All the Evidence for God. An Inquiry
A selected guide to the international event on "God today. With him or without him, that changes everything." Cardinal Ruini the philosopher resurfaced. And joining him in the discussion were Spaemann, Scruton, Van Inwagen. And natural scientists Nowak and Coyne. And experts in music, art, cinema...
by Sandro Magister
ROME, December 13, 2009 – The objective was to "dispel the shadow that makes access to God precarious and frightening for the man of our time."
Benedict XVI said so in the message on December 10 that inaugurated the international event in Rome on "God today. With him or without him, that changes everything," conceived and organized by the committee for the cultural project of the Italian Church, headed by Cardinal Camillo Ruini.
Two days later, at the end of the event, Ruini was beaming. The topic was tough, and listening a challenge, with philosophers and scientists using arduous language. And yet the hall was always full, in an extremely attentive silence. 2500 people went to the grand auditorium on the Via della Conciliazione, a short walk from Saint Peter's Square, to hear about God. Much of the audience was new, and young. Visibly proud of the richness and seriousness of the things said, in a disoriented world that is thirsty for precisely this.
This audience wanted to hear about God, and nothing else. But not, of course, about disputes within the Church, on one and the other side of the Tiber. The prophets of doom who had predicted (and deep down hoped for) the failure of the event, and with it a farewell to that "phoenix" which, according to them, the cultural project was, together with the definitive retirement of its conceptualizer, Ruini, were silenced by the results. The cardinal has already announced that a second event will soon follow this first one, also "on substantial issues, hard, not easy, not in fashion."
But what happened during the three days of the event? The program, the synopsis, the texts, the videos of the entire conference, with profiles of the speakers, are a click away on the web page dedicated to it:
> "Dio oggi. Con lui o senza di lui cambia tutto, Rome, December 10-12, 2009
Just a few of the salient moments are highlighted below.
THE THREE PROOFS OF CARDINAL RUINI
The first speakers, on Thursday, December 10, were Cardinal Ruini and Robert Spaemann of Germany. Both spoke as philosophers.
Ruini outlined three ways of access to God, three proofs of his existence, not theological but rational, and therefore able to be presented to all, not only to believers.
The first way departs from the evident fact "that there is something rather than nothing." The second moves from the observation that the universe can be known by man. The third is based on man's experience of a moral law within himself.
The three ways therefore make reference to the "transcendentals" of classical philosophy: to being, truth, and goodness. In making his arguments, Ruini intended to overcome the radical objections that these have faced over the past two centuries, beginning with Kant. But he acknowledged that not even these ways have the power of an apodictic demonstration, one that does not raise new doubts. And so? The cardinal's final proposal is that the existence of God be accepted as "the best hypothesis," with a formula taken from Joseph Ratzinger.
Here are the final two paragraphs from Ruini's address:
"The difficulties of the metaphysical approach in the contemporary cultural context, together with the dilemma arising from the existence of evil in the world, are the essential reasons for that 'strange shadow that looms over the question of the eternal realities'. Thus the existence of a personal God, as solidly arguable as we have sought to make it, is not the object of an apodictic demonstration, but remains 'the best hypothesis, which demands that we renounce a position of domination and take the risk of a stance of humble listening'. The implications of such an acknowledgment are great, both for relations between believers and nonbelievers – which, already for this essential reason, should be marked by sincere and firmly held mutual respect – and for the personal attitude of each believer, and in particular for the fundamental role that prayer must occupy in our relationship with God, so as to be able implore from him the gift of faith, which gives us that unconditional and at the same time free certainty about God which, as Saint Thomas explains, does not in any way exclude the possibility of further inquiry, but supports our fidelity to him, extending to the gift of ourselves.
"I will finish with an observation that seems to me fairly emblematic of the condition in which we are living. There is a profound parallel between the approach to God and the approach to ourselves, as intelligent and free subjects. In both cases, we are currently subjected to the pressure of a strong and pervasive epistemological scientism and naturalism, often unconsciously metaphysical, which would like to declare that God does not exist, or at least cannot be known by reason, and to reduce man to an object of nature among the others. Today, as perhaps never before, it therefore seems clear that the affirmation of man as a subject and the affirmation of God 'simul stant et simul cadunt', they stand or fall together. This is deeply logical, because on the one hand it is very difficult to establish a true and irreducible emergence of man with respect to the rest of nature if nature itself is the whole of reality, and on the other it is equally difficult to keep the mind open to a personal, intelligent, and free God – in a way that is true, even if it is ineffable to us – if this irreducible specificity of the human subject is not acknowledged. Bearing witness to the true God and at the same time to the truth of man is therefore perhaps the most exhilarating task that has been entrusted to us."
SPAEMANN AND THE GRAMMAR OF GOD
Robert Spaemann dedicated the first part of his reflection to the equivalence – instead of the opposition – between two attributes of God, "powerful" and "good":
"Those who believe in God believe that absolute power and absolute goodness have the same reference point: the sanctity of God. The Gnostics of the first Christian centuries denied this equivalence. They attributed the two predicates to two divinities, an evil power, the 'deus universi', god and creator of this world, and a god who is light, who appears from far away in the obscurity of this world. [...] It is important to emphasize this today, when even the priests, instead of invoking the blessing of almighty God upon us, speak only of the 'good God'. Talking about the goodness of God, about God who is love, obscures his disquieting side, if it goes unmentioned who it is of whom it is said that He is love, that is, if it goes unmentioned that He is the power that guides our existence and the world. [...] If goodness did not belong to being, being would not be everything, it would not be the totality. [...] But the opposite also holds true: if goodness were powerlessness, then it would not be goodness tout court. Because the powerlessness of the good is not good. Faith in the power of goodness is what allows us to abandon ourselves actively to reality, without needing to fear that in an absurd world, all good intentions would also be judged as an absurdity."
In the final part, Spaemann overturned the view of Nietzsche, the philosopher of the "death of God," according to whom "the only real question is which lie makes for a better life." And he proposed a demonstration of the existence of God "that would be, so to speak, Nietzsche-proof": a demonstration of God "on the basis of grammar, more precisely of what is called the 'futurum exactum', the future perfect." Here it is:
"The 'futurum exactum' is for us necessarily connected to the present. Saying that something now is is the same thing as saying in the future that that thing was. In this sense, all truth is eternal. The fact that on December 10, 2009, many people met in Rome for a talk by Robert Spaemann on 'Rationality and faith in God' is not true only on December 10, but is true forever. If we are here today, tomorrow we 'will have been' here. As past, as the 'having been' of the future perfect, the present always remains real. What kind of reality is this? One might say: in the traces that it leaves. [...]
"Nonetheless, memory vanishes sooner or later. And sooner or later, no man will be left on the earth. In the end, even the earth will disappear. Because the past always has a present, of which the past is past, we should therefore say that together with the present that we remember, the past also disappears, and the future perfect loses its meaning. And yet this is precisely what we cannot think. The proposition 'in the more remote future it will no longer be true that we had gathered together this evening' is nonsense. It cannot be thought. If one day we will no longer have been, then in fact we are not real now either, as Buddhism concludes. If one day the present reality will no longer have been present, then it is not real at all. Those who eliminate the future perfect eliminate the present.
"Nevertheless, once again: of what kind is this reality of the past, the eternal being true of every truth? The only answer sounds like this: we are forced to think of a consciousness that preserves everything that happens, an absolute consciousness. No word spoken will one day be not spoken, no pain not suffered, no joy not experienced. The past can fade away, but it cannot do so in such a way that it never was. If reality exists, then the future perfect is inevitable, and with it the postulate of a real God. 'I fear', Nietzsche wrote, 'that we will not free ourselves from God as long as we continue to believe in grammar'. The problem is that we cannot do without believing in grammar. Even Nietzsche was able to write what he wrote only because he entrusted to grammar that which he wanted to say."
THE "ABBREVIATED GOD" OF CARDINAL SCOLA
On the morning of Friday, December 11, Cardinal Angelo Scola, in a passage of his carefully constructed talk on the "eclipse and return of God," returned to Spaemann's critique of the contrasting of the goodness and omnipotence of God.
In asking "whether the problem of the transmission of Christianity does not lie, above all today, in assuming the language of the Gospel in its essentiality [...] and most authentic identity," Scola criticized those who identify this essentiality in the "kénosis," the emptying of himself, even of his own divine "power," made by God in Christ crucified:
"Here it is necessary to denounce an improper, untheological, and disrespectful use of the scriptural concept, of the "'kénosis" of God within so-called 'weak thought'. In this way, the unity of the Christian mysteries is lost, and ''kénosis' separated from the resurrection is used to justify the refusal to consider the truth and transcendence of God and the rejection of his personal being."
"It is only in the God who is Logos-Love that meaning is given to the decisive theme of the divine 'kénosis' as the way in which God-Truth-Goodness offers himself to men. The kenotic God is not a weak God, but a God who loves, and offers him as such to the liberty of man."
A little further on, Scola cited this passage from Benedict XVI's homily on Christmas of 2006 about the true meaning of the "kénosis" of God, that is, about God who speaks to man by "abbreviating himself in the incarnate Word":
"God made his word brief, he abbreviated it (Isaiah 10:23; Romans 9:28). The Son himself is the Word, the Logos. The eternal Word became small, he became a child, so that the Word might become reachable for us."
ROGER SCRUTON'S "VIA PULCHRITUDINIS"
Also on the morning of Friday, December 11, the Anglo-American philosopher Roger Scruton elaborated the fourth of the "transcendentals" of classical philosophy, that of beauty, also as a way of access to God.
"In creating beauty, the artist gives glory to God's creation," he said. This is how it has been over the entire span of human history, even where – as in the abysses of the twentieth century – suffering and desolation reign.
And yet "the worship of ugliness and desecration is asserting itself today in an age of unprecedented prosperity. [...] Desecration is a sort of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. Our lives will be judged before sacred things; and in order to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us. And since beauty reminds us of the sacred – and is even a special form of it – beauty must also be desecrated."
The "positive way" of beauty is, nonetheless, embedded in the heart of man. "Why then do so many artists today refuse to walk this path? Perhaps because they know that it leads to God."
After Scruton spoke, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the pontifical council for culture, and Professor Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, illustrated the depictions of God in the figurative art of yesterday and today. Including concrete examples, including Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican, and in particular the "School of Athens" that www.chiesa, in presenting the event on "God today," had proposed as emblematic of the event itself.
In other parts of the conference, depictions of God were illustrated in music, fiction, poetry, cinema, television, with evocative performances, readings, and projections, commented on by artists and specialists.
THE "HYPER-DISNEY" OF PETER VAN INWAGEN
The last session of the event, on the morning of Saturday, December 12, was dedicated to "God and science." George Coyne, the Jesuit astronomer who directs the Observatory Research Group at the University of Arizona, and Martin Nowak, a biologist and mathematician who teaches at Harvard, talked about the relationship between God the creator and the evolution of the cosmos in two brilliant talks that riveted the attention of the audience.
The third speaker, Peter Van Iwagen of the University of Notre Dame, instead spoke as a philosopher. And in an original and enthralling way, he elaborated that "cosmological way" to God which Benedict XVI himself has proposed in different ways on various occasions.
Van Inwagen began with an analogy. Let's imagine, he said, that "God is to the physical world as Walt Disney is to the world represented on the screen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Even more, let's imagine that "the events of the animated cartoon are really the history of the whole world," and let's call their creator "Hyper-Disney."
So then, from the perspective of the inhabitants of the world, this Hyper-Disney is nowhere to be found, but in another sense he is present everywhere.
And so it is with the God of our real world: "If he exists, he cannot be found in it anymore than Hyper-Disney can be found in his world; and nonetheless he is not far from its inhabitants." Moreover, it can be conjectured that the inhabitants of the world might come to believe that it is the result of creation on the part of an intelligent and omnipresent being.
Van Inwagen then continued:
"There are, in fact, people – scientists among them – who have contended that there are good scientific arguments for the existence of an intelligence responsible for the existence of the physical universe. And there are other people – scientists among them – who have contended that there are good scientific arguments for the non-existence of a designer."
Both of these theses "are unscientific and mistaken." But the second, which denies a creator God on the basis of the Darwinian theory of evolution, has become a widespread opinion.
And it is against the proponents of this opinion that Van Inwagen formulated his concluding statement, asserting the impossibility of using scientific arguments to deny the existence of a creator God:
"You believe that the actual world is a Darwinian world – that is, a world in which Darwin’s theory is true. But actuality implies possibility: anything that is actual is possible. And God, if he exists, is by definition omnipotent. And an omnipotent being can create any possible object – even if that object is a whole universe or cosmos. Well, this Darwinian earth of ours (as you believe it to be) is a possible object – since it exists. Therefore, an omnipotent being could create it – and could create the whole physical universe of which it is a part. And if an omnipotent being could create a Darwinian world, then why should someone who thinks that the actual world is a Darwinian world regard that feature of the actual world as demonstrating that – as having even any tendency to show that – the universe was not created by an omnipotent being?"
AND IN THE NEXT EPISODE: BIBLE AND LITURGY
In concluding the meeting, first Archbishop Rino Fisichella and then Cardinal Ruini made reference to further chapters of the reflection on God, not addressed in this first event but no less important.
Two in particular: first of all, a reflection on "what God says about himself," meaning on divine revelation; and then a reflection on the liturgy, or the rites, places, times, languages in which man and the Christian relate to God.
The article from www.chiesa presenting the event, with a homily by Benedict XVI on the "mystery revealed to the little ones":
> "There Is a God." How the Italian Church Is Preparing for Christmas (7.12.2009)
And a previous article on Robert Spaemann and the "immortal rumor" about God:
> A Philosopher Reissues the Pope's Wager: To Live as if God Exists (31.10.2008)
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.