“Traditionally, Catholic theology makes use of a fair amount of philosophy when thinking about what God is…biblical revelation is not irrational and…it does not do violence to natural human reason…biblical revelation not only respects natural human reason. It also invites us to make use of natural human reason in the service of the revealed (Ed. biblical) truth.
…we might immediately ask a series of good philosophical questions, based on our ordinary experience of reality. Do we see signs, for example, in the ordinary realities around us (including ourselves) that things as we know them really are dependent for their existence upon another? Does the order of the world, as far as we can make it out, tend to suggest at least the possibility of an origin in divine wisdom? Does the physical world seem self-explanatory or could there be good reasons to think that the existence of the material world implies the necessary existence of something transcending matter?…the claim that revelation is compatible with natural reason requires at least that there is some kind of possible rational harmony between what we think about the world philosophically based on ordinary experience of the world and what we find being taught in the revelation of the Catholic faith.
…the traditional Catholic insistence on the “proofs for the existence of God” are not first and foremost about trying to gain universal consensus regarding the philosophical question of the existence of God. They are not even first and foremost about trying to show that it is rational to believe that God exists (though this is true and sometimes the arguments help agnostic people see this). The central aim of them, instead, is to show that there is a way of human thinking about God that can reach up toward God even as (or after!) the revelation of God reaches down to human reason, so that the two cooperate “under grace” or in grace. The point is that grace does not destroy human nature but heals and elevates it to work within faith in a more integral way. Thinking about the one God philosophically is meant, in Catholic theology, to be a form of humble acceptance of biblical revelation…This Catholic approach eschews then two contrary extremes: a fideism that would seek to know God only by means of Christian revelation (with no contribution of natural human reasoning about God), and a rationalism that would seek to know God only or primarily by philosophical argument, to the exclusion of the mystery of the revelation of God.5 Faith and reason are meant to work together in this domain, not stand opposed.
The Illative Sense
…The traditional Catholic arguments for the existence of God are not geometrical proofs derived from self-evident axioms, but are something more elevated and deal with a subject matter that is more elusive. They function primarily as intellectual discernments about the nature of reality as we perceive it all the time. They begin from things around us so as to perceive the necessity of a transcendent origin, God the creator, Who remains hidden and hence not immediately subject to the constraints of our “clear and distinct ideas.” That is to say, thinking about God is realistic and philosophical, but it also seeks to acknowledge the numinous character of our existence and the ways that our limited, finite being points toward something transcendent, necessary, and eternal, which is the cause of our existence. Thinking about God in this sense is difficult for the human mind, not because theology is soft-headed, but simply because the subject matter is so elevated and not intrinsically capturable in the way mathematical or empirical topics are.
There are many ways of approaching the question of God philosophically, and the Catholic tradition has given rise (and continues to give rise) to a multitude of rational arguments, some of which are incompatible with one another (such that intense philosophical dispute occurs continually within the Catholic faith, a sign of its respect for the autonomous development of philosophical reason). There are arguments from the metaphysical structure of reality (the being of the world), arguments from beauty, from the very idea of God as perfect (Anselm’s famous ontological argument), from the order of the world, from the moral drama of human existence, from the desire of man for an infinite good, and others as well. Aquinas is often said to have given five demonstrations of the existence of God, but in fact he gives between fifteen and twenty arguments in various locations in his work.6 Many of these have their roots in previous thinkers, particularly Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, and a host of patristic authors.
It is important to note that more than one argument or philosophical way of thinking about God can be true simultaneously. There are various routes up the mountain, so to speak. This is because the world around us is complex and so the complexity of the world can “bespeak” or indicate God in different ways. It is one thing, for example, to note that the existence of interdependent physical realities requires a transcendent, non-physical cause. It is another thing to note that the human being is marked inwardly by a dramatic struggle between moral good and moral evil. These two truths can be indirect indications of the mystery of God distinctly, but also in a simultaneous and convergent fashion. Various truths we come to about the world converge to suggest a larger overarching truth.
This is the case not only for arguments for the existence of God, but also for our larger perspective on religious and cosmic questions more generally. Atheists, for example, often inhabit intellectual traditions of argument that attempt to explain a variety of truths from within a diverse but convergent set of unified theories: “The Bible is a purely human book.” “There are no good philosophical arguments for the existence of God.” “The problem of evil mitigates against claims to the contrary.” “All that exists is in some way purely material.” “Human origins are explicable by recourse to a materialist account of the theory of evolution.” “Whatever moral or aesthetic truths there are within human existence are best safeguarded by secular political systems.” These are all very different claims but they are held by many people as a set of convergent, interrelated ideas about reality, and the more one holds to a greater number of them, the more the others may seem plausible or reasonable. This is something like what John Henry Newman referred to as the “illative sense” of rational assent to the truth.7 We tend to see things in sets or groups of collected truths. Meanwhile, such complex deliberations touch upon the cords of our heart. We are affected by what we want to be true, or what we want not to be true, by our unconditional desire to find the truth or our fears of inconvenient truths. Otherwise said, the heart is both affected by and affects our thinking about major questions like atheism or the existence of God, because there are implications for other aspects of our life and our overall take on reality in a broad sweep of domains.
This is why thinking about the one God is often, for each of us, deeply interrelated to (even if logically distinguishable from) a whole host of other issues…
…Straightforward philosophical reflection about God, then, has its own integrity as a form of argument, or reasoning, but it is also embedded within a web of existential concerns and reflection on a wide array of issues pertaining to reality. The plausibility of believing one thing, especially a truth about God, is connected to the plausibility of believing a great deal of other things.”
-White, OP, Rev. Thomas Joseph. The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Kindle Locations 1223-1247, 1251-1285, 1288-1291). Catholic University of America Press. Kindle Edition.”
Faith has implications. Belief is consequential, in SO MANY ways!!! But, so too, atheism. Like it, or not. Eternally?? 🙂 Not choosing is a choice. Jesus compels a choice. Which do you choose?
Aut Deus, aut malus homo.
5. See here the classic Catholic statement on faith and reason in the document of the First Vatican Council, Dei Filius, April 24, 1870, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, pars. 27–43.
6. On Aquinas’s varied arguments for the existence of God, see John Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought.
7. John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, chap. 9.