The New Age, and Other Options

In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece, who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which the truths of the faith were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his eighth letter:

Dear Krystal,

Finally, some good "push-back."

Over the last few months I have shared with you many of my own philosophical reflections and ramblings, all of which you have graciously received. But I know how bright you are, and I wondered if, all the while, some tough questions were brewing in your mind. Now I see they were!

Be assured that your questions are excellent ones (anyway, I expected nothing less from my brilliant niece, who is an honest seeker of the truth). I will do my best to respond to them. I wish I had a quick and easy answer for everything, but, alas, you are in dialogue with me, I'm afraid, and not with a Thomas Aquinas or an Albert Einstein!

I'll take your three main questions in the order that you sent them to me.

1) "Couldn't everything that you wrote to support the existence of a supernatural Creator and the human spirit have an even better explanation? I mean, suppose there is a spiritual realm, but it consists not of God and individual souls, but of one World-Soul who fills the whole universe, and the physical universe is just His body. What we think of as our own individual selves could just be manifestations of that one World-Soul. (I am not making this up: We read about a similar perspective when we covered the 19th century American poets Emerson and Holmes). Anyway, this kind of God would be much closer to us than the transcendent, supernatural God of Christianity: We would be part of Him, included in His being, and not separated from Him. As well, if the natural world was seen by everyone as God's body, then we would be more likely to preserve and respect it, rather than destroying the environment, as we are doing now."

The theory you suggest, Krystal, is not just found in 19th century poetry; it's very close to what many in the "New Age" movement propose today. We can call it a form of "pantheism" or "panentheism" (meaning "everything is God," or "everything is a part of God"). At first glance, as you say, it makes God seem closer to us than a supernatural Being who is completely distinct from the world. Still, I think this feeling is misleading; it rests upon a misunderstanding of the Creator's relationship with His creation. From the perspective of classical philosophy, God is not "separate," if by that you mean "aloof" in some way from His creatures. God is present everywhere: He holds His creatures in being at every moment, and He knows everything about them. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux put it, He is "nearer to us than we are to ourselves." According to Scripture, "The Lord is good to all, and His compassion is over all that He has made" (Ps 145:9). Saint Paul said it best in the Acts of the Apostles:

He gives to all men life and breath and everything ... that they should seek God in the hope that they might feel after Him and find Him. Yet He is not far from each one of us, for "In Him we live and move and have our being;" as even some of your poets have said, "for we are indeed His offspring." (Acts 17: 27-28)

If we go further than this, Krystal, and say that the Creator is not only near to us with His power, knowledge, and benevolence, but we are actually part of Him, included in His being - our souls part of His soul, and our bodies part of His body - then we may feel as if He is nearer to us, when in fact, He is farther away.

For one thing, He could not truly love us. After all, how could God be said to love me if He is me? Presumably, love means to care for another. It means to selflessly devote oneself to the good of others, like a mother caring for her children, or a firefighter rushing into a burning building to save someone's life. But the god of the New Age movement cannot be devoted to the good of others, because there are no "others" - there is only him. At best, his concern for us would be a kind of enlightened self-interest, like someone who takes proper care of his own body by daily exercise. But that's not selfless concern for the needs of others, that's just prudent care for oneself. In short, the New Age god cannot really "love" his creation with selfless generosity, for nothing exists but his own self.

Moreover, if our souls are only parts of this one World-Soul, then my thoughts are not really my thoughts at all, but his. That contradicts our deepest intuitions, because we certainly experience our thoughts as if they were really our own. In addition, it contradicts what Descartes demonstrated (go back to my first letter); for if you say I am suffering from the illusion that I exist as a thinking self, still there must be a thinking self here who is being deceived. In other words, it is self-evident, a "properly basic" belief, that I am a real thinking self who thinks his own thoughts!

Furthermore, if there is one World-Soul, thinking all thoughts through all heads, why does he think contradictory thoughts in different people's heads? I mean, why does the World-Soul think in me that Fords are better than Toyotas, and in you think the opposite? Why in one mind is capitalism the best economic system and socialism is better to another - if there is really only one mind? In short, the idea of a World-Soul is a poetic daydream that just doesn't fit with reality.

Finally, you have to ask: What happens to the concept of moral value if there is nothing outside of God? How can we distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, if everything - every situation, every human will, and every choice that is made - is a manifestation of the divine? C.S. Lewis once wrote:

If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is part of God. But of course, if you think some things really bad, and God really good, then you cannot talk like that. You must believe that God is separate from the world and that some of the things we see in it are contrary to His will. Confronted with cancer or a slum, a Pantheist can say, "If only you would realize that this also is God." The Christian ... thinks God made the world - that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables are things that God "made up out of His head," as a man makes up a story. But ... a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.

By the way, Krystal, I fully agree with you that one of those things that has gone terribly wrong is humanity's relationship with our natural environment. If there is a real Creator-God of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, then He must have made the world according to a wise design. Everything that exists belongs to Him, fashioned in just the right way to serve His good purposes. Human beings are meant to be stewards of all He has entrusted to us - and surely not to wantonly destroy it. In other words, Krystal, you don't have to be a pantheist to be a responsible environmentalist. You just have to be humble before the Creator of all.

2) "Couldn't someone just say that all your arguments for the existence of a Creator and for the human spirit are just expressions of wishful thinking? That is what the novelist Iris Murdoch would say. Maybe people just want to have the psychological comfort of religious beliefs. They desperately want to see themselves as creatures with a spirit that can live forever, and to live in a universe governed by a good God, and so they convince themselves that such things really exist."

No doubt some people who believe in God, and in the human spirit, do so merely as a result of "wishful thinking," Krystal, as you say. But I wonder if they really know what they are wishing for. The Bible says, "It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31) - terrible because He will not let you continue indefinitely a self-centered existence, focusing your life on your own pleasure and personal happiness. Rather, He will turn your life upside down, if He has to, tipping you out of your bed of comfort to wake you up, so you can finally live in the light of Truth.

That's why the "wishful thinking" argument works the other way, too. One could argue that those who do not believe in God and in the human spirit cling to their disbelief out of wishful thinking, because they would rather live shallow, self-centered, materialistic lives, and not have any supernatural Creator interfere with it. They certainly do not want to be answerable for their actions to an all-seeing God!

Clearly, these "wishful thinking" arguments cancel each other out; neither one is convincing on its own.

This is an example of one of the characteristic diseases of contemporary thought. The disease doesn't really have a name, as far as I know. C.S. Lewis called it "Bulverism" after someone he met. It essentially consists in this: assuming someone is mistaken, and then attempting to explain how they went wrong before you have bothered to demonstrate that they are really mistaken in the first place. For example, it may well be that a particular person with whom you are in dialogue is a victim of wishful thinking regarding the existence of God. But how do you know that is the case before you have examined their reasons for God's existence and found them to be fallacious? If their reasons for believing in God are really poor ones, then you can suggest that perhaps they went wrong because they let wishful thinking govern their opinions on the subject. But you can't automatically assume that in advance about every believer in God - unless you can clearly show that all of the arguments for the existence of God are fallacious. And that's a tall order.

Contemporary thought is rife with "Bulveristic" logic: "You only think that way because you are a male (or female);" "You only think that way because you are white (or black);" "You only think that way because you are middle class (or upper class or lower class)." No doubt all of these factors - gender, race, and economic status - affect the way we think at times, to varying degrees. But it's not an argument against someone's point of view just to say, "You think that way merely because you are white/male/middle class etc." That's a possible explanation of how someone went wrong, but first you have to fairly consider the actual reasons they give for their views and deal with those. Only if you can show that those reasons are poor ones can you justly speculate about psychological explanations for their lapse into error.

In short, Krystal, beware of "Bulverism": It poisons rational discussion of just about any important topic these days. The "wishful thinking" argument is a perfect example of that.

(3) "Anyway, you haven't really proven the existence of God, right? No one can. You have just shown that there are some arguments that point in favor, but there are some that point the other way, too. (I think Marx and Freud and Nietszche offered famous ones.) So in the end, isn't belief in God just a matter of faith?

To be honest, I am not much impressed by most of the arguments against the existence of God that I have heard, because almost all of them seem to be expressions of the "Nothing Buttery" that we discussed in our earlier letters, and as a result they fall victim to what philosophers call the trap of "Self-referential Absurdity." People fall into this trap when they make a claim about the whole world that can be shown to be self-contradictory when the claim is applied to the speaker himself. Logically, the speaker "saws off the branch on which he sits."

We met this already, Krystal, in our discussion of Reductionism a few months ago. Remember: The materialist holds that there is nothing but atoms and molecules bouncing around randomly in space - but that must include his own mind, too, and if all of his thoughts are nothing but atoms and molecules bouncing around randomly in space, what reason do we have to take any of them seriously - including his reasons for believing that the whole universe is nothing but atoms and molecules? Logically speaking, he has shot himself in the foot!

Marxism falls into a similar trap. Karl Marx claimed that "all history is the history of class struggle," and therefore all the thoughts we think are determined by our place in our economic system. Religion itself is nothing but "the opiate of the masses," a kind of drug served up to the working class so they will keep dreaming of pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die rather than devote their energies to the struggle for equality and social justice. Well, if all our thoughts come from our position in the struggle between economic classes, then surely that applies to the thoughts of the Marxists themselves: They only think what they think because they are programmed by their place in the economic struggle to do so - so what reason do we have to take them seriously?

In fact, with Marxist logic, one could fairly argue that Marxism itself is nothing more than "the opiate of upper-middle class university students," a kind of drug they take to ease their conscience because they find themselves among the "haves" who are getting ahead rather than among the "have-nots." Most of their families live materialistic lives and are nominal churchgoers at best. Thus, as students they hope to ease their conscience about the plight of the poor in a way that also fits within the materialistic, Nothing Buttery world in which they were bred. Trendy university Marxism fills their personal, psychological needs perfectly! So why should we take any of it seriously? On Marxism's own logic, Marxism itself is not based on objective, rational consideration of the facts.

Then there are the followers of Sigmund Freud. For them, all human thinking and striving is driven by subconscious, irrational desires. Religion itself, with its alleged longings for the Infinite, its seemingly inconsolable desires (in this life) for the divine, is really nothing more than "wishful thinking" - a mere projection of the human need for complete security and erotic fulfillment. Indeed, all belief in God and all human striving for meaning and purpose is seen as nothing but a projection of these inner drives for security, comfort, and sex.

Two things we can say here: First, if this were true, then the happiest people in the whole world should be those with the highest degree of security, comfort, and sexual pleasure in this life - but clearly, such is not the case. Modern western society is full to overflowing with people like this whose lives are tormented by depression and whose families are torn by divorce, abortion, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide. Even some of Freud's greatest followers, such as Victor Frankl and Carl Jung, abandoned Freud's Nothing Buttery perspective on religion and the pursuit of meaning. As Jung once said:

Among all my patients in the second half of life - that is to say, over thirty-five - there is not one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.

Second, if Freud has really found what lurks behind all human striving, then surely that applies to the efforts of the Freudians themselves: their own perspective and their own strivings must be "nothing but" a projection of their own subconscious, irrational drives. So what "reason" do we have to take them seriously, if we know that they are not really driven by "reason" at all?

Finally, there is the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose books are more popular than ever these days. For Nietzsche all human thought and striving, including belief in God, is driven by the "will-to-power." There are really no rational belief systems at all, or rational social arrangements - all are nothing but masks for an endless power struggle. One wonders: doesn't that will-to-power include Nietzsche himself? On this reckoning, his own philosophical arguments must be nothing but an expression of his personal will-to-power (for recognition, fame, and influence perhaps), so why should we treat his philosophy as any more defensible, or convincing, than any other philosophy? Nietzsche has effectively sawed off the branch on which he was sitting: Self-referential Absurdity strikes again!

Marx, Freud, Nietzsche - they all found fragments of truth, of course. Human life is indeed sometimes driven by economic forces, inner drives for security and sex, and by a "will-to-power." But it cannot be true that all human thought and striving are reducible to "nothing but" these things - not without falling into the trap of Self-referential Absurdity. One who believes in the existence of God can take a broader, more liberal view. We can accept that people often succumb to these irrational influences, allowing them completely to govern their lives, and yet we know that there is far more to the human story than that.

Last of all, Krystal, you suggested that no one can prove the existence of God anyway, and so belief in God must ultimately be an act of faith, rather than rational certainty.

I think that all depends upon what you mean by "prove."

Perhaps philosophers cannot "prove" that God exists in quite the same way that we can prove something in mathematics. For example, proving that two plus two equals four gives you absolute, mathematical certainty. But there is another kind of "proof" that justifies another kind of certainty. Philosophers traditionally call this "moral certainty." We reach it when we have a number of arguments and evidences that converge, that all point in the same direction. Put together enough of these converging arguments and you can come to a conclusion that something is "true beyond a reasonable doubt."

That is how a court of law works. A jury does not convict someone of a crime based on absolute, mathematical certainty of his guilt - which would be impossible to attain anyway - but on the basis of the overwhelming strength of the converging evidence. The fingerprints on the gun, a motive, an opportunity, a faked alibi - none of these things on their own would convince a jury to convict a man, but put them all together and they all point in the same direction: a cumulative case for a guilty verdict "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Moral certainty, at least, is what philosophy can offer us about God, I think. Over the last few months, Krystal, I have shared with you several philosophical pathways to the existence of God. Perhaps no single one of them, on its own, would be entirely convincing, but put them together and you have converging arguments that all point to the same reality.

Think back to our previous letters. Our longing for something that nothing on this earth can ever satisfy, we said, is most likely a longing for a God who really exists: the perfect, boundless Good. Then we saw that it is more likely that the intricate, stable, and pervasive order that we find in nature is the product of a supernatural Intelligent Designer than the product of mere chance. And later we said that the best explanation for the inner Light of conscience that beckons us all to do good and avoid evil, and puts an absolute claim upon us, is that it was placed in us by an Absolute Being.

Perhaps you have noticed that each of these pathways to God also points to the others. For example, if it is likely that a God who is "perfect, boundless Good" really exists, then among His boundless perfections would be infinite Power and infinite Wisdom; in other words, a boundless capacity for intelligent design. If an Intelligent Designer of the universe really exists, then it is likely that He would have designed free and rational creatures like us with an inner compass, an inner Light, to help us live in harmony with His design, to discern right from wrong. And the God whose character is manifested in that inner Light is evidently one who is totally committed to good.

In short, all of these mysteries point in the same direction, so we can be sure of His existence "beyond a reasonable doubt."

It certainly takes faith to live out that truth, Krystal: to put your complete trust in Him, to let Him be your inner Strength, and guiding Light. But it doesn't take faith just to know that He is there. After all, He gave each one of us the light of reason, and it is the light of reason that leads us back to Him.

Love always,
Uncle Robert

Access the entire series.

Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
• Letter #3: That's the Spirit
• Letter #4: What's the Difference? Plenty, of Course.
• Letter #5: The Secret of the Human Heart
• Letter #6: A Message in the Stars
• Letter #7: The Inner Light

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.

You might also like...

Dr. Robert Stackpole's 11-part series concludes quite logically with a happy ending.
What is the strongest argument of all for the existence of God? Dr. Robert Stackpole makes the case.
Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped to see the truth in a confused and clouded world.