I see in the newspapers that more and more people are proclaiming themselves to be atheists and taking up the cudgels against religion…. Why don’t highly educated Christians take on these people? Why don’t they bring out the proofs for the existence of God? We had such proofs when I was young. We didn’t need them then because we all believed in God, but we need them now. Why does nobody mention these proofs anymore? J.L.
I remember them well: Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God. I even knew them by heart in Latin at one time. It is true that we hear much less about them now. It is ironic, as you say, that we were full of proofs at a time when we didn’t need them, and now that we need them they are nowhere in sight. But this may be the key.
Those proofs were effective within a certain way of thinking. They were part of that way, and now they lose their grip as that way loses its grip. Arguments today about Aquinas’ proofs tend to be arguments about whether or not they are proofs or even intended to be proofs in any strict sense. But even if they are not that, they still have a lot of interest. He took five aspects of the world and pushed them to their limit and beyond. It was like blowing holes in a self-enclosed world, aerating it, opening it to the infinite. This is always necessary, but it is done in a different way today.
19th-century scientists tended to be atheistic as a matter of course, but this is no longer the case. Scientists (with just a few exceptions) are the ones who really blow the world open today. Even if a scientist is not a believer he or she is unlikely to be a dogmatic atheist. It is not as if believers today are faced with a blank wall of atheism. There has seldom been a better time for discussion of God and religion.
We have to give up the idea that God can be captured cold by some sort of rational argument. This view cannot be dismissed as modern agnosticism; it goes back a long way. Here is what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote, a century after Aquinas: “Through the grace of God we can know fully about all other matters, and think about them – yes, even the very works of God – yet of God can no one think. Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think, and choose for my love that thing which I cannot think! Why? Because God may well be loved, but not thought. By love God can be caught and held, but by thinking never.” This is not an exceptional text; there are countless similar texts in the writings of Christians through the ages.
St Paul’s phrase was “a life that looks towards God” (Rom 6:11). If the mind alone is looking towards God, but not the life, it won't see much beyond its own reflections. The only real evidence of God is a life lived godwards. St Paul once tried the way of sweet reason (Acts 17), but people only laughed at him. It may have been in that moment that he found his own voice. From that point on he would proclaim “Christ and him crucified.” Not only a life, then, but a life and death – a life in all its dimensions including death, a life of agony and ecstasy – not the cool life of pure reason.
What Christians proclaim is an event that has taken place, not a religious system or simply a ‘message’. This is why eyewitness and testimony are crucial. Philosophical arguments and theories, while they may propose faith to you, can never bring you there. Some people are hindered rather than helped by them. A scholarly lady said to a confrère of mine many years ago: “It was Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God that brought me into the Church.” “I’m happy for you,” replied my friend, “but they almost drove me out of it!” Philosophical arguments, by their very nature, express skepticism and chosen limits to what one is prepared to accept. In some periods of history there was a wide streak of rationalism in theology that alienated many and boxed up the faith in a suffocating system. The First Vatican Council (convoked in 1864) pronounced an anathema on anyone who said that the existence of God could not be proved by reason alone. This sounds strange to modern ears. If it was possible to prove God’s existence by reason alone, why didn’t they just do it? That would have confounded anyone who claimed it could not be done. The anathema was aimed at 19th-century rationalism, but it was itself a good example of the same. Some of this rationalism still exists today. But we have to assert that the faith is not plausible, and any account of it that makes it so is throwing away the kernel of it. There is nothing plausible about existence, or the world, or God, or the Incarnation, or the death of Jesus, or his resurrection…. What we proclaim is not a plausible account of life, a ‘philosophy for the millions,’ made palatable by striking images and stories, but a series of extraordinary events: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
“You are witnesses of these things,” said Jesus (Lk 28:48). This was spoken to “the eleven and their companions.” But ultimately it is spoken to every Christian. We are to witness what the Spirit, the ‘Advocate’, has witnessed to us in our hearts and in our lives, among the community of believers. We are to speak from experience. This is proof in another sense of the word ‘proof’, evident in the Italian word ‘provare’, which means, ‘to experience’.