To Prove or Not to Prove? That is the Question …

Today’s comment comes from Stevie. She wrote: “Pastor Craig… I’m reading a book about a man named Anselmo, born in Italy in 1033. Having spoken with God in a dream as a child he dedicated the rest of his days to proving to mankind the existence of God. In the end he went mad. I’m thinking you get that. Even I do.”

I can definitely relate to Anselmo! As a pastor, I am blessed to have dozens and dozens of opportunities every day to engage people in meaningful theological conversation. One thing I’ve learned about trying to “prove” God’s existence is most often those efforts are bound to failed.

That’s because most of us enter into such a conversation with a bias that profoundly affects the outcome. Those, for instance, who deny God’s existence often try to disprove God’s existence by pointing to all of the bad things in the world and concluding, “How can there be a God if these things happen.” In the next breath, they will almost always point to the good things that happen in the world and credit humanity for those things.
Those who try to prove God’s existence take the opposite tact. They point to all the bad things in the world and blame humanity. Then they point to all the good things in the world and credit God alone.

Because of radically different jumping-off points, it’s nearly impossible to move folks from either camp even an inch.

How did we get so polarized in our ways of thinking about God?

I suppose there are a lot of different answers to that question. I’ll share just one of the possible answers and then let others jump in.

One of the greatest challenges monotheistic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity face is explaining the existence of evil. “If there is really only one God?” opponents of monotheism argue, “then God either causes or allows evil. Neither option is acceptable to me,” opponents counter. “So therefore, I reject the notion of God outright.”

When some of our Jewish ancestors were in exile, they were exposed to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism portrayed a world that represented a cosmic clash between the forces of light and darkness; good and evil, if you will. Our spiritual ancestors were drawn to the notion that those dark forces could be blamed for evil – so upon their return, their sacred writings in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) began to develop the source of evil.
Later this theological development of evil bled over into the emerging Christian tradition – and orthodox Christians began embracing the notion of Satan – or the devil. If you would like to explore a much more developed explanation of this theological evolution, I would strongly recommend Elaine Pagels’ book The Origin of Satan.

While the embrace of an oppositional force for God was convenient in the short-term (i.e. it let God off the hook for the bad things that happened), it complicated things in the long run. And for many, it moved Christianity closer to the development of a form of polytheism. I have met many Christians over the years, for instance, who speak of Satan – or the Devil – in ways that make it sound as if the Devil is nearly as strong as God!

As a radical monotheism who balks at any form of polytheism, my challenge is to live in a world that both acknowledges God as the Ground of Being (as Paul Tilich would say).

How do I do it?

The best way to explain how I do that is to use an example of a television show I grew up with. When I was a child, I was transfixed by the show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. As someone who lived in a rather non-descript small town, the show exposed me to the beauty and majesty of the natural world in exotic places: placed that looked NOTHING like where I lived. I loved the natural beauty that was depicted.

Every once in awhile, however, Wild Kingdom would show things that I found very jarring. There would be taped images of a cheetah racing down an antelope, catching it, and devouring it. Those images were incredibly difficult to watch and process.

Over the years, however, I learned something very powerful – and even humbling – from the show. I learned that the beauty and power of nature was all-inclusive. I couldn’t just pick and choose the bits that I found appealing and call it “nature”. If I really wanted to explore nature, I had to see it all (including the disturbing pieces).

I gradually began to learn that there was tremendous wisdom in the natural world. I learned that what I might see in one moment and call “disturbing” was actually part of a much larger scheme of things. If I hung in there long enough, I could arrive at an awareness for the whole. In order to do that, however, I had to hang in there through the challenging moments (moments when I wanted to cover my eyes and look away) and trust that something bigger was going on than I could comprehend in any one moment.

It was my experience of the natural world via Wild Kingdom that prepared the way for my radical monotheism. I have a way of being in the world where I believe God permeates the world. While God pervades all of creation, we human beings have the ability to make choice. Some of these reflect the life-giving Light of God’s being; others do not. I believe that God is more powerful than any expression of “darkness”, or “evil” that we can manifest: individually or collectively. My spiritual challenge, then, is to hang in there – live in the strongest connection/relationship with God that I can – and trust that the “good” will ultimately prevail.

Of course, I don’t try to argue with those who are locked into either of the two camps I mentioned at the outset. I am comfortable letting them be where they are. And I rest easy where I am. That has been the way I’ve avoided the fate of Anselm and kept a few remnants of sanity.  At least on my good days …

So how about you? What thoughts do you have in relation to Stevie’s comments?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 52-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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1 Response to To Prove or Not to Prove? That is the Question …

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    One big problem with trying to prove or disprove the existence of God to others is that it usually boils down to personal experience. Many people of faith experience God directly in their lives, whether they find him in the everyday beauty of a sunset or in a moment of crisis or in a still, small voice that speaks to them when they pray. Many atheists have either gone looking for God and found nothing, or felt the absence of God where they needed or expected him to be (in a place of worship, or a moment of crisis, or when their prayers went unanswered). Sometimes two people can go through the same event together and walk away with different experiences about whether God was present there.

    Personal experience is not the sort of thing that responds to proof or argument. To be honest I’m not fully convinced faith is entirely a choice; you can very much want to believe or not to believe and still not be able to change the feelings in your own heart, much less anybody else’s. So I agree that it’s best to let other people have their own beliefs and experiences about God, and instead of arguing with them, try to make sure that their experience of YOU is a positive one. That will go a lot further toward making them feel positively toward what you believe.

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