Books by professional philosophers, and Christian apologists who argue for God and basic faith, are legion. But Nathan Schneider’s God in Proof is neither an argument for God or against him, at least in the normal way we think about this question. This is an honest account of a young man who became a Christian under most unlikely circumstances and then sought to find evidence to support his conversion. The end result has been a journey, an interesting and important one to the way I understand the questions and the millennial generation both.
Yesterday I gave you an account of Nathan Schneider’s initial experience that drove him to seek for theistic proofs. It is, to say the least, a strange and wonderful sort of story. Listen again to him as he describes what he did after he had this enlightening encounter:
I didn’t tell anyone about this strange, problematic unsatisfying thought then, not would I know what to say if I had. But the germ of a proof was in me, where, treasure-like–a blueprint for my own Tower of babel. Dissatisfaction urged me on. Every once in a while I’d try again to spell it out and get a little further, and then get frustrated. Did it make sense, or not? Was it valid as logic, or even as a description of experience? I still can’t say. Perhaps this book, a decade later, is one more attempt to be done with it (ix-x).
But many Christians, and other religious and non-religious thinkers, will object to the word proof here. Schneider correctly defends his use of this word choice when he says the Latin root is probare, “which has to do with testing something to see if it’s any good. It used to be more common to speak about proving as a kind of experience, something one has to go through and even suffer–as in, to prove oneself. Proving it meant becoming, or growing” (x).
Just as lawyers look for proof in evidence so there is an experience that we can call a proof. To expect that a proof can be absolute or mathematical is a form of argument but it sets the standard above anything we can expect of proof. Quoting from the Oxford Dictionary (1933) we read that a proof is “That which makes good or proves a statement; evidence sufficient (or contributing) to establish a fact or produce belief in the certainty of something” (xi).
With each proof comes growth, new thought, better ways of saying something you desire to communicate well.
Schneider shows, in his early chapters, how some ancient philosophers (e.g. Plato) believed that could set society right, and even improve life, with proofs of the gods. Later brilliant men (always men until the last few decades) like Descartes and Leibniz would intend their proofs to heal the schism caused by the Protestant Reformation. Schneider tells of a man who believed that he could help to bring healing to the Middle East “through proofs of divine beauty in nature” (xii).
In the process of life experience and research young Schneider not only studied the arguments for God but visited with the modern proponents of many of these arguments, both for and against God. He attended classes with my Wheaton College classmate (1971) William Lane Craig and then sat down with his arch-nemesis, Richard Dawkins. He concludes, rightly I am persuaded: “They’re all our to rejigger the world and themselves and us in the process” (xii).
So the question is rather simple but the answer takes 230 pages to unfold: How can some people believe so strongly and sincerely that they can prove the existence of God while others are so convinced that they can disprove him? To put this another way, “How did ancient arguments transform into an outgrowth of the culture wars” (xii)? For me the question raised is this: “Why is it that for some of us everything depends on these proofs, while for others they’re completely beside the point” (xii)? I fit the second part of Schneider’s question and I’ve taught apologetics, or the defense of the faith before intellectual objections, for several decades.
The amazing fact is this – some of the same arguments that have saved some people’s faith have destroyed the faith of others. Perhaps the arguments are not nearly as important as we think. I confess I am of this persuasion though I still believe we should be able to “give a reasonable defense” of what we believe to all who ask us.