The Shape of Catholic Theology
by Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Part Two: THE ROLE OF PHILOSOPHY IN THEOLOGY
Chapter 4: The Existence and Concept of God
The Christian faith presupposes certain truths of reason and of history. Without these it cannot make sense and its theology cannot become airborne. First of all, the Christian faith presupposes that there is a God. It is no use telling people that Jesus is the Son of God if they do not believe in God in the first place. Of course, the concept of God which a pagan possesses will need to be modified in the light of the account of God offered in the Church's preaching. But this is a question of, precisely, modifying, transforming in certain respects something which is already present (or at least, should be) in the mind of the person who has not yet entered the Church. The Old Testament teaches that the true God is Yahweh, God of Israel. The New Testament teaches that this same Yahweh is more fully known when we can say of him that he is the Father of Jesus Christ. But to receive either of these pieces of intelligence we must have some idea of what is meant by saying that the true God is X or Y in the first place. The word "God," after all, is not a biblical word; that is, it is not a transliteration of a personal name occurring in the Scriptures. "God" is a Germanic word for the divine realm, and its origins lie far back in the experience of our pagan ancestors. The same is true for the French Dieu, cognate with the Latin Deus, itself linked to the Greek Theos. All of these words are indebted to a religious sensibility which antedates Christianity by hundreds if not thousands of years. The philosopher's task in this regard is to ask whether this language about the divine realm corresponds to anything in reality: whether, in short, there is a God. So this is the first philosophical element in the preamble of faith that we must deal with.
There is no general consensus among Catholic writers as to the best way of establishing the existence of God, the supreme presupposition of our faith. The First Vatican Council, in the course of the document Dei Filius, had occasion, however, to frame a declaration in these words: "The one and true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known through the creation by the natural light of human reason." We can gloss the council's teaching by saying that images of the divine found in natural religion in all cultures can be purified so as to produce a concept of God as the Creator Lord, the source of nature and history alike. And further, this concept can be shown to have application, to be actually exemplified in reality "through the natural light of human reason." So the First Vatican Council insisted that a rational discovery of God's existence is always possible, but it refrained from saying how one should in practice set about it. It is easy to caricature the council Fathers as saying, "Of course there's a proof of God's existence; the only trouble is that nobody's found it." But the council did not mean to do theologians' work for them. As Karl Rahner once put it, definitions are much less an end than a beginning. The theologian has the right, in other words, to choose those materials from which he or she hopes to construct an approach to God's existence.
To give an idea of the possible richness of choice here I will mention six kinds of material that could give philosophically minded theologians their cue - each being both an experiential signal and a kind of argument. First of all, there is the experience of wonder at the fact that there is a world at all. All of us are familiar with wonder before certain particular things: the colors of dawn, the grace of an athlete, the intricate workings of an organ like the eye. But sometimes we generalize this sense of wonder and extend it to the fact that there is a world at all. In this case the object of wonder is not the particular world we live in, which is a sum total of the particular things that exist, but the consideration that there should be any particular world at all. After all, there is nothing logically entailed in the concept of a world which makes us say, Of course, I realize that there had to be a world. Writers as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein and G. K. Chesterton have regarded this sort of experience as philosophically important.  From it there emerges the argument that since the world is not self-explanatory, or ontologically self-sufficient, it requires us to postulate a ground for it. Such a ground would have to be transcendent vis-à-vis the world; that is, it could not be less than the world itself. But the notion of the transcendent ground of the world is at any rate a part of what people mean by God.
Second, a very different kind of experience relevant here is the experience of moral obligation  From time to time we do things not because it is in our interest to do them but because they are intrinsically right. If we left them undone, we might say, we could not live with ourselves. The voice of conscience would not let us be. In such a case, it is not just that as a matter of rational ethics we would knowingly have done the wrong thing. Beyond this, our sense of what is involved in doing the wrong thing can be at times terrifying. It is almost as though we were in the presence of a judge of irreproachable character who saw us and was obliged by his own righteousness to condemn us. Expressed less pictorially, the values we put into our system of values (whatever these may be) do not entirely behave as things we have created. We seem to be tributary to them, rather than the other way round. Those who do not care for the implications of such experiences of moral obligation may hypothesize that they derive from the effects of parental conditioning upon us. Either our own parents or that corporate parent we call society has put a taboo on certain ways of behaving, and the taboo sticks. When we defy it we are covered with feelings of guilt, just as if we have offended a wonderfully good and sensitive person. But on the other hand, some of the most interesting examples of conscience must surely be those that occur to individuals who, having assessed facts and arguments, feel obliged to depart from some prior moral consensus and break through to a new level of moral awareness. So the experience of obligation is not so easily cut down to size, and it points toward the existence of a supremely holy one as its own ultimate explication. This was Newman's own preferred approach to transcendence. 
A third kind of experience relevant here is the experience of our own dissatisfaction. This may seem a strange sort of starting point for an argument in metaphysics, but dissatisfaction with any of the objects we can attain in this world must surely be the greatest single source of religious belief. Genetically, we are not programmed in such a way that we can know from the outset what objects will bring us satisfaction. Of course we have certain drives - toward physical nourishment, sexual intimacy, and so forth. But the satisfaction of these drives is not exactly our satisfaction. We may satisfy them as much as we will, and yet when we are finished we are still left with such questions as What is the meaning of life? Where will I find lasting happiness? and so on. None of these questions, it may be said, finds any full solution within the world. So the further question suggests itself, If a being exists has no goal within the world, a being whose desire to know and need to love appears to be in some sense endless, then perhaps the goal of this creature's striving lies beyond the world in what the religions of the world call God. The Greek Father Gregory of Nyssa already came near to this conative argument for God (from the Latin verb conare, "to strive": we are striving for something beyond this world, and it seems more reasonable to posit that something as the ground of our striving rather than to write off our striving as absurd, something strictly unintelligible.) 
A fourth dimension of human existence that fits in here is the experience of hope. We all have hopes for particular things. We hope for peace in our time, for nice friends, for a better book on introducing Catholic theology. But this is not the experience of hope I am thinking of. What I have in mind is that general attitude of hopefulness as a response to the future which so many people evince in quite impossible situations, and which seems almost a necessary condition for the survival of humanity in hard times. People hope against hope that tyranny will be ended; that their children's children will live to inherit this planet. But even if the worst happened, even if an evil government possessed itself of the world or a nuclear holocaust devoured the earth tomorrow, people would still go on hoping amidst the ruins. They would crawl out of the holes and burrows and start to pick up the pieces. This is natural to us because it is natural to us to hope. The question is, Does this point to anything metaphysical? It could be argued, as did French philosopher and dramatist Gabriel Marcel, that it suggests an unconscious grasp of the reality of God as the ground and guarantor of human history, of human destiny. 
Another area that repays investigation in this regard is that of mystical experience. A large number of people in various cultures have laid claim to direct experience of the divine. Some of these people may have been mad, and some may have been bad. Their claims may have been made through self-delusion or by the deliberate desire to obtain power, prestige, or money. But where records are copious, in the case of figures who most impressed, therefore, their contemporaries, the mystics give an impression of integrity rather than its opposite. Certainly, mystics have described their experiences in terms drawn from the religious tradition in which they were at home: Muslim mystics encounter Allah; Jewish mystics the Shekinah, or "Glory of the Lord"; Christian mystics the Trinity. But this does not necessarily invalidate their witness. We would expect that they would use concepts and images already familiar to them to interpret a reality by definition beyond concepts and images, namely God. Whether the concepts and images used by one mystic, for example St. Teresa of Avila, correspond more to the nature of the true God than do the concepts and images of another mystic, say, the Muslim al-Hallaj, would have to be decided on other grounds. But all the mystics share the assertion that they have encountered what we can call the eternal reality - however they pictured the reality in question. Such a weight of human testimony from so many different cultures cannot easily be dismissed. This is, in part, the approach to God's existence favored by the English Benedictine philosopher Ilityd Trethowan. 
Sixth and finally, I would draw attention to the epistemological argument for the existence of God associated with the late Fr. Bernard Lonergan of the Society of Jesus. Lonergan proposed that the main cue we need to move toward an affirmation of God's existence is found in the very knowability of the world. For some reason, the world has a structure such that the human mind can penetrate it by means of its own processes of thought. How can we account for this fact? It might have been the case that human beings had intelligence but that the world was not amenable to exploration by that intelligence. There could have been a lack of fit between the world and the human mind. But in point of fact, there is not; on the contrary, there is considerable harmony between them as, among other things, the fruits of scientific knowledge in technology demonstrate. It is argued, therefore, that the world?s intelligibility requires us to posit the existence of a creative mind, analogous to but infinitely transcending the human mind, by which the cosmos was brought into being. 
So much for the six main kinds of approach that have historically been popular. The list is not exhaustive. It could be extended by, for example, reference to the fact that we have a language for perfection - better known as the "ontological argument." Nothing prevents our combining these approaches on the principle that the sum total of a number of individually less-than-convincing arguments may be a convincing case. This was, as it happens, John Henry Newman's strategy in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, published during the First Vatican Council, in 1870. There Newman offered a new context in which to display the various argumentative strategies and the strata of experience that are relevant to belief in God. Earlier, Newman had worked out a distinction between explicit and implicit reason, pointing out that in ordinary everyday affairs we make judgments about people and events without following any strict logical progression, any mode of explicit reason. Instead, we gather together a whole series of experiential clues and pieces of argumentation. These fragments of experience and argument then act as signals that point us in the direction of a true conclusion, which is attained, therefore, by implicit reason. In the Grammar of Assent Newman further refined this idea in relation to the basic tenets of Christian theism, dubbing such a manner of arriving at certitude about something or someone the "illative sense." In a jigsaw, when you spread out the pieces on a table, all you seem to have is a complete jumble, an accidental collection of bits and pieces that tell you nothing. But put them together and you have a picture. So Newman?s suggestion is that we can defend belief in God by putting together a number of experiential signals and lines of thought, which converge on the conclusion that there is a God. 
Following Newman, it may be suggested that while none of these arguments taken singly might be wholly compelling, taken cumulatively they amount to a very strong case. This case may fall short of strict demonstration. But no matter: at least it shows that it is more reasonable to believe in God's existence than not. Clearly, if we were unable to show that it is at least as reasonable to believe in God's existence as it is not to, being a believer at all would be an irrational exercise. But more than this, as Catholic Christians with a duty to the Church's conciliar tradition, we are expected to say that it is in fact more reasonable to believe in God's existence. For whatever force is given to the assertion on this topic in Dei Filius, it surely cannot mean less than this.
Here, however, a fresh problem surfaces. We have accepted that the existence of the Creator Lord, who is also the God of Jesus Christ, can be known by the natural light of human reason. But this cannot leave untouched the concept of God found in Christianity: the way we think about what God is, not simply that he is. Whatever arguments we feel disposed to accept in this area must influence very markedly our theological concept of God. Any way of saying that God is carries implications for what he is. For a Christian, admittedly, the concept of God should be shaped primarily by revelation. If the Bible, and in particular the teaching of Jesus and his apostles, has nothing radically new to say to us about this, then we are scarcely Christian theologians at all. Nevertheless, a certain input from philosophy into the Christian concept of God can be defended as both necessary and desirable. How so?
First, such philosophical input is necessary. The typical form of the proclamation of a revealed religion is not, You have never heard that there is a God. I am here to tell you that there is. Quite the opposite: revealed religion presupposes that people already have some notion of God. The characteristic form of a proclamation of a revealed religion is, You already know something of what God is. I am here to give you new insight into the character of the God you worship. An excellent example of this is provided by St. Paul's speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles:
Any reader who comes from a part of the world with a strong religious tradition other than Christianity will understand at once what Paul meant. In the post-Christian West, on the other hand, there is effectively no religious tradition other than Christianity, at least at the level of the culture in possession. But this does not mean that there is no common ground between the post-Christian and the Christian in discourse about God. The post-Christian has, or can have, some concept of God on the basis of his or her reflection on the world. This concept of God may not be expressed in a highly philosophical way, yet it will be capable of reexpression in a more rigorous form. And, of course, among professional philosophers the debate about God is conducted in terms of this rational concept of God, which owes comparatively little, at any rate in a direct way, to the Judeo-Christian revelation. When people at large talk about God, they do not think in the first place of the Trinity, although the Trinity is the fundamental Christian determination of God, the way we modify the concept of God on the basis of the life and work of Jesus Christ. They think rather of that concept of God held in common by philosophical theism and revealed religion alike: the one God, the Creator Lord. In order to connect, therefore, with the preconception of God which many people have, Christian missionaries and apologists are forced, wffly-nilly, to draw on this prior awareness al well as amateur or professional conceptualization of what God is like. Thus a certain philosophical contribution to the Christian concept of God is in practice inescapable.
But such a contribution is also desirable. It might prima facie be thought better to deal with people where possible as religious virgins or innocents: to get at them before they have had time to develop a concept of God which might be at odds with the Christian one. Then the biblical data about God could be preserved in strict isolation from any other influence that might contaminate them or water them down. But this would not be a good thing for two reasons. In the first place, in the Catholic tradition we hold that there is such a thing as natural revelation. Through the fact of creation, God has given man a certain knowledge of himself, however little this may be appreciated. This knowledge may be said to exist in two forms. In theory form, it exists in the shape of the philosophical understanding of God to which reason can give us access. In practical form, it exists as certain human kinds of behavior, of which those embedded in the world's religions through the making of myths and rituals are the most central. At the same time, a significant penumbra surrounds these in the arts, as also, if one may trust the reports of the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung, in dream archetypes. Although such knowledge of God can be, and possibly usually is, undermined to some degree by false ideas about God, it is not wholly so. God has not left himself without witnesses.
A second reason why it would not be desirable for theologians to seek to exclude all philosophical, or pretheological, elements from their account of God is that the revelation contained in Scripture and tradition is insuficient, taken purely by itself, to give us a coherent and systematic concept of God. One might object, But who wants a coherent and systematic concept of God? Doesn?t the very idea of a systematic concept of God show that we haven?t understood the primary feature of the notion of God, namely that God is a mystery, and more specifically following St. John, a mystery of love? You cannot systematize a mystery, especially a mystery of love. There is something to this objection, but I would respond to it by saying that a satisfactory theological concept of God will indicate where it is appropriate to invoke mystery and where to do so would be unnecessary defeatism. If we could say nothing at all in describing God, then preaching, teaching, catechetics, and theology would manifestly dry up. Yet any claim that we could fully comprehend the divine nature (such as was made by the heretic Eunomius in the patristic Church) only proves that we have not grasped the logical place of the concept of God at all. We need to know, therefore, when is a time to speak, and when a time to keep silence. Having conceded so much, however, there remains a lot we can say. The trouble is that the biblical materials for a concept of God do not organize themselves. They do not automatically arrange themselves into a satisfactory form. They achieve that form only when the human mind, seeking to understand its own faith, begins to work on them and to set them out in more intelligible ways.
To organize the biblical materials, we soon find that we need to draw on such philosophical categories as good and evil, freedom and necessity, person and nature, mind and will, essence and existence, being and knowing. Of course, the application of these notions to God is an attempt to speak of what lies beyond the world within terms drawn from this world, and so is only justified if we always add a postscript to the effect, These terms are borrowed clothes but they are the best we have. They are being pressed into service by what Thomists would call analogy. The content of ideas like those I have just listed is already known to be patient of application to different sorts of reality in different ways. Take, for instance, the uses of the idea of the good. A good action is different from a good person, and both are very different from a good breakfast. Because such concepts are so open and flexible and appear applicable in some shape or form to an enormous variety of beings, we apply their content to the source of all that is. At the same time, we admit that we do not know the precise way in which such ideas correspond to God's reality. Again, we might say, for example, that God is supremely spirit, his knowledge and love perfect archetypes of our own. Yet what the inner life of one whose existence is perfect knowledge and love might be like we can neither conceive nor imagine. Yet despite their limitations, such notions are useful for the philosophical filling out of the concept of God. Needless to say, I am not proposing that in these matters philosophy has the last word. Immanuel Kant once remarked that if philosophy is the handmaid of theology, that is because she goes before her mistress carrying the lamp that enables theology to see.  If we accept this image we must add that in a Christian household, without theology's instructions the maid would not know what route she was supposed to take. A Christian concept of God is one in which the philosophical materials for the concept of God have been reworked by exposing them to the influence of Christian revelation as found in Bible and Tradition. The revelation of God as Father and of God as Trinity will evidently transform any ideas of God we have thought up for ourselves.
So much by way of defending the philosopher's contribution to the conceptualization of God. What about its concrete content? We can think of this, I suggest, in two ways. First, the particular arguments for God's existence we choose to follow will play a part in determining those ideas of God that we can think up for ourselves. The argument from wonder, for instance, leads to a source or ground of the world, an underived being from which all other beings draw their existence. The argument from conscience leads to the affirmation of an ethically perfect Spirit immediately present to our spirits. The argument from hope leads to the affirmation of a Providence that takes thought for human destiny within the cosmos - and so on. The human experiences on which these arguments are based are, as it were, the faint reflections of various aspects of the divine being itself. Our exploration of the world, including the inner world of our specifically human awareness, leads in this way to a discovery - partial, but precious - of the divine attributes. It is because this is so that we should be careful not to excommunicate too quickly any approach to God for fear that with it we may have lost sight of some dimension of God himself.
But this in itself is not enough. The structure of argument to the existence of God which I have commended, that of Newman, makes space for a variety of subarguments found in the tradition of Christian theism and drawn from a corresponding variety of areas of experience and reflection. Each of these subarguments will provide some kind of way in to the divine mystery and so some foundation for a conceptualization of God. But if any subargument can provide a basis for conceiving God, and if there are many subarguments, the concept of God we shall end up with will necessarily be incoherent and unsystematic. This problem afflicts not only the Newmanian approach but any approach to God's existence which is not via just one argument. And after all, Thomas had "five ways" and Kant at least two, the argument from the conditions of moral action in the Critique of Practical Reason and the argument (Kant prefers to call it an "impression") from our experience of beauty in the Critique of Judgment. So we cannot base our philosophical conceptualization of God solely on our approach to God's existence.
We need to look, then, for what we can call a "root metaphysical concept" suitable to the task. And this is the second way in which we give conceptual content to the philosophical idea of God. This search for a root metaphysical concept has provided varying answers within the Christian practice of metaphysics. Thus for Bonaventure, the root metaphysical concept was that of the good; for Thomas, it was that of ens a se: "wholly independent being"; for the Scotists, it was the idea of radical infinity. For later Thomists, such as the seventeenthcentury Spanish Dominican John of St. Thomas, it was pure knowing; for Kant it was the concept of the ens perfectissimum, the "most perfect being"; for Schelling, the idea of infinite freedom; for Hegel that of the true infinite: a spirit whose essence it is to render itself an object for itself in order then to remove this distinction through love. In most, if not all, of these cases, the root metaphysical concept is connected with arguments for God's existence, but those arguments do not produce the root metaphysical concept directly or inevitably. A judgment has been made about how to order the picture of God which the arguments for God's existence suggest. In any given theology, this judgment will coexist in a dialectical fashion with Bible and Tradition. On the basis of Bible and Tradition we will want to modify the metaphysical judgment and to go beyond it. But at the same time, the judgment will help us to get a hold on the materials relevant to the concept of God within the sources of Christian revelation.
1. DS, 3004.
2. N. Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (London: 1958) 70; for Chesterton, see A. Nichols, "C. K. Chesterton's Argument for the Existence of God," The Chesterton Review 20. 1 (1986) 63-70.
3. See H. P. Owen, The Moral Argument for Christian Theism (London: 1965).
4. A. K. Boekraad, The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God According to J H. Newman (Louvain: 1961).
5. On Gregory's crucial notion of epektasis, see J. Daniélou, Platonisme et théologie mystique: Doctrine spirituelle de saint Grégoire de Nysse (Paris: 1944, 1953) 291-307; cf H. Mühlenberg, Die Unendlichkeit Gottes bei Gregor von Nyssa (Göttingen: 1966). A modern form of the same notion is found in F. C. Copleston, Religion and Philosophy (Dublin: 1974), who writes that the search for a metaphysical ultimate is based on "an experience of limits, coupled with a reaching out towards that which transcends and grounds all limits."
6. Cf. C. Moeller, "Gabriel Marcel et le mystère de l'espérance," in idem., Littérature du XXe siècle et christianisme 4, 149-57.
7. I. Trethowan, Mysticism and Philosophy (London: 1979).
8. . See H. Meynell, The Intelligible Universe (London: 1982).
9. A. Nichols, "John Henry Newman and the Illative Sense: A Re-Consideration," Scottish Journal of Theology 38. 3 (1985) 347-68.
10. Acts 17:22-23.
11. I. Kant, "Der Streit der Fakultäten," in Werke 6, ed. Weischedel, 261-93, and here at 291.
12. I am indebted for these suggestions of historic examples to Alfred Wilder, of the faculty of philosophy of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, Rome.
Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Order of St Benedict, Inc., 1991, 2001.
This Version: 6th February 2008