Unreal Estate

We wondered out loud why Aquinas leases so little space to his arguments for the existence of God. Turns out, we’re not being fair – nor are the atheists who mock him. The points summarized in the “Summa Theologiae” are laid out much more leisurely elsewhere. The first “Way,” which takes up a paragraph in the “ST,” stretches out to thirty in Aquinas’ “Summa Contra Gentiles.”

Thomas Aquinas Mousepad

Think of it: the great Thomas “Ox” Aquinas is remembered today for two pages of a 4,000 page work, which itself was a summary for so-so undergrads of his other, detailed work for adults. Kind of like Einstein’s entire legacy resting on the table of contents of “Relativity for Dummies.”

But still. The Existence of G-O-D! You’d think he’d give it more attention. It’s like the historical Jesus. The lord of all he surveys isn’t mentioned at all in the surviving non-Christian sources until a century after his death. Why? Listen up, girls: What is all that to us wasn’t always all that. He just wasn’t important.

Conclusion: Aquinas does not think the “Five Ways” are important. He’s dotting an “i.” He admits the proofs aren’t original; they’re adapted from Aristotle, Avicenna (Ibn Sena) and John of Damascus (Damascene). Read in context, it’s obvious their role is defensive: they’re examples from other philosophers showing that yes, indeed, it’s possible to lay out a rational argument that God exists … and, look, even smart pagans agree. Amen.

In his Christian Theology Alister McGrath says, “It is perfectly clear that Aquinas does not believe in God on account of any of the considerations he mentions so briefly.” And he quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Culture and Value:

“What believers who have formulated such proofs [for God’s existence] have wanted to do is to give their ‘belief’ an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs.” (p184)

I think the reason we’re all so completely unconvinced by these pre-modern “proofs” for the existence God is simple: they were not written for us. They were written for people to whom God’s existence was as obvious as Its non-existence is to us. Our hymnals are different.

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2 responses to “Unreal Estate

  1. UNREAL ESTATE!!!! Best title I’ve come across in a while!

    The more of these I read the more I am beginning to be troubled with the idea of moving from belief to proof. It really seems like mixing the two is oil and water. Maybe the idea of belief in itself is incompatible with thought. I don’t know, but that Wittgenstein quote sure gets to the heart of my problem. How can you talk someone in to something using an argument that you don’t even believe?

    It’s like with Descartes and the Cogito. He wanted to figure out a way to rationalize God, but what he really ends up doing is dropping an atomic bomb on the idea of rationally proving God. He smashes the universe into one piece (I think, therefore I am) and tries to rebuild the thing out of that one remaining strand. He tries to balance a whole bunch of weird little ideas and beliefs on that one island of truth. The problem is, where on earth did they come from. How do you go from an experiment in radical doubt that yields a universe where “there is only one provable thing” to mind and body dualism and a benevolent God that would never steer us wrong? Hell of a leap, don’t you think. That, I believe, is the essence of Wittgenstein’s point.

  2. These are great points Keith – ultimately, Aquinas agrees that we can not really know God with our reason – He/It is beyond us. But because he believed (as Descartes believed) that God created the world, and our minds, we can catch a kind of faint glimmer of God with those minds. It’s nothing like the total God – just a rational shadow. But the faith-seeking-understanding Medieval project ended in failure. By the 16th century there were those incredible mystics like John of the Cross & the sizzling hot Teresa – can’t wait to get to them 🙂

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