Only God Knows

This book isn’t, thank God, another book about the proofs for God’s existence, but a search, at once historical and personal, for the God that lives in proofs.

By Robert BolgerNovember 9, 2013

    God in Proof by Nathan Schneider. University of California Press. 272 pages.

    PEOPLE BELIEVE IN GOD for many reasons, some of them simplistic, others superstitious, but some existentially vital. Someone may, for instance, find the thought of their own death intolerable and turn to belief in God to quell their anxiety. Others, like the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, may simply be in awe of the “starry sky above and the moral law within.” And there are probably many who are simply born with a faith that flows, so to speak, as naturally from their DNA as their curly hair or their cholesterol count. In a story that may be apocryphal, but I suspect true, the late Yale philosopher Paul Holmer was once asked how he, a professional philosopher, could believe in Christianity. He replied, “Because my mother told me.”

    There is not only a certain sweetness to faith that is linked inextricably to the joys and vicissitudes of human life; this is also how we would expect faith to be. Whether we call religious beliefs mere wish fulfillment, psychological projection of our desires, or longing for the divine, it seems natural to expect that our reasons for believing in God be intimately connected to who we are, what we fear, and what we long for. Faith is a fickle thing. It is formed, nurtured, and grows — and sometimes gets extinguished — yet one thing is certain: it isn’t something that grabs us by the throat and demands acceptance in the same manner as the Pythagorean theorem or Newton’s laws of motion. Faith is not a matter of science. Or is it?

    In a culture that worships scientific progress, we often act as if acquiring faith is something of an intellectual transaction: the proof is presented, we process it rationally, and, voilà, belief sprouts forth from the fertile ground of a well-functioning mind. As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, philosophers “constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does.” This, for better or worse, has been the fate of the proofs for God’s existence. We aren’t usually drawn to the truths of science because we fear death; science is too hard-nosed and rigorous for such subjectivity. “Scientific” proofs for faith, then, are taken to be at their finest when they are separated from the whims, fears, and desires of human existence. Nothing less than the intellect’s best work is acceptable if our faith is to be given recognition in a culture that tends toward worshiping at the altar of science.

    In his recent book, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, Nathan Schneider recognizes the strangeness of the proofs for faith, which are ripped from human life:

    The proofs show up in textbook after textbook, torn away from the flesh from which they came. They’re taught, argued about, and forgotten, sometimes saving a person’s particular faith, sometimes eroding it, and usually neither. There’s no surer way of knowing than proof, by definition, and it’s hard to imagine any more enticing knowledge than that of a God. Still, the world goes on in disagreement, in belief and unbelieving, with so many forms of each.

    This is not an insignificant point. If proofs for God don’t work like “proofs” in general do, then they are either not proofs at all or function in a really unique, even queer way. It is the latter suggestion that God in Proof seeks to present and defend. In a sense, the book offers a “grammar” of proofs; that is, a way of showing their meaning without diminishing their importance. God in Proof aims at bringing proofs back home and covering their nakedness with the garb of human flesh. Schneider breathes life back into proofs, the life they once had in the heady days before “knowledge” became synonymous with “scientific knowledge.”

    Schneider tips his hand a bit with the title God in Proof. This isn’t, thank God, another book about the proofs for God’s existence, but rather a search, at once historical and personal, for the God that lives in proofs. The reversal — from proof for God to God in proof — is both linguistically nifty and philosophically important. It isn’t that the proofs for God lead us to God, but rather that God may be found — or may be shrouded — in the language of proofs. People see God in different settings. Some see God in song, others in nature, and others still in humanity as a whole. Schneider, in searching for his God, finds it revealed in the souls who historically sought out proofs for what they believed in. But this is getting ahead of the game.


    If I had any desire to present another niche-fulfilling book review that plugs in the necessities (pros and cons) and flashes the proverbial “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down,” it would go something like this:

    In God in Proof, Nathan Schneider offers an entertaining, well written, and historically comprehensive account of the philosophical and religious business of presenting proofs for God’s existence (and sometimes nonexistence). His is a frenetic dash through the history of philosophy of religion and theology that leaves little out (except, as he admits, the voices of women). Part intellectual biography, part history of philosophy, and part autobiographical spiritual-quest narrative, God in Proof moves fluently and easily from ancient Greece to the internet age, looking at those who have tried to argue for their belief in God. Schneider allots appearances to the usual suspects in any Western philosophy of religion book (Plato, Augustine, Anselm, Descartes, Kant, and Hume), but particularly insightful are the chapters on Islamic proofs, the contemporary philosophical reinvigoration of theism, and the attempt (mainly by evangelicals) to make proofs utterly scientific and semi-hip. By weaving in his own search for God and meaning with other pilgrims, the author creates a seamless story that is both personal and at times profound. This is a book that would serve as an effective introduction to philosophy of religion, but more importantly one that would benefit anyone on a search for meaning.

    This captures the basics of God in Proof, but misses what’s important in it. A book on proofs that extricates their meaning from the human stain (to borrow from Philip Roth) would miss their meaning altogether. It isn’t from the separate, dead parts that this book derives its charm; Schneider reassembles the corpse and brings life back to the thought. If one wanted a mainly philosophical book on the proofs for and against the existence of God, there are better places to go: Richard Swineburne’s The Existence of God or J. L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, for example. If it’s an intellectual-religious biography that one wants, then Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo or Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza is hard to beat. And if it is spiritual autobiography that tickles your fancy, you can’t go wrong with Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. All these in isolation may tell you little about the function and meaning of religious proofs. It is only when Schneider brings together interesting snippets of biographical history and his own spiritual longings together with a presentation of the theistic proofs that one gets something akin to literary alchemy. The sum becomes greater than its parts as Schneider weaves his personal story into the fiber of others’ stories.

    As God in Proof progresses we get a philosophical reflection on philosophy itself, a “philosophy of proofs” of sorts. What exactly would such a philosophy entail? God in Proof gives us one way of answering this question. In chapter three, devoted in large part to Saint Anselm’s ontological proof, Schneider writes:

    That’s a heavy word, assent. It’s a bit like “belief” but thicker, more demanding. It’s social and volitional. Assent is what belief looks like in the flesh­­ — the intertwining of person and proposition, when the two become inseparable.

    Compare this with Wittgenstein’s statement that

    Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life.

    Assenting to a proof for God is similar; it is couched in the language of rationality — it argues for the existence of something. Yet, as I hint at in my own book, Kneeling at the Altar of Science, the impetus behind accepting a religious proof as valid comes from a person’s gut (or soul) and not merely from her mind. The proofs are only meaningful for certain people; whether they mean anything has more to do with what we bring to the proofs rather than what the proofs brings to us. Isn’t this odd? It certainly is because it is odd to say that proofs “prove” only if we are in a position to see them as proofs. But the oddity disappears when we realize that this is actually what we mean by “proof” in a religious context. Schneider writes, “Assent, like this, is a convergence — a meeting of circumstances, choices, and the best of one’s knowledge.” This is why at the end of the book Schneider can say: “The proofs can be explained and taught and respected from a distance, yet still there remains the fact that you either grok it or you don’t, and that’s that.”

    A philosophy of proofs shows us the link between believing that a proof leads us to God and the fact that we are looking for God in the first place. This also explains why Schneider’s description of the lives of philosophers jibes so well with his own spiritual quest. They are kindred souls with something important in common: a desire to know the unknowable that resides in the language of a religious proof.

    But this leads to another radical claim, namely, that the truth of a religious proof cannot be known except by those who accept it. This is an important point to make since it lets us see that searching for God is not simply searching for some thing among others, a being among other beings, or a creature that is strong and powerful but lives far away. If God could be found at the end of a logical proof, then finding God would be like finding a solution to a math problem or surmising a previously unknown planet by the laws of physics. It is only in the failure of the religious proofs to function in the way other proofs do that we learn something about the meaning of the word “God.” Schneider ends God in Proof by noting that the proofs are

    sometimes a comfort, sometimes a wrenching anxiety, and yet all I am really saying is that they are, quite astonishingly, exactly what they claim to be: a way of knowing something about what it is we mean by God. Whatever good that does anybody lies in the details.

    It is in the work of detailing that God in Proof shines. Einstein once famously said that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” If there was a way to summarize the philosophy of proofs presented in God in Proof, one may say that religious proofs without a religious life are lame, a religious life without religious proofs is, well, still a religious life. Or, we may simply say that Schenider has given us a means of clearly seeing the intimate relationship between a religious way of being in the world and the expression of this life in the rational language of proofs. And, of course, a song, a prayer, or simple acts of kindness often work just as well.


    Robert Bolger is the author of Kneeling at the Altar of Science: The Mistaken Path of Contemporary Religious Scientism (Pickwick Press, 2012). 

    LARB Contributor

    Robert Bolger received his MA from Union Theological Seminary and his PhD from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Kneeling at the Altar of Science: The Mistaken Path of Contemporary Religious Scientism (Pickwick Press, 2012) and co-editor (with Scott Korb) of the forthcoming Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy (Continuum Press, 2014). He lives and teaches near Seattle.


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