Theists believe that the Universe was created, and is sustained, by an eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent and invisible God. Atheists, however, believe that the Universe was formed by accident and is sustained through the action of eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent and invisible principles known as the laws of nature. How different are these two apparently opposing views? Is there a God? If so, what does He or It want of us? It seems that in most cultures, people have felt a need to ask these questions, but this is not true of all cultures. Some religions claim that it is possible and important to know and give expression to truths about God, while other religions take the opposite view. The issue at stake is what theologians call the question of revelation. Is God's existence, nature and plan for the world revealed to humankind or not? The great Eastern religions generally answer 'no'. For Hindus and Buddhists God is the Great Unknown. In the East, religion is not a relationship to a personal being who is concerned with the human race, who seeks obedience and is approached by worship. Instead, it is seen as an attempt by the individual to gain, by his own efforts, an eternal peace, free from all distractions of human nature and the physical world. It is clear that such an attitude will not admit of any revelation of God, although it may well claim to reach through enlightenment, an ultimate truth. In most of the religions of the West, God is a personal reality who created the world, enters into a relationship with a person, has a purpose for him or her, and makes demands upon them. Adherents of these religions believe that it is possible for them to know God and to make at least some statements about Him, because in various ways he has revealed himself to them.
TWO TYPES OF REVELATION
Traditionally, knowledge of God is thought to arise in two ways; the ways of natural, or general, revelation, and the way of special revelation. Natural, or general, revelation is available to all of us and is arrived at by reason or through experience. Special revelation is knowledge which comes through a unique act of intervention by God which would not otherwise be available. When thinking in this way it is important to remember that these two forms of revelation overlap a good deal, and that the knowledge referred to is not all of the same kind. There are several different kinds of knowledge. We have factual knowledge - knowledge of facts that can be checked or verified. Scientific knowledge is normally of this type. We have knowledge of facts where the facts cannot be so easily checked and our knowledge seems to involve opinion and interpretation - much historical knowledge is of this type. We also have knowledge of people, as in our relationship with our friends. Here verifiable factual knowledge plays a surprisingly minor role, though we would say our knowledge of our friends was a fact. Arguments for natural revelation are based on two assumptions. It is assumed that just as an artist or workman leaves some trace of his character in his work, so God has left some trace of his character in his work - 'Creation'. More important, it is assumed that there is some affinity between God and Humanity. Humans are seen as being only second to God; human personality is seen as the nearest approach to the being of God and the best analogue of God (this is what the author of Genesis implies when he said God made Man in his image); and human intellect is assumed to be capable of recognizing the arguments used to show the existence of God, and capable of entertaining the idea of God. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle made these assumptions. Plato argued that all motion needs a mover; thus the fact that the heavenly bodies are seen to move indicates that there is some force operating on them either internally or externally. Aristotle however, believed that his 'Unmoved Mover' was a remote being, inaccessible to us. The classical expression of human thinking about natural revelation is found in the profoundly influential work of a 13th century Christian theologian and philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas drew many of his arguments from Aristotle. He argued that we cannot have direct knowledge of God, for we can only have direct knowledge of things through our senses, but that we can know about God through his effects. To show this he worked out five famous 'proofs' for the existence of God. Each attempts to begin from what is well known and proceed to God. From the fact of movement he argues for a first mover. Secondly, from the relationship of cause and effect he argues for a first cause. Thirdly, he notes that most things are contingent (they depend on something else for their existence) and argues that there must be one absolutely necessary thing. Fourthly, from the fact that we recognize various degrees of perfection he argues for the existence of one perfect being from whom we have our ideas of perfection. Finally, from the evidence of design in the world he argues that there must be a designer.
Aquinas realized that at best, his arguments could only point to the existence of God; they cannot tell us anything about Him.
WHO IS THE UNIVERSAL LAW-GIVER?
Most people experience some sense of duty to the way they behave. They feel they must, or at least should try and do what is morally right. It is true that different societies have different ideas of right and wrong, and that children learn the morals of their own society. Nevertheless, when all allowance has been made for such local and historical conventions, some people think it is still possible to talk about an experience of moral demand which is common to most people. The existence of such a feeling of obligation can be taken as an indication of a universal moral law, implying a law-giver.
St Paul's vision on the road to Damascus has been interpreted by sceptics as sunstroke or epilepsy. What is certain is that Paul changed his life as a result of the vision and the course of world history was altered. There has always been a strain of thought which has denied the validity of natural revelation and claimed that Man can only really know God through God's own direct intervention. When the Hebrew wise man asked, 'Canst thou by searching find out God?' (Job 11:7) he cleary expected the answer, 'No.' For Judaism, God is chiefly known through his acts in the history of Israel. A small and politically insignificant nation fell into slavery in Egypt. Suddenly there appeared a remarkable man, Moses, convinced that he had been commissioned by God to lead them out into another land and another life, a life founded on a covenant relationship with God and characterized by gratitude and obedience to Him. God is shown to be merciful, long-suffering and above all, just. However, it is made clear that he would not be known at all if he did not choose to reveal Himself through his acts and give, through the prophets, and interpretation of these acts. The name of God in the Old Testament - YAHWEH - came be translated: 'I will be whom I choose to be.' (In Judaism, the name 'Yahweh' is regarded as too sacred to be spoken, and is replaced instead by 'Adonai', meaning 'my lord', when the letters representing 'Yahweh' are read aloud in religious ceremonies.) Even then he is not revealed at all, but only to those who seek him and to whom he chooses to reveal himself.
THE FULLEST REVELATION
In Jesus, the Christians claim, God was fully present in human personality. Jesus showed by his example and teaching the character of God, and by his death showed the extent of God's love in bearing the judgement for Man's sins. His resurrection showed God's power over death. Not everyone who witnessed events of the human ministry of Jesus - nor everybody who has heard it since - recognized him as anything more than a teacher. The fuller understanding of Jesus as the incarnation of God and the saviour of the world only comes, Christians proclaim, when God gives a deeper spiritual perception to those willing to receive it. For the Atheist, the universal laws of nature are blind, unconscious and uncreative; they cannot entirely account for the creativity in human life or in the evolutionary process. The Universe is seen as fundamentally inanimate, devoid of soul or spirit - or in other words, dead. By contrast, for the believer in God, the ultimate reality is conscious, creative and alive. The laws of nature share some of the properties of God, because God is the source of these laws. Atheists usually maintain that their view is simpler and more scientific than the theist view; they regard God as an unnecessary hypothesis. Although, at first sight, this theory has a certain plausability, on further reflection it turns out to raise more difficulties than it solves. First, if matter is regarded as inanimate, governed only by blind laws and chance, there is no place in the system for consciousness. Even the consciousness of the atheist himself has to be regarded as nothing other than a kind of shadow of electrical and chemical changes inside his brain; this shadowy consciousness cannot actually do anything, or influence his actions - these are merely determined by a combination of the laws of physics and chemistry and random events over which he has no control. This view is so much at variance with our experience of ourselves as creatures that can exercise free choice that to take it seriously requires deep faith in the atheist philosophy. Second, the atheist view holds that both the evolutionary process and the Universe are as a whole without purpose or meaning. Again, only the most committed atheist seems to be able to take this gloomy view seriously, since it can only render his own life and theories quite pointless. Thirdly, there is the problem of the nature of the laws of nature the laws on which scientific atheism depends. What are these laws? As we have seen, they are supposedly universal, changeless and omnipresent, as well as being immaterial. In fact, they sound more like cosmic ideas than material things. And they can be known only as ideas, through scientific theories and mathematical formulae. In the final analysis, it is through these laws that the atheist has to try to account for his consciousness. And this is a difficult task. These are some of the problems raised by the atheist philosophy. Although the laws of nature play such an important part in it, this theory is not itself scientific. It can never be proved. It can be accepted only by and act of faith. These particular difficulties do not arise if we suppose instead that the Universe arises from the creative activity of what we might call God. For if God is the conscious source of the Universe, and also contains the Universe, the laws of nature could be seen rather like ideas in the mind of God. Moreover, this theory suggests that consciousness is present within the Universe - thus making it possible for consciousness to be transferred to living beings arising in the course of the evolutionary process. Indeed, one purpose of this process could be seen as the emergence of consciousness within the created world, and the development of this consciousness to the point at which it can recognise itself and participate in its divine source. Proponents of this theory believe that this point is reached in Man. If this view is correct, then the consciousness that dwells in Man is the same as the consciousness of God - and it should be possible to experience directly that this is so. Mystics in all religious traditions have testified that this is indeed the case. This direct revelation or enlightenment lies at the heart of all religions; it is this vision of the prophets, seers, enlightened ones, sages and saints that connects religious traditions with their divine sources. Thus, the existence of God is more than a philosophical theory; it is supported by the deepest experience of men and women throughout the ages. One of the classical statements about the nature of God's existence was made by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) in his Dialogues on Natural Religion :
Look around the world and contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it nothing to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance - of human design, thought, wisdom and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble, and that the Author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.