Category Archives: Mark Vernon

To whom, or what, are you grateful when you say thank you?

By our Guest Blogger: Mark Vernon. Author of The Big Questions: God

I remember once hearing an atheist describe how they were ‘grateful that an indifferent universe conspired to give me life.’ I knew what he meant. But it raises a big question: grateful to what or whom?

He was presumably not grateful to an indifferent universe, which is why he uses the word ‘that’. He’s obviously not grateful to a creator, else he wouldn’t be an atheist. In fact, he can be grateful to no person, for no person can conjure his life from an indifferent universe: even his parents, to whom in one sense he presumably is grateful, are themselves only partially worthy of thanks.

Grateful to evolutionary processes? That doesn’t make much sense, they being blind too.
So I think the phrase must reflect that ultimately he is not grateful to anyone or thing, but his gratitude reflects an appreciation of the luck that his life is simply given; he was thankful for the brute fact of it. No more, no less.

This, perhaps surprisingly, is quite close to the kind of Christianity for which I have the greatest respect. It affirms the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which too stresses that life is simply given: our creation is literally and dizzyingly out of nothing – no reason, no conspiracy, no purpose, no previously existing field from which matter might have spontaneously emerged. The doctrine stresses a brute fact quality to it all too.

However, there is a difference between the atheist givenness and theistic version. For the latter, creation, which is simply given, is still actively made. But it is made in a sense that is entirely beyond our understanding. All our uses of the word ‘made’ must be from something or for something. Creation, though, is not ‘made’ from or for or out of anything, according to the doctrine.

We’re pushing at the limits of understanding here, but that’s theology for you. The idea that the ex nihilo points to is the gratuitousness of creation. All 13.7 billion years of it made… just because, simply given.

To put it another way, our creation is pure, sheer and utter gift; it is radically gifted. As gift, it is given, for the believer, not by an indifferent universe – which being indifferent can’t give anything anyway – but by the mystery referred to as God. That is the reason to be thankful.

Hence, the believer can affirm with the atheist that life is simply given – no strings attached, not for anything – though rather than just being grateful for the luck of it, he or she is simultaneously grateful to God. The believer affirms the quality of a profound mystery.

But the atheist gratitude must, I think, admit a certain limited quality, not entirely unlike being grateful that your numbers came up at the bingo. In short, ‘We are made out of nothing’ can be read in two radically different ways.

The mystery doesn’t end there. For, if my life is gift, it cannot, strictly speaking, be given to me, for I am not, until the gift is given, so I cannot be prior to it to receive it. Rather, life that is radically gifted can only be simply given on, and on, and on. If you come to a point where you truly see that life is gift, something that I presume only saints manage, it can no more be held onto than a flame can hold onto the light it emits once lit.

It is thoughts like this that, in part, keep me engaged with Christianity. For there is a more subtle idea about what God gives – which as Christians would see it, is supremely understood in the life gratuitously given by Jesus. And that idea, to my mind, is worthy of great respect because it is a truly arresting one. It is also, as it happens, the main message of Easter.

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What is religion?

By our Guest Blogger: Mark Vernon. Author of The Big Questions: God

One day, a philosopher was asked to define religion. His answer needed to be definitive, precise – the kind of formula that would satisfy lawyers, or the atheists of his day who sought a clear target at which to aim their critique.

The philosopher was a wise soul and so immediately begged for some time. That period elapsed, and he appeared again. But he didn’t have an answer. Instead, he asked for more time. That period passed too, and he asked for more. And then more. And more.

The people became irritated, annoyed. “If you can’t find an answer,” they muttered impatiently, “then why keep on asking?” “But don’t you see?” he replied, and wandered off alone.

This parable, or one a bit like it, is told by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It’s one way of saying that doubt is at the heart of the phenomenon we call religion, not certainty.

That is reflected in the New Testament, because if you look, it turns out that the Bible has remarkably little to say about the supposed horrors of doubt, at least doubt in the sense meant mostly today, as in “I doubt x is true”.

Instead, the Greek words typically translated as doubt mean “being of two minds” or “disputing so as to cause division.” This makes a huge difference to the way the texts are read, I suspect.

For example, when in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus talks about moving mountains if you do “not doubt in your heart”, it is tempting to read it today as a kind of magic trick – as if it’s saying believe God exists, or that Jesus is God, and the earth will move for you, supernaturally. But the text really means you can achieve extraordinary things if you truly set your heart to it.

Or take James, the letter with one of the most sustained riffs apparently against doubt, part of which reads “you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea.” That sounds today like being able to assert every sub-clause of the creed with full confidence, no questions. Except again it is really a comment on trusting in God and sticking to your guns, keeping faith with your deep commitments.

The broad point seems to be that the New Testament’s reflections on religion see it as a way of life, not a set of truth statements. And holding to a way of life will inevitably involve doubts, uncertainties, unknowing – actually, needs to, in a sense. Think of what it’s like to love someone or to write a book or to devote your life to the study of the dark matter that fills the universe. Doubts may be an everyday occurrence, and the capacity to live with feeling unsure, crucial to success: personal growth, creativity, discovery depend upon it.

Faith too, then, is close to doubt because you keep faith, no less. It is not about confidently asserting metaphysical propositions but rather developing the capacity to trust yourself, others, God.

To put it another way, the religious way of life is about stepping into life, not stepping back from it, as if you might gain a “view from nowhere”, a definitive, precise answer. Doubt, not knowing and uncertainty are not a kind of failure, as much of the debate about religion these days implies. Rather, it is part and parcel to choosing life in all its fullness and becoming wise.

Martin Luther is one figure not generally known for his doubts. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” he reportedly declared. And yet, he knew this too: “Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to knowledge-with-doubt is no knowledge at all.”



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Believers should be glad that proofs for God don’t work

By our Guest Blogger: Mark Vernon. The Big Questions: God

The so-called proofs for the existence of God are widely thought to fail.

Philosophers point out that there is no need for an ‘unmoved mover’, to use Aristotle’s phrase, because modern physics teaches us that motion is natural to matter, not stasis. Alternatively, the ontological argument comes to look like a conjuring trick with words: it is no more the case that God needs to exist because God’s imagined greatness demands it, than it is the case that a perfect island needs to exist because it is described as perfect. Both might be fantasy.

As for the arguments from design – the notion that the apparent purpose, fit and beauty of the natural world requires a designer – that can be dismissed in a single word: evolution. Darwinian processes of natural selection produce the illusion of design by a combination of random change and environmental filtering, at least when it comes to the living world.

So far, so familiar for students of the philosophy of religion. What is not widely observed, though, is that the failure of the ‘proofs’ is only what theists should expect. They might even be glad of it. There are a number of reasons why proofs that worked would actually lessen, not increase, the appeal of religious belief.

For one thing, a deity that could be proven to exist would, by implication, be a deity that was comprehensible to the human mind. To be able successfully to reason the existence of a god would necessitate being able to understand the reasons for the existence of that god.

But religious traditions have a word for such theological confidence. It is idolatry. The only gods that human beings can fully grasp are gods that human beings have made in their own image. Hence, idolatry is the worse sin in the Bible, second only to usury. Believers should expect purported proofs to fail.

Put it this way. There is a reason that God is called ‘immortal’, because whatever God might be – and who knows – God is certainly not mortal. Similarly, God is said to be ‘invisible’: whatever God might be, God is not visible. This kind of God-talk says nothing about God’s actual attributes, and so nothing that might contribute to a proof. Rather it focuses on how God seems from the perspective of finite and visible mortals. And how could it be otherwise?

A similar point can be expressed in more existential terms. If God was obvious to the human mind, then would not the human experience of God be tyrannical? Direct experience of, say, divine omnipotence – should it turn out that God were all-powerful, whatever that might mean – would obliterate human freedom. To feel the full force of divine omniscience – again, supposing for the sake of argument there is such a quality – would belittle human striving.

This must be the reason that the Bible talks about the impossibility of being able to see God and live, or that it is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, not the comprehension of the Lord.

A different reason why it is important that the proofs fail is that it makes clear that the human quest for the divine is not a purely rational pursuit. If that were the case, if God could be discovered by logic, then the spiritual quest would be a demoralising, dispiriting affair. What role then for the emotions, for the arts, for the darkness, for the revelatory? If reason could tell all, then reason would rule all, and that would surely leave us less than human.

In truth, whether or not you believe in God is primarily a matter of the heart, not the head – the heart understood metaphorically as the place where we humans attempt to integrate the panoply of thought, intuition, experience, evidence. Reason will have a star role in the process of discernment. But reason of itself needs something else to go on.

What then do the ‘proofs’ actually achieve? Thomas Aquinas summed it up well. All that we have proven, he says, is that the fundamental nature of divinity is mystery. Religious belief, then, is the attempt to cultivate a relationship with that mystery. That is the gift of the proofs’ failure.


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