Scialabba, Jacobs, and God's existence: where the real problem lies

Alan Jacobs is right about George Scialabba's latest review essay, in this case of John Gray's new book, Seven Types of Atheism, for The New Republic. Scialabba is always great, but his theological instincts fail him here. As Jacobs observes, Scialabba wants to speak up for nonbelievers who wish God—if he does in fact exist—would simply make himself known in some inarguably clear way. But since, apparently, he does not and has not, that in itself is evidence that no such thing as an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful deity exists; or that, if he does, our knowledge or beliefs about or relationship with God is a negligible matter, and all will be sorted out in the hereafter.

Jacobs takes Scialabba to task for both the unthinking glibness on display (frivolous speculation about our ancient ancestors; writing contemporary mystics and charismatics out of the picture; etc.) and the more serious inattentiveness to what a truly incontrovertible divine self-revelation would mean. Jacobs uses the work of David Bentley Hart to remind us just what we mean, or rather do not mean, when we use the word "God," and how Scialabba is functionally reverting to a mythical picture of god-as-super-creature who yet inexplicably remains opaque to us here below. Jacobs then (being Jacobs) draws us to a speech of Satan's in Paradise Lost, bringing the existential point home.

Let me piggy-back on Jacobs' critique and suggest an even deeper problem with Scialabba's musings, one I've reflected on before at some length. The problem is twofold.

On the one hand, it cannot be emphasized enough that the kind of skeptical atheism that Scialabba sees himself standing up for here is vanishingly small in human history, both past and present. So far as we can tell, nearly all human beings who have ever lived have taken it for granted that reality is more than the empiricists suggest; that there is some Power or Goodness or Being that transcends the visible and tangible, preceding and encompassing it; that human life, though brief and sometimes terribly burdened, carries more weight and has more depth than those features would suggest on their face, and that it may or will in one way or another outlast its short span on this earth. Even today, the overwhelming majority of people on this globe "believe" in what we in the West call divinity or practice what we in the West call religion. The anxious queries of skeptical atheists, while worth taking seriously at an intellectual and emotional level, could not be less representative of humanity in general's relationship with "the God question."

In short, the sort of defeaters Scialabba offers as evidence of God's lack of self-revelation bear little to no relation to the average person's thoughts or experience regarding God's existence. Most people don't need God to write his name on the sun. In a sense, he already has.

Such a response doesn't go very far, though, in responding to Scialabba's true concern. Perhaps most human beings, past and present, are just not philosophically rigorous or serious enough to ask the tough questions that inexorably lead to atheism. Or perhaps it's not "religious belief" in general but the challenge of revelational certainty, i.e., which religion/deity to believe in, that's at issue. Here's what's most deeply wrong with his argument then.

The Christian tradition does not teach, nor has it ever taught, that the most important thing to do is believe that God exists, or even that the Christian God exists. Instead, the most important thing is to love this God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength. What God wants from you—demands, in fact—is not affirmation of a proposition about himself or mental assent to the facticity of his being. Rather, it is the totality of your being, the absolute and unconditional lifelong allegiance of your very self. What God wants is faithfulness.

And it turns out, according to the painfully consistent testimony of Holy Scripture, that faithfulness is a lot harder than faith. By which I mean: total devotion to God is far more difficult than belief that God exists. As the epistle of James says, the demons believe that God is one—and shudder. Israel at Sinai doesn't lack the belief that YHWH exists; there's evidence aplenty for that: lightning and thunder and a great cloud and the divine voice and Lord's glory; everything Scialabba wants from God! But what do the Israelites do? They make a golden calf and worship a false god. In doing so, they do not subtract belief in YHWH; they add to that belief "belief" in other gods. Which is to say, they add to worship of the one God the worship of that which is not God.

Our problem, therefore, isn't belief that God exists in the face of a thousand reasonable doubts. Our problem is idolatry. When the one true God comes near to human beings, when they hear his voice and see his face, they know it to be true—and they turn away. They know God—and sin. They believe "in" God—and disobey him. They lack doubt—and hurt others.

For Christians, this problem is illustrated most of all in the Gospels. Time and again the apostles see with their own eyes the identity and deeds of the incarnate Son of God, and time and again they misunderstand, mis-hear, mis-speak, fall away, to the point of deserting him in his hour of need and even denying ever knowing him.

Scialabba wants God to make it impossible to disbelieve in his existence. But even if God were to do that, it wouldn't change the fundamental problem—our sinful, wicked hearts, prone to evil and violence from birth and a veritable factory of idols—one bit. Or rather, what we would need is the kind of belief, the sort of knowledge, that went to the root of that problem, transforming us from the inside out. Making true worship possible; ridding us of idolatry; supplying us the power to do what we could never do for ourselves; making faithfulness a reality, that we might finally and wholeheartedly love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Christians believe God has done just this for the world in and through Christ. No dispositive evidence will persuade a Scialabba that this is the case. But the gospel isn't meant to answer such a request. Contained within the solution it offers is an entirely different diagnosis of our situation and thus of our greatest need. If the gospel and the faith it proclaims are to be rejected, those are the terms on which to do so.

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