For several years I have been teaching a philosophy course at St John’s University entitled “The Problem of God.”
I would have preferred the title “The Mystery of God,” but that was not available because it is the title of a course in the theology department and a rule of the University is that titles cannot be duplicated.
Teaching the course has been a wonderful educational experience for me. It has helped me to reflect as deeply as I can on the mystery of God.
Even views of God that I think are erroneous have challenged me, and I hope the students, too, reflect more deeply on what we think about God. Though it is not a theology course and having religious faith is not a prerequisite to take the course, I believe a course that is completely centered on the meaning and mystery of God can be a blessing in someone’s life. It certainly has been in mine.
I have divided the course into three sections. The first section is devoted to traditional proofs for the existence of God contained in the philosophy of thinkers like St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas.
The second section is devoted to the thought of influential nineteenth and twentieth century atheists such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Paul Sartre.
The third section of the course deals with some contemporary philosophical thinking about the existence of God. It is fascinating to me that studying the atheists has helped me in my own thinking about God.
I have not become an atheist but I have come to believe that all the atheists the students and I study in the course were correct to reject the God they rejected. Every atheist rejected not a God who is love but a God who in one way or another was an obstacle to the growth of human persons.
In his book What Is God? How to Think about the Divine (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, pp. 143, $14.95) John Haught discusses how all of us are trying to make our life stories more beautiful. He writes the following:
“Beauty, therefore, has what philosophers call a ‘transcendental’ nature. This means that ‘the beautiful’ is not any particular thing, but instead is a metaphysical aspect of all things.(Being, truth, unity, goodness and beauty are the ‘transcendentals’ usually mentioned by metaphysicians.)For this reason alone we may suspect that we cannot casually disassociate any possible encounter with beauty from the experience of the divine, which is said to be the supreme exemplification of the ‘transcendentals.’
“We experience beauty in nature, in the physical appearance or personalities of others, in great architecture, art, music, poetry and other types of literature.
“But one of the most intense instances of aesthetic experience lies in the spectacle of an heroic story. Since such stories involve the narrative patterning of struggle, suffering, conflicts, and contradictions into a complex unity, they stand out as one of the most obvious examples of beauty.”(p. 73)
The transcendentals remind us that everything that God creates bears some resemblance to God. Every being that God creates is beautiful. God cannot create any reality that is not beautiful and good.
The first line of the poem “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. comes to mind: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Reflecting on that, we ought to increase and improve our being, our goodness and the truth in our lives. To do that is to make us more like God. The saints have incorporated beauty and truth in their lives. In various ways all the lives of the saints are heroic stories. Of course the greatest heroic story is the story of Jesus.
Because we don’t see the future clearly, every free choice is a risk. As I am typing these words, a statement made by the priest who taught me dogmatic theology back in the 1950’s, who I think was a genius, has come to mind.
His name was Martin Healy. I recall him saying that we should not be afraid to take risks. I wonder what he was thinking. I suspect he was willing to take risks because of his faith in the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. No erroneous decision we make, no bad choice we make, even to choose sin, is ever the final word about us. There are no mistakes or errors or sins that cannot be redeemed.
How much truth and beauty and goodness can we incorporate into our lives?
I think the sky is the limit. In other words there is no limit. If we remind ourselves that our choices are aided by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, it seems that the only proper outlook on the future, even in a pandemic, is one animated by trust and hope.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.