Thomas Aquinas was so fat, the story goes, his Dominican brothers had to cut a place for him into the communal table so he could sit closer to the food bowls he so obviously didn’t need. He was Italian, second son of nobility, and a mondo-maxi-zoom-dweeby genius whose career coincided with the rediscovery of Aristotle, known only to Muslim philosophers for 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire.
My revered father, Dr. Ronald, was a Catholic boy in Cape Town, South Africa, in the days when the mass was said in Latin. He met Pope Pius XII in Rome after Italy surrendered in World War II. And when I mentioned The God Project Dot Net to him, his response was rat-a-tat: “You have to talk about Aquinas.”
To Catholics, Aquinas is the philosopher, a voice louder than Augustine’s, more comprehensive than Paul’s, second only to that of Christ himself (as explained by the Holy See). Non-Catholics are less impressed: following Luther, Protestants have caricatured Aquinas as a crypto-Pelagian hypnotized by a pagan pseudo-atheist who believed the universe was eternal, God didn’t care much about us, and the human soul could die.
Aquinas wrote even more than he ate, and his big book was the Summa Theologica, a 4000-page masterpiece of meticulous step-by-step argument on all things Christian. Of these many, many Latin pages, only two (2!) are devoted to proving the existence of God. That’s 0.05% — a solid click-through rate for an online display ad but hardly a ringing indication of what’s really on Aquinas’ mind.
So let’s say it again: Pre-modern “proofs” for the existence of God were not written to convince modern atheists, and they won’t. They were written because philosophers like Anselm and Aquinas had enormous respect for Greek wisdom — Sophia, or “Reason” with a capital “R” — and they wanted to convince believing Christians that their faith was rational. It’s like Aquinas heard the scientific train wreck a-coming and slapped on his goggles to weld up a fortress of faith.
He even admits (ST PI Q1 A8): “If our opponent [i.e., atheist] believes nothing of divine revelation there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning.”
So Aquinas breezes through an answer to questions he poses himself: “Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?” (Article 2) and “Whether God Exists?” (Article 3). In good dialectical fashion, he first raises some contraries that sound remarkably modern:
- A “demonstration produces scientific knowledge; whereas faith is of the unseen”
- We “cannot know in what God’s essence consists” because humans aren’t smart enough
- We can know God only “from His effects,” which are “not proportionate” — meaning, nowhere near enough
- “There is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.”
His response: “I answer that, The existence of God can be proved in five ways” — leading into his famous so-called “Five Ways” to show that God exists.
Can you wait?