Thanks for being willing to begin this literary correspondence about such important matters as the afterlife, the existence of God, and the very meaning of existence. It’s more profitable for us to discuss these matters in this format than in some online comments section debate. Online debates almost always raise the ire of the debaters, because they know their comments and replies are being watched and read by others, increasing the temptations to pride and reactionary anger exponentially. Furthermore, the limited space, and pressure to reply quickly militates against careful thought, reasoned exchanges, or emotionally-chastened responses. I look forward to reading your letters.
You asked me to present my best “case” for Christianity, and I plan to do something like that. But to begin with, I am actually going to gently quibble with your choice of words. The use of the term “best case” suggests that Christianity can be boiled down to an argument: a set of propositions, like a mathematical proof, or a logical theorem. Supposedly, if these propositions are perfectly logical, empirically verifiable, internally coherent, and demonstrably experienced, then the argument, or the case, for Christianity must be accepted.
But I challenge that very assumption. Christians assert that God is a person. In fact, we think he is the fullest expression of personhood, infinitely personal, so to speak. If that is the case, then God’s existence is only a fraction of the really important question. If God is a person, then the important question is, how does someone come to know him? Because it is only in engaging and knowing him as a person that he could actually be known, thereby settling forever the question of his existence. We know of the existence of persons by knowing them, not gathering evidence for their existence. Here we must not get the cart before the horse: knowing persons is never a matter of first settling their existence, followed by personal engagement with them.
Let me illustrate with a young man who desires to be married. He has not met his wife-to-be; indeed, he worries that she may not exist. With that in mind, he hires a private investigator to build the case for his wife’s existence. He tells the investigator to look for a single woman who is beautiful, easy-going, loves homemaking, and most of all, is madly-in-love with the young man. The investigator returns with the bad news that his wife does not exist. Of course, we all know why: she could never be a loving subject of his affections (and vice-versa) if she remains a neutral object under empirical investigation. Of all the girls that could become his wife, he could never know one of them as his wife unless he began the process of knowing one of them in just that way.
No man ever won a girl’s heart by following her in his car, keeping a journal of her movements, or hacking into her computer. When we treat a person as an object, we immediately diminish (or destroy) our capacity to know the same person as a subject.
Or picture being told you must make the case for your own existence before someone will talk to you. You can try various strategies, but you will find they are all deniable by the person determined to refuse the obvious fact of your existence. You could send pictures of yourself – but they could be rejected as photos of another, or digitally created. You could do the same with your voice, or with some written communication, and have them rejected in the same way. You could offer to meet and shake hands, but the person could accuse you of being a sophisticated impersonator. When it comes to the existence of persons, much of our knowledge is intuitive, and we seldom demand empirical evidence before proceeding with the personal interaction.
Does this sound circular? It is, in some respects, though not viciously so. We have to begin with the assumption that a person exists and can be known, in order to find out if it is so. We don’t know others by first building a case for their existence. We engage with people, and soon find out whether or not they are persons (such as when you speak to the voice on the phone, and soon realise it is a robotic answering service). The reverse does not produce the same result. If you begin with the assumption that a person does not exist, you are not likely to change that until you stop treating his existence like a test-tube under a Bunsen-burner. Your denial of existence precludes you from engaging with the person in a way that will confirm existence. In other words, atheism is self-confirmatory in the same way that the young man’s investigation will keep confirming his presupposition: my wife does not exist.
Since this is our universal experience with knowing persons, it is safe to assume that something similar (if not identical) must pertain to knowing God. To know if he exists, you have to begin dealing with him as a person. As in, “God, if you do exist, I would like to know you”, or “Deep down, God, I sense you exist, but I admit I do not want that to be true.”
If there is no one on the other end of the line, the person saying these words has lost nothing more than a few seconds of his time on a thought experiment. But if there is, then the man saying these things has begun to treat his Creator as a subject, and can expect a response, as happens when you seek to know a person.
David – I don’t think you need my help here, so I’ll comment for the sheer joy of it. You have begun wonderfully: with respect and with a subtle consideration of the depths and scope of the question.
I look forward in hope that your correspondent is equally patient and thoughtful.
How glorious the Lord is, and how beautifully he condescends in such matters. And of course how ultimately, infinitely personal.
A considered and cogent read – thank you!
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