Belief in God’s existence is not just a leap of faith; it is a reasonable conclusion which anyone is capable of reaching. The obstacles to belief, however, can be more serious in one age than another.
Last month we mourned the passing of a great businessman. Fred Bass, who took over the Strand Book Store from his father in 1956, established the shop as one of New York’s distinguishing features: not as famous as the Guggenheim or the Empire State, but to the book-lover more inexhaustible than either. On a visit to the city last week, I wandered the Strand’s corridors, and dragged a stepladder along the shelves in order to reach a volume which—in one of those moments that Amazon cannot deliver—I had no idea existed but had to buy when I saw it. And I thought of Fred Bass and his achievement against the odds. Two sad details in the Economist’s fine obituary were a throwaway reference to “what had once been the Book District,” and a mention that the Strand had survived where fifty others had gone under.
There are still a good handful of bookshops in the East Village, just as there are still a few survivors on Charing Cross Road in London. But both have been substantially colonized by cafés and fast food and sandwich shops. Opposite the Strand is a newish Pret a Manger. The chain used to struggle in New York but is fast expanding. Perhaps one day the Pret sandwich-box will be as ubiquitous in the wealthier U.S. cities as in British ones, and the global village will get a little more monotonous.
A book is a weighty thing which gathers weight: something to be lived with, handled, smelt, carried around, accidentally torn or soaked, written in, loaned and sometimes even returned. Over time it acquires new meanings: A snap purchase can become deeply embarrassing or one of the most precious things one owns. The Strand, with its “18 miles of books” towering over Broadway, defies the regime under which we live, which favors the consumable and the replaceable over the solid and the mysterious. In the United Kingdom, this regime has triumphed over the lunch eaten in company: We now wolf down sandwiches with one hand while staring at a lightweight, ever-changing screen. In the age of the smartphone and the baguette, all that is solid really does melt into air. The phrase “liquid modernity” is often used, but it can feel more like evaporating modernity.
All this is a common enough complaint. Less frequently considered is how it might affect our ability to grasp traditional metaphysical arguments—the kind of arguments defended in Edward Feser’s recent book Five Proofs of the Existence of God. These proofs rest on logical connections, but they also depend on slowing down, on being provoked to wonder about the things around us.
Take Feser’s first chapter, on the argument which Aristotle handed on to his successors. I will not attempt to rehash every stage in what is already a heroically condensed account. But the shape of the argument is easily described. Everything which changes—coffee going cold, a leaf falling—is changed by something else. The coffee has the potential to be cold; that potential is “actualized” by the cold air. “Change,” Feser writes, “requires a changer.”
Further, some chains of “actualization” point to an “unactualized actualizer.” A fly is changed from alive to dead because it is hit with a fly swatter . . . because the fly swatter’s potential is actualized by my wrist . . . because my wrist’s potential is actualized by the muscles in my arm . . . because my muscles’ potential is actualized by particular nerve-endings . . . and so on.
Since even to exist requires that a potential be actualized—the potential to exist—any existing thing depends on a similar chain: Each thing actualizes another’s potential existence. That sequence cannot be infinite, and so at the far end of the chain there must be something which is not “potentially” anything—an “unactualized actualizer.” And this is the traditional description of God.
Of course, all this needs to be substantially fleshed out and defended over many pages, and Feser does just that with the Aristotelian argument and a few others. But it is not necessary to follow these arguments through every step in order to see how everyday reality might point toward the creator. In Fr. Ronald Knox’s words, “there exists among mankind a sort of rough, commonsense metaphysic which demands as its first postulate the existence of a divine principle in things.” Those who cannot trade syllogisms with the philosophers can still conclude, as John Wayne reputedly did, “There must be some higher power, or how does all this stuff work?”
But the starting point of such reflections is, usually, a perception of the reality of a thing and a desire to understand it better. Someone looks at a cup of coffee, cooling on the table, and is provoked to ask that “Why?” which leads all the way back to God.
The unanswered question is how the “Why?” presents itself in today's context. Perhaps we are too distracted by technological illusions to think of God. But maybe the oppressive unreality of evaporating modernity can prompt the mind to seek for something more enduring. Preachers have always made much of the transience of this passing world. They have rarely had a better time to make their case.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.