The Hagiological Argument for the Existence of God

February 3, 2017
Visiting Scholar Dr. Robert MacSwain
Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain, Associate Professor of Theology, University of the South, and Visiting Scholar at Harvard Divinity School, 2016-2017.

On February 1, CSWR resident Rob MacSwain presented on his sabbatical research project dealing with the idea of saints as evidence for God. He began by introducing the traditional tendency of Western Christian philosophy and theology to offer arguments for the existence of God and summarized the classic arguments. Rob then showed that, although the claim is rarely encountered in standard discussions, several prominent figures have argued that exemplary human lives motivated by religious belief (“saints”) provide evidence for the existence of God, and indeed perhaps even the best evidence. In particular, he drew on the writings of Austin Farrer, Peter van Inwagen, Rowan Williams, and Etty Hillesum. This claim about saints as divine evidence does not yet have a formal name, so he proposed calling it the hagiological argument (the argument from holiness).

Based on his current research, Rob divided this claim about the evidential value of human sanctity into three distinct versions: (1) the propositional, represented by Sarah Coakley, who argues that lives of supreme altruism require God by an inference to the best explanation; (2) the perceptual, represented by William James and others for whom saints are loci of religious experience; and (3) the performative, represented by Paul K. Moser, who says that religious believers are required to “personify” evidence for God in their own lives (as Rob put it, “ask not what theistic evidence can do for you, ask what you can do for theistic evidence”).

Rob then considered objections to each of these three versions, ranging from standard arguments against religious experience as a valid source of knowledge to more specific concerns about the distinctive appeal to saints as evidence. For example, if saints provide evidence for God, does that mean that “anti-saints” provide evidence against? Rob emphasized that he was neither defending nor critiquing the hagiological argument at present, but rather seeking to understand the logic of each version. He also stressed that an important goal of his project is to bring contemporary analytic philosophy of religion into dialogue with the field of religious studies and its close attention to saints and holiness as exemplified in various traditions.

In short, the hagiological argument questions whether one can agree that human holiness exists while affirming that God does not. The three identified versions approach this question in different ways, some of which may well be better than others. But at the very least, the appeal to saints as divine evidence seems to be an important but neglected way to explain how some people do in fact acquire their belief that God exists.

--by Robert MacSwain, Associate Professor of Theology at the University of the South and Visiting Scholar at Harvard Divinity School, 2016-17.