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Christian Arguments for God’s Existence and Modernity

August 3, 2010

In an August 2, 2010  commentary article in the NYT, Gary Gutting, Notre Dame professor of philosophy describes teaching philosophy at a Catholic college, and writes that “philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any  of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years.” Yet in the Catholic Christian tradition Thomas Aquinas thought that one could prove God’s existence, as did Anselm; and among the Greek philosophers Aristotle thought that one could prove the existence of an “unmoved mover” who was first cause. In the modern world, though, these arguments generally are not considered convincing. Why? What has changed? Here are a few thoughts.

The modern point of view (perhaps starting with Francis Bacon‘s dissection of a certain strand of premodern thought in The Advancement of Learning) is that all such forms of knowledge “hunt more after words than matter.” Basically, for a modern person, the reading of the classical proofs of Aristotle or their Christianized form in Thomas Aquinas can only be of historical interest. Instead, the mental energy of modernity went into (echoing Bacon) hunting the matter, especially as this matter can be described mathematically. The same tool, reason, gets used in both the premodern arguments over a supreme being and in empirical science, but this tool is productive in concrete ways when applied externally, to things rather than to words. Modern humans have no interest in applying reason to concepts that do not have some form of empirical correlative.

But even for many who are premodern hybrids, there remains a sense that these proofs lack the power they had in either Aristotle’s or Thomas’ days. The use of instrumental reason to dominate the material world seems to have poisoned our ability to use it in more metaphysically informed ways. Perhaps premodern hybrids simply react to this historically changed character of reason.

Furthermore, I believe that premodern thought is not monolithic. While Aristotle and Thomas represent one strain, which ultimately helps give birth to the hyperrationalistic modern West (and for a one-sided view see Philip Sherrard’s later writings), another strain in Eastern Christianity looks at knowledge inhering in the heart, not the head. The Christian East believed in knowledge of the heart, which some identify with the intellect, while the West, once Thomas Aquinas became normative in Catholic theology (quite early on, and long before the Council of Trent)  in metaphysically informed reason.

While reason is capable of knowledge, it is ultimately more instrumental than intellect. Early modernity took the rationalism of a certain branch of the medieval schools and secularized it, hyperdeveloping its instrumental qualities and ignoring its metaphysical roots. Because of this history, the medieval and classical proofs for a supreme being, an unmoved mover, fail to move most modern human beings, including at least some of us premodern hybrids.

Perhaps the antidote for modern instrumental rationalism lies not in reverting to an earlier strain of thought that helped make modern rationalism possible; perhaps it instead lies in what the authors in the Greek and Russian Philokalia term the knowledge of the heart, but equally available in the thought of, say, Saint Bonaventure.This knowledge, so neglected in the modern West, bears witness to the truth through the heart’s opening on transcendent beauty and love. So when Marcuse talks about philosophy reaching a dead end in the 19th century, he’s not just engaging in proto critical theory claptrap; he is instead pointing to a real cooptation of the rational by the forces of control rather than of understanding.

Bearing witness to this same idea but from below is the modern silliness of New Age beliefs, which in reaction to modernity’s rationalism takes refuge in a sentimental, syncretic simulacrum of the knowledge of the heart. Both Herbert Marcuse and New Age thought witness to the wringing dry of the rational in modernity–though from different perspectives– through which Aristotle’s and Thomas’ proofs no longer speak to the heart. Rationality, unless metaphysically informed, is arid; and some of us feel it so even when it is fully developed with its earlier roots still anchored, as it is in Aristotle and Thomas.

One caveat: even if the the proofs for God’s existence do not speak to either modern humans, or even to some premodern hybrids, there are real exceptions. These lie in those who view these texts not as philosophical treatises, but as meditative supports, verbal scaffolding upon which a lifetime of intellectual–spiritual discipline can be built. The difference here is analogous to the way monastics in the West read scripture in the 12th century–lectio divina— compared to, say, those taught to read it in a scientific way in the 20th or 21st century: the texts may be the same; the experience of reading and indeed the goals in reading are completely different.

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