by Msgr. Ronald Knox
Let me suggest this point to you that God, not man, must be the measure of the Universe, must he the standard by which we are to judge all our experience. If we make man the centre of all our experience, then the riddle of existence becomes insoluble, and we had far better give it up.
Aristotle said that Man is the measure of all things. You see, you must have a fixed point somewhere for the start of every investigation, a unit somewhere for the standard of every computation. I seem to remember that when they taught me science, they made me learn by heart a long formula, which said, “A gramme is the weight of a cubic centimetre of pure water, kept at a temperature of something or other Centigrade, at the latitude of Paris, on the level of the sea, in vacuo.” Now, that seems to me very sensible, although it might be more useful to me if I could remember what the temperature was. If you are going to weigh every thing in the world by grammes, you must have a fixed standard of what the gramme is; otherwise you will find that on one occasion you have used your cubic centimetre of pure water when it was frozen, and at another time when it was liquid, and at another time when it was half evaporated, and all your calculations will be miles out in consequence. In fact you will be very much in the position of the people in Alice in Wonderland, trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for croquet-balls; the flamingoes were always curling their necks round and the hedgehogs were always running away, so that you never got much further. You must have a mallet which moves only when you make it move; you must have a croquet-ball which stays put until you hit it, or the game is not croquet. In the same way, all measurement and all thought depend on the possession of a fixed unit by which your judgments can be compared.
Now, if you deny the existence of God, or if you deny it for practical purposes by treating it as a fifty-fifty probability, or if you use the word “God” in an insincere way, meaning a mere abstraction or a mere ideal when you use it, then you have to say that man is the measure of all things; that his thought is the highest form of wisdom which exists, that his conscience is the standard by which good and evil must be determined, that his intuitions are the only test of beauty. And indeed more than that; if you are to attain any kind of intellectual satisfaction, you must say that man’s thought is the source of all truth, makes things true; that his conscience is the arbiter of good, makes things right and wrong; that his intuitions are the origin of all beauty, make things beautiful or ugly. And that notion, if you press it, leads to mere intellectual despair.
Man’s thought is not a fixed thing. It is not merely that men disagree with one another; one generation of men sees things in a different light from the generations which went before it. There are fashions in human thought; mechanism was the keyword of the century before last, evolution of the century that has just gone, relativity of our own. Philosophy goes round in circles, now realism will be the dominant teaching, now idealism, now pragmatism; there is no fixed point, we are always changing. And always when the recognition of God’s existence becomes obscured in the public consciousness, thought turns back upon itself, and wonders whether it has any validity, and we are worse off than ever. After all, if a person refuses to believe in the existence of a world outside himself, and thinks that all his experience is a mere illusion, it is impossible to prove to him that he is wrong. If he says that two and two make five, or that time and space are a hallucination, it is impossible to prove to him that he is wrong. The human mind is as tortuous as any flamingo, as volatile as any hedgehog. And we are asked, not merely to believe that this uncertain instrument is all we have to judge our experience by which is in a sense true but that it is actually this erratic, eccentric mind of ours which gives things their truth, which makes things true. Whereas if you believe in God you know that God is Truth, and gives to all things that exist the truth that is in them, and gives to them minds,
according to their measure, some knowledge, although it be an imperfect knowledge, of the truth which he sees in the mirror of his own eternal being, perfectly as it is.
Man’s conscience is not a fixed thing either. If you took a referendum of England now, you would probably find that in the majority of English minds war is something in itself wicked (thus was, I think, true at the time I wrote it.) ; if you had taken it twelve years ago you would have found only a fanatical minority supporting that contention. A hundred years ago, people thought of divorce as something disgraceful; now, most people do not think of it as disgraceful at all. Some people want us to think that the only criterion of right and wrong action is the comfort or discomfort of our fellow-men, of the community at large; others, that we decide between right and wrong by a kind of artistic intuition; others, that conscience is a voice we must obey implicitly without asking why. Now, you will have a precious hard time making up your mind between right and wrong nowadays if you even treat your own unaided conscience as the judge of them. But we are asked to believe more than that; we are asked to believe that this uncertain instrument, the human conscience, is not merely the oracle which tells you whether a thing is right or wrong, but actually the authority which makes some things right and others wrong. Whereas if you believe in God you know that God is goodness, that he imparts to all things which exist the good that is in them ; that he gives to our hearts, though in a differing and an inferior measure, some appreciation of that Goodness which he sees perfectly mirrored and summed up in himself.
And so, still more obviously, with our intuitions about other things, our artistic judgments for example. That men’s tastes in beauty differ is a thing which has in every age been notorious; if you doubt it, you have only to go and look at the Underground Station in Piccadilly. Is there such a thing as absolute beauty ? If so, the human mind has taken a precious long time in deciding what it is like. And yet if there is no such thing as absolute beauty, the whole of art and music become a matter of mere individual caprice. And then the psychologists come in on the top of that, and explain that all our judgments of beauty are really due to processes in our unconscious minds, and rather unprintable processes at that. If you rule out God, these faulty, inconsistent intuitions of ours are not merely the only standard by which beauty can be judged; it is they that create beauty, that make things beautiful what nonsense it all is! Whereas if you believe in God, you believe that he himself is absolute beauty, and gives beauty to all things in this creation, and to our eyes and senses the power to see and to appreciate it.
Now, all these considerations I have been suggesting to you are not reasons why we should believe that God exists, but rather reasons for wanting him to exist. At least, there are
people who would try to prove the existence of God in this way, but I should not like to depend merely on such proofs myself. They are rather reasons for wanting God to exist. “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent one,” as Voltaire said, if it was Voltaire who said that. The reasons for asserting the existence of God are reasons derived from the very nature of the world as we know it. If the created Universe were a mere lump of inert matter, lying about in space with no visible means of subsistence, we might perhaps feel inclined to give up the problem of how it got there although even its presence seems to demand the intervention of a Creator, of somebody or something which exists in its own right, instead of merely happening to be there. But when, from this lump of matter, a vegetable life emerges which was not there before, and from that vegetable life animal life, and from that animal life conscious life, the life of the mind, all with no natural reason to account for it beyond a mere chance juxtaposition of atoms then our reason does demand that there should be an agent at work, producing the things that were not from the things that are. It is no good saying that life was potentially present from the first; we still need some agent to bring that potency into act; life did not evolve itself, because until it had evolved it was not yet alive. Or alternatively, we discover, we are still discovering in the world of our experience, laws, infinitely subtle and delicate in their operation, which govern the ways of nature. Our minds, with great difficulty, can discover those laws, but they did not make those laws, they did not put them there they find them there. And since law and order can only be the expression of a mind, we have to believe in the existence of a Mind which invented those laws and imposed them upon brute nature. And so once more we find it necessary to believe in a Creative Intelligence, that is in God.
But now, you see, in proving the existence of God we find that we have gone further, and proved a whole lot of things about God. All the attributes of God, his simplicity, his immutability and so on, are not something which we learn from the Bible, or from the tradition of the Church, they are something which we learn from reason itself, learn from that same process of reasoning by which we prove that God exists. It is no good asserting the existence of a Creator who is not omnipotent; for if he is not omnipotent he is limited who or what is it that limits him? You will have to fall back on assuming the existence of some power greater than that of the Creator himself. It is no good asserting the existence of a God who is not simple, who is in any way composite; for if so you will have to fall back on assuming the existence of some power which produced that fusion of elements in him. And so on all through; the proofs from which we learn the existence of God give us some idea, necessarily, of his Nature.
Many muddle-headed people who think they cannot get on without God, if they really sat down to argue out the question of his existence, would find that they had let themselves in for a good deal more than they bargained for. They want God to exist as a sort of background to their lives; they want to feel that there is a supreme truth in which all our imperfect guesses after truth find their meaning; that there is a supreme Goodness towards which all our feeble moral effort strives; that there is a beauty which is beyond all earthly beauty, and is the explanation of it. That is what they mean by God; that is what they are wanting when they say they want God. But if they would only try to puzzle out the mystery of his Being they would find that he is a great deal more than that. They would find that he is a Personal Being, infinitely removed in dignity from this universe, his created handiwork; outside all time and all space ; not limited, as we are limited, by imperfections of nature; not composite as we are composite, not changeable as we are changeable; the Creator of all things, and such a Creator as not only gave them being but maintains them, from moment to moment, in being; who made them all for his glory, yet would have lacked nothing of that eternal blessedness which he enjoys if nothing had ever existed outside himself. That is the God they would find, if they would look for him; for whom they will not look because they are afraid of finding him.
They wanted God to exist as a sort of background to their lives; but if you once prove that he exists, you will find that he fills the whole stage. Man is no longer the centre of the Universe God is the centre of the Universe. Man is no longer the measure of all things, God is the measure of all things. All the greatness of man, all his splendid achievements in art and in music and in learning and in the conquest of nature, in laws and governments, in heroism and endurance, fade away into the background and become something very insignificant, when they are seen in contrast with the incommunicable Majesty of Almighty God. Lord, what is man, that thou rememberest him, or the son of man, that thou visitest him? So brief his existence, so puny his stature, so limited the possibilities of his being.
And it is not merely that God, once we have caught some hint of what he is, fills the whole picture and dwarfs his own creatures by the contrast. We begin to see, too, that God has claims upon man, which know of no limits and admit of no qualifications. We are God’s creatures, drawn by him out of nothing, and ready, but for the continued exercise of his power, to fall back into that nothingness whence we came; his dominion over us is absolute, and all his kindness in his dealings with us springs from the goodness of his own nature, not from any rights, not from any value, of ours. And having such dominion over us, he will expect from us love and worship and service, unquestioning obedience to his will for us; he will want to be the end of all our actions, as he is the end of all created things. So that our actions will no longer be regulated by our own measure, but by his. We shall not need to ask, “Is this course of action profitable to me, is it pleasant to me, is it worthy of me, is it a true expression of my own nature, is it the kind of action I myself should approve in my calmer moments, will it leave my character the nobler for its effects?” No, all those calculations, based upon human pride, will be superseded, will be put on one side; there is only one question which will be the ultimate rule of conduct “Is this course of action the course of action by which it is God’s will to be glorified in me?”
For us Catholics, and for all those who take their religion seriously, this sense of the overwhelming Majesty of God is the first consideration, comes before, even, our sense of his love and of his mercy; our God is a jealous God, is a consuming Fire; there is nothing we can do for him that we do not owe to him, no praise of him which can seem extravagant, no self-abasement before him which can seem undignified. In saying that God exists, we have admitted that he is everything, that man is nothing. To realize that unique Majesty of his, to realize this pitiable nothingness of ours that is the disposition into which, if we have followed them, this term’s conferences ought to lead us.
Originally printed in: “In Soft Garments: A Collection of Oxford Conferences”