Godtalk: Atheism and Belief


A man with a torch walking alongside a cart of plague victims

God's ways are not our ways! God cannot be captured in our thoughts or pictured inside our imagination. God is so different from anything we can know or imagine that all of our concepts and language about God are always more inadequate than adequate. God can be known, but never imagined or captured in a thought, because God is infinite and our minds are finite.

Infinity cannot be defined.  For example,  if we try to imagine the highest number possible,  we immediately realise that this is an impossible task because numbers are infinite and there is always one more. It is impossible to conceive of a highest number.

This is even truer in terms of any imaginative picture we try to form of God and of how we try to imagine God's existence. God is infinite and infinity cannot be captured or imagined in finite thought.

This is important for our understanding of faith. We tend to identify a weak faith with a weak imagination, just as we tend to identify atheism with the incapacity to imagine the existence of God.

Take two different scenarios in our life, for example: In the first instance, we have just experienced a religious high. Through prayer or some other religious or human experience, we have a strong, imaginative sense of God's reality. At that moment, we feel sure of God's existence and have a firm sense that God is real. Our faith feels strong.

Then imagine a different moment: We are lying in bed, restless, agitated by some current problem, unable to imagine the existence of God, and unable to think of ourself as having faith. Try as we might, we cannot conjure up any feeling that God exists. We think we must be an atheist.

Does this mean that in one instance we have a strong faith and in the other our faith is weak? No. What it means is that in one instance we have a strong imagination and in the other our imagination is weak.

Faith in God is not to be confused with the capacity or incapacity to imagine God's existence. Infinity cannot be circumscribed by the imagination. God can be known, but not pictured. God can be experienced, but not imagined.

The ‘God’ that atheists reject is often an idol of their imagination. Most of our contemporaries refuse to  believe  that there exists ‘a person without a body who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything,  and is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.’

If, however, by ‘God’ we mean the mystery, announced in Christ, breathing all things out of nothing into peace, then all things have to do with God in every aspect of our being, whether we notice this and suppose it to be so or not. Atheism, if it means deciding not to have anything to do with God, is thus self-contradictory.

When the prophet, Isaiah, glimpsed God in a vision, all he could do was stammer ‘Holy, holy, holy! Holy is the Lord God of hosts!’ But we misunderstand his meaning if we take ‘holy’ in its moral sense, that is, as virtue. Isaiah meant the word as referring to God's transcendence, God's otherness, God's difference from us. Isaiah is saying in effect, ‘How completely different, how utterly ineffable, is the Lord God !’

Accepting that all of our thoughts and ideas of God are inadequate helps us in two ways: We stop identifying our faith with our imagination,  we stop creating God in our own image and likeness.  And remember that  Christ shows us what God is like and what we can be with his help.

Peter Knott SJ