Proof Without Pain
His college philosophy course got him started on a search.
He wondered if it would ever end.
He wondered if it would ever end.
Your assignment, William, is The Existence of God. The assignment for the term was to read original source material presenting ontological, teleological, and cosmological arguments for the existence of God, then to present an overview of the arguments orally near the end of the semester. A formal term paper was due the last day of class.
The assignment did not repulse me as much as I had feared it would. Just lately my roommate and I had a lengthy discussion on the value of God. While freely admitting a belief in God, he practiced no religion, nor did he consider God much of an influence on his life. I, on the other hand, as an avowed atheist, was greatly troubled by the fact that so many people candidly confess a belief in a transcendent power. Why? This semester would force me to make a thorough examination of my own beliefs, in the guise of an academic exercise.
In my research, I read Anselm of Canterbury, who defined God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” True by definition, I thought, which is basically what an ontological argument is. Anselm’s paper revolved around discussion of a verse in Psalm 14. “The fool says in his heart. There is no God.” A monk named Gaunilon responded to this essay with the argument that just because one can conceive of a thing’s existence, that in no way implies that the thing does in fact exist. I hastily concluded that, while the fool’s statement seemed arbitrary and insupportable, there was not much support for Anselm’s argument either.
Next I delved into Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a formidable work of some seventy volumes, all in Latin. Fortunately there are numerous books that excerpt segments dealing with each topic; these yielded enough material for me to get a glimpse into his mind and formulate his cosmological argument.
Aquinas rejected the ontological argument because it proved only that the existence of God was self-evident, but in no way did it prove that God could be evident to us. He preferred to work back from the obvious material creation. What has been created must have a creator, or in Aquinas’s terms, a First Mover, a First Efficient Cause.
As I mulled this over, it occurred to me that science had come a long way toward explaining the cosmos. Also, people create. Therefore creation did not imply a transcendent creator.
I went on to David Hume. He said that God was a Maker, a maker of machines. Just as a watch has a watchmaker, so people have a people maker: God. From empirical evidence alone we can conclude that a God of some type exists. Unfortunately, to me it seemed that God had been relegated to a role that amounted to no more than a catch-all phrase to cover what we, as a civilization, had not yet discovered.
Although my project for the Introduction to Philosophy course was shaping up nicely, I was entering a period of emotional and spiritual torment. Questions like Why do I want there to be a proof of God? and Why do these great minds, whose arguments are not really “proofs,” still believe in God? ran through my mind constantly. I drank a lot, sitting in my room with these books all around me, reading and rereading passages, thinking.
I did no other work. nothing. I wrote out arguments in my own words and countered them, scratching them out I wadded up the papers and tossed them about the room. I couldn’t eat. My oral presentation went well, but now that the end of the semester was near, my paper had ceased being an academic exercise and had taken on a necessity all its own. I had to find an answer.
One night, unable to sleep. I typed out the questions How do I know there is a God? Who am I, and why am I here? Why do these great philosophers, Aquinas, Anselm, and Hume, persist in believing in God even though they are unable to convince anyone that God is real? Why? Why? Why?
I put this note, along with my name and phone number, in an envelope, walked over to the Episcopal church (I was raised Episcopalian), and nailed it to the church rectory door.
A few days later, the minister called and made an appointment for me to come and see him. I arrived quite early and was ushered into a tiny library to wait until he was free. I scanned the shelves, stopping at Bhagavad-gita. I started reading, and I remember that I was annoyed when I was interrupted for my meeting.
The minister was familiar to me; I had seen him at parties. He was an expert in Christology and had a house in Jerusalem. He had lived in Beirut before the violence there. He was quite amiable, but after seeing him once a week for a while. I knew he wasn’t going to have the answers to my questions.
The semester ended; I got all A’s. I went to the church on Christmas, which made the minister very happy, and even I felt good, participating in a nearly forgotten childhood ritual. Nevertheless, I felt no closer to the solution to my spiritual crisis, even if my emotional one had somewhat abated.
The next semester began. I entered the classroom for Communications & Performing Arts 151, and there were coupons on every desk for a free roast beef sandwich at the cafeteria. I picked one up like it was a dead rat, saying to no one in particular, “I don’t eat this stuff!” A girl near me piped up, “I don’t either. I’m a vegetarian.” We sat next to each other, and she introduced herself as Diane but said her friends called her Dina.
As a class assignment, we had to come up with a speech topic that was of significant personal importance. She showed me her topic: “You Are Not the Body.”
How profound! I thought. This brief statement was a perfect expression of something I intuitively knew but had never been able to express. I muttered something about how we must be kindred souls.
About two weeks later I invited her for Sunday breakfast at a local French-style bistro. We talked about philosophy in general and God in particular. I had never met anyone who had such practical arguments. such a grasp of the issues, and all without having the repertoire of philosophical citations I had thought was necessary to discuss such topics. The next week I invited her over to my house for wine and cheese and talk. She said she didn’t drink, but she would be glad to come.
She did, and while I drank all the wine, she explained about a life of service to God, how it changed one’s perspective on life; how we are not bodies but eternal spirit souls, like God in quality but not in quantity; how God’s existence is revealed, not deduced.
We started having lunch together. She asked me if I ever ate anything besides cheese sandwiches, and I told her I could cook well enough, but red meat seemed morally questionable. Chicken, with its sinewy, greasy structure made me vomit looking at it. And fish stank up the whole house. Besides, most meat is so full of chemicals that eating it is tantamount to self-poisoning. So I ate a lot of cheese sandwiches.
The following Saturday she arrived with all her pots and bottles and jars and a bag of groceries, announcing that she was going to prepare a vegetarian feast. She ejected my roommate and me from the kitchen and hanged about in there for a couple of hours while he and I absorbed the spring sunshine over a few beers. When the feast was ready, she presented it to us, serving us before she ate. She said it was spiritual food, called Prasadam. She had me hooked. From that day on I ate nothing containing meat, fish, eggs, or even garlic and onions.
Soon after, she started referring to God as Krishna and explained about chanting, and how it not only is a healthy meditation, but it is in fact God realization.
Eureka! This was the proof! Hume said that we could know God from direct experience. There was nothing wrong with his argument; he simply had the wrong idea of what type of experience would illustrate God’s existence. But since God is transcendent, it’s logical that our experience should also be transcendent. Chanting is transcendental. Prasadam is transcendental. Discussing the name, fame, and pastimes of the Lord are transcendental activities.
Dina took me to the ISKCON temple in Cleveland. I was a little overwhelmed by the rambunctious young men with their funny outfits and shaved heads. But they spoke so intelligently. The temple president was genuinely friendly and interested in what I had to say, taking each point I made and showing how it was resolved by the philosophy of Krishna consciousness.
The following week he and another devotee lectured at Oberlin College, where I lived, so I invited them to come over after the lecture, bringing any students who were interested. We had prasadam and informal discussion and ended the evening around midnight with a dozen or so students, Dina, and I all participating in a cheery kirtana that lasted quite a long time.
That summer I married Dina Daya dasi in the Episcopalian church of my minister friend. The devotee priests from Cleveland performed the ceremony. The temple president lectured on the meaning of marriage as revealed in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The minister lectured on how in the Christian religion marriage is founded upon the same principles of service and devotion to God. It seemed that the whole town came to hear. After the marriage. everyone was served prasadam in the parish hall.
In the ensuing months my new wife taught me about Deity worship and other householder responsibilities, and we made pilgrimages to many temples. Eventually I met my spiritual master and qualified for initiation.
I continue my studies of the philosophy of Krishna consciousness daily, always striving for more understanding, always conscious that the more I learn, the more I realize what I do not know. When I eventually retire from my occupation, it will be for a new life, a totally spiritual life in which my wife and I will devote all our energy to Krishna. In the meantime, we try to keep Krishna in the center of our marriage, we raise our children to be God conscious, and we contribute our time and the fruits of our labors to the spreading of God consciousness.