These “ways” of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world and the human person.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the country island of St. Kitt’s, the smallest nation in the western hemisphere. Many, probably most, of the Caribbean islands were colonies of European powers, desired for defensive purposes, native crops such as sugar, and cheap labor, notably slavery. In one of history’s great ironies, all the lands of the Louisiana Purchase on the American continent (fully fifteen future states) were held by the French as a “bread basket” to feed their Caribbean holding, at that time Haiti. Napoleon sold the entire parcel to the United States for three cents an acre after a violent slave rebellion in Haiti ended his dreams of a Caribbean empire.
St. Kitt’s is another island built upon slavery and sugar harvesting, though in this case under the British, who originally called the island St. Christopher. The worldwide demand for sugar declined over the years till the industry ceased operating in 2007. One of its main industries today is tourism, notably cruise ships, due to its water sports along the coast. Our cruise ship offered a number of excursions, including a railroad ride around the island on the tracks used by the old sugar mill train. I was reading reviews for possible ticket purchase when I came across several comments of this nature: “I was disappointed. For the cost of the trip we spent a large amount of time passing through areas of ugly poverty.” My wife Margaret found a local taxi-van driver on shore who gave us an excellent close-up tour of the island for about 15% of what the train would have cost. (I put some photos at the end of the post.)
St. Kitt’s is poor. It is naturally beautiful, too, and a wooded volcano sits at the center of the island. I imagine that that the volcano loses some attractiveness when it flares up and expels ashes and lava. I was reminded of St. Kitt’s when I reviewed paragraph 31 of the Catechism, which moves to a discussion of the reality and knowability of God. My high school freshman seminary teacher drummed the physical proofs of existence of God into our adolescent craniums. I could tell he truly believed them, though of the five proofs outlined by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, the only one I could truly understand was the need for a first cause for everything, an identity assigned to God, who “always was.” A few years later I discovered that that Aristotle, among others, had come to something of the same understanding centuries before the Christian era. Aristotle identified his “first cause” as the “Prime Mover,” though he did not speculate further on the identity of such a force in a theological way.
The Catechism states that man is created in such a way that he comes to learn certain ways of knowing him. It goes on to call these ways “proofs,” though it is quick to differentiate between proofs of the natural sciences and proofs from the sense of “converging and convincing arguments.” Paras. 32-35 will unpack this definition more thoroughly, but the gist of the teaching here is the knowability of God from two sources, the natural physical world and the metaphysical world of man, both on the natural plane.
It is important to remember that the Christian evangelical mission has addressed itself to pagans, and later to men of the Enlightenment, over the centuries. The evangelists, by contrast, were addressing themselves to audiences of faith—or at least incomplete faith—who were familiar with the treasury of the Hebrew Scriptures and who required little grounding or convincing of the existence of God. For most of the Christian era, though, this has not been the case, and Christian philosophers and missionaries have struggled to speak of God—to establish the reasonableness of his existence—in contemporary language and thought of the time.
For St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast incidentally is today, the thought language of the day was logic and a unity of the material and the supernatural world. His five proofs come from this era, and Catholic scholastic theology has maintained this Thomistic approach in the face of the Reformation (where reformers argued that scholastic thinking undermined the Bible and the need for uncluttered faith in Revelation) and the Enlightenment (which introduced a secular, humanistic and idealistic approach to philosophy.)
It will be interesting to see what the Catechism will have to say about these “converging and convincing arguments” for the existence of God. As a Facebook reader, I am the recipient of countless posts of lovely scenes from nature, notably sunrises and sunsets. Usually there is an accompanying caption, something along these lines: “Only a great and all powerful God could have created the sun, moon and stars.” True enough. But I wonder if the posters know about the sun. It is a giant nuclear furnace with a finite fuel supply. When suns (stars) burn off enough of their stuff, they become novas—one gigantic gasp of energy—that in our case would enlarge the sun till it expands to the orbit of Jupiter or Saturn. Then it shrinks into a tiny ember or becomes a black hole.
And this, I think, is where the division of proofs for God by nature and argument take a hit. Stated or implied, all of the medieval scholastic arguments from nature imply a perfect world reflective or analogous to the glory of the Godhead. But nature includes the human species. Going back to St. Kitt’s (and you never thought I would) the visitor beholds beauty in nature, but like the disgruntled woman on the train, the ugly effects of human misdealing cannot be ignored, either. In some way, difficult to comprehend, the Prime Mover of the turquoise blue ocean is also Prime Mover of the men who colonized indigenous peoples into slavery. Squaring that circle is one of theology’s greatest challenges.
Nature is beautiful but finitely so. The quest remains for an adequate analogy, let alone proof of God, must go beyond nature and logic. The great German theologian Karl Rahner may have put it best: “Jesus is the grammar of God’s utterance.” Or better, the Savior’s own words, “Phillip, he who sees me sees him who sent me.”