Atheism of late has gotten a bad name thanks to its rather callow contemporary adherents—Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. But history has produced a few brilliant atheists as well—like my favorite, Nietzsche—and the Church’s best theologians have long taken atheism seriously.
The insightful British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP, distinguishes between two different types of atheists in his excellent collection of essays God Matters. McCabe points out that some atheists reject what they take to be a peculiar religious conception of God: God as a sort of really big, really powerful guy, a “Top Person,” to use McCabe’s phrase. In rejecting such a (mis)conception of God, McCabe says, Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.
But there’s another type of atheism, one exemplified by Bertrand Russell, which amounts to the refusal to ask a particular type of question. Contrary to the picture atheists often try to paint of themselves as bold questioners and champions of truth, such an atheism amounts to a sort of intellectual suicide. It is this type of atheism that Thomas’ much celebrated and much maligned “five ways” are meant to counter.
Thomas’ critics, both believers and skeptics, point out that the sort of God of whom he speaks in the second question of the Summa Theologica bears little resemblance to the God of Scripture and tradition. Affirming the existence an Aristotelian Prime Mover is not the same as believing in the God of revelation, a God who dies for us on the Cross out of love. The God of the five ways seems frightfully abstract, and it is hard to see how one moves from such abstraction to, say, prayer.
Such criticism is not wrong as far as it goes, but it seems to me it misunderstands what Thomas is doing in that part of the Summa. His style of writing, I admit, is painfully dry, but we shouldn’t let that obscure the rich mystery into which his philosophy is meant to draw us. Thomas understood, of course, that Christianity is a matter of entering into a relationship with God, not mere intellectual assent to propositions.
An important hint at what Thomas is up to in the five ways comes in the preceding article, when Thomas acknowledges, “The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles.” This tells us that the discussion of God’s existence that immediately follows is not an introduction to Christianity; it is not faith-lite, or even a way to arrive at faith. Faith is a gift given us by God, not something we talk ourselves into.
Some would read Thomas’ proofs as attempting to do just that, to talk ourselves into faith, but such a reading doesn’t do credit to the philosopher’s subtlety. Being talked into something is not the same as entering into relationship with Someone. Instead, Thomas’ five “proofs,” it seems to me, are a way of asking questions that leave oneself open to God. They are, to use his word, preamble, a way of remaining intellectually—and spiritually—alive for those who do not have faith.
To return to McCabe:
To prove the existence of God is to prove that some questions still need asking, that the world poses questions for us… To assert the existence of God is not to state a fact within an established intellectual system but to claim the need for exploration; it is to claim that there is an unanswered question about the universe: the question ‘How come the whole thing instead of nothing?’
Last year I read a radio debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston, S.J., about the existence of God. What struck me most about Russell was that his argument was not an attack on God, but an attack on reason; he could only maintain the position that he did because he refused to ask questions to which he did not have the answers. So, to the Big Question—“Why is there something rather than nothing?”—Russell couldn’t even say, “I don’t know.” Instead, he refused to acknowledge the question.
If we all took Russell’s approach, it would mean not only the death of philosophy, but the death of science—and every other branch of inquiry that dares to push beyond the bounds of what we already know.
Aquinas’ five ways are questions about the universe. Though McCabe doesn’t mention Aquinas explicitly, his approach is indebted to him. McCabe goes on to point out that for any object we encounter—another person, the earth, the solar system, a dog named Fido—we can ask an almost infinite array of questions, one of which is “How come?”
“How come Fido?,” McCabe says, can be asked on several different levels. How come Fido and not some other dog? How come a dog and not a giraffe? How come an animal and not a rock? These questions can be answered in a variety of different ways, some of which will push the bounds of our knowledge. Some answers will involve Fido’s parents; others biochemistry, genetics, natural selection; still others the motives of Fido’s human owners.
Now, we could arbitrarily refuse to continue asking questions at any point. Those who deny Darwinism and natural selection, might refuse to ask the question “Why a dog and not some other species?” If they did so—and some do, content to assert that dogs just exist and that’s that—such people would likely be subject to a certain amount of intellectual opprobrium. In a sense, they’d be guilty of turning off their intellect’s most critical faculties; they’d be guilty of a sort of intellectual suicide.
The most difficult question of all, however, is not “Why Fido rather than a giraffe?” or “Why Fido rather than Rover?” but “Why Fido rather than nothing?” Aquinas’ “proofs” (the first three at least), all ask this question, “Why something rather than nothing?” They ask it, of course, of the universe as a whole rather than of Fido in particular because if we continue to stubbornly ask questions about Fido or ourselves or any other thing, at some point they will lead us to the big question about everything. Why something rather than nothing?
Aquinas—with McCabe—calls the answer to this question “God.” We can say a bit more about what sort of an answer this is, mostly in terms of what God is not. If God causes everything, for example, we know that he is not just another thing within the universe—not a really big guy or a force like gravity but stronger. We know, in fact, that any further questions we ask about God will be groping and inadequate, that in order to enter such a discussion about God we will necessarily be stepping into terrain which our language—which deals with the stuff we do know—is ill-equipped to navigate.
To assert the existence of God, in this context, is to assert the existence of mystery, to assert the validity of questions we not only can’t answer, but aren’t sure how to ask.
As McCabe puts it:
We come across God, so to speak, or rather we search and do not come across him, when the universe raises for us a radical question concerning its existence at all.
Aquinas’ five ways do not prove the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they invite us to embrace an attitude of wonder, to dare to face questions we cannot answer on our own—and in doing so to remain alive to the silent whisperings of Someone in answer.