God is nowhere
Please allow me to ask you some deep and probing questions. How many angels can stand or, for that matter, dance, on the head of a pin? Can God create a boulder too big for him to lift? Is he able to create two adjacent mountains, with no valley in between? Can he grab a baldheaded man by the hair of his head? (Please, no jokes about the follicly-challenged!)
These questions are meant to be nothing more than examples of a tedious and meaningless concern with irrelevant details.
Some people may be inclined to assign the question of God’s existence to the same category as these imponderables. However, to do so would be, in my opinion, a grievous mistake.
If a fundamentalist pastor were to stand in her pulpit on any given Sunday and declare to her people, “I believe in the existence of God,” it would be no big deal. Indeed, it would be trite. Such a declaration is only to be expected from one who espouses the fundamentalist belief system.
However, if a professional philosopher were to publicly proclaim to all and sundry that he now believes in the existence of God, perhaps this would be an entirely different matter. And, I might add, not just any philosopher. I am referring to one philosopher in particular who, throughout his entire adult life, had advocated atheism. Now that he identifies himself as a believer in God, Burton K.
should we not sit up and take notice of what he says? There may be a healthy serving of food for thought in his revised assertions.
Please consider with me the recent case of Anthony Flew.
Focusing on Flew
Flew, the son of a Methodist clergyman, was born in London, England, in 1923. He embraced atheism at 15 years of age. He became, without question, the best-known atheist in the English-speaking world. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he often attended the Socratic Club, an open forum for discussing the intellectual difficulties connected with religion in general and Christianity in particular.
His renowned 1950 essay, “Theology and Falsification,” became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the second part of the twentieth century. It laid the groundwork for modern atheism. In over 30 books, he developed novel arguments against God’s existence. Specifically, Flew asked, “How can religious statements make meaningful claims?”
Meanwhile, despite his avowed atheism, he determined to faithfully live out the Socratic principle of “following the evidence wherever it may lead.”
Imagine the utter amazement
While I am unable to prove God’s existence to you, I am able to demonstrate that the eternal and ethereal quest for the divine is an honorable pursuit.
of the academic world in 2004, when Anthony G.N. Flew, the prototypical atheist, publicly renounced atheism and embraced the existence of God!
Cramming for his finals?
I must admit that, when I first heard about Flew’s about-face, the cynical part of me immediately kicked in. I said to myself, “He must be ‘cramming for his finals.’ After all, he’s in his eighties and probably mere steps from the grave. He must have taken ‘Pascal’s Wager’.” According to this view, even though God’s existence cannot be proved through reason, a person should “wager” as though he exists, because so living has everything to gain and nothing to lose.
I would have continued to feel this way about Flew’s change of mind but for one significant consideration, touched on earlier. Despite his avowed atheism, Flew determined to faithfully live out the Socratic principle of “following the evidence wherever it may lead.” This was the pursuit of his entire life, beginning in his teenage years. An inveterate seeker after truth, he consistently allowed his mind to go wherever he believed the evidence led. He has now concluded that the evi-
dence leads conclusively to God.
Flew tells the story of his “conversion” in There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Athe
ist Changed His Mind, written with Roy Abraham Varghese, one of the most challenging books I have read in recent years.
In the first section, Flew explains what and why he believed before the “change.” In the second, he describes his discovery of God.
A thorny problem
Many factors contributed to Flew’s loss of belief in the God of his preacher father. One reason was the ever-agonizing problem of evil, which Flew avers, “presented an inescapable challenge to the existence of an all-powerful God of love.”
I cannot fault Flew for being troubled about the problem of evil. There is an apparent contradiction between the following propositions: If God exists and if God is all good and all powerful, then what are we to make of the brutal reality that evil exists in the world? I too am deeply troubled by the presence of evil in the light of a benevolent God. The two do not seem to belong together.
To be perfectly honest with you, I am unable to prove the existence of God. (Sorry to disappoint you!) Oh, yes, I can provide you with all the traditional “proofs” for his existence. For example, the claim that God doesn’t exist makes no more sense than the claim that four-sided triangles do. Second, from nothing, comes nothing; the universe simply cannot have popped into existence uncaused. Third, the universe is exactly as it needs to be for human beings to flourish. Fourth, morality consists of a set of authoritative commands; only God could issue such commands. But such “proofs” typically work only for those who are already convinced of God’s existence.
An honourable pursuit
While I am unable to prove God’s existence to you, I am able to demonstrate that the eternal and ethereal quest for the divine is an honorable pursuit. Flew’s discovery of God follows what he dubs “a pilgrimage of reason.”
Admittedly, Flew is not now a theist (one who believes in the existence and supremacy of a transcendent and personal God who creates, maintains and governs the world). Instead, he is a deist (one who believes that God is the creator of the world, but he does not maintain an interest in his creation).
That Anthony Flew now believes in God may not change the mind of other atheists. To be perfectly honest, whether or not God exists is a matter of personal choice. Obviously the title of my column, “God is nowhere,” can be read two ways: “God is no where” and “God is now here.” It is all a matter of personal per- spective. Breaking the word at the appropriate juncture makes a world of difference in the meaning. Likewise, perspective has a role to play in the debate about God’s existence.
Whether one accepts deism or theism is strictly a personal matter. But the personal quest for the reality of God is an intellectually respectable pursuit. A pilgrimage of reason, accompanied by a willingness to follow the evidence on its inexorable course, need not be a cul-de-sac. Indeed, I would challenge the reader to do no less than to practice the Socratic principle of “following the evidence wherever it may lead.” It may or may not lead to belief in the existence of God. But the experience, either way, will be one of eternal consequences. Such a search can lead to some rather startling results.
Significantly, Flew ends his book this way: “Someday I might hear a Voice that says, ‘Can you hear me now?’ “
Appreciation to The Compass
On a personal note, I appreciate the opportunity afforded me to write this column for the last five weeks. Thank you for reading my articles and to those of you who responded. I am grateful to the editors of The Compass for allowing me to wonder publicly about certain matters which have occupied my mind for most of the last half century.
Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts and can be reached by email at email@example.com