The question “Do you believe in God?” has suffered recently from a misplaced emphasis. This has in turn led to a metaphysical quagmire. For the focus has been on “believe” and “God.” “Believe” seeks to establish a relation between the subject (you, me, us, them) and “God.” “God” is thus afforded the status of object through the act of “believing.” To answer this question affirmatively, the subject claims that “God” exists as a very real thing (or person). “To believe” implies that the subject is making this assertion of existence from a position that lacks universal authority. Since the Enlightenment, this universal authority has been said to rest in the methods of reason and science. Therefore, when one says, “I believe in God,” as commonly understood, this individual claims that “God” exists as a universal force (per definition) but that the individual knowingly lacks the authority to make such a universal claim. How absurd indeed.
Yet this absurdity does not force us to abandon the question. Such a course would be foolish to say the least; for this question beats at the heart of Western history—especially if we expand the question to the range of the pagan philosophers. Thus “God” is similar to “One,” “Good,” “Beauty,” “Truth,” and “Justice.” We thus bring into play the entirety of the Judeo-Christian-Islamo-Greco-Roman heritage that produces Western civilization. The import of the question begins to reflect itself into humanity’s most cherished and essential social foundations, in mathematics, morality, art, philosophy, and law. It is “belief in” these notions that have allowed humankind to transcend instinctual hierarchies, knowing others, perhaps guided by more benevolent providence, to exist.
But how are we of the modern, secular age, to recover this question? The trick, as I intimated above, is to shift emphasis within the question; so that by a subtle sleight of hand, we change “God” from the object of a hollow assertion into the precondition of the human being. The question is not, “Do you believe in God?” but “Do you believe in God?” “In” as a preposition does not mark “God” out the object upon which the subject acts. Rather, “in” signifies a spatial, temporal, and metaphysical locale where the subject of the statement completes the verb “believe.” Someone who “believes in God” commits the presently continuous act of belief at a locale defined rather enigmatically as “God.” Of course “God” is pregnant with a whole constellation of meanings—texts, scriptures, mythologies, and archetypes; and we do not mean to imply a reduction of these meanings in pointing out the locale-oriented quality present in this question. We claim rather that “God,” with the incumbent polysemy, offers the locale within which belief is possible. One might be tempted to say, “It is possible to believe, thanks be to God.”
Our attention now moves back to the verb; for in making this statement we are drawn to inquire why God (or One or Good or Beauty or Truth or Justice) might be a necessary precondition for belief. What then, again, is belief? We’ve already hinted at this question when we spoke of making universally binding claims in the absence of universal authority. Contrary to the partisans of science and reason, I will not assume that even their methods can provide the grounds for absolute authority. It is this claim which drives the modern economic machine, where humans are numbers to be crunched and redeployed according to the dictates of increasingly abstract and unaccountable models. It is this claim upon which rests responsibility for the modern political, corporate, and social malaise, as authority is devolved to systems and statistics, polling, marketing, and nihilism.
Humankind, rather, is beset by the existential condition wherein any and every understanding of the world is bound to revaluation in the light of eternally evolving circumstances. There is no complete or total accumulation of knowledge possible that might allow us to model, predict, and ultimately shape the future to our wills. Yet despite this radically relative and contingent nature of human existence, we are forced by the necessities of our social and psychic existence to make claims that extend beyond the immediate contingencies. We must make decisions as if we were certain that they were the right decisions to make. That is, we must decide with the presupposition of ultimate authority, because otherwise our actions will lack the vital force necessary to be effect. Only an action backed by the presupposition of universal authority will thus have the authority to carry the day against immediate contingencies who will, eventually, fade behind the horizon. To act thus is "to believe."
And finally, we return to “God.” Why “God?” Would it not be just as easy to state belief in One, in Good, in Beauty, in Truth, in Justice? For through these five it appears that we can cover the range of universal human claims—mathematical, moral, aesthetic, philosophical, legal. And discarding “God” we discard the historical baggage that comes along, still haunting our waking dreams. But this ease is deceptive, leading as it does to five distinct universal values whose recourse to one another is to be found in whim and circumstance. Rather than these themselves resting in “God” with the claims to unite them then standing in the precondition of universal authority, we have near universal claims structured and organized according to relative caprice. When is “Good” beautiful or “Justice” moral but when the circumstances suit the subject. If such conflicts are to be resolved with any degree of authority, we resolve them believing in God. We might then use His scriptures as foils and find in One, in Good, in Beauty, in Truth, in Justice a path for humans to walk through the abyss that encompasses them by assuming, from before the beginning, a bridge beneath their feet.