It is not a novel observation that an increasing number of people cannot accept belief in God. There is a danger in responding to this simplistically, with a siege mentality or a distortion of belief, entered into with the best of intentions with the aim of communicating that belief effectively, but having the effect of rendering its object further from understanding. So, for instance, the way in which people are invited to consider belief in God is often as an object in the universe, albeit a uniquely important one, specifically a person – in the same sense that you and I are persons – or perhaps three people , for whose existence evidence can be accumulated in the same fashion that one would for a scientific hypothesis and with whom one can have a friendly, personal relationship much as one might with any other person.
This, it should be said, is not what I mean when I use the word ‘God’, nor is it what the classical Catholic tradition means, nor for that matter what the great Jewish tradition which gave us most of our scriptures meant. God is, for those traditions, the creator; and whatever else that might mean (for we cannot in this life know what it means) it rules out the account in the previous paragraph. To say that God is not a hypothesis for which one might assess evidence in much the same way as physicists did for the Higgs boson does not mean that we cannot reason about God, or even that we cannot come to know that God exists by purely rational means. It is, however, the case that the process by which we come to this position leaves us in no doubt that we what God is lies beyond our power to grasp. God is not, like the Higgs boson, hard to understand. It belongs, rather, to the nature of God and to the nature of understanding that we cannot understand God. (Or, more precisely, we cannot as created beings understand God: the Christian hope is that we will come to share in God’s self-understanding in the life of the Trinity).
Belief in God, when that phrase is used in a context of Christian faith is not simply a matter of believing that God exists. It is an attitude of trust and response to God’s loving approach to us in Christ. This doesn’t mean, however, that believing in God is separable from belief that God exists. We might, of course, in fact believe that God exists because of our experience of God’s approach to us in love (Aquinas reminds us that we can believe by faith claims that we would have believed on the basis of reason alone). Still, it is non-negotiable that the existence of God is a necessary basis for the edifice of Christian faith: it may sound odd to state this explicitly, but some strands in liberal Protestant theology have in fact denied this (we can believe in God, these people say, in the same sense that I believe in socialism – not accepting it as a presently existing reality, but as a project for life. I think this confuses belief in God with belief in Christianity.) More subtly, and I think more relevantly in our current situation, it is belief in God that Christian faith requires not belief in some postulate which we choose to call ‘God’, but which if it existed (which it can’t, because there are no gods) couldn’t be the creator.
Misunderstanding belief in God is, I am convinced, a major barrier to Christian faith. Having a little evolutionary biology or cosmology people quite rightly reject the notion of a celestial manufacturer. With a helping of life experience, or Freud or Nietzsche (perhaps even both), under their belts, people correctly refuse to accept that there is a divine headmaster dispensing codes of conduct and so upholding the moral order. Alternatively, they might think that God is supposed to be a moral person himself, and so see the amount of suffering in the world as ample reason not to believe that he exists. Sadly, they might notice the number of religious people who think that they can chat to God as I could talk to you, and on a perfectly correct understanding of how people communicate with one another (involving things like language, sound waves, and light hitting the retina) denounce the view as superstition. In all of these things, the contemporary mindset is not only correct, but in line with the biblical critique of idolatry. It’s just that all of this leaves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob untouched.
And we need to get better at communicating that.