be historical, ranging from the virgin birth to Jonah being in the belly of a fish for three days.

    I can imagine a potential respondent believing that seven of Village’s ten “events” (I exclude Noah’s ark, a literal Adam and Eve “in a garden called Eden,” and Jonah) are historical, and still being able to interpret such verses as “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day …” (Gen 3:8) in a non-simplistic manner. Thus, a self-reported “literalist,” however mistaked in other ways, just might be capable of agreeing with Brian Davies.

    Thanks again.

    Neil

  6. Chris Lawrence says:

    Thanks again Neil!

    I guess there may be as many ways of construing ‘God does not exist’ as there are of construing ‘God exists’.

    I would agree there are probably few believers who would see God as a creature, as a member of the world, as a being among beings, as internal to the universe, or as ‘just an existing thing within this world’. Difficult to generalise but I think it’s safe to say none of these ascriptions would sit well with the majority of the relevant religious texts.

    The snag with apophatic discourse is that it works ok if you’re in the club but not so well if you’re outside it. So if you start with a conviction that there is a God, no matter how you might express that conviction either to yourself or others, and then start stripping away possible meanings & implications that you find don’t actually make sense, you might get to a point where ‘God does not exist’ is as good an expression of what you are left with as ‘God exists’.

    Because the big problem is that little verb ‘exist’. It is hard to get a handle on how something can exist if it is not in the universe or the world – if that universe or world is eg ‘everything that is the case’. So we try slippery words like ‘subsist’ but ultimately they’re more bother than they’re worth because they end up meaning something like ‘what God does – because exist is not the right word’. You’ve still got the conviction though, enough to be able (using your example) to see the world as God’s gift.

    I think my point is that even though relatively few believers mught see God as a creature, as internal to the universe etc, relatively few would arrive at that ‘God does not exist’ conclusion either. And I think the new atheism is trying to address itself to the phenomenon of belief as it actually is, and starting by trying to represent what that belief actually is, substantively. Theist critics of the new atheism may well be able to demolish every statement an atheist makes as to ‘what believers believe’. The atheists themselves cannot take the apophatic path to locate ‘what believers believe’ because they find no substantive meaning there. The $64,000 question is whether that is because there isn’t actually any meaning there at all other than a definition of ‘God’ as eg the reason why there is something rather than nothing.

    Thanks,
    Chris.
    thinking makes it so

  7. Neil says:

    Dear Chris,

    Let me apologize for not responding to you. As might be obvious, I haven’t been spending that much time on the Internet and neglected to see your post.

    I’ll bring this interesting conversation to the front of the page next week. I’ll try to post something that should suggest that apophatic discourse can be 1) intelligible and useful to ordinary believers and 2) intelligible (if not convincing) to atheists.

    Sorry again.

    Best,
    Neil

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