Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Faith Matters Lecture 1: the existence of God

I went yesterday evening to Wesminster Cathedral (the Cathedral hall, to be exact) for the first in the series of lectures entitled Faith Matters. This was quite interesting in a number of ways.

Without any deliberate foresight, I ended up sat next to a Christian Brother, from their community in Twickenham. It turned out he had attended, as a pupil, a school called St Joseph's College, Blackpool. The school does not exist any more, having been incorporated into what was known as St Mary's RC High School, but now appears to be St Mary's Catholic College. The school website shows almost no indication of the Christian Brothers at all, so I am not linking to it. I attended the school some twenty years later than him. Small world.

The lecture was by Dr Peter Vardy, of Heythrop College. Dr Vardy's slides can be found from the home page of the lecture series. Points of interest:

1. It was interesting to see modern science at the centre of the discussion of the existence of God. A problem with discussing science in this sort of context is that you can end up using a kind of watered down or "populist" science. I would have liked, for example, to have seen some advertance to the work of Stanley Jaki, who is particularly acute when it comes to looking at the significance of science for philosophy and religious belief. A thoroughly post-modern outlook would lack the faith in science that is necessary if science is to be discussed as a key component in answering the question about God, so it is quite significant that it did not seem out of place to be holding such a discussion.

2. It would be wrong to say that a reference to metaphysics (ie the philosophical study of what is means for things to be) was absent from the lecture. On the other hand, a more explicit advertance to metaphysics would have cast Dr Vardy's references to St Thomas "five ways" in a rather different light. It would also have allowed a notion of analogy some play, too.

3. Slide 51 contains the apparently contradictory statements that God's existence cannot be proven, but that God's existence provides a very persuasive ultimate explanation of the world that we know. "Not proofs, but very good pointers" is Dr Vardy's phrase with regard to proofs of the existence of God. What might have been looked for here, instead of the generalised reference to religious experience (in an individualised way) as a pointer toward's God's existence, is a reference to a rather more rigorous phenomenology of religion. It is quite right to say that a "proof" of the existence of God may not convince someone; but if a "proof" is correct, it still remains, in the order of truth or of being, a "proof". The idea of analogy has something to contribute at this point, as has a phenomenology of religious faith, in enabling us to understand how the person comes or does not come to believe in the existence of God when faced with the arguments for his existence.

4. I must admit to having been left with a latent sense of unease at the willingness of Dr Vardy to so "no" in answer to the question as to whether the existence of God can be proven. But this willingness on his part has a double aspect. One aspect refers to the substantiveness of the argument itself, while the other refers to the receptiveness of the person to the force of the argument (the proof that may be correct, but does not convince the individual), and you are never quite sure which aspect a statement like Dr Vardy's refers to most. The philosophical method of realist phenomenology, with its openness to "the things in themselves", appears to me to provide a way of understanding "proofs" in their genuine rigour as "proofs" whilst at the same time recognising in its understanding of the nature of faith itself that not all will be "convinced" by the proofs. I feel that there was a potential here that was only hinted at in the lecture (see slide 53) and which could have been developed much further.

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