In the absence of religious journalism written by those who have studied their subject, we now see journalists who may be expert in their own fields turning their hand at commentary on faith and the Church. I have two journalists in mind, Paul Kelly, editor at large, and Greg Sheridan, foreign editor both of the Australian. Both of these writers have published articles on faith in the Weekend Australian. I have commented on Kelley's articles in On Line Opinion here and here.
After publishing an essay on his Catholicism that I admired, Greg Sheridan is back in the 28-29th Oct Weekend Australian with a defence of the belief in God. The problem with the article is that it does not speak about the God Christians worship. Indeed, he does not begin with Christian theology but with a universal statement about the proclivity of the human mind: "The resting place of the mind, its natural equilibrium, as it were, is belief."
This is an old argument that posits a "God shaped hole" in the mind that if left unfilled will produce an unfulfilled life. It may be that we have a tendency to project mind into nature as do children and as can be found in many religions. But that cannot be used as evidence that such a Being exists. Rather than evidence for the existence of God, it may be caused by the exercise of neural elements in the brain that have evolved to deal with our social context which is then unthinkingly projected onto the world or otherworld. Christian theology has long since recognised such a projection that has the world inhabited by spirits as paganism and antithetical to either the belief of Israel or of the Church.
Sheridan then changes tack and informs us that: "you can get to knowledge of God through reason alone." He then takes us on a journey through Aristotle and Aquinas to show that this is true. He takes us through the arguments about the prime mover and the uncaused cause etc. But then he makes the observation that these arguments are all very dry and that "People don't generally come to any serious belief in God purely through this or any other rational process." At last, a statement I can agree with! But why go to the trouble if this kind of rationalisation rarely if ever yields anything that can be called religious faith, let alone Christian faith?
Instead of proceeding to talk about the unique insights of Israel and the early Church's grappling with the life and death of Jesus, Sheridan tells us of "the deep mysteries of the human condition". Such hand waving leads us nowhere. We are left to our own devices as regards the existence and character of God.
The other theme that is explored is the relationship between natural science and faith. Unfortunately, Sheridan avoids the question about causation by telling us that while science may tell us the "how", it cannot approach the question of "why". Certainly, this is true but the question that hangs around science and religion is the "how" of it. Did God create the universe or is it self-evolved? Can God reach into the mechanism of the world and change them at will as seems to be the case with the many miracles related in Scripture?
These are questions that must arise when the being of God is established from reason because the only God whose existence can be proved by such methods is the God of Aristotle, an immaterial being who hangs around in the universe waiting to meddle with his creation. This concept produced the Deism of the 18th and 19th centuries that was found to not have anything to do with Christianity.
The God that is proved by rationality is a mere abstraction to which many, even many Christians, may give lip service. Unfortunately, the concept has no content other than to assure us that we are not alone and that there is a purpose in things. It is nothing but tea and sympathy. There is no suggestion that this God will demand an account, confront us with the emptiness of our lives or raise us from our graves because this one is a creature of our own making and bears the marks of our fear and insecurity.
The abandonment of the God that Christians worship is obvious from the next argument that begins with an unacknowledged quotation of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) Essay on Man: "The proper subject for the study of man(kind) is man." The previous verse to this is: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan". This is part of the great turn to the self that occurred during the European Enlightenment that would leave God out of our self-understanding. It denies any relationship with God consistent with the Deism of the time.
Surely the point of Christian faith is to show us who we are? This is nowhere more poignant than in the passion narrative. In this narrative, it is obvious that we (the religious, the civil powers, even his own disciples) colluded to murder the one true man. To the world it would seem that we were the judge and he was the judged. But, we are told, God raised Jesus from the dead; what we condemned to death God vindicated. To our surprise it became evident that the position of judge and judged was reversed. It was our old selves that were put to death on the cross and in faith it was our new self that was raised to life with him.
We find out who we are from the gospel narratives. We are confronted and questioned and we see who we are. The God whose existence we prove by our own ingenious devices cannot do this.
Sheridan digs an even deeper hole for himself: "What clues does humanity itself offer us about belief in God?" This indicates a specific theological methodology that begins with the human. If we consider our physical desires we are told, these desires indicate their object of satiety. Hunger indicates food, tiredness indicates sleep etc. The concluding argument follows: "As long as we have known human beings, they have yearned for and believed in God….The long hunger for God implies God." We are back where we started! Because we feel we need God then there must be a God. The atheists that Sheridan then goes on to abuse would be laughing because he gives them such an easy target.
I too am appalled that Christian faith is so marginalised in our schools and universities and has lost its voice in the public square. I too see our society at the mercy of all kinds of idolatry that leads many to despair, idols that would not hold sway on our minds if we had a robust Church to warn us of them. I too mourn the loss of the self in the sea of desire produced by capitalism. But rather than being some kind of antidote to our plight, even some form of pushback, Sheridan's article portrays the kind of loose thinking that has actually produced our situation. How can he write an article about Christianity without even mentioning Christ, let alone the ascription that is at the centre of it, the triune name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? It is very liberal of him to universalise his arguments so that no religion feels left out but what this produces is no real argument at all.
The aim of the article is what has been called "pre-evangelism" ie it is designed to clear the way for a consideration of faith. Thus, it is supposed that the great barrier between the men and women of late modernity and faith is the question of rationality. This mirrors the great divide that was constructed between faith and reason after the rise of natural science during the eighteenth century. By giving us a way to believe in the existence of God that relies only on rationality it is hoped that this barrier will be brought down and we will be free to again believe in God.
The problem is that this approach assumes that the same kind of rationality may be applied to the problem of God as can be applied to the phases of the moons of Jupiter. Right away, we find ourselves in the wrong place because it closes us to the rationality of faith that relies on poetics, metaphor and analogy to say something that is unsayable with the rationality of science. Consequentially, the doors to faith remain closed because we lack the language to enter.