As a child grows up, the most persistent question he or she will tend to ask is ‘why?’ As human beings we not only ask what things are but also why they are. The philosopher Aristotle said that this desire is universal, “All people by nature desire to know!” The question ‘why?’ can also be applied to the whole universe and to human beings. Why is the universe here? Why are we here? What is the goal of human life? Men and women throughout history have attempted to answer these questions.
What is the ‘first be-cause’?
All the things we see in the universe are caused by other things. Many thinkers have concluded that this chain of causes cannot go on forever. There must be a ‘first be-cause’, a necessary, eternal and unchanging ‘first cause’ which creates and sustains everything. People naturally call this ‘God’. In addition, the universe shows evidence of many processes that are ordered towards things of great complexity and beauty. This order and goodness encourages belief in a God who created them.
What is ‘God’?
‘God’ is what people rationally recognize as the single, all powerful and unchanging cause and purpose of things. This knowledge can be attained through reason, but raises further questions about the life of God and our relationship with God.
For Aristotle, ‘God’ was the unmoved mover. For Plato, he was the unchanging good. For Anselm, he was ‘that greater than which nothing can be conceived’. For Newton, he was the architect of the laws of nature. Einstein often referred to the first cause of the intelligibility of the universe using the language of ‘God’ or the ‘mind of God’.
Christian faith holds that the answers to the questions of God and his relationship to us have been revealed by Jesus Christ.
What are Human Beings?
Human beings differ from all other living beings on earth. Although we are animals, we also have the capacity to know and to communicate intelligently using language. This capacity to know is not just based on sensory perception and habit, but is an ability to know what and why a thing is. Without this capacity we would have no science or philosophy. Human beings also have a unique ability to choose, which gives rise to an enormous variety of human work and action, both good and evil. Many philosophers have realised that the kind of being who knows and chooses in this way must have some quality which cannot simply be reduced to mere matter that is subject to change and decay. They therefore infer that we have immortal souls that do not perish when our bodies die.
What is human happiness?
As human beings we want happiness – something complete, fulfilling, pleasurable and permanent. As well as the good things that all of us need, many great thinkers have realised that our happiness must also somehow involve knowing God.
“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”
St Augustine, Confessions
Happiness, however, appears to elude us. In this life we experience many partial and temporary joys, but none of these truly bring fulfilment. Furthermore, there is much pain and suffering in life, and our bodies decay and die. Nevertheless, knowing there is a good God, human beings have never abandoned their abiding hope for lasting joy.
What does God offer us?
Christianity affirms God’s goodness and desire for our happiness. However, at the heart of the Christian gospel is an offer of something that utterly surpasses all human desire – nothing less than a sharing in God’s own divine life and blessedness. It is only by responding to this invitation of friendship with God that we also find our natural fulfilment. St Paul speaks of this great gift and promise as follows:
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
1 Corinthians 2:9
Why do many people deny the existence of God?
There can be many reasons why some people do not believe that God exists. Nevertheless, most people do, in fact, believe in God, understood as some kind of ‘first cause’ of all other things. Indeed, the very fact that the word ‘God’ has some meaning in every major human language is indirect evidence that belief in God is natural for human beings.
What is more, the existence of God is not, as is sometimes implied, a belief held exclusively by childish or uneducated persons. Among the great philosophers, scientists, writers and artists whose works affirm some kind of belief in God, one can include Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Descartes, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Kant, Newton, Cauchy, Newman, Einstein and Mendel.
This list includes some of the most subtle and creative thinkers in human history, including pioneers of entire disciplines of science and some of the greatest artists. In addition, many philosophers, both ancient and modern, have offered arguments for the existence of God.
Furthermore, many people who claim to be atheists, rejecting belief in God, do, in fact, believe in an alternative ‘first cause’. Either they claim that the universe is its own cause or that the universe is generated by some automatic or random process from a larger, invisible reality, such as a multiverse. In other words, many atheists propose an impersonal substitute for God rather than simply rejecting the existence of God outright.
Finally, a person’s stance regarding the existence of God may have a moral aspect. It is true, of course, that many people who believe in God still do evil, and some people commit terrible evil in the name of God. Nevertheless, to deny God’s existence entirely changes the framework of morality.
If there is no divine lawmaker to fear or heavenly Father to love, there is also no higher judge than oneself or the state for how one should treat one’s fellow human beings.
As a practical consequence, as Dostoevsky and others have pointed out, everything is permitted. While such a world might seem attractive to some, those states governed by atheist ideologies in the twentieth century, which killed some one hundred million people, show the risks consequent upon such thinking.
This article is originally from ‘CREDO: The Catholic Faith explained’ by CTS.