“From my second year till my eighth year I believed in Sinterklaas. (1) After that came a period of doubt and denial which lasted twenty years. Now I have returned to a full belief in Sinterklaas. This about-face was caused by a girl, seven years old, who asked me bluntly: ‘Did you also see that it was Uncle John who played Sinterklaas?’ I concluded that there was no point in denying this and realized that the girl had “lost” her belief in Sinterklaas. So, I said ‘Yes, it was Uncle John.’ Thinking that the girl would be sad and had hoped that I would say that it was not Uncle John; the opposite happened. She said cheerfully: ‘And at the same time it was definitely Sinterklaas!’ This way of thinking via two parallel positions which never touch each other brought me back to my real belief in Sinterklaas. The double track of real faith.” (Godfried Bomans, December, 1964. Translated from the original Dutch.)
When speaking of God and the atheist (see Thoughts to Ponder 738 and TTP 741), we argued that utilizing reason is not the way to understand the nature of faith. Reason is too limited to break through to the world of belief. Let us explore this a little more.
Reason has an inherent tendency to interpret religious belief based on the model of empirical, accurate evidence.
Empirical evidence is of consequence when two people disagree about a matter of fact and a clear method for determining the reality. Imagine a dispute as to where a particular object is to be found or the relevant method or evidence that is required for achieving this. Accurate evidence will settle the dispute.
In deciding whether the parrot in my neighbors’ tree is mine, observing the feathers, eye and ear markings will supply sufficient indication as to whether it is my parrot. Should this parrot possess identical features to my parrot, I have good reason to believe that it is my parrot that has escaped. Indeed, this is even truer when speaking about the sun rising and setting. There is empirical evidence that this happens every day.
Empirical evidence is not always entirely “watertight”, however it indicates high probability and is the basis of most of science and other branches of human knowledge.
If we dispute a historical fact, then similar principles apply. Should we dispute whether Winston Churchill was buried in the courtyard of St Martin's Church, Bladon, England, we know what sort of evidence will be relevant. There may be eye-witness testimony, medical or other official documents available. Today we can even use DNA tests to unearth the truth.
We most often encounter the term “belief” when dealing with such empirical facts and ones like them. We “believe” this is our parrot; we “believe” that Churchill is buried in the courtyard of St Martin's Church; we “believe” that the sun will rise and set daily.
Thus, we are accustomed to discuss religious beliefs and to attempt to assess their veracity in a similar way. We demand the sorts of proofs and techniques that we utilize in the context of empirical investigation and clarification.
This is the reason that when a religious person states that she or he believes in God’s existence, we expect proof as in the empirical model, as we would implement regarding the parrot, Churchill, and the sun etc. This leads to a lot of confusion – of which some of the most important secular and religious thinkers are guilty (see Faith & Reason, Stephen Mulhall, Duckworth, Britain, 1994, chapters 1 and 2).
When such empirical evidence is not to be found, some people will presume that God does not exist or they will become doubtful as to His existence. For this reason, the “proofs” of God’s existence (for example, the cosmological and teleological arguments) often used by religious thinkers fall short, and are often demolished by thinkers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. These proofs may be good, reasonable philosophical arguments to believe the claims regarding God to be true – however, they are not empirical. Here, the term “belief” has a totally different meaning.
When speaking of a proof for our belief in God’s existence we cannot turn to the same investigation as in the case of my parrot or Churchill’s burial place – because if God exists, He cannot, by His very nature, be subjected to empirical evidence, as we shall try to explain. Consequently, it is a different “belief” we are looking for. If we are not aware of this, serious confusion results.
All of us in the West have been educated and conditioned into a specific manner of thinking. This is how we think, and it can actually hinder us when looking for God. We presume this manner of thinking or attaining knowledge is the only way; it is not.
The Western way of thinking consistently moves us via a specific channel that, from its very beginning, limits its very possibilities of investigation to that we can know and experience.
And as such, this mode of thinking may become inadequate; it moves outside the box of its own limitations and base claims.
What is the reason for this?
It is in many ways the fault of the human language. Human language is not only how we communicate but it also determines what we can think of and what is “unthinkable.” The latter is the result of the fact that language has given us only so many words. It is not that our thoughts determine what we express in words, rather, language, our words, control what we can think. If the word does not exist, we cannot think it.
In an outstanding article by Tzi Freedman (2) he offers a very good explanation. Our language is orientated toward “things”. He calls it “thing fixation”. It is the result of language turning everything into objects. Even thinking itself is an object – we relate to it as if we can determine its precise nature. This is the result of years of “drawing pictures” of even those matters with no real image. Since it is most difficult to think about them without creating an image in our minds, portray them in various fashions and ultimately transform them into objects. However, we cannot see “thinking”, “feelings”, “sadness”, or “happiness.” We can only observe the results they cause, for example, facial expressions.
These are not “Das Ding An Sich”, “The thing itself.” They are invisible. In fact, it has been argued that there are no ‘observable’ objects. Every scientist will tell us that nothing is static. Everything is in a constant state of flow and that when we see something it is an instantaneous exposure. When we take the object apart, we become aware that it is in a state of flow and does not “exist” as a static reality.
And here is the confusion. When we speak about God, we imagine there is a “thing” called God. We place Him in the category of “things” because we do this with everything else. But nobody has seen God. There was never a moment in which God appeared as a “thing”, only be revealed not as a “thing” but rather a state of spiritual “flow”.
This was the huge mistake of the Israelites when they built the Golden Calf. This was an attempt to concretize God in the world of things that backfired. God is not even a wave. Even the expressions “God IS”, or “God EXISTS ” are already things of fixation. No language or word truly captures or represents “is” and “exist” in relationship to God. This is why we are not even allowed to pronounce the 4 letter Hebrew name for God – it is unpronounceable. It has no external verbality. It consists of four Hebrew letters, however since letters are merely things, they cannot represent the truth about God. And we are not allowed to lie when it comes to God. (3)
Thus, when believers or atheists discuss the existence of God they speak about “something” which does not “exist” nor does it not “not exist”. Both the believers and atheists are guilty of speech void of any content.
Empirical evidence only applies to things; since things do not even really “exist”, we find ourselves in a fixational condition. This is particularly acute with regard to God, Who never appears in the form of a thing.
“For God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us” (Martin Buber).
We can never speak about God, we can only speak to God.
Theists and atheists disputing the existence of God speak gibberish. Both speak nothing more than the double track of real faith, as mentioned by Godfried Bomans.
(1) Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas and is one of the of the sources of the popular Christmas icon of Santa Claus. The feast is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on St. Nicholas' Eve (5 December) in the Netherlands.
(2) What is G-d? The Not Thing, Tzvi Freedman, Cbad. Org. See also my articles, Thoughts to Ponder 625, ‘The Great Paradox, The Non Existence of God and the Need to Serve Him’; Thoughts to Ponder 671, ‘The Religious Value of Doubt’; Thoughts to Ponder 715, ‘God as an Idol: The Tragedy of Being Religious’; Thoughts to Ponder 721, ‘A Short Introduction to God’ (all available on www.cardozoacademy.org/).
(3) It is indeed difficult to understand how the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, was allowed to pronounce this name in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Perhaps the answer is that the Holy of Holies within the Temple could never have been a “thing”. It did not have any measurements and was beyond time and space. And so, the Name of God was not even pronounced by the High Priest, rather through thundering silence (see Bava Batra 99a for a discussion of this).