Sometimes, not often enough I suppose, amidst the ordinary joys and tribulations of everyday living – the problems of planning for the immediate future, keeping track of what is going on in this beautiful and hideous world, enjoying a few drinks and laughter with the boys, the abundant joys and occasional trials of family life, the harassment of daily living – the mind does occasionally set upon great questions of life and death.
I once found myself discussing with a young man and his girlfriend the existence of God, or rather whether God exists or not. Strange, now I come to think of it, how it is most often the young – more eager and searching than us older ones whom life has wearied in the heart and worn down in the mind – it is the young who ask these questions – perhaps it is a sign of youth to want to know the big answers; we older ones are content with smaller certainties.
The young man said categorically that there is a God. He set out the argument by design – in other words, there can be no design without a Designer and the universe being the most intricate and wonderful design there must clearly be a master Designer. I tried to explain how David Hume long ago demolished that argument with his blazing logic, demolished it step by step until poor St Aquinas must have squirmed in his grave.
We went on discussing the argument of first cause – there must be a First Cause, the original cause of all effects, and that is God. I told the story, not really relevant but suitably sceptical, about the Western traveller who encountered an Oriental philosopher and asked him to describe the nature of the world.
“It is,” the philosopher replied, “a great ball resting on the flat back of the world turtle.”
“Ah yes, but what does the world turtle stand on?”
“On the back of a still larger turtle.”
“Yes, but what does he stand on?”
“A very perceptive question. But it’s no use, my friend, it’s turtles all the way down.”
The argument for God’s existence, I read once, which is most in favour among modern religious philosophers is the simple argument that since we can imagine a Perfect Being he must exist – because he would not be perfect without the added perfection of existence. That is simple and clear, but in the end it seems to me only linguistic juggling, playing subtly with words. I enjoy that but somehow it isn’t grasping the reality of what people hope they mean when they say that God exists. As my grandson, Jacob, told me once: “Granddad, I think God came from the nothing tree!”
My mind has always had trouble grasping the idea of God. When I was very young I remember I was told that someone must have made the world and that someone must surely be very powerful and so He must be God. But I remember even then dimly sensing a fallacy and I’m sure I must have soon asked the vital question – “But where does God come from?” and, not long after, it became clear to me that the answer – “God doesn’t come from anywhere: God always existed” – really solved nothing – because, after all, an infinitely old God and an infinitely old universe are equally deep mysteries, perhaps indeed they are the same mystery. It was the turtles all over again.
So it was that I soon left such puzzles alone – which is a pity really, since such exercise of the intellect are stimulating if nothing else. What I decided long ago was what I think now – the answer to the question “Is there a God?” is simply that we do not know.
There is a passage from a Hindu holy book which puts it clearly and wisely – the answer to the question of how the world was created: I quote it now, from the Hindu Rig Veda: –
Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, whence came creation?
The gods are later than this world’s formation;
Who then can know the origins of the world?
None knows whence creation arose;
And whether he has or has not made it;
He who surveys it from the lofty skies,
Only he knows – or perhaps he, even he, knows not.
That is the truth: we simply do not know. Or as Francois Rabelais, the great and bawdy sixteenth century French writer, said on his deathbed, putting it much better: “I go to seek a great Perhaps.”
I should state, however, that the famous German theologian, Dr Hans Kung, once published a book 900 pages long whose title is this very question, ‘Does God Exist?’ And you will be either happy or vexed to learn that if you turn to the last page of these formidable 900 pages you will find that he answers the question in the affirmative. Against that great thunder the little squeak of my column, I’m afraid, hardly deserves to be heard.
And, in conclusion, before the blistering letters from my religious friends begin, may I call particular attention to the phrase I used – “We do not know:” that is, we cannot have any sure knowledge of God’s existence. But faith, I hasten to add, is quite another matter – and into those shadowy, though no doubt luminous, waters I do not intend to venture.