The Russian cosmonaut, Gagarin, has the distinction of being the first person in outer space. This momentous event occurred in 1961. After returning to earth, Gagarin reportedly said, “No, I didn’t see God. I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.”

This denial of God’s existence by Gagarin reminds me of the philosopher John Wisdom’s parable about the Invisible Gardener, expanded on and added to by Anthony Flew, a philosopher. Flew’s version of the parable goes like this. 

Flew notes that two explorers happened to discover a clear space in a jungle. Weeds and flowers together grew in this clearing. One explorer opined that “some gardener must tend this plot.” The other explorer stated that surely no gardener exists. To settle their dispute, the explorers decided to set up camp in the clearing. However, no gardener ever appeared.

One explorer mused that perhaps there’s an “invisible gardener.” To test that assumption, they set up an electrified barbed-wire fence and patrolled it with bloodhounds. The dogs, however, never barked and no gardener ever came. One of the explorers then stated that “how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even no gardener at all?”

It should be noted that Anthony Flew was a hardcore atheist for 50 years because he could find no hard evidence that proved the existence of God. However, he wound up changing his mind in his later years stating that a “super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature.”

I have used Flew’s parable in my thirty years of teaching undergraduates and we have had spirited discussions concerning the implications of this parable. I have told my students that there’s a paradox connected with answering the question whether the existence of God can be “proven.” It seems that for a theist God certainly exists because the believer takes it on faith that God exists. In other words, the theist knows with complete certitude that God exists. 

On the other hand, the skeptic or unbeliever, like Gagarin, sees no hard proof or evidence that God exists. Some agnostics or atheists use the principle of Plato’s Socrates that states: "Follow the evidence, wherever it leads.” However, most of our knowledge derives from using our five senses and reason. Unbelievers find a hole in the various proofs that are used in arguing for the existence of God, such as the famous five proofs of Thomas Aquinas that are based on the principle of causality, viz., that every effect (like the universe) has a cause.  

In this connection one must bear in mind that the word “proof” has several meanings, depending on the discipline it which it is used. Proof in mathematics differs profoundly from proofs in philosophy or theology. The sixteenth century philosopher, Rene Descartes, wanted to have the same stringency attached to proofs in philosophy as he could find in mathematics. Hence, he was on “mission impossible” in his quest to find this type of proof in dealing with questions in philosophy.    

Furthermore, I would note that the hard sciences like physics and chemistry deal mainly with problems that can be solved, whereas philosophy and theology deal with what Gabriel Marcel calls “mysteries.” Mathematical and problems in statistics have one correct answer. However, questions in philosophy have no one correct answer, e.g., “What does it mean to be human or what is the nature of love?” Different answers are given by different individuals.

Also, in dealing with scientific problems, it helps to be a detached or neutral observer. However, in dealing with questions in philosophy or theology we are involved in the problem. We are not detached observers since we are personally involved in considering questions in philosophy. Why so? For example, if God does exist, then a person might have to live a certain kind of life. Moreover, not all questions have answers. What does one say to a couple whose baby died at a young age and they ask how a good God could allow this to happen? Another unanswerable question is this: “What will become of us?” or “Is there life beyond the grave?”

The discipline known as theology may be defined as “the science of the faith.” Daniel Berrigan, a priest and activist in the Sixties described faith in this way. He said that faith may be compared to a glass of water, without color, without odor, without taste. Yet when held up to the light of day, faith is a prism that reflects and reveals all the beauty, mystery, and wonder in the entire universe.

Faith is like the glasses we put on to see a 3D movie. If we view the screen without these 3 D glasses, the picture looks blurry. Through the lens of faith, believers see reality differently than does the skeptic or unbeliever. A believer sees God in nature such as in a beautiful sunset, whereas the unbeliever sees just the beautiful sunset with no reference to God.

Did the world come about by chance via the evolutionary process? Hardly. I believe that God exists based on what I would call the principle of sufficient reason. There had to be an intelligent being or Creator that designed the world in such a marvelous way. Look at the sheer immensity of the world, or consider the complexity of the human body. How could the universe have come about simply by chance without a Grand Designer or God?  

For me there’s a grand design in the world and in nature. Others may disagree with my reasoning. No one has a monopoly on wisdom and no one has a monopoly on stupidity. On earth we see things through a glass darkly. In the next world we’ll see things face to face. As John Henry Newman said in Latin, “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem,” (We go from shadows and images into the truth).

Richard Penaskovic is an emeritus professor at Auburn University, who taught religious studies for 30 years.

(1) comment

Robert Landbeck

"This denial of God’s existence by Gagarin reminds me" Of the Star Trek film where man tried to reach G-d but the search ended in self deception and failure in the attempt. What both examples have in common, real and celluloid, are efforts that were founded in a purely human imagination and intellect. And the question remains relevant today. Does God exist? And while is may be easy for some to project the majesty of our natural world onto the idea of G-d, that does not equal a revelation from G-d or any basis for religion. As the G-d question remains unresolved, one might ask what the Gagarin and and Star Trek examples have in common with religion today? Like the two examples, theistic religion is a wholly human theological construct that claims or pretends to have comprehended the mind of God by purely human intellectual means. And while not questioning the protential for G-d, I have to wonder, if the church as we know it from history and tradition, is anything more then a grand self deception and theological counterfeit. What a 'second coming' in intended to expose. All is folly all is chasing after wind!

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