For the past three weeks we’ve been considering the second decision point on the road toward Christian faith, that is, the choice between an impersonal and a personal God. As with all the decision points on this journey, here, too, we cannot be compelled to choose the option that moves us closer to Christianity. Nor can I claim to have proved the existence of a personal God beyond any doubt. As I have insisted all along, our judgments in these areas are fallible and we cannot exclude all risk from our decisions. Nevertheless, I argue that this judgment is reasonable and the decision responsible.
Before we move into the third decision point, I’d like to clear up a possible misunderstanding. I am not arguing that this path and these exact decision points must be followed in the order I outline before one can legitimately accept Christianity as true. This path treats the background beliefs that must be true if Christianity is true. It follows an order in which philosophers often treat these questions, an order of priority in being that moves from things that seem basic and necessary to those that appear derivative and contingent. One need not examine these beliefs or even become aware of them to come to Christian faith. People have moved from atheism to belief in God by encountering the beauty and wonder of the universe or the depths of human love. One can be moved from atheism to Christian faith simply by listening to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to work your way out of materialism by reason alone or get beyond the idea of an impersonal god solely by intellectual means. But if you do come to believe in God and Jesus Christ by hearing the gospel or experiencing love, it still remains true that you implicitly accept all the background beliefs that cohere with this decision. You cannot believe in a personal God and believe that matter is the ultimate explanation for all reality. Nor can you believe in gospel of Jesus Christ and believe in an impersonal god.
My hope is that thinking through this series in order will help non-believers by showing that the background beliefs that make atheism plausible are questionable, if not simply false. If I can show that materialism is flawed or false, atheism is undermined even if the immediate motive for denying God’s existence is the presence of evil in the world. Showing that the idea of an impersonal god is incoherent may motivate the “spiritual but not religious” group to seek a relationship with the personal God and, hence, be open to full Christian faith. Believers can also benefit from following the path I’m tracing. Making explicit and seeing the truth of Christianity’s background beliefs may strengthen the believer’s conviction that judgments in favor of Christianity’s truth can be reasonable and decisions to follow the Christian way can be responsible.
The Third Decision Point
The third decision point confronts us with the choice between thinking of God as the highest aspect of nature or as transcending nature. Is God supernatural or natural? Is the world God’s creation or God’s body? The issue can also be framed as a decision between theism or panentheism. (Panentheism is the theory that God and the world of our experience are two aspects the one ultimate reality.). Before we go into this discussion, perhaps I ought to say that we are getting close the limits of what we can achieve by reasoning from our experience of the natural world and our own minds. If God really transcends the world and our minds as their Creator, there can be no natural continuity between us and God. Our reasoning can at best take us to the limits of nature and to the limits of what is given with our minds. It cannot take us beyond them. Reason can follow natural law to its limits, but if there is a reality not subject to natural law, we cannot find it in this way.
Nevertheless, there is work for reason to do even at this point. If we begin with the presumption that God is intelligent, personal, and free—a conclusion we reached in the first two decision points—we can examine the reasonableness of thinking of God as a part of nature, subject to basic natural law. If we find this view of God incoherent or inadequate to experience or intuitively unsatisfying, we may find the alternative of a transcendent Creator attractive. And even though we cannot reason directly from our experience of nature and our minds to a transcendent God, we may be willing to consider other ways in which we can achieve such knowledge. If we cannot ascend to God on the ladder of reason, perhaps God can descend to us. If God transcends the laws of the natural world God has created, why should we think the limits nature places on us apply also to God?
Next week we will examine the idea that God is the higher aspect of nature. Does it make sense to think of God as only partially transcending nature, as finite and limited in power, presence, and knowledge, and as developing and growing? Or does it make more sense to remove from our thinking about God all limits and presume that God is infinite and perfect?