(Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)
Archbishop Alban Goodier, S.J.
If it did not much matter whether man believed in God or not, there can be little doubt that many more would acknowledge their belief in Him than actually do. If men could be allowed to accept God and still live exactly as they pleased, if they could treat Him as a power who belonged to a quite different sphere and had no concern with this world, or as a friendly neighbour, or an acquaintance, or a distant relation, who looked to his own affairs and left us free to look after ours, then it is not improbable that the proofs and signs of His existence would be received with less questioning and opposition; indeed, there is scarcely a man who lays claim to common sense, and is not the victim of his own violent mind, but acknowledges at least a Supreme Being somewhat of this nature. When the old paganism had outgrown its many gods, and had settled down to a life of self-indulgence, it still accepted the belief in a God who cared little or nothing for mankind; and the modern paganism, impatient of all interference from without, believes in much the same way, and in the same way buries its God behind a cloud. Is there a priest, with any experience of so-called unbelievers, but has again and again heard this profession of faith: "I believe in Something Supreme"; to which, however, this corollary has been added or implied: "Who is no concern of mine"?
But it is precisely because an explicit act of faith in God cannot stop at that and be done with it, that to many it comes so much against the grain. If we say positively that God is, there follow no end of consequences; consequences by no means congenial to the man who wishes and intends to manage his life according to his own sweet will. So that, rather than commit itself by making this first admission, rather than allow itself to be convicted of falsehood or inconsistency, human nature instinctively prefers to make no admission at all, or to set the question aside and to substitute others in its stead. To make no admission, to assume an attitude of doubt, to say one has not been able finally to decide, is the commonest and easiest course; for this a man can do with an abundant show of reason - nay, more, with an abundant show of honesty. He can appeal to a sense of duty, and declare that his life is too full to allow him time and opportunity to arrive at a final conclusion about God; he can be diffident and humble, and say that he is too dull of understanding, too lacking in technical training, to attempt so intricate a problem; he can claim to be broadminded and unbiased, and therefore, to avoid over-emphasis, to appreciate too keenly the gropings of other minds to be sternly dogmatic himself; or he may be studious, learned, a hard reader, and maintain that the doubts of greater minds than his own justify his own hesitation, while the almost infinite succession of blunders on this point in past ages justifies his disbelief in a definite solution, justifies even his leaving the question altogether alone. In countless ways, when driven to speak, the man who says he doubts the fact of God can make out a good defence; yet more often he prefers to say nothing, but to let the question die unanswered.
For, as a matter of fact, men know that there are other proofs of truth than those of argument; upon argument alone men accept very little, by it they do not even arrange their lives. In their hearts, they know that to deny God outright, no matter with what show of reason, is merely foolish. Where the most a man can claim is ignorance, it is foolish positively to deny; there is no greater folly than to argue from one's ignorance of a thing to the conclusion that the thing is not. But common sense does not stop there; not only does it prove downright atheism to be no more than arrogant folly, but it also compels other admissions. The man who confesses his own ignorance implicitly confesses that others may know better than himself. The man who acknowledges that he never gives the matter a thought must also acknowledge that others who do may probably have reached conclusions that he has not. Common sense makes him suspect that, in that case, they are more likely to be right; while his common instincts instantly drive him to act on the assumption that God is, and that he matters to God, and that God matters to him. At many a sudden turn in his life, his very human nature betrays him into acting as one who believes, even while he affects not to care, and the man who did not he would despise as one who had debased his manhood.
This is no place for theological discussion. We have no need here even to summarize the proofs of the fact of God. We are addressing those who know; though, in any case, to very few people indeed does the fact of God depend upon proof, as the word is commonly understood. To most it is a "certainty greater than reason"; on that account are men and women willing to die for it, who would not die for the conclusion of a syllogism. One has only to sit back and watch human nature, at all times, under all circumstances, in every condition of life, either writhing and resisting under the intolerable burden of God, or gladly accepting Him and finding Him a yoke that is sweet and a burden that is light, we shall then realize how great a confession of the fact of God is human life itself. Man is too terribly conscious of God for God not to be or not to matter. However independent and self-governed he may be, he cannot leave God alone. He can scarcely act without the wonder coming to him as to what that Other One may think; he cannot follow his own likes or dislikes as he wills, simply because Something else says he must not. Whichever way he turns, God confronts him; even if he looks into his heart, he finds Him there; if he leaves God aside, he knows he does so by convention, not by conviction. So it has always been; this, at least, evolution has not mended, and so he knows it always will be, whatever evolution may say.
In face of this fact, as has just been said, man is driven to one of two attitudes. "He who is not with Me is against Me." He may indeed claim a third position, he may claim to follow a middle course; but to pass God by is to refuse Him. Either man finds God an intolerable burden, and does all he can to shake Him off; or he believes that the burden is a blessing, that truth, rightly understood, cannot be tyrannical or cruel, accepts God, and has a happy heart as his reward. One man chooses what he sees, blinds himself to what he does not, makes for himself a working creed, a working code of moral action, a conventional understanding of life, based on the assumption that this world is all there is, and that no other concerns him. By signing that convention, by abiding to that code, he succeeds in hemming himself within a charmed circle, which may serve him as long as he lives, and which may hide from him for that length of time the weird visions that haunt the space without. But his security he knows to be unsound; his peace of mind is unreal, for he has not known the things that were to his peace, he cries for it and there is none. Another knows of no such charmed circle. He does not believe that life is made more true by any confinement of horizon. He is open to the truth from whatever side it may come; he believes life is deeper than convention, that this world is not all existence; he has more reverence for right and wrong than to think that it can be fixed, or sanctioned, or regulated, by any human code; as a vessel is most itself when out on the ocean rather than when cooped up in the stocks, so is the life of man most real when it lies and is tossed on the infinite ocean of God.
Such a man lets this life dictate to him the fact of God, and its evidence is overwhelming. He lets the fact of God be to him the key to life, and it solves every mystery; and, accepting the key, he accepts the consequences of its possession. If God is, God counts; if God counts, He counts for more than man, for more than all creation put together; if He counts for more than all this, then His mind must be considered, His will must be fulfilled, and the finding of that mind, the fulfilment of that will, somehow explains the riddle of the world. And if it explains that riddle, then it is also the secret of the happiness of life. Human nature may, at times, resent; it may long to shake off its harness, but it knows very well - and too often experience has confirmed the knowledge - that to live without God leads to death and to lasting fetters, even when the death of life has no more than cast its shadow over it.
The fear of the Lord is honour, and glory, and gladness, and a crown of joy. The fear of the Lord shall delight the heart, and shall give joy, and gladness, and length of days. With him that feareth the Lord, it shall be well in the latter end, and in the day of his death he shall be blessed. The love of God is honourable wisdom. (Ecclus. 1:11-14)