One of the favorite taunts of the New Atheists is that religious people believe in an “invisible friend.” They are implying, of course, that religion is little more than a pathetic exercise in wishful thinking, a reversion to childish patterns of projection and self-protection. It is well past time, they say, for believers to grow up, leave their cherished fantasies behind, and face the real world.
In offering this characterization, the New Atheists are showing themselves to be disciples of the old atheists such as Feuerbach, Marx, Comte and Freud, all of whom made more or less similar observations.
Well, I'm writing here to let atheists know that I think they’re right, at least about God being an invisible friend. Where they’re wrong is in supposing that surrendering to this unseen reality is dehumanizing or infantilizing.
First, a word about invisibility. It is an extraordinary prejudice of post-Enlightenment Western thought that visible things, empirically verifiable objects and states of affairs, are the most obviously “real” things around. For centuries prior to the Enlightenment, some of the very brightest people that have ever lived thought precisely the opposite.
Most famously, Plato felt that the empirical world is evanescent and contingent in the extreme, made up of unstable objects that pass in and out of existence; whereas the invisible world of forms and mathematical truths is permanent, reliable and supremely beautiful. You can certainly see two apples combining with two oranges to make four things, but when you grasp the principle that two plus two equals four, you have moved out of the empirical realm and into a properly invisible order, which is more pure and absolute than anything that the senses could take in.
Mind you, I’m not denigrating the material world, as Plato and his followers were too often wont to do. I’m simply trying to show that it is by no means obvious that the invisible can simply be equated with the fantastic or the unreal.
The true God
Now to God’s invisibility. One of the most fundamental mistakes made by atheists both old and new is to suppose that God is a supreme being, an impressive item within or alongside the universe. As David Bentley Hart has argued, the gods of ancient mythology or the watchmaker God of 18th-century Deism might fit such a description, but the God presented by the Bible and by classical theism has nothing to do with it.
The true God is the non-contingent ground of the contingent universe, the reason there is something rather than nothing, the ultimate explanation for why the world should exist at all. Accordingly, he is not a being, but rather, as Thomas Aquinas put it, ipsum esse subsistens, the sheer act of to be itself.
Thomas goes so far as to say that God cannot be placed in any genus, even in that most generic of genera, namely, being. But all of this must imply God’s invisibility. Whatever can be seen is, ipso facto, a being, a particular state of affairs, and hence something that can be placed in a genus, compared with other finite realities, etc. The visible is, by definition, conditioned — and God is the unconditioned.
I hope it is clear that in affirming God’s invisibility, I am not placing limits on him, as though he were a type of being — the invisible type — over and against visible things, a ghost floating above physical objects. The invisible God is he whose reality transcends and includes whatever perfection can be found in creatures, since he himself is the source and ground of creatureliness in all its manifestations. Anything other than an invisible God would be a conditioned thing and hence utterly unworthy of worship.
The friends of God
But is this invisible God my friend? One of the most important spiritual and metaphysical observations that can be made is this: God doesn’t need us. The sheerly unconditioned act of to be itself is in possession of every possible ontological perfection, and hence requires no completion, no improvement. He needs nothing. And yet the universe, in all of its astonishing complexity and beauty, exists. Since God could not have made it out of self-interest, it can only follow that he made it out of love, which is to say, a desire to share his goodness.
Though there is always the danger that this sort of language will be misconstrued in a sentimental way, it must be said: God continually loves the universe into existence. Thus, God’s fundamental stance toward all finite things is one of friendship. Can’t we hear an overtone of this in Genesis’s insistence that the creator, looking with infinite satisfaction on all he had made, found it “good, indeed very good”?
If I might stay within the framework of the Book of Genesis, the role of human beings within God’s good creation is to be the image of God, which is to say, the viceroy of the creator, reflecting the divine goodness into the world and channeling the world’s praise back to God. In a word, human beings are meant to be the friends of God par excellence.
Is any of this dehumanizing? It would be, if God were a supreme being and hence a rival to human flourishing. If you want the details on that problem, consult any of the Greek or Roman myths.
But the unconditioned creator, the invisible God, is not a rival to anything he has made.
Rather, as St. Irenaeus put it so memorably, Gloria Dei homo vivens (the glory of God is a human being fully alive). So, is God my invisible friend? Guilty as charged — and delightedly so.