Is Belief in an Unknowable God Justified? is the question raised by James Hanley. It’s a good question. In fact, it is a really good one. And as a bit of icing on the cake, his post is well-constructed, easy to read, concise and precise. It’s nice to have it all in one place.
Behind his argument about the knowability, even the existence, of God is the host site’s historic libertarian heritage. On the site one will find regular posts that make an appeal to the rationalism and Deism of this nation’s Founding Fathers, including a strong emphasis on the enlightenment voices that influenced them. In this Deism is a God that is certainly aloof and perhaps unknowable.
The apparent unknowability of God appears not to be an absolute, even among the founders. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson made this statement regarding slavery:
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever ... I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.
Yet even in this Jefferson made not only an appeal to natural law but also to particulars relating to Christian history — the ending of slavery. Though his method was that of a rationalist (there is no appeal or quotation from the Bible) he was none the less willing to refer to the concept of heaven and God’s sense of justice. The combination of these, even within this modest section, allows us to see the desim of Jefferson as at least a somewhat Christianized desim.
We can also see his status as thus not completely knowable. God has apparently intervened into human history in the form of Jesus to make known things such as His heaven and His justice. Without an immanence there is not revelation, and thus God becomes, at least somewhat, knowable.
God’s knowability must be approached presuppositionally, as must all knowledge. Empiricism often leads to tautology, as Mr. Hanley notes succinctly:
But, the Christian responds, why are you focused solely on the material workings of the universe? Because, the rationalist replies, that’s all I can see. Aha, says the Christian, then you really are engaged in a tautology. How do we know it does not exist? Because we cannot observe it. Why can’t we observe it? Because it does not exist.There is an impasse. The believer in the supernatural and the believer in only the natural cannot operate in the same mode without violating the tautology, and a tautology cannot be violated.
I find this observation to be very astute, as well as a seldom unrecognized foundation for sound reason. Just as all presuppositions are inherently circular (without being viciously circular, as discussed by Roy Clouser in The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories, Revised Edition), so too does the dependence upon an evidential (empirical) approach lend to tautology. There is a step which some evidentialists often take in error, and which Mr. Hanley seems to be arguing against. As much as evidence may stack up to prove a position, the leap from the evidence to the presupposition is that tautology. Specifically, it is the repetition of the presupposition within the argument for the presupposition and amounts to something akin to a leap of faith. This represents a vicious circularity and his clarification of the concern is admirable.
More to the point of the post, though, is to examine the content. Is God unknowable? We might state it positively and examine the alternative: Is God knowable? That God is unknowable is the position of the deist as well as a certain type of agnostic atheist. It seems their general opinion that empirical reasoning is the rule and thus all is subject to that rule. So it follows from Protagoras and Des Cartes that we can discern all, principles attributable to the creation of our modern era.
The matter of knowability has its historical foundation. We look at the incarnation, the resurrection, God’s providential management of His creation, and so forth, as reasons for confidence — a level of certainty. But the belief does not stop there, for as Mr. Hanley pointed out, that would be a tautology. Instead there is the implicit presupposition that all of these are consistent with the God who claims to be behind it all. This is Christian presuppositionalism and has one of its foundations in the letter to the Hebrews (11:6):
And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
The end of presuppositionalism is not a false sense of certainty. Rather, it is the acceptance and ascent that the truths of the nature and character of God as expressed in the Bible and through God’s historic revelation. It is the evidential / univocal approach which leads to the uncertainty which Mr. Hanley notes:
But people act on the basis of belief in conditions of uncertainty all the time. Indeed humans could hardly act at all if they did not, given the inherent uncertainty of the future. No investments would be made, period, if people did not do so. Each individual act can be critiqued on the basis of uncertaintysome that succeed in fact should not have been risked, a prioriyet in the summation of all these acts we cannot criticize what is, essentially, a continual reliance on uncertain belief, i.e., faith.
This type of faith is that leap of tautology which was noted earlier, and it this type of faith that the Christian must reject. This is not to say that a Christian cannot practice this type of faith, but rather that this approach is inadequate to developing that full and rich relationship with God that He desires.
There is, after all, no real certainty in an empirical approach. For instance, the laws of Newton hold in our physical world. They hold rather well, that is, until one approached C, the speed of light. At that point the rules break down. In more practical terms, we might ask what happens in any laboratory experiment, as to whether or not it is certain. It may hold true under normal conditions of, say, wind and temperature. But a change to the environment changes the certainty of the experiment’s outcome. Similarly, any empirical approach to knowability falls short of certainty, and Mr. Hanley is absolutely correct in this.
Where the Christian sits is with a different sense of God’s existence. In the end, the Christian understands with God with a certainty equal to what the naturalist holds with respect to the natural universe. The certainty of each is identical; only the presuppositions differ. He is half-way when he says that “any justification of belief must be based solely on non-empirical grounds.” Perhaps the Holy Spirit will one day bring him the rest of the way.