Proof of God’s Existence? Or the Experience of God’s Presence?

When I was a junior in high school I took a class on world literature.  We read many great novels, such as Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque, The Inferno by Dante, The Plague by Camus and others.  During lunch a classmate named Chris and I would meet in the school library to discuss the moral, philosophical and theological issues raised in these great books.  One day he asked me, ‚ÄúWhy are you always bring Jesus and the Bible into our discussions?‚Äù  A little stunned, I replied, ‚ÄúBecause I‚Äôm a Christian. Aren‚Äôt you?‚Äù ‚ÄúNo,‚Äù he answered.  ‚ÄúWell what are you then? Jewish, or some other religion?‚Äù I asked. ‚ÄúNo, my parents never took me to church. I guess I‚Äôm an atheist or an agnostic. I never really thought about it,‚Äù Chris replied. Then he asked me a question that stopped me cold: ‚ÄúWhy do you believe all that crap anyway?‚Äù

I don‚Äôt remember what I said to Chris that day, but I couldn‚Äôt get over his question. The only honest answer I could come up with was that I had been taught to believe in God. My parents, my grandparents, the ministers and Sunday school teachers in all the different churches I had attended, and even the culture of the Bible-Belt South had taught me to believe in Jesus Christ and call myself a Christian. But as a thoughtful adolescent trying to establish my individual identity, that answer wasn‚Äôt good enough for me.  So I asked myself, ‚ÄúWhy do I call myself a Christian? Do I really believe in God? Is there any proof of God‚Äôs existence?‚Äù It wasn‚Äôt that I didn‚Äôt want to believe in God, I did. It was just that believing because I had been taught to believe wasn‚Äôt good enough for me.

This led to a long internal struggle.  At night I would lie in bed and pray to God this way: ‚ÄúGod, I‚Äôm praying to you now, that is, if you exist. If you don‚Äôt exist, I guess I‚Äôm just thinking to myself. But that‚Äôs precisely what I want to know. Can you show me that you exist? I‚Äôve heard that there is no way to prove your existence, so I don‚Äôt exactly know how you‚Äôll prove your existence to me.  If you appeared to me as a burning bush like you did to Moses, I‚Äôd probably try to put you out before the house caught on fire. And if you sent an angel like you did to Mary, I‚Äôd probably check myself into the psycho ward. But I need to know for myself that you exist.‚Äù  I kept attending church, but in my heart I began to call myself an agnostic, even though I wanted desperately to believe.

Looking back over 40 years, I see this internal struggle as a very significant turning point in my spiritual journey, the point  when I began to make my faith my own. It‚Äôs so easy to just go through the motions of life, without examining the deeper questions, questions like ‚ÄúDoes God exist?‚Äù or ‚ÄúWhat is the meaning of my life?‚Äù Frederick Buechner very eloquently addresses why these deep questions pursue us.

If God really exists, why in heaven’s name does God not prove that he exists instead of leaving us here in our terrible uncertainty? Why does God not show his face so that at last a despairing world can have hope? At one time or another, everyone asks such a question. In some objectifiably verifiable and convincing way, we want God himself to demonstrate his own existence. Deep in our hearts, I suspect this is what all of us want, unbelievers as well as believers. And I have wondered sometimes what would happen if God were to do just that. What would happen if God did set about demonstrating his existence in some dramatic and irrefutable way?

Suppose, for instance, that God were to take the great, dim river of the Milky Way as we see it from down here flowing across the night sky and were to brighten it up a little and then rearrange it so that all of a sudden one night the world would step outside and look up at the heavens and see not the usual haphazard scattering of stars, but, written out in letters light years tall, the sentence: I REALLY EXIST, or GOD IS.  If I were going to try and write a story or a play about such an event, I would start, of course, with the first night that this great theological headline appeared there in the stars, with suns and moons to dot the i‚Äôs and the tails of comets to cross the t‚Äôs. And I would try to show some of the ways that I can imagine people might respond to it. I would show some of them sinking to their knees, not because they are especially religious people but just because it might seem somehow the only natural thing to do under the circumstances. They would perhaps do it without even thinking about it, just crumpling down on their knees there in the tall grass out behind the garage. Some of them I would show running back into their houses in terror at the stark and terrible simplicity of it‚Äîjust GOD IS written up there in the fire of the stars‚Äîand maybe in everyone some degree of terror at just thinking of the sheer and awesome vastness of the Unknown suddenly making itself known.

There would be a good many tears of regret, I suspect‚Äîpeople thinking that if only they had known it before, what different lives they might have had.  And in many a person the sudden, wild upsurge of hope‚Äîthe sick old man lying in bed where he cannot sleep and looking up through his bedroom window. On the table his clock ticktocks his time away, but there in the sky he sees proof at last of a reality beyond time. ‚Ķ.

What I would be trying to suggest in my story would be that the initial impact of God‚Äôs supplying the world with this kind of objective proof of his existence would be extraordinary. Churches would have to overflow into football stadiums and open fields, wars would stop, crime would stop, a kind of uncanny hush would fall over the world.  But as my story ended, I am afraid that in honesty I would have to suggest something else.

Several years would go by and God‚Äôs proof of himself would still be blazing away every night for all to read. In order to convince people that the message was not just some million-to-one freak of nature, I would be tempted to have God keep on rewriting it in different languages, sometimes accompanying it with bursts of pure color or with music so celestial that finally the last hardened skeptic would be convinced that God must indeed exist after all. Then the way that I would have it end might be this. I would have a child look up at the sky some night, just a plain, garden-variety child with perhaps a wad of bubble gum in his cheek. If this were to be a movie, I would have a close-up here of just the child‚Äôs eyes with the stars reflected in them, and I would have him spell out the message syllable by syllable. Let us say that this night it might happen to be in French ‚Äî J‚Äôexiste quand-m√™me. C‚Äôest moi, le bon Dieu.[1]  And deep in the heavens there would be the usual strains of sublime music. And then I would have the child turn to his father, or maybe, with the crazy courage of childhood, I would have him turn to God himself, and the words that I would have him speak would be words to make the angels gasp. ‚ÄúSo what if God exists?‚Äù he would say. ‚ÄúWhat difference does that make?‚Äù  And in the twinkling of an eye the message would fade away for good and the celestial music would be heard no more, or maybe they would continue for centuries to come, but it would no longer make any difference.

We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want‚Äîscientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all‚Äîwould not in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all. For what we all need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-to-day lives who may or may not be writing messages about himself in the stars but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world. It is not objective proof of God‚Äôs existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God‚Äôs presence. That is the miracle that we are really after. And that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.[2]

What are we really seeking from God? It‚Äôs hard to put into words. But I think Buechner comes closest when he says what we all want is the experience of God‚Äôs presence. When I was a teenager it never occurred to me to that God might rearrange the stars in the night sky to prove God‚Äôs existence. And I doubt that I would have believed it, even if God had done so. For several years after I went away to college I continued my running argument with God about God‚Äôs existence. One day, as I was walking across campus back to my dormitory, I told God I was tired of arguing about whether God existed or not. I said, ‚ÄúI‚Äôll make you a deal, God. If you will let my head keep on asking all the questions that my head constantly asks, BUT, you‚Äôll confirm in my heart that you exist, I‚Äôll take that as proof.‚Äù Now at the time I didn‚Äôt really understand the difference between my head and my heart. But as soon as I said that to God, I stopped struggling about whether or not God existed. The best way I can explain it is that something ‚Äúturned‚Äù in my heart. I gradually began to understand that my head is meant to ask questions, while my heart has another purpose.

Years later I found a quote by Rainer Rilke that helped me understand what happened that day. Rilke wrote: ‚ÄúHave patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don‚Äôt search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.‚Äù[3] That‚Äôs how God has worked and continues to work with me. Seeking God with my head, my intellect, only takes me so far, the rest of the journey has to be in my heart. 

For the past six years I have had a daily practice of Centering Prayer, which is a heart practice. It has become my primary way of pursuing a deeper connection with God. When I sit down to do Centering Prayer, I step back from my hyperactive thinking brain, which continually asks all sorts of questions, many of which are unanswerable.  And there, in the silence, I sense God‚Äôs presence. Through my prayer practice, I have come to know more and more who I am and what God‚Äôs will is for me. There in the silence God ‚Äúspeaks,‚Äù in God‚Äôs silent language, to my deepest need‚Äîmy need for the experience of God‚Äôs presence. And that makes all the difference!

The Rev. Hampton Deck
Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Vallejo, CA

[1] Translation: I still exist.  It‚Äôs me, the good God.

[2] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat,  ¬© 1966

[3] Ranier Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet, published in 1929.