An Deus sit?
Following the canonisation's of John XXIII and John Paul II, I have picked up John Paul II's book Crossing the Threshold of Hope once again. It was perhaps the first book I read that made me think again about being a Catholic, back when the post conciliar lack of direction had left me with the idea that Christianity was very confusing and mostly to do with sitting on cushions, singing bland songs, and colouring in.
I found the book lying around a caravan in Hampshire on holiday about 30 years ago and flicking through its pages expecting it to be another bland, meaningless exposition of the non-judgementalism which has masqueraded as the faith for numerous years, I was in fact hugely surprised at what was revealed. A vibrant, challenging discussion of faith, packed full of intellectual considerations and answers to the very questions I most cherish.
For a bit of context, as to why this was such a formative book for me, consider the title of this blog which is the title of a book written by Søren Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus), which translates to "everything must be doubted" and portrays the existential consequences of assuming Cartesian doubt, the method of modern philosophy, to its last consequences. It sums up, for me, the human condition, insofar as we are constrained by doubt, chained to proof. It is an unrealistic search for certainty—something we regard with at best suspicion, at worst down right hatred, when we see it manifest. This is because in truth, it is hardly tangible in the context of our own lives. Science develops and new truths are discovered; society moves on and what we relied on once becomes outmoded and old fashioned. We are left asking cynically with Pilate "what is truth?" and constantly searching for the truth of our being.
This is the search, and the question which, far from serving to fracture or act as a reducing agent, has actually animated my own faith for several decades. It is the search for the face of God in my own life; a quest for certainty which I know I can never achieve in any consummate sense, but yet which I must nonetheless pursue with my whole intellect, because the own sense in which it actually can be found, is in the objective truths of faith and the reality of our existence contingent to the utterly transcendent God of Israel.
In answer to the question An Deus sit?—does God exist?—Pope St. John Paul II utilises his philosophical expertise and frames the question as a quest. The quest first materialised as the God of the philosophers; the fruit of human thought, of human speculation, and is capable of saying something valid about God. You see the question is very valuable and indeed, has reverberated throughout a highly developed Western civilisation. Pope St. John Paul the II points us, in addressing the question, to reflect on the Pastoral Constitution Gaudiem et Spes of the Second Vatican Council which he asks us to reflect on:-
The truth is that the imbalances under which the modern world labors are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man. For in man himself many elements wrestle with one another. Thus, on the one hand, as a creature he experiences his limitations in a multitude of ways; on the other he feels himself to be boundless in his desires and summoned to a higher life. Pulled by manifold attractions he is constantly forced to choose among them and renounce some. Indeed, as a weak and sinful being, he often does what he would not, and fails to do what he would. Hence he suffers from internal divisions, and from these flow so many and such great discords in society. No doubt many whose lives are infected with a practical materialism are blinded against any sharp insight into this kind of dramatic situation; or else, weighed down by unhappiness they are prevented from giving the matter any thought. Thinking they have found serenity in an interpretation of reality everywhere proposed these days, many look forward to a genuine and total emancipation of humanity wrought solely by human effort; they are convinced that the future rule of man over the earth will satisfy every desire of his heart. Nor are there lacking men who despair of any meaning to life and praise the boldness of those who think that human existence is devoid of any inherent significance and strive to confer a total meaning on it by their own ingenuity alone.
Nevertheless, in the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions or recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it? What follows this earthly life?
The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.This immensely rich passage addresses the question and explains that it is not only an issue that touches the intellect; it is, at the same time, an issue that has a strong impact on all of human existence. It depends on a multitude of situations in which man searches for the significance and the meaning of his own existence. "Questioning God's existence is intimately united with the purpose of human existence."
Why? John Paul II explains that it is because the question is not only an question of intellect, but also of the will, and even of the human heart (the raisons du coeur of Bliase Pascal).
Remember Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok? (Gen 32:22-32) Jacob strives with God and prevails. Genesis consistently teaches us that God is the Lord and Master of all history, also insists on the role of human activity and initiative in the work of life: man must 'contend' with God, this is what being human is all about in some sense.