One of the problems people have with religion today is that they don’t know what to make of the word “God.”
In a sense they’re right to be puzzled. Our concept of God is our concept of the most basic thing there is. It’s a concept of something beyond all concepts. That’s why Aquinas says that in this life we are unable to see God in his essence, and Paul says that “now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Cor. 13:12). It’s why negative theology, which procedes by saying what God is not, is an essential part of Christian thought.
The uniqueness of the concept of God, and the difficulties it raises, is also why Descartes said he could not understand how it had ever entered our minds. He concluded that since in fact we did have the concept of a perfect being, without the experience of perfection, it must have been put there by God Himself. That conclusion was important for him, because it gave him a way out of the hole he had dug for himself through his method of universal doubt that seemingly left him nothing to rely on. If God exists, and is all-good and all-powerful, he wouldn’t give us thoughts and perceptions without making them a reliable means of knowledge. Therefore, Descartes thought, he could accept the evidence of his senses and go about his social and scientific business in confidence and good philosophical conscience.
Still, if Descartes hadn’t inherited such a sensitive philosophical conscience from his medieval predecessors he could have developed the line of thought in another direction, one that dispensed with the need for divine intervention to make knowledge possible. He could have accepted our perceptions and reason as the best evidence for truth, without reference to any further validation, found God unintelligible as beyond reason and perception, and declined to think about Him.
That line of thought has mostly won out, because it’s simpler than the view Descartes actually held. As a result, there’s no place for God in the way educated people are now trained to think about things. What’s real is the world of physics, and the world of our feelings and sensations. Both are just somehow splatted into existence for no particular reason, and anything beyond them is at best a poetic fiction and at worst rhetorical cover for the will to power. So when people mention God today what comes to mind is something that belongs to the things they recognize as real: He is either a figurative way of talking about what we feel is important and how we’d like things to be, or He’s a Great Big Thing somewhere, who wants us to do this or that and will beat us up if we don’t.
Neither conception has much religious, philosophical or human interest, except possibly as a stopgap. What’s needed, then, in religion as in other things, is to overcome modernity and accept the existence of a richer world than modernity permits, one in which being has a Source and divine purpose is a necessary category for understanding how things are. The modern view is that we and everything else have simply been thrown into the world. It’s not clear why anyone would think that’s so. Why is pointlessness the default assumption? If it is, how do we ever go beyond it? In other words, why don’t the people who claim to think that way just shut up? We can’t help but try to make sense of things, and to do so is to assume that things make sense. Without that belief everything becomes arbitrary, and reasonableness becomes indistinguishable from craziness. Thought can’t even get started. What’s rational or believable about that? But to accept the order and intelligibility of things, understood as good and therefore in some manner integrated into a system of implicit purposes, is in essence to believe in God.