One of the favorite taunts of 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 de-humanizing 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.
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.
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 de-humanizing? 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 God is my invisible friend? Guilty as charged — and delightedly so.
Bishop Robert Barron. "Why I Love My Invisible Friend." Word on Fire. (August 13, 2014).
Reprinted with permission of Bishop Robert Barron.
Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota. He is also the host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award-winning documentary about the Catholic Faith, which aired on PBS. Bishop Barron is a #1 Amazon bestselling author and has published numerous books, essays, and articles on theology and the spiritual life. He is a religion correspondent for NBC and has also appeared on FOX News, CNN, and EWTN. Bishop Barron's website, WordOnFire.org, reaches millions of people each year, and he is one of the most-followed Catholics on social media. His regular YouTube videos have been viewed over 150 million times. Bishop Barron's pioneering work in evangelizing through the new media led Francis Cardinal George to describe him as "one of the Church's best messengers." He has keynoted many conferences and events all over the world, including the 2016 World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland, as well as the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which marked Pope Francis' historic visit to the United States. He is author of Exploring Catholic Theology, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals, Eucharist (Catholic Spirituality for Adults), The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, and Word on Fire: Proclaiming the Power of Christ.Copyright © 2014 Bishop Robert Barron