Intellectual hubris drove the Enlightenment project from its beginning, and many Enlightenment thinkers even believed that “reason” was an all-powerful force with which man could unlock all of the secrets of the universe. After millennia of being mired in superstition and tradition man had finally emerged into a new day of unfettered reason boding limitless possibilities. Or so the narrative went, and at its zenith some actually believed that through reason, at least in principle, literally “everything” could be known. Pierre-Simon Laplace perhaps articulated this peculiar idolatry best when he wrote:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
Closely aligned with this faith in pure reason was the view that only that which can be demonstrated empirically is epistemically valid. Thus, positivism, the philosophical child of enlightenment hubris, holds that the only valid knowledge is that which is derived directly through sense experience. In other words, a positivist would say that if one cannot test a proposition through the scientific method, it is literally meaningless.
Reality is, of course, the wall you smack into when you are wrong, and even at the height of Enlightenment hubris great thinkers knew that reason has limits. “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” Pascal famously exclaimed, and positivism has long since been debunked. Popper perhaps gave it its most succinct epitaph when he wrote that, “positivists, in their anxiety to annihilate metaphysics, annihilate natural science along with it. For scientific laws, too, cannot be logically reduced to elementary statements of experience.”
So now we know better. Or do we? Pride must be dug out root and branch, and that is a very hard thing to do. Long after positivism has been utterly discredited as a philosophical enterprise, I look around me and see intelligent people brandishing their Enlightenment hubris like a sword: “If I cannot fit a concept into my rational categories I refuse to accept it.”
But surely this is a prideful, adolescent way of thinking. If the demise of positivism has taught us anything, it is that we must learn to live with some degree of uncertainty (even mystery) in our epistemology. We cannot know everything (some would say “anything”) with absolute apodictic certainty? Therefore, we must approach the whole business of “knowing” with humility. We must accept the fact that we see “through a glass darkly,” and this means that some very important concepts can only ever be grasped partially or by analogy.
Consider the question of the existence of God. Aquinas believed that God’s existence could be demonstrated with certainty through reason. He was wrong. Kant demolished every one of Aquinas’ five “proofs.” Therefore, God does not exist. No. This statement is a non sequitur. The fact that God cannot be proved to exist with certainty does not mean that he does not in fact exist. Aquinas’ proofs still retain considerable force; they are just not, as he thought, absolute. They cannot compel acceptance on pain of giving up on reason altogether in the manner of a geometric proof. But a reasonable man acting in good faith can ground his acceptance of God’s existence in Aquinas’ demonstrations. Indeed, the reader will not be surprised to learn that I believe Aquinas has the better of the argument – but I must always remind myself that it is just that – an argument – and not an infallible proof, that Aquinas has advanced. There is room for doubt. Why should a Christian be surprised that God has left room for doubt concerning his existence? Does not the scripture itself proclaim that without faith one cannot please God? And what is doubt except that which we have faith against? Therefore, if doubt is not possible, faith is not possible either, and it would be impossible to please God according to the writer of Hebrews.
This is not a strange or unfamiliar concept. Indeed, it is an everyday occurrence in our courts of law. When I argue a case before a jury I appeal to the evidence and to their reason in an effort to convince them that I have “proved” my case. But if the jury decides for my client does that mean there is no room for doubt that they were wrong? Of course not. It only means they have evaluated the evidence, applied their reasoning skills, and concluded that the evidence preponderates in favor of my client. In the same way I have evaluated the evidence, applied my reasoning skills, and decided that the evidence preponderates in favor of the existence of God. But I acknowledge that I might be wrong, and that is where faith comes in. The gap between the admittedly inconclusive evidence and my conclusion that God exists is bridged by faith. I am persuaded that the gap is not so wide, and the bridge of my faith grounded in reason need not be so long. Indeed, I am firmly persuaded that the opposite view would take a far, far longer bridge of faith between evidence and conclusion. As Johnson famously said, “I would love to be a materialist. I just can’t manage the faith commitments.”
I believe in an infinitely munificent and loving God. Yet I acknowledge that evil exists. How could a loving God create a universe in which evil is given room to exist? This, of course, is the problem of the theodicy, about which countless barrels of ink have been spilt. Over the centuries Christian apologists have made some very strong arguments about the reasons God might have allowed evil to exist. Perhaps the strongest is that if evil cannot exist, free will cannot exist, and love – which is in its essence an act of choosing the other – cannot exist. Therefore, because he desired love God allowed us to choose, knowing we would choose wrong. Nevertheless, evil exists, and it seems that God could have created a universe in which it does not exist, but he did not and therefore, in some sense, he is responsible for its existence.
Does it follow that God does not exist? No. Here is one of those mysteries that I was talking about. The existence of evil cannot be considered in an evidential vacuum. It must be weighed with other evidence, including versions of Aquinas’ proofs, my personal experience, Christ’s sacrifice, the empty tomb, scripture (including the powerful witness of prophesy), etc., etc., and when I do that I find that the evidence taken as a whole continues to weigh very strongly toward a conclusion that God exists. I cannot fit the existence of evil into neat and satisfactory epistemic categories along with that conclusion. But just like a juror weighing conflicting evidence, I evaluate the existence of evil as only one part of the body of evidence, and I find that there are plausible (though perhaps ultimately emotionally unsatisfying) arguments regarding why God would allow evil to exist, and when I consider those arguments in the mix of other evidence, the existence of evil comes far short of compelling a conclusion that God does not exist. In other words, the evidence, again admittedly inconclusive, still strongly preponderates in favor of God’s existence.
But the western mind, imbued as it has been with centuries of Enlightenment hubris, rebels against uncertainties. How can God be both immanent within his creation and at the same time transcend his creation? How can God by utterly sovereign over the universe and yet allow free will to exist? How can God be three yet one? These and other questions haunt the Enlightenment mind. We are tempted to say, “that which I cannot place in the categories of reason, I must reject.” But when we are dealing with God isn’t this an obvious mistake? Indeed, can we not define God as “that which transcends all categories”? And if we define God in this way, why should we be surprised that he does not fit neatly into our intellectual boxes?
Do not misunderstand. I am not advancing an anti-rational sophistry. I believe in the law of non-contradiction as firmly as the next guy. But it is also clear to me that “there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy,” and I will not be able to figure everything out. I am not always comfortable with that uncertainty, because my worldview too is heavily influenced by the lingering effects of Enlightenment hubris. But I know that I must deal with uncertainty one way or the other. There really is no alternative. Certainly not disbelief – it is more uncertain than belief. So with humility and with the grace I believe God has given me I proclaim with the apostles, “I believe . . .”