How Not To Know God

The word “eternity” scares us post-Christians. It was no contradiction for atheists like Nietzsche to disavow the existence of God while simultaneously reveling in the idea of eternity, but now that popular atheism has been irretrievably wed to the idea that truth is only in the material world, and that physical science rightfully usurps all other forms of knowledge, a rejection of God has come to mean a simultaneous rejection of eternity. Why? Because if truth is only known through science, and science deals with the physical world in its nebulas, atoms, and electromagnetic fields, then the one truth we must be absolutely sure of is that nothing is eternal, for the physical world is moving from a state of order to a state of final chaos. Entropy dictates a crumbling of the cosmic cookie. All things are exhaustible.

Now I’m not here to prove the existence of eternity. But if one were to stand up for its presence in human life, I imagine the first thing worth requesting of its critics would be to use an appropriate lens. If I deny the existence of bacteria by refusing to use a microscope, I hardly qualify as a serious scientist.

A similar issue plagues the denial of eternity. We ask that eternity — the inexhaustible and everlasting — be shown, as the nebula is shown, that is, as an object available to objective verification, but eternity is not a thing, it is only revealed by things. Or rather, knowing that eternity cannot be shown in a way subject to empirical science, we assume a priori that it is an illusion, and subsequently conduct scientific research to show the physicality of all human experiences that claim contact with the eternal. The God Helmet experiments come to mind, but these are notoriously dumb. Far more credible are the experiments regarding the nature of human love.

Contra the poets, contra the philosophers, and contra the theologians, in an objective, outside, scientific view of love, the thing is hardly eternal. Parents divorce, friendships fail, families scream, and even were two homo sapiens to claim eternal love and never cease loving for a second of their lives, still death would put an end to it all. From the view of a Martian regarding the phenomenon of love as a disinterested third party, we can safely say that love has nothing to do with eternity. This “ideal view” been taken by the scientists. “It’s all about the dopamine,” we’ve heard and heard again, or the serotonin, or the oxytocin. We can, as disinterested third parties, observe these chemicals in the brain, and these are finite, fading chemicals.

Or if that’s not your area of expertise, love is all about your major histocompatibility complex. Or it’s all about a tit-for-tat system, in which we love others so they don’t kill us. Whatever the case — or combination of cases — love is just another reality of the physical universe, subject, like all things, to entropy and eventual destruction. Love is not eternal.

Now all these claims are answerable in themselves. For instance, the claim that “love is chemical” assumes — in faith — that it has properly discerned the order of cause and effect, that “chemicals cause love,” and not that “love causes chemicals,” and certainly not that “since human beings are an eternal synthesis of body and soul, it would be silly to expects the spiritual reality of love to be apart from the physical reality of brain chemistry.”

But I would like to get to the heart of the issue, the fundamental problem I have with “knowing love scientifically.” It occurs to me that love as experienced by an objective, disinterested party is not “more truthfully known,” but less. Love apart from interested parties does not exist. It’d be foolish to say that the real truth about playing the guitar is known by the objective observer, who looks rationally upon the phenomenon and considers it variables, its mathematics, and physiological, biochemical realities. The truth about playing the guitar is known by the guitar player. Objects may be known in the objective perceiving, but actions — like “playing the guitar” or “loving the girl” — are known in the acting. Love is known in the loving. If it is known outside of loving, it is not known as love, but love-as-experienced-by-a-disinterested-party, which is, of course, no love at all. If you want to know love, love. Nothing more can be said.

In the first-person experience of love, it is far less obvious that love is not eternal. In love, lovers promise to love “forever.” In love, love precedes knowledge of the beloved, prompting us to say, “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life,” and “I loved you before I met you.”  That love may fail is evidence to the Martian that the promises are based on the false premise of love’s eternity. To those in love, however, a failure to love is not evidence of love’s finite nature, but an evidence of human failure, which actually — and painfully — reaffirms the eternity of love.

Think about it. If love was finite, there could be no talk of “failure.” If love has nothing to do with the eternal, then there would be no guilt over the destruction of relationships, no pain over divorce, no heartache over estrangement from families and, more than all these things, no sense of injustice over the failure of love. Finite things are, after all, used up, and it’d make no more sense to weep over coming to a finish-line in love than it would to weep over finishing a meal. But love is experienced as eternal, giving rise to the expectation of eternity. When love is rudely cut short, the complaint is not over the finite nature of love, but over the lack of love in the other, the lack of the action of love, the inability of the lover to meet the eternal demand of love. Love is not proved finite, man is proved weak.

Imagine, for instance, an eternal tree in the middle of a lake.

The tree is beautiful, unaffected by the passage of time. It was, is, and always will be big and branching, immense and inviting. Delighting in its eternity, men and women climb its branches and eat its fruit. Now, if a man refused to be in the tree and to eat its fruit, his absence of action would be no evidence against the eternal nature of the tree. It would only be evidence of his inaction. So too with love. Our failures to remain in love are no testimony against its eternity. In fact, our bitterness and agony over failure is evidence of love’s true nature, evidence that it is eternal and thereby demands an eternal response, making all finite, limited, ending acts of love painful, confusing, and ultimately sinful.

Love — known in the loving — transcends time. We love the age gone by. A mother loves the baby she has yet to bear — not the abstract idea of a baby, mind you, but her particular, future baby, shrouded in the mystery of who, precisely, he will be, but nevertheless loved as himself and no other. A widow does not love the mere memory of her husband — such an accusation would be an offense. The widow loves her husband, and this love transcends time. These things cannot be true from a Martian perspective — for how could some one love what does not yet exist or exists no longer? — but this is not because the widow and the mother are fooled or lying. It is because the Martian perspective is not the perspective of love-as-present-action, but one of love-as-observed-object, and love is only known in the acting. It can only appear strange to the scientific view. For instance, it appears that love transcends the biological laws of nature, which dictate all things be “useful” in the Darwinian sense. We can love against the selfish persuasion of our genes, loving — to Nietzsche’s horror — the poor, the sick, the lame, the evil one, and even the enemy, loving to the point of our own death, fully convicted of the fact that we have found in love something far more dear than life. Love even transcends the boundaries of our human race: We can love our dogs and our countries.

So love appears to the lover as eternal, an ecstasy from the physical world, a transcendence from the bonds of matter and time. This mysticism is only ridiculous if we take on the view of one outside, peering in on love, but by doing so we cease to look at love, which is known in the loving, not the looking.

So when the atheist laughs at me for believing in “an invisible man in the sky,” I can’t help but laugh with him, for treating God as an observable object and arriving at disbelief is as ridiculous as my treating microbes as macrobes, refusing to use a microscope, and arriving at a disbelief in microbial life. What’s needed is the right perspective. God is not known in the observing. God is love, and is known in the loving.

  • Broken Whole

    Thanks for this. The idea of “eternal love” made me think of this passage from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Love Alone is Credible:

    human love shares in the insoluble contradiction of an existence that is at once mortal and spiritual: personal love, which lovers swear to one another in exalted moments, means a definitiveness that outlasts death; but “eternal love” “for a time” is an unliveable contradiction. [...] Thus, the heart remains a mystery to itself. The exalted moment of love is always full of promise: it is not closed in on itself

  • Skyler von Enn

    “What’s needed is the right perspective. God is not known in the observing. God is love, and is known in the loving.”


  • TheodoreSeeber

    Ted’s version of the Litany of Tarski, modified for Catholicism:
    Lord, grant me the faith to believe that which is Truth, the doubt to not believe that which is Not Truth, and the wisdom to admit when I am wrong.

  • LR

    Please help me understand:

    If love is known in the loving, and to love is to act in such a way that desires the good of the beloved, how can a widow love her husband who is no longer alive.?

    • Phil Steinacker

      I hope I can help here with out knowing much beyond the question you’ve posed.
      Let’s begin by taking the definition of love you offered, and be a bit more specific about it. I paraphase, here, but Pope John Paul II says that genuine love is always a decision (if not always a feeling, which ebbs and flows over time) to elevate what is truly in the best interests of the beloved and his/her well-being above the well-being and best interests of the lover – and here’s the kicker – above the desires of the lover.
      Assuming the widow is a believer in the Eternal Salvation promised by Christ’s Death and Resurrection, a widow in this way may love her departed husband by continuously praying for him and by offering up her suffering for the loss of his presence with her to shorten his time in Purgatory.
      Because he may not pray for himself he seriously needs her to do this on his behalf. However, he is in a great position to help her in her remaining years because he is permitted to pray for her and others still in this world. Therefore she can petition him to pray for her and her intentions.
      These suggestions will mean nothing to unbelievers, especially non-Catholics or Catholics no longer faithful to the Magisterium – the teaching authority of the Church. However, if the widow is indeed a faithful Catholic in this regard, then I beleive daily practice of the self-donated love I describe is a beautiful manifestation of how she can pray for what is best for him, even in his absence.
      I wish you a genuine and loving peace and I ask Our Lord to include you in my prayers of petition tomorrow.

      • SJH

        I would go further and say that the beloved does not have to actually receive the love of the lover. So, for example, a man or woman can love a disinterested spouse who is considering divorce. The lover might show their love by something as simple as communicating or perhaps asking for advice because you naturally want the help of your spouse. A person wants to experience life with whom they love. Whether the spouse is able to respond directly is not the issue. The lover has still loved. In the same way, the act of praying to a deceased loved one is an act of love even if they are no longer in purgatory and in need of your prayer. The beautiful thing is that, I guarantee they will love you back because they are in a more perfect union with God and will pray for you and do what they can to help you.

    • Good Catholic GIrl

      Simple – although someone’s life may have ended, our relationship with them doesn’t. We still love them.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      She can start by burying his Earthly body, visiting the grave often, and praying for the repose of his soul and a quick trip through the process of purgatory.

  • Frederick

    But can a Christian who is by self-definition a sinner and therefore is always dramatizing his or her presumed separation from the Living Divine Reality know the Living Divine Reality?
    Sin is the presumption of separation from God or the Living Divine Reality upon which we completely dependent, even for our next breath.
    Sin is separation from Truth, Happiness, Radiant Love-Bliss, and the always present Eternal Fullness of Being.

    Sin is hell or samsara of un-Happiness. The sin filled ego-”I” or separate and always separative self, is both the very presumption of separation and the action of separation.

    There is no Real existence until sin is transcended. All actions and states of presumed knowledge are empty, painful, problematic, and sinful until the presumption of separation from the Living Divine Reaity is utterly transcended.

    Sin or the denial of the Radiant Fullness of Being is the worst cancer in the universe. It is the worst sickness. It is the most horrific disease. Its implications cover the entirety of everyone’s life. The world is filled with its symptoms and reeks with its torments and potentials, coming from all directions, most of which people cannot even see.

    • SJH

      If I understand you correctly, you are saying that We cannot know love due to sin. I would say that we can’t fully know love but we can get a glimpse of it. This glimpse comes from grace granted, of course, from God. It is His power that allows us to know love to whatever degree each of us is able to understand it.

    • Arkanabar

      Frederick, the other thing to bear in mind is that God loves us, and He absolutely is able to transcend the separation caused by sin.

    • Elizabeth

      Yes, we are all born with a sinful nature, and this causes a separation from God because we put ourselves before him. It causes a gap in our relationship with him that we can not fix. However, you don’t mention that God sent Jesus, which he did for this very reason, to bridge the gap between him and us. The bible tells us that when someone is in Christ, then the new creation has come, the old is gone, the new is here. It seems to me that there is a new creation because we do know God, and this causes a change in us when we start to see him.
      Along with this, Jesus said that to know him is to know the Father. And thus, if you could know Jesus, which many people did and do, then you could know the father, right?

  • Ron Van Wegen

    I’m a Martian and I approve this message.

  • Shaun Cromwell

    Prior to the invention of the microscope, one would have been entirely justified in not believing in microorganisms. I know of no atheists who reject god a priori, but rather, most are unconvinced of a god(s) existence because there is no microscope-like correlate with which to detect him/her/it. Similarly, I know of no scientist who would claim that love is entirely reducible to brain chemistry, rather, most would submit that love is clearly an emergent property of consciousness that is not entirely understood, and that love is a profound aspect of our subjective experience that transcends objective meaning. Despite the poetic non-sequitur from love to god (equivocating on the various feelings we develop toward people, things, and concepts) and despite the fact that evolution (not synonymous with Darwinism, by the way) does have plausible mechanisms for love/altruism (not all of which relate to “usefulness,” in the adaptive sense), I still see no justification in the above post for a belief in god(s).

    • Barfly_Kokhba

      By your reasoning one would be justified in not believing in microorganisms right now, since most people don’t own microscopes and will never actually see a microorganism with their own eyes. You’re implying that veracity is irrelevant unless or until it can be demonstrated. Or you could resort to arguing ad auctoritatem or ad populum.

      • Shaun Cromwell

        Luckily, science has developed standards of evidence that, because of their rigor, allow us to accept the veracity of their findings without our direct observation or reliance on ad auctoritatem or ad populum reasoning. One of these is standards
        is repeatability. Many people have peered through a microscope at
        microorganisms and can independently, reliably, and repeatedly confirm their existence. More importantly, the observations are convergent—something that cannot be said about god(s)—which leads to an ever-increasing understanding of microorganisms and the roles they play. Of course, one could still deny the existence of microorganisms, just as one could deny reality itself, but does
        that make their position tenable?

  • Ronk

    If the first photo is meant to be a bacterium, it’s not. It’s a louse or something like that.

    • Dillon T. McCameron

      Perhaps just an example of a view through a microscope, albeit a particular kind?

    • Matt

      It’s a “water bear,” or tardigrade. I think they’re kinda cute. :)

  • Jack Picknell

    What part of eternity isn’t now?

  • cowalker

    “For instance, it appears that love transcends the biological laws of nature, which dictate all things be ‘useful’ in the Darwinian sense.”

    That’s not exactly how biology works. There are mutations that convey neither an advantage nor a disadvantage in survival, so their persistence is neither selected for nor against. There is also the complication that a trait might contribute to the survival of family members with the same genes even if it does not contribute directly to the survival of the individual. Some people speculate that this might explain the reason that homosexual people make up a portion of all populations. It is possible that for hundreds of thousands of years the presence of aunts and uncles who were not committed to caring for their own children might have been an asset to their siblings’ children or their tribe.

    In any case, it seems pretty clear to me that humans, who survive best in communities, are selected for the ability to form strong bonds with other humans–in particular those in their family and tribe. The offspring of parents chemically and emotionally bonded to each other and to their children had a strong survival advantage.

    There is no need to inject a spiritual element into love to explain it, no matter how good it feels. And it does feel good!

    “Love even transcends the boundaries of our human race: We can love our dogs and our countries.”

    And don’t let’s forget, our dogs love us back! Love is not exclusive to humans.

  • oldnuke

    It’s not about information. It’s about conversion. Many people don’t have a living relationship with God, and until they do, no amount of data dumping on them will work to help them become more Catholic. This is the biggest mistake that’s being made today. It’s not about catechesis. Yelling louder only causes people to ignore the noise with more determination.

    Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is not problem solving. When something’s not working, it’s important to figure out why it’s not working. Only then can you make it work.

    • msmischief

      Well, it can eliminate one barrier to it, namely disbelief in the sense in which someone might disbelieve in heliocentric, or that a given disease was caused by nutritional deficiencies rather than a microbe. These beliefs, being non-religious, can nevertheless a required stepping stone to religious belief, if only by eliminating obstacles.

  • dan marsh

    True love is what remains after the serotonin and dopamine of pleasure and infatuation are gone, and you’d still give your life for someone else.

  • K

    I fear this errs towards a God of the gaps philosophy. You are looking for God in the mystery and the not-yet-known of love and guitars. But this sort of god retreats from our knowledge, shrinking in size with each discovery. God should be sought out in the revealed, that your understanding of Him can only grow.