Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic: post 10 – I Am Who Am: God does not exist…(2)
Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic. Post 10. I Am Who Am: God does not exist… (2)
I’m taking many of my ideas here from Edward Sillem’s book Ways of Thinking about God. It is important to realise that when Aquinas says he is going to prove God exists he doesn’t mean prove in the sense in which we usually take it, but in an older sense but one we sometimes still use, as when we talk about proving silver. He means ‘test’ ‘assess’ ‘evaluate’. The phrases he keeps coming back to – “all men call God”, “everybody calls God”, “everyone understands by God” – are of extreme importance. He is talking not about Christians, he is making clear, but everyone, people In general who have no access to divine revelation. These arguments, he thinks, don’t prove God exists at all. But his point is that they are not entirely valueless. He would have agreed with Dawkins and Kant completely, in the end they don’t work. But the light of natural reason can lead you towards God, even if only faith will take you the whole way. They can be of great use to the theologian in helping him to speculate about the meaning of revelation. He spends the first two articles of Quaestio 3 before he gets on to the Five Ways arguing that theology is a science. Augustine would have been as appalled at the idea that theology is a science as Dawkins is. Theology is a spiritual enterprise. But Aquinas doesn’t mean by science what we mean by science. Just as a musician takes the mathematics on which music is based for granted, on faith, for he is not himself a mathematician, and then takes the mathematical harmonies he assumes in order to create music through the light of his natural reason, so the theologian takes the data of revelation which are equally beyond his understanding, and uses his reason to speculate about what they might mean. The Five Ways are not meant to be proofs of the existence of God at all, they are what they say they are as Father Sillem has appreciated, they are helpful ways of thinking about God.
On one level noises separated by mathematical intervals: on another music
It is important, too, to understand that these are not five separate arguments, but a single complex of pagan ideas, mainly drawn from Aristotle. In the first way Aquinas doesn’t talk about cause, in the sense that Hume used the idea of cause and that we too so readily assume, but of a first mover. In the first way, he is using cause in the sense of a being – although as I will point out his whole point about God is that God is not A being but being itself – a cause that in bringing another being into existence doesn’t just shift a ball as a billiard cue does but bestows something of itself upon it, as there is something of the father in the child, and something of the personality of the artist in his (or my goodness me, her) art. Look at the goodness and beauty of all the natural things about you he is saying. Why are they so beautiful? Where does it all come from? Its wonder bursts the bounds of what can be summarized in terms of molecules and chromosomes. Surely it is reasonable to think, unprovable as it might be, that there must be a supreme beauty, the first mover, of which all these lovely things are the reflection and expression. They haven’t made themselves beautiful. To turn Russell’s argument on its head, if genes are the causes of the features and behaviours of the things they cause, what caused the genes? Aquinas’s whole point is that we don’t know. We can only believe. But reasonable arguments, nevertheless, can take you in helpful directions.
Aquinas is interested in the existence of God not because he wants to prove it but because he is enthralled by it. It is his great idea, it echoes through every nook and corner of the Summa. Before Aquinas theology had been mostly Biblical commentary, theologians had used the Bible to discuss God’s attributes, his omniscience, omnipotence, his providence and so on. Aquinas isn’t interested in any of that. His big thought is that God’s essence is his existence. God is existence itself. God is the ground in which everything else exists, the dwelling in which everything else that exists dwells. There is no God outside the universe. God is the universe, its very existence, the universe in its deepest place. “God is within the universe and that innermostly” he wrote. This is why Way 3 is important for he knew that he would immediately be accused of pantheism. Heat is not the same as a list of hot things, it is what makes them hot and there must be a sense in which it is prior to them. Things get hot because the atoms within them are moving faster, but the reason why they get hot is not the same as the things that get hot, even though it is never found, and could not ever be found, outside them. In the same way, each thing that exists does not exist in its own little packet of existence but because it shares existence with everything else, even though existence itself is never found, and could not ever be found, outside the things that exist. Existence is not the same as all the things that exist, even if you add them all together. Lists of hot things and lists of existing things do not lead you in the direction of mystical transports, but the testimony of mystics down the ages suggests that I Am Who Am does. Aquinas always prefaces each article with a quotation from scripture. For him theology is always as much an art as it is a science, thought always needing to be completed by belief and feeling.
I hope I am getting across to you something of my theological excitement when I put Aquinas’s ideas side by side with contemporary science. Quantum physics is telling us that there is an area of reality into which our ordinary reason and logic cannot penetrate but which nevertheless interpenetrates with ours. The defeat of Einstein by Heisenberg is crucial. Even the scientists cannot understand how two photons can communicate with each other instantaneously across the whole breadth of the universe, just as the biblical prophets could not understand the word of God that they were proclaiming. In the light of science now, logic fails. The objections of the dead as dust atheist logicians fall by the wayside, they are irrelevant. I find myself almost gibbering with excitement when Hawking and Krauss tell me that God didn’t create the universe, the maths indicates that it just appeared out of nothing. This is exactly what Aquinas thought, except that he would have called their nothing his existence. Not of course that I can understand the maths, any more than Aquinas’s musician could. For modern physicists, nothing is not an empty space but a very busy place indeed, seething with virtual realities – not-yets, preliminary abstractions, ghosts, not too far from Plato’s ideal forms perhaps – that became actual in the Big Bang and have gone on doing so even until now. What they call virtual realities Aquinas and Aristotle called potentialities. The first cause might as well indeed have been the Big Bang. Dawkins is quite right. “Therefore, it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other, and that everyone understands by God”. Except that they don’t. But given the fascination, the mystery, the impenetrability, the going beyond what we know and perhaps ever can and will know, the dizzying excitement of contemporary science, this is what they mean. What a shame that religion has got in the way.
What is on the other side of a black hole? Dark matter? Nothing? Another universe? Something we never thought of? Or something we never could think of?
Text from Veni Sancte Spiritus: courtesy of Schola Sancte Scholasticae and St Caecelia’s Abbey UK
Image of Black Hole:courtesy of NASA