Some personal reflections on a big question
I have never quite cast myself in the role of a Christian apologist before, but in more recent years I seem to have found myself placed in situations more regularly where I have been asked to defend a Christian position on various issues. One such issue has been some debates on the ways in which people go about searching for God and what concepts of God are possible.
What is a deist? I hear some of you ask. Although there can be some variations, deism is generally the belief that there is a God who made the universe, but this God never interacts with creation at all. So this concept of God is One who is very uninvolved, a very distant entity. A deist is someone who believes in that kind of God. How coherent is deism? Is this really a helpful way to go about exploring the plausibility of God’s existence and what God is like?
I recognise that in writing this blog I am straying somewhat into the realm of philosophy. I am sure that there will be many erudite contributions to this issue that are already published and I have read a few of them. This blog is a much simpler personal reflection. I’ve never really written much in this domain before so please forgive any awkwardness in the text. My head is still getting used to the contours of a philosopher’s hat.
In this blog I would like to first argue that the concept of a deist God is both unsatisfying and unconvincing. And secondly I would like to propose a much more reasonable way to explore the idea of the existence of God.
The concept of a deist God is unsatisfying
The very idea of desiring God to be a divine entity who created the world but then never interacts with it, strikes me as profoundly disappointing. One deist with whom I once corresponded, declared they were very unsure if any God existed, but they would find a deist God “interesting”. That was the only answer they could give to my question, “Of what benefit to humankind would a deist God be?” I concede that “interesting” is a possible answer to my question, but I don’t find it much of an answer. There are many things which are interesting, but that doesn’t make them significant. I find it interesting that a brown cow can eat green grass and produce white milk! But the colour of milk is not that significant. My guess is that even if milk was green, if it tasted the same as white milk does, we’d just get on and drink it all the same.
Yes, I also concede that deists generally believe that their idea of God did create the universe, so a deist God at least answers the question of whether there is an agent behind creation. But a Creator who then turns their back on creation certainly raises questions about their character. If the Creator loved their creation, why would they turn their back on it? If the true God is a deist God, then does that mean they dislike their creation? Or do they like their creation, but are just disinterested in it? If we believe the world to be God-forsaken and the only reason is that God made it all, but then walked away, then this is a painful reality to bear. It would almost be less painful to believe that the reason the world may feel God-forsaken is that God was never there in the first place. In that sense, atheism is a kindlier philosophy than deism.
All in all, the concept of a deist God is deeply unsatisfying. Why go to a lot of trouble trying to search for such a God? If you find they exist, they are never going to interact with you, so are you much better off knowing they are there? Even if they exist, this kind of God won’t be making any contribution to the betterment of your life. You are on your own to make of life what you will. So, it does feel to me like even trying to look for such a God is a fairly pointless task.
But I’m not convinced that even such a search will ever produce any coherent answer. And this brings me to my second point.
The concept of a deist God is unconvincing
The bottom line for me here is that I’m not convinced that any argument for a deist God can actually prove their existence. The very definition of the concept of a deist God makes the whole argument self-defeating.
Here’s where the line of my argument runs. Someone is trying to prove the existence of a God who made the universe, but will never interact with it. If this God has kept themselves separate from the world, then the only evidence we have for them is the fact that the world exists. (Although for the deist I mentioned earlier, they were not convinced there was any feature in creation which pointed to a Creator, so deists come in many kinds.) So for some deists, creation may point to the fact that there is an agent behind creation. But we will never get any further than that with our research. For by definition, this kind of a God never interacts with the world so we will not learn anything more about this God from their own revelation to us. We cannot reach beyond the material world to find this God; the created order is all we know.
To illustrate this difficulty I once asked a deist what piece of evidence might actually convince them of the existence of God. They said, “Imagine a huge tsunami wave heading for an area of populated coastland, which could be seen by many people, and that wave got suddenly stopped in its tracks, so that the people were saved. I’d be tempted to believe that some kind of God would be behind such an occurrence.” I countered by reminding them that that occurrence involved a God who interacted with creation, but their deist concept of God wouldn’t do that by definition, so that piece of evidence would not prove such a God existed. This is the problem for the deist; they are not able to cite what evidence would convince them of the existence of God because any piece of evidence would involve God interacting with creation – and that’s a direct contradiction of the kind of God they define.
Deists love to focus the efforts of their research on purely scientific methods, saying that this is the only sure-fire way we could ever know anything about God. But who’s to say that God can only be known and described in that way? The deist is only human, yet they are suddenly declaring they have narrowed down the only way we could ever understand all concepts of God.
Excuse me, but if God is God, then He won’t by definition be neatly squeezed into a box of our own making. We can’t say we have categorically ruled out all other concepts of God just because we think our idea conforms to a deist God. There could be all kinds of other divine entities who are not ruled out by deist beliefs.
So the best a deist can do is to say that creation itself is evidence of their idea of God, but that’s as far as it goes. And some deists don’t even think any aspect of creation is a pointer to God’s existence. It strikes me as unconvincing to hope you can argue for the existence of a God who really doesn’t want to be found.
A different kind of search, a different kind of God
So if the very concept of a deist God is both unsatisfying and unconvincing, where does that leave someone who wants to explore the existence of God? How could we best advise someone who is on such a quest? Well if we’re not looking for an uninvolved God, we must be looking for a God who chooses to interact with creation. The question I wish to address in closing this blog is this: if you wanted to explore the existence of a God who was prepared to interact with creation, where would you start your search? To explore whether God exists is such a vast issue, you could start in all kinds of places. Where might be a good place to start?
Let me offer an analogy. Suppose I want to know if a man called John Smith lives in London, the city of my upbringing. Where would I start with such a quest? Well, I could decide I would trawl through some electoral records or I could see if he features in a phone book (although these seem to be getting rarer nowadays). But suppose, as I was mulling over my options, I mention my quest to a trusted friend. And they say to me, “Look, I can make your search easier. I used to know someone called John Smith in London. I’ve still got some contact details for him. Why not look him up?” Although I might have identified a range of search options, I would be missing a trick not to act first on the personal information provided by my trusted friend. Why would I spend hours trawling through electoral records as my first option, when I could pick up the phone and call the number provided by my friend, as within a few moments I could be speaking with an actual person called John Smith. Of course, it might turn out that the contact details provided by my friend for John Smith were no longer valid. But the personal lead provided by my friend would certainly be the sensible starting place for my search. Only if that avenue proved to be a dead-end would I move on to other research.
I contend that the witness of the New Testament to the person of Jesus is analogous to my search for John Smith. The writers of the New Testament are effectively saying to the world, “Hey everyone, are you interested in knowing if there’s really a God? Well, we believe we’ve actually met Him in a real-life person called Jesus. Let us introduce Him to you.”
Bold and astonishing, that claim clearly needs verifying. But wouldn’t you start there? Wouldn’t you begin your quest for God with the witness of a bunch of people who say they knew and touched a flesh-and-blood person who they came to believe was the divine Son of God? Those subscribing to deism are sceptical of such experiences, believing them to be far too subjective and that’s why deists keep seeking scientific answers for everything. But it is not subjective to know a real person. There is reality in personal knowledge. I personally know my wife and children. I do not need to subject them to scientific analysis to know that something about them is real!
So I contend that the best starting place to explore God’s existence is a study of the New Testament. For if its astonishing claims about Jesus are true, then we not only know God exists, but we also know what He is like. And we would know how we might find meaning and purpose by stepping into God’s big story for all the world. Sure, someone might investigate the New Testament and reject its claims. But I contend that no one can say they have truly answered the question about God’s existence without properly investigating the claims of those who say God placed His feet firmly upon the earth 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus. That’s too big a claim to ignore exploration.
I think that’s what C.S. Lewis was getting at when he wrote: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
So you’ll never catch me being a deist. Ever.
The concept of a deist God seems at best unsatisfying and at worst impossible to really demonstrate. Much better as a first step, to investigate the claims that God has not remained distant, but has in fact come so close to us that He knows what an actual human heartbeat feels like. That’s a God worth investigating. That’s a God worth knowing.