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.”
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.