Is God an old man’s tale?

Charles Murray has an interview at the Gene Expression weblog in which he mentions that he has been an agnostic since his teens but is growing more and more inclined to thoughts of God as he grows older. His case is common enough to be worth comment. Why is it that once men pass adolescence they get more religious as time goes by?

So far as I can tell, it’s not a sign of incipient senility. Murray still seems vigorous enough intellectually, and ditto for the adult reverts and converts to Catholicism I’ve known. I’ll let others decide whether my own status as a recent convert makes me more or less able to discuss this issue intelligently. Still, if I’m allowed to put aside my own possible precocious senile dementia, and say how things seem to me, I’d say that as we get older we rely less on close analysis of specifics and more on recognition of general patterns. In Pascal’s terms, we rely more on the intuitive and less on the mathematical mind. More particularly, we rely on our experience of the world in general to fill us in on the nature and implications of the specific situations we deal with.

We become religious as we get older for the same reason we become conservative—less for specific articulable reasons than because of a strong sense that it suits how the world really is as revealed to us by the whole of our experience. As we get older we feel more of a need for broad systematic coherence, so that the way things are in general can say something about particulars. From that perspective, the intellectual point of the concept of God is that it gives the world the greatest possible systematic coherence: it allows us to understand it, understand why it can be understood, and even know something of its purpose and orientation. Seeing things as systematic (as older people do) and seeing a pervasive systematizing principle (like God) are obviously closely related.

The thought behind most of Aquinas’s ways of proving God’s existence is that there can’t be an infinite series of explanations, whether the explanation is efficient cause, source of motion, or degree of perfection. Instead, all explanations must somehow end in some final explanation with special properties that fit it to serve as such. That line of thought seems true to our understanding of things. To give an explanation that has infinitely many steps is to give no explanation at all. To avoid such a result, and therefore make the world comprehensible from our point of view, requires something that serves as a super-explanation—that is, something very like God.

People think that such a line of thought is a sort of feel-good argument based on obfuscation and a demand that the world be cozy and comforting. It’s not, though. Rather, it’s an exploration of what’s needed ultimately for us to see our own thought as comprehensible, and therefore the conditions that must obtain for thought to be rational.

9 thoughts on “Is God an old man’s tale?”

  1. Charles Murray
    I find struggles of this type by Murray (and others) to be the struggle of the Cartesian nominalist to make sense of a world of unrelated objects, and the participation of that subject within that “world.” It’s the subjective idealist groping for reference points, all the while alienated from his own subjectivity.

    The struggle is therefore limited to a particular intellectual class, deprived by training, education, and professional incentives of a theophonous understanding of existence (Voegelin says such people are trapped within a “pneumopathological state,” which, characteristic of a decadent civilization, is regarded as normal). Unlike Murray, most resort not to a theophonous understanding, which is taboo, but to an understanding grounded in power, which becomes the unitary principle; such power can sometimes be projected into phemonema, creating the basis for scientism.

    You said:

    “The point of the concept of God, as a purely intellectual matter, is that it gives the world the greatest possible systematic coherence: it allows us to understand it, understand why it can be understood, and even know something of its purpose and orientation. Seeing things as systematic (as older people do) and seeing a pervasive systematizing principle (like God) are obviously closely related.”

    Sounds suspiciously Hegelian. In response, I’ll quote Kierkegaard: “A logical system is possible; but an existential system is impossible.” A more complete discussion is found in SK’s Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

    • Interesting points
      My basic view is that all roads lead to Rome. Start with any way of viewing things and try to live and work with it and you’ll have to develop and modify it to make it less inadequate. That process can go on without limit.

      With that in mind I agree that the particular issues I discuss here apply mostly to people stuck in one particular kind of hole in which a lot of educated people now find themselves. I would add that the “point of the concept of God” I mention isn’t the universal point of that concept but only the one relevant to a particular line of thought that I believe to be important right now.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. Thomistic or Augustinian
    In his survey of Christian thought, Tillich distinguished between the Thomists and the Augustinians. Murray, and the more general development of a concept of God from experience, is Thomist. A theonomous approach to existence—God at the center of everything—would be Augustinian (or ontological). Adopting this general distinction, a Cartesian is much more likely to take a Thomist approach to the divine question.

    This is a central distinction in Christian thought, and I think Tillich’s description of it is particularly good—and I hasten to add, whatever approach an individual or school takes on this question, they are all Christian.

    The link: []

    This is a short excerpt from a long discussion of this divide in Christian thought during the Middle Ages, and which still persists:

    “The conclusion, therefore, with which I want to deal first is the question of knowledge. The whole movement of Augustinianism and Aristotelianism must be understood from here. The question was: Is our knowledge a participation in the Divine knowledge of the world and of Himself, or must we, in the opposite way, recognize God by approaching the world from outside? Is God the last or the first in our knowledge? The Augustinians answered: the knowledge of God precedes any other knowledge, it is the first one, we must start with it. In ourselves we have the principles of truth. God is the presupposition even of the question of God, as He is the presupposition of every question for truth. He is, says Bonaventura, the Franciscan Augustinian leader of that time, in the 13th century, “most truly present to the soul and immediately knowable.” The principles of truth are the Divine or the eternal light within us. We start with them. We start with our knowledge of God and we go from there to the world, using the principles of the Divine light which are in us. This Divine light or these principles are the universal categories, especially the so-called “transcendentalia” those things which transcend everything special and given: being, the true, the good, the one: these are ultimate concepts; we have immediate knowledge of them, and this knowledge is the Divine light in our soul. Only on the basis of this immediate knowledge about the ultimate principles of reality can we find truth in the empirical world. In every act of knowledge these principles are present. Whenever we say “something is so,” whenever we make a logical judgment about something, the ideas of the true, of the good, of being itself, are present; or, as Bonaventura says, “being itself is what first appears in the intellect,” and being itself is the basic statement about God. This means: every act of cognition, every cognitive act, is made in the power of the Divine light, Of this Divine light, of these principles in us, the Franciscans said that it is uncreated; we participate in it. This makes that somehow no secular knowledge exists. All knowledge is in some way rooted in the knowledge of the Divine in us. There is a point of identity in our soul, and this point precedes every special act of knowledge. Or I could describe it in the following way: Every act of knowledge – about animals, plants, bodies, astronomy, mathematics – is implicitly religious. A mathematical proposition as well as a medical discovery is implicitly religious because it is possible only. in the power of these ultimate principles which are the uncreated Divine light in the human soul. This is the famous doctrine of the inner light, which was also used by the sectarian movements and by all mystics during the Middle Ages and the Reformation period, and which finally underlies even the rationalism of the period of the Enlightenment. They all are philosophers of the inner light, even if this Divine light later on became cut off from its Divine ground.

    “That is what the Franciscans tried to maintain in spite of the fact that they also had to use Aristotelian concepts such as form and matter, and potentiality and actuality. So we have here in the Augustinian-Franciscan development, from Augustine to Bonaventura, a philosophy which is implicitly religionist or theonomous, in which the Divine is not a matter of conclusions but is a matter of preceding every conclusion, making conclusions possible. It is the philosophy of religion – perhaps some of you have seen in the Union Review a few years ago, when I wrote an article about “The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion” – this is the one type I called it at that time the ontological type; I can also call it the mystical type, or the type of immediacy. I would also like to call it the theonomous type, in which the Divine precedes the secular.

    “The opposite type is the Thomistic. Thomas Aquinas cuts the immediate presence of God in the act of knowing. He denies it. He also says of course, that God is the first in Himself, but he says God is not the first for us. Our knowledge cannot start with God – although everything starts with Him – but our knowledge must reach Him by starting with His effects: the finite world. So we must start with the Divine effects and conclude from there to the cause. In other words, man is separated from being itse1f, from truth itse1f, and from the good itse1f. Of course Thomas could not deny that these principles are in the structure of man’s intellect, but he calls them created light and not uncreated light. They are not the Divine presence in us, so to speak, but they are works of God in us; they are finite. In other words, in having an act of knowledge, we do not have God, but with these principles we can find God. It is not that we start with the Divine principles in us and then discover the finite world, as in the Franciscans; but it is that we start with the finite world and then perhaps are able to find God, in acts of cognition, of knowledge.

    “Now against this Thomistic theory the Franciscans said that this method, which of course must start in a good Aristotelian way – with sense experience – is good for scientia (for “science” in the largest sense of the word) but that this method destroys sapientia, wisdom. Sapientia means the knowledge of the ultimate principles; this means the knowledge of God. One of Bonaventura’s followers made this prophetic statement, that in the moment in which you follow the Aristotelian-Thomistic method and start with the external world, then you will lose the principles. You will win the external world – he agreed with that; he knew empirical knowledge can be won only in this way – but something is lost: sapientia , the wisdom which is able to grasp intuitively, within oneself, the ultimate principles. Thomas answered that the knowledge of God, as every knowledge, must start with sense experience and must reach God on this basis in terms of rational conclusions, which are derived from the sense experience.

    “This is the fundamental discussion. Here the two types diverge, and they have been divergent ever since, in the Western world. This divergency is the great problem of all philosophy of religion, and, as I will show now, is the ultimate cause for the secularization of the Western world – of course, in the cognitive realm; there are other causes, too. In the cognitive realm this is the cause, that here the Aristotelian method is put against the Augustinian, and slowly from Thomas Aquinas the method of starting with the external world prevailed.”

    • Sequels
      The Augustinian/Thomist divide continues to persist in our contemporary secular philosophy. The heirs of the Thomists are the Cartesian nominalists, our positivist, analytic philosphers, the descendants of Kant—the mainstream. They claim knowledge is the consequence of experience (the senses), and practice a rational empiricism.

      In competition with the analytic philosophers are what I would call, for lack of a better term, the Heideggerians (our secular Augustinians). They place emphasis on “being,” or more particularly our “being in the world,” and our a priori intuitive grasp of our own being and our temporality. They claim knowledge is not a matter of empirical investigation, but rather an event in our participation in the world.

      Both schools are agnostic, or affirmatively atheist. But, they are hostile to each other, which is interesting.

    • T & A (Thomism and Augustinism)
      Thanks for the quote.

      I’m a total waffler who tries to agree with everyone. I suppose my excuse is Blake’s “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.”

      Anyway, it seems to me that in the modern age a lot of people, especially those who want to give credit to what other people think, have to start off in a Thomistic way. Then eventually after doing what’s possible by that method and rising to whatever knowledge of God is available through the analogy of being they can realize that there are limitations to the method that make it ultimately unsatisfactory and flip over to the Augustinian POV.

      Wasn’t that Thomas’s own experience? (I’m thinking of his “so much straw” comment on his own writings.) For that matter one prepares for Plato’s vision of the Good in Republic vii through various this-worldly investigations but there’s a sort of leap and change of orientation involved too. It’s not as if the science of the good is continuous with gymnastic, military science, mathematics and whatnot.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Rationalism
        As the modern world loses confidence in the rational—and in all epistemology generally—the theonomous POV serves to ground the rational. The rational would be in crisis in the West, with or without any theological implications or antecedents.

        Rational knowledge, grounded in a theonomous POV, need not fret about an infinite regress. We can have confidence in it as part of the order of being.

        Aquinas didn’t fret about these complications, because of his time and place, and his own implicit faith. But, they seem topical now.

        But these are certainly interesting considerations, shedding some light on how moderns think (and how things came to be that way).

        Didn’t John Paul II issue an encyclical on just these issues?

          • Garver
            That was excellent. I wish I had said that, although we have all captured bits and pieces of it, here and there.

            One minor point: I have always thought, in general, that Luther and Descartes represent, in different ways, a radical reaction to an overwhelming anxiety brought on by nominalism.

            As for Duns Scotus, I reference the Tillich piece I linked to above. Tillich says Duns Scotus is the “turning point in the history of Western thought,” whose thinking represents the foundation of positivism, the surrender to the “given” (i.e., the empirical), leading to fatalism, fideism, and nihilism. (Just an aside: Heidegger did his dissertation on Duns Scotus, which is interesting, to say the least).

            Here’s what Tillich says about Duns Scotus, in part:

            “The threatening absolute power of God behind the ordered power may change everything. Duns Scotus didn’t believe that this would happen, but it can happen. (Ed. Luther quakes).

            “Now what does such an idea mean? It means that we have to accept the given, that we cannot deduce it, that we have to be humble toward reality. We cannot deduce the world or the process of salvation in terms of, for instance, with Anselm’s doctrine of atonement, where he tried to deduce in terms of necessity the way of salvation between God and Christ, and man. Duns Scotus would say there is no such necessity; this is a positive order of God. Now here in this idea of the absolute power of God we have the root of all positivism, in science as well as in politics, in religion as well as in psychology. In the moment in which God became “will”, who is only determined by Himself and His own will, and not by the intellect – in this moment the world became incalculable, uncertain, unsafe, (Ed. Luther and Descartes, again) and we are demanded to subject ourselves to what is given. All the dangers of positivism are rooted in this concept of Duns Scotus. And so I consider him, more than anybody else, the turning point in the history of Western thought.”

  3. Holism

    I’d say that as we get older we rely less on close analysis of specifics and more on recognition of general patterns.

    When we are young, we take life as a linear course for granted. As time goes on, the wider range of possibility opens up. We then need to find some grounding that linear thought and deconstruction cannot give us, and we are frustrated by the lack of our science in explaining much of anything beyond details. Even more, the world more resembles the mind the more one probes the connections between causes and effects, and ultimate causes. In my view, at this point most intelligent people arrive at a vision of God as a detached creator in perfect contemplation, having set the machine in motion and now letting it decide its own future. If nothing else, this makes the struggle of “good” versus “evil” more intense, since it is our choice (without expectation of reward) to struggle toward what we believe is good.


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