“GOD”, said Homer Simpson, “is my favourite fictional character.” Is it possible to prove the reality of God? The problem with “proofs” for the existence of God is that they seem persuasive only to those who already believe.
Faith in God is not quite the same as certain knowledge. There is always an element of risk. Explorations of faith in popular culture can help us to be honest about this risk, and to avoid the arrogance of a phoney certainty.
John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version (1986) is about a theology professor whose faith is shaken when one of his students starts designing a computer program that can prove the existence of God.
Woody Allen’s films, in their own humorous and irreverent way, raise difficult questions about the existence of God. In Love and Death (1975), one of the characters complains: “If only God would give me some sign. If he would just speak to me once. Anything. One sentence. Two words. If he would just cough.”
Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair (1951) tries, ambitiously, to stage a proof of the existence of God. Through a peculiar, supernatural twist in the plot, the atheist narrator is compelled to believe. On the last page he addresses God directly, begging God to leave him alone.
The novel explores the mysterious and even disturbing way that God’s love is woven into the course of a human life. Recalling St Augustine’s Confessions, Greene shows that even our sins can be the secret instruments of God’s love. As one of Greene’s characters says in Brighton Rock (1938), none of us can grasp “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”.
IN A MORE post-modern key, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001) also stages an argument for belief in God. The novel offers two alternative accounts of Pi’s survival at sea. The reader has no way of judging which of the accounts is true, but “the better story” is the one with the tiger in the boat. “And so it goes with God,” Pi concludes. We cannot be certain that God is there, but life with God offers a better story than the alternative.
The strangeness of believing in God is nowhere more apparent than when we think of God as Trinity. Some of the greatest theologians have come up with analogies for the Trinity, but they also point out that no analogy really shows what God is like. Cultural depictions of God, too, might be illuminating up to a point, as long as we are clear about their limits.
In his best-selling novel The Shack (2007), William Paul Young portrays a series of conversations with three characters who represent the Trinity. God the Father is depicted as an African-American woman; God the Son is a Middle-Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman.
This, by any stretch, is a very imperfect representation of God. Like any analogy, it illuminates some aspects of the Trinity while obscuring others. And yet, for all its flaws, The Shack offers more food for thought than typical Hollywood depictions of God as a single character — for example, Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty (2003), and Alanis Morissette as God in Dogma (1999).
THERE are probably grains of truth in even the most caricatured portrayals of God, while even the most sophisticated theologians can speak of God only with the qualification that “we know in part and prophesy in part.”
Perhaps the deepest wisdom comes from a Peanuts comic strip. Snoopy tells Charlie Brown that he is going to write a book of theology. He has already written the title: “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”
Ben Myers teaches theology at Charles Sturt University in Sydney. He blogs at faith-theology.com and tweets at @FaithTheology.