Which Way Is Up?

Welcome to Sunday, the day after the day we are supposed to “keep holy” according to the Third Commandment – and a good day, still, to pause and reflect. What do we think of Aquinas’ first four Ways to prove the existence of you-know-who?

They’re not what I expected. My memory of Aquinas led me to believe he’d be easy to ridicule, and I was wrong. As a body of work, Aquinas’ various “Summas” and “Replies” and opinion pieces are towering, meticulous and clever. He’s also quite easy to read – he had no interest in showing off, just communicating. He dictated to four scribes at once, reciting quotations from memory. On his deathbed he said he was most grateful for the fact that he immediately understood everything he read. In short: a genius.

But did he prove God exists? He presented the best arguments there are that don’t rely on revelation, scripture or subjective experience, that are solely derivable by reason from first premises and observation. Ways #1-3 notice things that happen through time in our world – change, causation and creation – and ask the perfectly reasonable question: What got them started?

Pre-moderns didn’t waste much time “proving” God exists because they had no alternative explanation beyond chaos. We moderns feel that we do. Ask somebody walking down Hennepin Avenue or the Nicolette Mall “How did the universe start?” and, if they’re a good Scandinavian graduate of “The U,” they’ll say, “The Big Bang.”

The God Project Street Team: “What happened before the Big Bang?”

BLOND PERSON: “Whassup?”

TGPST: “Exactly! What happened before that?”

BP: “I don’t know. But I’m sure some physicist at The U knows.”

TGPST: “What if they don’t?”

BP: “Try MIT – the Minnesota Institute of Technology.”

TGPST: “And what if they don’t know?”

BP: (fake smile) “Excuse me, I have to get to my ice fishing class. Have a great day now!”

My point here is not that Minnesotans have a self-satisfied way of referring to their pointedly average state school as “The U,” as though there aren’t any others, but that we make as many assumptions as pre-moderns did, just in a different direction. We assume science has it covered. Pre-moderns assumed God did. We both have faith in something we do not quite understand.

I still don’t know what got change, causation and creation started. I have to admit my ignorance and put my faith in something I can call “God” or I can call “Physicists at the U” (aka “Science”).

The most common logical objection to Aquinas’ Ways #1-4 is that he assumes no series can go on to infinity; there must be something first. Logicians say he doesn’t prove this, just asserts it. Well, okay, but it’s not a very satisfying objection. How can you explain infinity? We simply open up another thing – as Aquinas does in Ways #1-4 – that is beyond human understanding.

A better objection is that it’s a very long highway from this mysterious changer, causer and creator to the Hebrew Bible and the Calvary Pentecostal Ministry. Very true. All Aquinas succeeds in doing – and I think he does succeed – is draw our attention to an obvious fact: There is much about this Universe of ours, and about our own hearts, that’s like a Q&A without the A.

What do you think?

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2 responses to “Which Way Is Up?

  1. The thing about “The U” was hysterical. My wife, who like 99.999999 percent of Minnesotans, went there always uses that term. Being someone who really didn’t even believe Minnesota existed until I was 28, I have found that term to be pretty amusing.

    The U analogy is a perfect way of describing our collective human attachment to ideas that we believe other, more enlightened people understand. It is an interesting characteristic of many people that they are willing to accept the most popular answer to a question, lest they face having to actually answer it themselves. I can think of areas in my own life where I choose an easy explanation rather than one that challenges me to give up my earlier held belief. It is never fun or easy, but inside when I feel like I know when I have dodged an important question and feel a sense of confusion, guilt and regret.

    I was writing an article about hell the other day and it occurred to me that trying to understand the next life is insane. There is enough here that is confusing and difficult. I could spend a lifetime trying to figure out the point of this thing and never be a centimeter closer to anything that resembles truth. Plus, in trying to figure this life out, I create a rockier path for myself. Believing that somewhere, someone much smarter than I has an answer and I can just use what they came up with is a safe way out, but I don’t know if I can live with feeling like I didn’t try to know for sure.

    Having read your stuff on Aquinas, I have a newfound respect for his ideas. I was not incredibly familiar with his work before I read these articles and I feel now I have a better idea of his thought process. Regardless of where he got to with his work, I can’t help but feel a genuine sense of admiration for his willingness to deal with questions that could have been left for someone else.

  2. Hah – the eternal dilemma! My mom told me once she felt like she wished she’d read fewer books. But tend to think people spend too little time thinking about metaphysics, or the meaning of life, or whatever. Maybe because there’s no answer! I definitely have more respect for Aquinas now, but he’s a Medieval guy, after all. What a strange world they lived in.

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