35 Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.
You may be getting the impression that the last few paragraphs sound an awful lot alike in terms of content. Simply put, the first point of this paragraph is that man is created capable of coming to knowledge of a real God and a personal God by the nature of his personal make-up. All the same, “real intimacy” is brought about by God’s will to reveal himself to man and give him the grace to welcome revelation in faith. Man may know by nature the existence of a personal God, but divine intervention is necessary for a loving welcome of God’s intervention into a human’s life.
Why has the Church gone to such trouble to reiterate the importance of natural knowledge as well as divinely infused grace in describing the interaction of God and man? It may be that the Church is attempting a retrieval of its scholastic/universal past to address the intellectual world of the late twentieth century. I have made mention in different entries that the majority of philosophers and theologians of the high middle ages held the world view of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was a realist who integrated the works of Aristotle into his own works. Aristotle was an inductive thinker: he moved from what he could observe to classifications and then to hypothesis and principles.
Aquinas, however, was a Christian, a Dominican monk. Where Aristotle could only take his method so far, to causality and First Mover, for example, Aquinas could take observable sciences all the way to their ultimate end as reflections of the infinite wisdom of God. Aquinas, and those who adopted his view of the world, gave form to the Christian university as the place where all disciplines could be studied to their logical synthesis. Para. 35 (and others like it) rest upon the school of Thomistic thought, since the Catechism teaches that man, by his organized and scientific observation, so to speak, can reason to both the existence of God and the existence of a personal God.
There is no denying, however, that Thomas Aquinas, as a man of his time, was profoundly influenced by his culture and his faith. Looking back today, we can see that reasonable observers of the Thomistic system might find fault with the assumptions that man can reason to a personal God. I think it is fair to say that a philosopher today (or especially a theologian) might look at Thomas’s conclusions as a metaphor of faith, and not a set-in-concrete stairway of premises leading to incontrovertible evidence that God engaged Abraham and began salvation history.
As the Thomistic world view was conceived in the bosom of the Church and his elaborate description of reality in his famous Summa Theologica was the Church’s backbone for all of its official theological thinking virtually to our own time, it would take a great deal of gumption to challenge the Thomistic Dominican system. However, in the early fourteenth century a Franciscan friar came forward to revisit the system of Aquinas—and the Church’s, by then.
I do not know if Catholicism has rehabilitated the friar William of Ockham (1280-1349), but he was excommunicated in his day. I do know that in the 1970’s I spent three summers socializing every evening with friar scholars at the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York, who were devoted to producing critical translations of his works, and that project continues with great vigor as of this writing. Ockham is considered a hinge between the scholastic thought of the age of Thomas and the modern age of philosophy, usually associated with Rene Descartes. Or, as the eminent historian of philosophy Father Frederick Coppleston put it, Ockham was the end of the Via Antiqua and the beginning of the Via Moderna.
Ockham fell out of favor with the Church because he believed the premises by which St. Thomas argued the existence of God were wrong. Ockham did not believe in universals, including principles and hypotheses. He maintained that all reality had to be sensually observable. Ockham believed in God, but did not have use for metaphysical proofs of God’s existence. He held that God is unprovable and thus can be known only through faith; Ockham was an early fideist.
The Church of Ockham’s day would have found him objectionable because he questioned the very thought system that buttressed the official doctrinal expression of the day. Moreover, Ockham would have had little use for such widely held principles as divine rights of kings, and thus opening the door to early forms of democracy and freedom of conscience. Moreover, Ockham became something of a philosophical hero to Protestant reformers, who maintained that we are saved by faith, not works.
Ockham’s influence extended well beyond his death. Rene Descartes’ famous teaching was made possible by Ockham’s influence: “I think, therefore I am.” Modern thinkers were able to construct systems of reality independent of God while not denying God. In our present day modern Catholic scholars of Thomas have attempted to retrieve a world-view that connects God with science.
There is little doubt in my mind that one of the unspoken agendas of the Catechism was the restoration of the Thomistic organization of faith. While St. Thomas is honored as the theologian of the Church, Vatican II did not demand strict adherence to his scholastic outline. Even as a seminarian at Catholic University’s School of Philosophy, I was required to read Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Paul Sartre, (and Ockham!) as the Council had called for seminarians to prepare themselves for engagement with “the world.”
An interesting statistic regarding the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Citations from St. Thomas Aquinas: 59
Citations from William of Ockham: 0
34 The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality “that everyone calls ‘God.’”10
There is a reference (n. 10) in the text from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica which continues the train of thought about the knowability of God by men. In the full text of the Catechism there is also a cross reference to the Creed of the Church, which begins with “I believe in God…” as the central belief of the Christian experience.
There is a difference in saying that “man can come to know…a reality…. the first cause and final end…that everyone calls God,” and saying that total belief in God (not knowledge of God) is the primordial act of faith, and I get the impression that one can see between the lines of this section of the Catechism an ongoing struggle between a reason-based and a faith-based theological anthropology.
In truth, the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church since at least the early middle ages has held that there is a reasonable component of Christian faith and practice. There have been a number of formal condemnations since then, in response to the radical approaches such as those of more extreme Christian mystics of the medieval era, and of Enlightenment thinkers such as Blaise Pascal and Soren Kierkegaard who separated faith from reason, a tendency called fideism, (from the Latin fides, faith.). As late as 1998 Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical called “Faith and Reason;” Wikipedia summarizes his position rather well: “The encyclical posits that faith and reason are not only compatible, but essential together. Faith without reason, [the pope] argues, leads to superstition. Reason without faith, he argues, leads to nihilism and relativism.”
Fideists, on the other hand, would argue that only an otherworldly faith is the key to human meaning and Christian life. While fideism is considerably more complicated than I have described it here, at its heart a fideistic outlook includes a gulf between the reasoning from science and human experience and an absolute faith in God totally divorced from human experience and reason. Fideism would eschew modern Biblical study, holding instead to the idea that God works by an internal logical inscrutable with which he tests the faith of the believer. Some of you may have encountered extreme evangelicals who have explained the discoveries of prehistoric bones and artifacts as actual “plants” put there by God to test our faith in the literal 4000-year Biblical dating of the beginning of time.
As we addressed a few weeks ago, if God has created human life with the inclination to arrive at some natural knowledge of the divine, and the capacity to receive Revelation and make a true personal determination to accept the message or reject it, then it is necessary to come to grips with evil and suffering in the world. Thinkers of all stripes have pondered the troubling thought that God has empowered the human being with enough knowledge and freedom to essentially damn himself. If you carry this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, you end up in the Calvinist stream of predestination: that God has preordained some of his children to make right choices and thus attain salvation. The corollary of this is that God has created others to sin, die, and face eternal wrath.
Thus, para. 34 is a reminder of that conundrum of creation—the all-loving God created a world that generated its own evil (“the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made”) and populated it with people, among whom were many who would succumb and fall into eternal perdition. I have not had a chance to study John Paul II’s discussion of the problem of evil, but in the aforementioned encyclical he does make connections between the issues of evil and the failure of humans to use the full reasoning and thinking power they have been endowed with to participate in the full truth of God. For John Paul, the sin of the world is acts of “sub-human” thought and behavior. While he cannot explain God’s mind, the pope certainly had enlightening ideas about ours.
33 The human person: With his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,”9 can have its origin only in God.
Paragraph 33 is a very good example of the influence of Vatican II upon the Catechism, and footnote 9 is a reference to the Council’s Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World. For this paragraph admits to the fact that the thoughtful human being, by the very nature of his constitution, debates within himself the question of God’s existence. This is a freedom of inquiry that would have been considered dangerous or even unthinkable in the Church even a few centuries before, though both Aquinas and Aristotle, to name just two, felt compelled to address the question of God’s existence.
One can see in this string of paragraphs a tug of war: in para. 32, on the one hand, the very beauty and order of the universe was considered an irresistible material reality to draw the scientific, searching mind to God. On the other hand, the Catechism is cautious to say nothing that would imply that the natural universe is so irresistible that it is impossible to not embrace God; this would destroy human freedom and the basis of Christian anthropology.
Paragraph 33 recognizes that for all the beauty of creation, there are many who wrestle with the “God Question.” Collegians of my generation remember the famous Time Magazine cover of 1966, “Is God Dead?” This cover, in turn, led to the equally famous God/Nietzsche graffiti that seemed to be a staple of every collegiate drinking establishment. I know first-hand.
Indeed, the 1960’s actually produced a “God is Dead Theology.” Its primary proponent was a theologian named Thomas J.J. Altizer. Dr. Altizer visited Catholic University for a philosophy faculty colloquy during my time in the department. The next day we asked one of our philosophy professors, the legendary Father Robert Paul Mohan, Ph.D., how the event had transpired. Father Mohan observed that Dr. Altizer had bounded out of his car wearing a yellow blazer. “He certainly didn’t dress like God was dead.” Funniest line I heard at Catholic University.
Paragraph 33, read in a certain way, is a counterpoint to its previous paragraph. The Catechism here describes man as created with an openness to truth and beauty, as well as an impressive skill set of inner riches, but acknowledges that for all of this, “man questions himself about God’s existence.” A lot of thought went into the composition here: the man who wrestles over the question of the reality and nature of God is described as wrestling with himself—establishing that all of us enjoy access to the presence of God if we can come to grips with our personal reason(s) for questioning God’s life or benevolence.
Para. 33 does not adequately address why some have so much difficulty believing in God. However, its phrasing does suggest valid possibilities. Man may be open to “truth and beauty,” but it would be a very dense individual who failed to see that truth and beauty are not always present, or have not visited all people equally. We are becoming much more aware of the trafficking of young children for sexual slavery; or the intense suffering of the Syrian people, those who stayed in their native country and those who fled. Experience teaches that both nature and nurture often come up short in the way maturing individuals process their surroundings and their world.
Similarly, the “sense of moral goodness” can be blunted by many factors. Again, youthful formation of ethics and justice often comes up short. In some individuals the very capacity of “knowing” (as in perceiving moral order) is a biological impossibility, as in profoundly dysfunctional propensities toward narcissistic or anti-social behavior. But perhaps most of all, the mature adult grows to more acutely assess the malaise of moral disorder everywhere—a maturity which ironically leads the observer to wonder, how could there possibly be a supreme moral agent at the switch?
The Catechism, in para. 33, seems to be saying that the very fact of doubting—or even a sense of bitter disappointment in God—is itself a positive sign: ‘in all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul.” This is certainly the hope of the Church, and the Scriptures are replete with those who found their way back from the darkness of disbelief and doubt.
Two critical points to remember from para. 33 need emphasis. The first is that belief in God is a process, not a geometric proof. Our own experience—and certainly that of the saints who have left their journals behind—emphasizes that while our religious psyche grows throughout life, it makes us capable of drawing deeper conclusions, many of which are sad or troubling. “Blessed are they who mourn…” is a beatitude directed precisely to those with eyes to see. Francis of Assisi spent his last years in significant physical and emotional pain over the directions his massive order was now undertaking. He would pray, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm and not a man.”
A second point is one I currently wrestle with myself in my late 60’s. I have no pressing doubts regarding the Scripture and the Church. In recent years I have been blessed with the opportunity to study the Faith more intently. So what is my beef with God or my stumbling block of belief? That He made Christianity too hard. That He has asked me as a Christian to embrace the cross. That He has demanded I embrace the beatitudes and strive for perfection and become like Him. That I can never put my life in auto drive and just glide along for the ride.
Believing in the existence of God is one thing. Using our innate gifts of human spiritual insight to act upon this belief is quite another.
Blogger’s Note: I can see from the stats and from correspondence that new readers are coming on board, and I thought it might be useful today to explain the Thursday Catechism page. Thursdays are devoted to a study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official text for teaching the Catholic Tradition. The Catechism is available for on-line reading here or in book form here. We look at one paragraph per week and are currently up to paragraph 32. The post is a combination of explanation, commentary, and launching pad for current ideas. Feel free to add any thoughts you may have in the comment section.
32 The world: starting from movement, becoming, contingency, and the world’s order and beauty, one can come to a knowledge of God as the origin and the end of the universe.
As St. Paul says of the Gentiles: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
And St. Augustine issues this challenge: Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky... question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?
This paragraph continues the theme of man’s innate desire for God. I had written earlier in the series that the medieval philosopher/theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from the thought and writing of the ancient Aristotle, produced a series of proofs of God’s existence. Para. 32 combines several of these “proofs” in one sequence: God as First Mover, God as contingent cause, and the teleological or final product proof. The paragraphs from St. Paul and St. Augustine are supporting sources drawn from Sacred Scripture and the writing of one of the greatest of the Church fathers.
The challenge over the centuries, particularly since the Enlightenment, is precisely whether these arguments for the existence of God are self-evident to thoughtful people. That the world “start[ed] from movement” as the text indicates, has the disadvantage of sounding so factually true that it is open to a wide range of criticisms. Even Genesis, with its two successive creation accounts—the seven-day litany and the Adam and Eve saga—reflect differing outlooks on the nature of creation.
Genesis 1:1-2 begins with a thought provoking description: “In the beginning (in Greek, en arche) when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and a darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.” This is creation in the form of bringing order out of chaos, describing God’s work as more providential overseer than master engineer. That there was a time when the material universe did not exist is possibly true, though modern science has not yet figured out that riddle. For religious purposes, it is more to our purview that God put the universe into an order that made the environment of the human species both possible and irresistible, along the lines of Augustine’s tribute above. I might add here that the Church has understood the theology of Genesis 1:1 since apostolic days. In St. John’s Gospel, in which Jesus is depicted as the fullness of creation, John opens his Gospel with the line: “in the beginning (en arche) was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God.”
Genesis 2:5ff, the second creation account, the author begins his account with a very terse mention about the earth—basically, the only material creating left to be done was the landscaping, and God immediately creates the first man, the complete reverse order of the first creation account. In Chapter 2 of Genesis man is a creation from the mud who contains the very breath of God; we are truly of both worlds—as would be Jesus, the divine Word born of a woman. It may be helpful here to add that both creation accounts were written rather late in Jewish history, the first written by priests of the Temple, the second by philosophers attempting to explain the presence of evil and suffering in the world.
The Adam/Eve Genesis account should give us some pause on the question of creation and First Cause. If, with Aristotle, we say that our Prime Mover, God, created everything, it logically follows that God created evil. Truth be told, Genesis 3:1 states this unequivocally. “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord God had made.” Our reptilian friend engages with Eve with the erudition of a Socrates or Plato in convincing her to consume the apple from the forbidden tree. Jesus, in his own time, would say that evil comes not from the outside but from the inner heart of man. Genesis 2:5ff is a reflection upon theology and anthropology that continues with vigor to this day.
Interestingly, in our para. 32, Augustine demonstrates a hint of limitation in his glorious description of God’s creation. He writes, “These beauties are subject to change,” meaning that at some juncture they will be less beautiful or not beautiful at all. Put another way, Augustine’s assertion that the beauties of nature are a proof of God’s purpose/existence is not foolproof. Augustine’s position here in the text is a well-situated counterbalance to Paul, whose preceding sentence shows no hesitation on the full implications of creation.
The treatment of God in the Catechism in view of his role as First Cause and Creator is correct in a strictly doctrinal way, albeit a somewhat poorly nuanced one. As a young boy I was taught that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing, as something of a scientific marvel for our edification. As with much Catholic practice prior to Vatican II (1962-65), religious writing and faith formation was undertaken without an understanding of the burgeoning advances being made by Scripture scholars (and other theological disciplines, including history) throughout the twentieth century. The Genesis accounts were never intended as pure science but rather as mystery of love: why did God create in the first place, what is our final destination, and why, in Paul’s words, is “the spirit willing but the flesh so weak?” These are questions for the whole Church—but in some way we have to come to grips with them personally as well.