Can God Be Known?

Can we actually know anything about God?

This is one of the most fundamental questions, and many people, particularly agnostics, will say “no.” The argument tends to go something like this: God, if there is a God, is so far removed from human experience and knowledge that there’s nothing that we can say about Him (or Her or It). Another variation: the only way to verify our knowledge about God would be to die and find out if Heaven and Hell exist; for those of us still alive, we can’t be sure.

So what can we believers, and particularly we Christians, say to these objections?

Jan van Eyck, The Almighty (detail from the Ghent altarpiece) (1432)
Jan van Eyck, The Almighty (central panel of the Ghent altarpiece) (1432)

I. The Objections to God’s Knowability are Self-Refuting

In an earlier post, I pointed out that one of the ways that we can establish the existence of absolute, knowable truth is by showing that statements like “Absolute truth does not exist,” “We can’t know anything for certain,” “I don’t know if we can know anything for certain,” and “All truth is empirically or scientifically testable” are self-refuting. If you haven’t read it, or want a refresher, I encourage you to check it out, because this post builds upon that line of argumentation.

But what do I mean to say that these objections are self-refuting? I mean that to claim that God is unknowable is (a) to claim that we cannot know His attributes, and (b) to assign Him an attribute, unknowability.

Obviously, (a) and (b) can’t both be true. If you tell me, “I can’t tell you anything about my neighbor, because he’s so introverted that we hardly speak,” you’ve just told me something about your neighbor. Here, the agnostic is basically calling God a cosmic introvert who keeps to Himself so radically that we can’t know anything about Him. If that were true, we couldn’t know Him to be an introvert.

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam (Sistine chapel) (1512)
Michelangelo, Creation of Adam (Sistine chapel) (1512)

 

II. Something about God can be Known from Creation

Causality tells us quite a bit more than we tend to acknowledge. To show this, I want to point out a few basic aspects of causation.

If you open your umbrella, and it suddenly explodes, the first thing that we can establish is that the cause was something capable of causing an umbrella to explode. That point seems so basic as to be unworthy of mention. But it actually tells us quite a bit, and it’s a universal truth that we can describe this way: if X caused Y, X must be the sort of thing capable of causing Y. 

 

The second thing that we should notice is that an effect can’t be greater than its cause (or the sum of its causes, in the case of things with multiple causes). Or conversely, every cause must be equal or greater to its effects. If you’ve got 8 ounces of juice, you didn’t get that just from squeezing two 3 ounce oranges. The equal or greater part here is important. Whoever left $50 on your table must have had at least $50, but could have started with much more.

Finally, everything present in the effect must be present (at least in potency) in the cause. This is really just the logical implication of our first rule, stated more explicitly. If you start with just a few strips of uncooked bacon, you can’t end up with a peanut butter sandwich. It’s not a question of whether bacon or peanut butter is superior. It’s just a recognition that bacon isn’t the type of thing that has the potential to become a peanut butter sandwich.

Here again, I’m pointing out things so basic that they ought to be uncontroversial. But these insights turn out to be of great importance when you look at the entire universe. And here, I really do mean the entire universe: the natural phenomena like subatomic particles and chimpanzees and supernovas and beautiful sunsets, but also the manmade bits like iPhones and symphonies. Even these human artifacts are the product of human ingenuity, and humans are creatures (created beings). If you say that iPhones were created by Steve Jobs, you have to explain what created the creature Steve Jobs.

Anyone who knows Aquinas’ Five Ways should recognize this line of argumentation, and the way that it points to an Uncaused Cause. Instead of tracing those familiar lines, let me just point out a few of the implications that you might not have considered. First, we’re looking for the sort of Cause capable of creating an entire universe (not just “sparking” a cosmic chain of events, mind you, but keeping all of reality in existence at every moment). Second, we can see that the universe was caused by something equal to or greater than the entire universe, combined. And finally, everything in the universe must be present in some way in the Cause. This doesn’t just point to God, but a specific sort of God.

We’re looking here at an intelligent and personal Creator: since He created personality and intelligence, He must possess at least this much. And He must be good, because He’s the cause of goodness; the same for love and the rest. Now here, I anticipate an objection from certain shrewd non-believers: namely, if we can say that God is good because He is the cause of goodness, why can’t we equally well say that He is evil, if He is the cause of evil?

There are a lot of answers to this: a simple explanation would be that a great artist can make a bad work of art, but a bad artist can’t make a great work of art.  The same Picasso who achieved a masterpiece in Science and Charity while a young teenager went on to make junk like Bather Opening a Cabin. The second piece could have been made by a great or terrible artist; but the first betrays Picasso’s oft-hidden genius. A great God could create a universe with things inferior to Himself. A lousy god couldn’t create a universe with things greater than himself (since that would violate our second rule).

If we want to go deeper into metaphysics, evil is a privation, a sort of metaphysical parasite on good, without any ontological existence of its own. Also (and this is clearer if you’re willing to look at revelation), God isn’t the cause of evil, which is why Christians and Jews ascribe the existence of moral evil to man’s turning away from the all-good God, not to any fault within God. So the objection is faulty in how it understands both evil and its relationship to the Creator.

Photo negative of the Shroud of Turin
Photo negative of the Shroud of Turin

III. The Best Way to Get to Know God

Thus far, we’ve looked at the way that human reason can arrive at sure knowledge of God’s existence, and come to know some things about Him. But there’s a limitation in all of this: we’re working from creation towards the Creator. If you’ll permit the analogy, we’re acting a bit like detectives at a crime scene. In the same way that a Sherlock Holmes or CSI type might conclude from the evidence left at the scene that the killer must have been left-handed, just under 6 feet tall, and a cat owner, we’ve found that the Creator of the universe is a personal and loving God greater than the whole universe. But at this point, we still don’t know God, just as the detective still doesn’t actually know the killer: we just know about God. And those aren’t the same thing.

To know God, something more than our effort is required. What’s required is for God to reveal Himself. Reason tells us that the God we’re describing is the type to reveal Himself, since He (a) loves us, (b) created us with a desire to know and love Him, and (c) is powerful enough to bring it about. But reason alone can’t tell us whether or not He actually did. Fortunately, history can answer that question.

 

Thank God, Jesus Christ — God Himself — entered into history. In the first century, He went around publicly (a) claiming Divinity for Himself while (b) proclaiming moral truths that even a great many non-believers (like Jefferson and Gandhi) recognize as a source of invaluable wisdom. Eventually, His enemies had enough of Him and (c) He was publicly tried, executed, and buried. Shortly thereafter, (d) He rose from the dead, a fact confirmed both by the Empty Tomb in which He was buried, and the testimony of several eyewitnesses who saw His risen [These eyewitnesses were cruelly tortured and executed, and yet not one of them recanted].

This evidence, taken together, points to a single conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth really was (and is) who He claims to be. That’s not a blind act of faith, but a reasonable assessment of the historical evidence: the full historical evidence, including writings written by both supporters and opponents of Christ’s. But all of this also brings us to a sort of “jumping off” point, because what’s needed here is an act of faith. We saw in Part I that it’s irrational to claim that God is completely unknowable, and in Part II that we can come to know certain (admittedly limited) things about God. But to get beyond this, to get to really know Him, you need to do what you would do with anyone else you want to get to know: have a conversation.

At a certain point, your answer won’t come in a book (or a blog post) about Him, but in dialogue with Him on your knees. Share with Him your doubts and struggles, express your love for Him, admit your faults and shortcomings, and embrace Him as your Lord. That’s not the end of the spiritual life, of course, but it’s a great way to start.

 

8 Comments

  1. My brother now Fr. Curtis Hecker introduced me to this site a few months ago. It is now one of my favorite apologetic sites. I love your posts and also reading the exchanges of those responding. Keep up the good work. God bless.

  2. As a former agnostic, I would have responded not that God is unknowable, but that it is unknowable that there is a God. This avoids the logical conundrum you disprove.

    However, what upon reflection really brought me to God was 1. knowledge of my sin and 2. coming to know this knowledge through the reflections of Christian writers and the Scripture itself.

    Ultimately, conviction of sin lays bear the reason why people reject God: they suppress truth in unrighteousness, because the wrath of God is revealed simply by looking at the creation.

    1. Signs says:
      October 30, 2015 at 8:13 pm
      Think about this for a moment: No proof of god=no god. There! I’ve just answered the question of god’s existence!

      Yes! Awesome! You just proved that God exists! Because proof of God is everywhere!

  3. this website is truly amazing i have to say. i have been a true catholic all my life and therefor i do not understand why agnostics do not believe. i don’t get why anyone doesnt. isn’t the point of faith alway to believe without seeing? god bless.

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