Why I believe in God (1): a sense of deity

All my life I’ve believed in God.  That may sound like a dangerous admission.  Does it not immediately confirm the suspicion that religious belief is a matter of historical accident: of early upbringing, perhaps, or even, at its crudest, a desire to please your parents.  That argument cuts both ways, of course.  Atheism, too, can be learned at your mother’s knee.  But even so, my admission suggests that I did not come to faith in God by way of rational argument and careful examination of the evidence.

To that charge, I must immediately plead guilty.  I believed in God long before I ever heard of the so-called theistic proofs which from the days of Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) have been wheeled out to prove that there is ‘a god’.  But in this I am not alone.  Few people, if any, have come to faith in God as the result of a long and rigorous process of philosophical reasoning; and the Bible itself never sets out to prove that God exists.  Instead, it takes him for granted, simply announcing, ‘In the beginning, God …’ (Gen. 1:1) and then going on to account for what it sees as the real mystery: not the existence of God, but the existence of the ‘heavens and the earth.’  According to the Psalmist, the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), but that doesn’t mean that they are the proof that he exists, far less that they are the proof that he ‘probably’ exists.  The Psalmist assumes that God exists, and what the heavens declare, in their ever-expanding complexity and beauty, is that not that he exists, but that he is glorious. 

The New Testament adopts the same starting-point.  St. John begins his gospel with words which echo the opening words of Genesis, ‘In the beginning was the Word’; and St. Paul begins his great exposition of the gospel in the Epistle to the Romans, not by trying to prove that God exists, but by declaring that he has revealed himself within every human being (Rom. 1.19).  God gives himself visibility through the things that he has made, and thus causes his eternal power and god-ness to be clearly seen.  At the same time, Paul is fully aware that this revelation by itself never leads to true piety.  Instead, human beings invariably suppress and pervert it.  In the case of the vast majority this means that they descend into idolatry and false religions, but in the case of a minority it means denying that there is any deity at all.  Either way, says the apostle, we are without excuse.  We have all received revelation, we have all understood it, and when, at the Judgement, God challenges us as to what we did with it, he will be perfectly within his rights.

It was on the foundation laid by St. Paul that John Calvin built when he declared that a ‘sense of deity’ was engraved on every heart and the seed of religion sown in every soul; and it is this universal sense of deity that explains the world-wide incidence of religion.  ‘There is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish,’ writes Calvin (quoting Cicero), ‘as not to be imbued with the sense that there is a God.  Even those who, in other respects, seem to differ least from the lower animals, constantly retain some sense of religion’. (Calvin, Institutes, I:III, 1). This is why every society has its priests, its altars and its temples.  These religions have almost invariably been great evils, but even as such they bear witness to mankind’s universal awareness of God and our need to deflect his displeasure by one means or another.

In the circumstances, then, the fact that from my earliest childhood I was surrounded by people who believed in God was not in the least unusual.  Had I been brought up in India, Vietnam or Saudi Arabia the situation would have been the same.  Nor was it in the slightest unusual that by the time I was a teenager I took it for granted that I lived in a world that owed its existence to God.


Questioning our belief in God   

But then neither is it unusual that at some point we begin to question this belief and start asking ourselves, ‘Why do I believe?  And can this faith be justified?’   Nor is it unusual that such questionings can sometimes amount to an acute personal crisis in which all that we believe is cast into doubt; and perhaps the more assured our faith once was, the greater the crisis.  It is not only a theory we have lost.  We find ourselves being sucked into a world without light, meaning or hope: a world in which there is nothing to cling to, and nothing assured, and where, if we are logical, there is no reason to live by the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule: a world where the best we could hope for would be to end up as attractive fossils.

It’s never very clear what causes such doubts.   Humanists would like to argue that it is sudden exposure to modern science or philosophy or psychology or biblical criticism; or, perhaps, a dose of realism, as we suddenly realise how much evil there is in the world and begin to ask, ‘How could God (if there is a god) allow such cruelty and mayhem?’

It’s probably true that these factors can stir up serious challenges to faith, especially when they’re deployed by charismatic figures who make it their mission in life to rescue young people from what they see as the baneful influence of religion.  But the idea that doubt is always the product of rational argument or of the rise of modern science is a delusion.  Many Christians fought personal battles with atheism long before Darwin, Freud or Strauss were ever heard of; and among these were some of the greatest figures in Scottish theology, such as James Fraser of Brea, Thomas Halyburton and ‘Rabbi’ Duncan.

The Devil doesn’t need science, psychology or social pressure to sow the seed of doubt.  He can do it directly, and all by himself.  All it takes is a thought out of the blue: an ‘If’; or an, ‘Are you sure?’; or what looks like a word of wise counsel, such as, ‘You really need to be sure about this.’  Besides, he is adept at attaching our doubts to our personal neuroses.  The more anxious we are, the higher the level of certainty we need; and the more depressed we become over the theological bereavement we have suffered, the harder it is to comfort us.


Justifying our faith          

How then, once we’re sucked into the vortex, can we ever justify our faith to ourselves?

But does this very question not immediately pose a difficulty?  Should we not have found the reasons before we came to faith, not afterwards: otherwise the arguments amount to no more than wishful thinking?  We want God to exist, and then go looking for arguments to prove it. 

The obvious reply to this is that it is no different to what happens in science, where the hypotheses (often the product of intuition) usually come before the proof, and where the ensuing experiments are set up in the hope of finding it.  A scientist may be convinced that his theory is true long before he is able to provide any experimental proof of it, and even before he can work out what sort of experiment it would take.  This leaves him in the same position as the theologian who, starting with faith, looks for reasons.  All ground-breaking theories begin as unproven hypotheses. 

For example, as early as 1915 Einstein’s mathematics led him to formulate the theory of General Relativity, but it was verified only four years later when photographs taken during a solar eclipse confirmed the existence of deflected starlight around the sun’s mass.  Of course, the evidence needed to prove a theory in physics is quite different from the sort of evidence necessary to prove a religious belief (a fact too often forgotten), but there is, nonetheless, a fundamental similarity between the approach of the scientist and the approach of the theologian.  Both are looking for reasons.

The theologian’s approach was defined by Anselm when, away back in the 11th century, he defined his life’s work as, ‘Faith seeking understanding’ (fides quaerens intellectum).’  Theology was not an afterthought designed to persuade himself and others to believe.  It was an attempt to give reasons for what he already believed: in Anselm’s case a full-blown Christian faith.

Having been once rattled, then, how can I account for the faith I have held since childhood? 

First of all, by acknowledging that the account St. Paul gives of man’s awareness of God (Rom. 1: 18 – 32) corresponds exactly to my own experience.  The idea of God was always in my mind, and it was there, says the Apostle, because God had planted it there; and the very idolatries characteristic of the world’s religions showed that this awareness was universal.  Idolatry was not atheism, but the perversion of a deeply engrained theism.  Every human, simply as such, is aware of the eternal power and godhead of One on whom they are absolutely dependent and to whom they will one day give account.  This is why the whole world has built temples, prayed, and offered sacrifices.  Conscience has made even the most decadent Lady Macbeth tremble; football’s superstars cross themselves and gaze adoringly heavenward whenever they score a goal; and the most flippant of modern human beings seems convinced that their departed loved ones are still looking down on them from somewhere.

All of this accords with what we might expect in the light of Romans One; and when, years later, I came across John Calvin’s exposition of St. Paul I recognised myself immediately in the person the Apostle and the Reformer were describing.  The sense of deity had indeed been ascribed on my heart; God had planted the knowledge of himself in the depths of my being; the Almighty had sown the seed of religion in my soul; and a voice within said, Bow down and worship.

This does not mean that as an infant of days I ‘knew’ any of this, any more than I knew that the sun rose and set, or that it was now two hours since my last meal or that it was wrong to demand that my mother instantly stop whatever she was doing and come and attend to me.  What it does mean is that, assuming I developed normally, I would come to know all such things.  I would develop a sense of time and space and I would notice that some things caused other things;   and as I observed the world around me and interacted with it, the seed of religion would grow in my heart.  I would learn that land, sea and sky were very big, and that I was very small, and often helpless; and when in trouble I would cry to God like the mariners in Psalm 107 (Calvin thought they were pagans, but they still prayed)or the crew of the vessel where Jonah found a berth when he tried to flee from God.  They were definitely pagans, and decent ones, but they knew that their only hope was to call on the God whose tempest had placed them in peril of their lives.  

But I also learned that I had to behave in a certain way.  Some things were right and some things were wrong; and not only for me, but for everybody.  I also knew that I would have to answer for what I did, not only to my parents, but to One even bigger than them.  I can’t say I was ever scared of him, or terrified that if I did something bad he would hit me.  But it was important to please him.

It is this implanted sense of deity that the Bible addresses.  It assumes that we have such an awareness and that, even before the Word speaks to us, the seed of religion is already in our hearts in the shape of the instinct to revere and to pray.  It is on this that the Bible builds, and as I grew in knowledge of what it said, and listened to others talking about him, I began to appreciate what Anselm meant when he wrote, ‘God is that than whom a greater cannot be conceived.’