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Review Essay, Keeping the Balance

But this surely brings us back to our old problem: we have been saying that we can only believe in the occurrence of the resurrection by assuming God’s existence in the first place! However, after offering an example, Williams observes that arguments can sometimes work in a different way: “When I say that I can believe that ‘x’ occurred only if I assume ‘y’, does not stop me from using ‘x’ as evidence for ‘y'” So whilst on the one hand “I may grant that I can never believe in the resurrection unless I make the assumption that there is a God”, on the other hand, my “studying the witness to the resurrection may press me towards that very assumption”. Certainly, “What study of the resurrection reports forces me to do is to consider rather seriously the question of God”, and more so than many other things that might, simply because “the very specificity of Jesus and of resurrection claims sharply focuses the belief that there is a God at work in the world”.

Williams goes on to say that “it is usually conceded that none of the so-called arguments for the existence of God actually offer proof of his existence” anyway. In fact, he believes “the whole enterprise, almost by its definition, is precarious and unlikely to yield anything conclusive, certainly not for the unphilosophical”. This does not mean that “the whole exercise is completely valueless”, but we need something more solid and dependable. Williams notes, however, that “arguments are very often attempts to turn intuitions into demonstrations”. The arguments may fail, but we often feel justified in reformulating them or trying something else again and again, rather than abandon our original conclusion. These “underlying ‘intuitions’ …often precede and survive arguments”. They are worth considering for a moment, as they could shed some light on our path.

Williams suggests that, when people approach the subject of God’s existence, for example, they come with what “amounts to an overall impression” about the issue—”a kind of judgment about the whole”, rather than a detailed analysis of the parts. Reason is fully involved in forming that judgment, but “it is not really a formal and logical deduction”. Here is “an interesting and crucial reality in our ‘epistemic’ functioning”, and it also applies to “our perceptions of and dealing with other people”. Williams observes how “our insights or intuitions about people can be frighteningly near the mark and are certainly not irrational, but they cannot be explained easily by analysing logical processes”. The point here is that when we are trying to understand other people, just as when we try to think about religion, “we must make room for intuitive judgments or insights”.

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2006

About the Author: W. Simpson, PhD (University of St. Andrews, Scotland), is a physicist and writer with an interest in theology, currently engaged in scientific research in the middle-east.

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