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Kyle Eller: How our deepest longings reveal God’s existence

Jul 12, 2017

Some people consider philosophical arguments about God’s existence a dry, pointless exercise unlikely to convince anyone.

I’m not one of those people — I have no right to be, given that God used those kinds of debates in my own faith journey quite dramatically.

Kyle Eller
Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

Reason, far from being an opponent of faith, is a powerful supporter of it, and far from being something dry and abstract, the reasoned evidences for God’s existence often provide real spiritual fruit when we meditate on them in the light of faith.

To show what I mean, consider one of my favorite arguments for God’s existence, known as the “Argument from Desire.” This has been advanced by people like St. Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, and others, and it’s found in St. Augustine and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The person I have heard make it most powerfully is Peter Kreeft, from whom I am, no doubt, liberally borrowing here.

The argument goes something like this: For every natural, innate, universal human desire, there is a fulfillment somewhere. This doesn’t mean all our desires in fact get fulfilled; sometimes they don’t. It just means fulfillment exists in principle. We get hungry; food exists. We get tired; there’s such a thing as sleep. Go down the list and see for yourself. For our basic itches, something exists that scratches it.

Yet there’s an apparent exception to that rule — a big one. It’s a desire that we might struggle even to name, but it’s something like deep, abiding, unshakable happiness, joy, and contentment. We could almost say it’s the point of all those other desires, and yet satisfying those other desires never fills it.

In fact, as Kreeft points out, we notice this unfulfilled longing most of all not when our other desires are unfulfilled but precisely at the moments when they are most fulfilled, at our “peak moments,” when something terrific has happened. That’s when we sense most clearly that “something” that is still missing.

It’s as if someone is whispering in our ears, “Nope, that wasn’t it either.”

Across times and cultures, poets and philosophers, there is ample testimony that nothing on earth fills this deepest longing. So we can only conclude that what fulfills it is something transcending this earth, and that, of course, is ultimately God and beatitude with him in heaven.

It’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church is alluding to when it mentions the human person’s “longing for the infinite and for happiness” (32) as evidences right within ourselves for God’s existence. Surely there is an element of it in St. Augustine’s cry that God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.

This is obviously not like a mathematical proof. It’s inductive reasoning, meaning that it is an argument that supplies strong evidence, not an absolute proof.

But it’s a powerful and compelling argument. As Kreeft points out in one of his lectures, it’s pretty easy to see just using our imaginations. Suppose heaven really were the way some people talk about it, just sort of an endless procession of getting all the earthly stuff we want, forever. How long would it take to get bored of that? A week? A month?

Pope Benedict XVI made a similar point in his under-appreciated encyclical “Spe Salvi,” when he noted that heaven is not just an “unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality.” He goes on to describe it as “like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”

That’s what we are longing for. And it is not here, at least not fully, not yet.

It seems to me there is great spiritual power in coming to appreciate the truth of this argument. For one, it could be an aid in temptation. There’s a famous quote (wrongly attributed to G.K. Chesterton; it’s really from an author named Bruce Marshall) that goes, “… The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” But of course the brothel doesn’t work — no more than money, fame, power, or all the rest work to fill that God-shaped hole. The world is full of empty promises, and it’s helpful to remember that.

But more powerfully, it is a real cause for hope. I like to think of this infinite desire as a kind of homing beacon, built into us by our maker to help bring us home to him. God put this desire there because he wants to satisfy it. If we cooperate with him, by his grace, someday he really will.

In fact, he begins even now. This life is often a “vale of tears,” and not “life in the full sense,” but when we rest in God, in prayer and in the sacraments and in meeting Christ in the poor, we really do get a foretaste of what is promised to us.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@dioceseduluth.org.