John Paul II on the question of God

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope John Paul II continues his discussion of the question of God by examining whether “proof is still valid” and whether “God is hiding.” We find his distinctive concerns in each case. He notes that positivism, the extreme form of scientism born in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century, has become passe. It is one of the schools of suspicion that distances itself from the certitudes of common sense or from everyday experience. John Paul finds a more congenial approach in hermeneutics and/or a philosophy of dialogue. Ricouer, Levinas, Buber are the philosophers John Paul thinks start out from a position that is open to rediscovery of soul and God. Co-existence is more fundamental than an isolated cogito or an abstract “thinker.”

In Fides et ratio he said: “it must not be forgotten that reason too needs to be sustained in all its searching by trusting dialogue and sincere friendship. A climate of suspicion and distrust, which can beset speculative research, ignores the teaching of the ancient philosophers who proposed friendship as one of the most appropriate contexts for sound philosophical enquiry.” §33

So yes, proof is still valid, if we mean an expanded notion of “proof,” capable of honest interpretation, open to the range of human experience, and situated in the context of a community of inquiry and love of the truth. The positivists used their reduced notion of proof as a club with which to beat their interlocuters and with which they mangled the tradition of philosophy. Even Richard Rorty admits the embarassment of positivism as an episode in philosophy: “Most of us philosophy professors now look back on logical positivism with some embarrassment, as one looks back on one’s own loutishness as a teenager.” I am not sure that Rorty would measure up to a Buber or Levinas — but few would.

The next question he entertains is this — why is God hiding? I anticipated that John Paul II would seize upon this lead and engage in a Pascalian discourse on the problem of presumption — but he does not quite do this. In fact he says the charge that God is hiding is due in part to the very Cartesian rationalism that spawned positivism. It is as if we expect to “overcome the entire distance that separates creature from Creator.” We approach “He who is, an absolute uncreated mystery.” If he were not mystery, there would be no need for God to reveal Himself. But let us go right to John Paul II thundering point in this chapter — is God hiding? JP2 retorts — “he has gone as far as possible! He could not go further! In a certain sense God has gone too far.” How so? “The Father and I are one,” says the Lord. And he mounts the cross. — “A stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” It was too much, John Paul II says — and so the protests began.

What is the Pope saying in these chapters? Does God exist? Certainly – by faith and by reason, certainly. Is proof still relevant? After a fashion — in context. Who really wants to know? Who would rather deny? Protest? After the cross, or in front of the cross, the certitude is greatest, the relevance of proof the least. Leon Bloy said something to the effect that what we need today is not men who go to conferences and demonstrate the existence of God, but those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ in love. It is an unfair comparison, but true..

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