Not to be outdone, I composed a response to the response's response, which I planned to keep hidden within his comments, but it far exceeded (more than double) the character limits. So thus ....
Reverend, your responses to my response bears its own full set of responses, but you've presented such a plethora of worthy ideas that I would be spamming your comments to address them all (I'm a little sad that I have to hold off on a reply about the via negativa because your response sharpened my own thinking about it), but I'd like to respond to your most cogent (to me) statements and questions which were
[The] assertion that, "...faith in the existence of God must be a matter of revelation from that God to a social group ('church') or individual ('believer') by channels of grace..." This makes theism haphazard, based on the whims and caprice of a seemingly fickle and unpredictable God.and
If atheists want proof, sound arguments, and solid evidence for the existence of God, and if you're right that none of this can be provided, where does that leave us? What is the meaningful dialogue you envision spiritually mature theists and right-reasoning atheists having? What would such a conversation look like?and
I don't see how I can have a relationship with someone if I don't first know for sure that they exist. [In fact, I kinda hope I never do.] What does it even mean to have a personal relationship with a non-personal being who is so completely unfathomable to us as to be incomprehensible to human logic and beyond our empirical grasp?THE FICKLE AND UNPREDICTABLE GOD
This is more a matter of my blindness to the limitations of my own paradigm (see below) and thus a imprecise and erroneous use of language. It should have simply been "revelation from that God to humanity (which has been preserved and codified by the Church) and the individual (who, once accepting of that revelation can be called 'believer')" God's grace is not offered capriciously--at least as long as you're not a Calvinist--but universally to all humanity.
All of humanity however, due to the effects of original sin (again talking from my theist viewpoint), is now imperfect in its ability to apprehend or comprehend that grace--we are wandering in what St Bernard of Clairvaux called "the land of unlikeness." So God revealed and restored the possibility of this apprehension through historical acts in the teachings of the prophets and in the life, actions and teachings of the God-man, Jesus Christ (or if you want to be more non-Christian specific through the teachings of world religions), and then subsequently through the Traditions and Sacraments of the Church where Christ remains present. (Shamelessly Catholic, I am).
All of that is still available to every skeptic and atheist, and the Church teaches that everyone who does not believe and yet still strives for Truth and the understanding of the right relationship between people is pursuing God honestly, whether they see it that way or no. Therefore, I hold that there's probably a greater percentage of skeptics and atheists who will come to the oneness with the Godhead, aka Heaven, than Christians who claim to hold these beliefs and then live in a perpetual state of forced ignorance and selfish refusal to act on the beliefs they claim. It is to be hoped that in the pursuit of Truth, any given individual will open themselves to the grace offered and purue a path of faith within a theistic viewpoint, but it's not necessary for the ultimate fulfillment of an individual which will only come at the eschaton, anyway.
Now all of this deals with that sticky wicket "faith" which I've noticed you're not terribly fond of bringing into the conversation, but I offered a definition of faith that may be more palatable to the conversation in a comment to one of your earlier posts here.
Thomas R. Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argues that progress in science is not made by mere accumulation of knowledge concerning natural phenomena, but is instead made by a series of revolutions in thought, ways of observing phenomena, and ideas about the nature of things. The revolutions of these parts he lumps together in the term paradigm shift. Now, I don't want to concern ourselves with the word 'progress' as it applies to thought and knowledge about God quite yet; however, I do think that viewing the topic of atheist, skeptic, and theist viewpoints with regard to paradigms can be useful--as will be the use of historical instances of paradigm shifts in science to discuss differences in spiritual paradigms.
Within the realm of science, the understanding of gravity provides one such useful example. Under an Aristotelian paradigm, it is within the nature of a rock to fall until it comes a rest; a trend toward "rest" is part of the inherent characteristic of that rock. So when a rock is released from a height, it is fulfilling its telos in coming to rest by falling to the ground. Newton's theories provided a paradigm shift of gravitational forces in which the rock is no longer falling, but in relationship to the greater mass of the Earth (only by our perspective could it be called "falling"). Einstein's theory of relativity is then a further catalyst of paradigm change, by which gravity is now understood as objects responding to the curvature of space-time caused by the energy and momentum of whatever matter and energy is present at a given point [thanks, wikipedia].* Under each paradigm, scientists within the new paradigm not only altered the tools and assumptions and types of experiment, the shift in paradigm altered the very way they view how the universe functions with respect to objects and gravity.
When paradigms do shift, resulting in a period in which a certain number of scientists fall into one camp or another--because the result of shift is a change not only in the formulas or theories, but in the perception of the very nature of the phenomenon--there can be a tendency for the respective groups to talk past each other in dialogue. If one physicist still accepts æther as the medium by which light as a wave travels as the only explanation of why light functions as a wave, no wave-particle dualist is going to adequately explain how light functions as quanta/photons in a meaningful way. The formulas that the ætherite uses are accurate for predicting how light works, and wave-particle duality opens up a whole new can of worms with new problems, so why should the ætherite see it any differently?
Thomas Kuhn even goes so far as to describe paradigm shifts for individual scientists and communities in terms of conversion. Some scientists never accept such a paradigm shift, even if the new paradigm gives greater and more accurate explanations of the phenomena. Einstein never did accept quantum mechanics as an explanation for the nature of the subatomic world, even as its view rested heavily on work that he had done concerning light and electrons.
I would argue that when it comes to the atheist/skeptic/theist trialogue, the individuals are thinking and speaking from completely different viewpoints as to the nature of the universe itself and end up talking past one another, even as they're speaking about the same ideas. You asked, good Reverend, how I then imagine some sort of meaningful dialogue to be exchanged between such groups if I find their mindset to be so different as to be almost meaningless when talking about matters of faith. Well, I would say that though the Aristotelian sees the rock coming to rest in fulfillment of its telos, and the Einsteinian sees the rock following the curve of space-time, I think both of them could agree that the rock can be used to build bridges or homes for wayward children.
Likewise, typically during a scientific paradigm shift, challenges are thrown from both sides with respect to accuracy of formulas to explain the respective viewpoints. As a result, greater scrutiny is given to methods of experimentation and mathematical precision. Atheists, skeptics and theists can serve as mutual watchdogs in terms of examining that within the others' paradigms the language and logic used is at least consistent to the paradigm and does not extend beyond the realm of ideas that the paradigm encompasses. If each side can concede how the other views the spiritual state of the universe, then they can confirm "yes, given your presupposition about the existence of God/the lack of existence/perpetual state of doubth, your logic does/doesn't make sense" which simultaneously will sharpen their own way of thinking within and without their respective paradigm.
Theist apologists should continue to talk with atheists about the existence of God, with a view to showing that if the existence of God is accepted that everything therein falls into place, is consistent with Nature or at least is not invalidated by what is known of Nature. They should strive to speak logically and consistently about their faith and constantly hold it to scrutiny that within the theist paradigm all statements are reasonable, logical and consistent. Atheists and skeptics, then, should constantly challenge those statements that theists never stop pushing in finding new language and new ways of seeking out the unity of vision that belief in God brings to their knowledge.
Even if theists, skeptics and atheists are speaking from different tongues, you've convinced me that there is a place for theistic apologists to demonstrate God's existence from logic and observation. Like a scientist defending a paradigm, it is to be hoped that they demonstrate that a greater number of phenomenon from history, science, society, ethics, philosophy, etc can be adequately explained by the paradigmatic shift of accepting the existence of God. There are physicists and mathematics who will sometimes speak of the aesthetic and simplicity of a new paradigm or a formula as proof, or at least demonstration, of its accuracy. Perhaps similar arguments would have appeal to seekers such as yourself.
But I also hold that coming to accept the existence of God means a mental and spiritual paradigmatic shift, or what we could term coming to faith, in the existence of God predicated on seeing patterns of grace in one's personal life and in the nature of humanity. Without opening oneself up to that new paradigm, our trifecta of philosophical discourse can only come to an impasse about God's existence.
*re: gravity's paradigms: Physicists, if my understanding of the concepts is off, please forgive and correct, but I'm more concerned at the moment about the general change in paradigm rather than it's accuracy.
RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
I don't see how I can have a relationship with someone if I don't first know for sure that they exist.
You can't, which was actually my point. The comments concerning a relationship with God was actually directed more toward faithful individuals who try to bash atheists over the head with what I considered impossible proofs for God, than skeptics and theists but that brings me to my next point ...
In fact, I kinda hope I never [have a relationship with God]
This is not a comment, but a question: what's the purpose, then, of proving or disproving God's existence? Say you were to prove God's existence--either universally or just within a reasonable doubt within your own perspective--in your spiritual quest (which I really pray you do--hope springs eternal), what would you then do with that knowledge if not then figure out the relationship between yourself and God who created you?
What does it even mean to have a personal relationship with a non-personal being who is so completely unfathomable to us as to be incomprehensible to human logic and beyond our empirical grasp?
Good question, and certainly one that the faithful have been struggling with since God said "Adam, what's up?" But one thing that's been key to figuring out that understanding is that God always acted first, and it is only by God's intervention and revelation that humanity has been able to have any such relationship. We are limited by our nature in how much we can apprehend or comprehend God, but God is never limited, for God has no limitations (this is, of course, a matter of faith) and so can interact with humanity by any means chosen: direct revelation by grace, revelation by the Book of Creation, revelation by historical intervention, revelation through the Word of God. So working with that, we faithful muddle through as best we can by the means of God's grace, prayer, study, attempts at leading virtuous lives, and by plucky determination. God help us and be patient with us all! Amen.
Thank you, Reverend, for the well-reasoned and impassioned responses--no one's given that much notice to my theological ramblings in quite some time--and for the blog in general. I hope we can continue in well-meaning dialogue, or at least go build some bridges with rocks. Peace.