If we don’t know exactly what we are saying when we say ‘God exists’, does this mean we don’t know God? Is he outside of possible knowledge? Should we doubt his existence because we cannot know him?
The words we use to describe God do not contain their normal everyday meanings, as when we say that God is good. We use borrowed words to describe God. We dress God up verbally in second-hand clothes that don’t fit him very well. And we must always guard ourselves from thinking that these “clothes” reveal who and what he is. Our words are stretched beyond their normal meanings. We cast forth verbally in a kind linguistic expedition, always reaching for, but are never quite able to obtain, God. Even the word ‘God’ was borrowed from the pagans. They were always talking about gods; but when Christians use it, they do not mean that God is a god. They do not mean that he is a god among others. He is not an instance of the kind ‘god’. The Christians stretched the word beyond its pagan use to get what they have today.
To say that ‘God exists’ is not to say that we have figured him out, but to claim a need to carry on a certain activity, to assert the necessity to engage in exploration. It is the need to ask a certain question about the world. To prove that this certain activity is valid, is like trying to prove that science is valid or that learning is valid. Let me demonstrate.
Let’s say that little 5-year-old Rachael is sitting with some older children when she hears one say, “That dress looks absolutely magnificent!” Rachael has never heard the word magnificent before, but she is captured by it and wonders what it means. She thinks about it as she heads home from school, and as she walks in the door, her mother hands her a beautiful new jacket. She puts it on and exclaims, “Thanks, Mom. This jacket is magnificent!” Does she know what she’s saying? No. Has she used the word correctly? Yes. Do we say that her use of the word is invalid because she does not know what she’s saying? No. For we know good and well what the word means and that she has used it correctly. The point is that she is learning. And that is how we all learn at the beginning. We are given words by our parents from the day we are born: words like Mama and Daddy. And we use them not really knowing what we are saying, but growing into that knowledge as we mature. Our borrowed words drive us to the meanings we do not yet know. These borrowed words, if we honestly reflect about them, constitute a kind of knowledge. They are a reference to a world that, as yet, we do not know. They give us a knowledgeable framework with which to deal with the world while, at the same time, highlighting our ignorance.
It is just this sort of knowledgeable framework that Christians have when we use the word ‘God.’ We do not know what exactly we are saying, but we do know there is a need to say it. There is a need because some radical questions still need asking. And let me stress that these are childish questions, not because they are stupid questions, but because they are the sorts of questions children ask naturally. Adults tend to be annoyed by childish questions. It’s the incessant ‘why’ question asked one too many times. ‘Why was I born?’ ‘Yes, but why was I born instead of someone else?’ ‘Yes, but why is it that way?’ ‘Yes, but how were we made?’ ‘Yes, but why was anything made?’ Adults had answers a few questions ago, but now our child has asked ‘why’ again and we have no answer. When they get older, they learn to put the question another way, “Why anything at all instead of nothing?” Adults would rather that children stick with their studies and learn adult questions; questions that can be answered by proper methodologies and by reference to the material world. And much schooling nowadays does a good job of choking the ‘why’ out of the kids who are told they need to start living in the real world.
A society that discourages this kind of radical questioning is a society which believes in itself; believes it has found the answers, believes that only its authorized questions are legitimate. But, of course, the scientific answers it has found is precisely due to this kind of radical questioning. It’s due to those who asked, for instance, whether the Newtonian world was really the last word. They dug down and asked questions of what everyone else took for granted. They claimed a need for research and exploration. They believed that they could make startling new discoveries and affect quite unexpected changes in the scientific world; and they did.
And this is precisely parallel to asserting your belief in God. It is a belief in the kind of radical question to which God would be the answer. And how do we show that the question is valid? It’s by pointing to anomalies; not anomalies in science, but anomalies in a world picture that excludes God. It is an anomaly, for instance, to say that while it is valid to ask ‘How come’ about any particular thing in the world, it is not valid to ask it about the world as a whole. ‘How come anything at all instead of nothing?’ Being puzzled over this question is to be puzzled about God. To say that we aren’t allowed to ask it simply because we cannot answer it is rather like the annoyed adult silencing his inquisitive child. The adult silences the child because he has no answer and would rather not deal with an uncomfortable question.
The modern arguments for God’s existence serve as a sort of reinforcement of this radical question simply because they point to anomalies in the world. Apologists question whether what they are told is the last word on the subject. It is not to say that, if their arguments succeed, that we now know something concrete about God. It is to state that we are here and ask ‘Why.’ ‘Why is there a creation? There must be a Creator.’ Like what the word magnificent was to Rachael, the world itself is our knowledgeable framework that guides us to God. In a sense, the world poses our question for us. It does not grow tired of ‘Why’, but instills in us the curiosity to ask it.
(I owe many of my thoughts to Herbert McCabe)