Philosophising about a god

This is not so much a blog post as somewhere to dump some thoughts that I can’t squeeze into a current Twitter discussion.

The question is whether philosophical arguments in favour of God’s existence are worth bothering with, or whether (as Revd Joel Humann puts it here):

https://twitter.com/#!/joelhumann/status/164392680820965376

This in turn led to a discussion on the extent to which Thomas Aquinas (who I’m currently making some first efforts on getting to grips with) would agree with that statement. Mack Ramer observed that Thomas “was pretty satisfied with his five proofs”. However, Prof Ralph McInerny’s Stanford Encyclopedia article argues here that a distinction needs to be made between philosophical proofs that there is “a god”, and knowledge of the Christian God (who can only be known by revelation). The waters being muddied by a combination of (a) Latin’s lack of an indefinite article and (b) the fact that any Christian who embraces a philosophical proof for “a” god will naturally conclude that the god in question is the God revealed in Scripture.

Prof McInerny develops this further in his essay Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist, where he writes:

The Thomist distinguishes rigorously between theism and Christianity in terms of the distinction between praeambula fidei and mysteria fidei. The preambles of faith are truths about God which happen to have been revealed but which had been discovered, independently of revelation, by the pagan philosophers. Theism, call it natural theology, establishes truths about God on the basis of other truths which are accessible in principle to any human being. Mysteries of faith, on the contrary, are truths about God which cannot be established as such by grounding them in or deriving them from what anyone knows.

This distinction would seem to imply that even if the best conceivable results were obtained on the level of theism, this would do nothing to establish the truth of the mysteries of faith, precisely those truths which are the heart and soul of Christianity, viz. that Jesus is both human and divine, that there is a Trinity of persons in the one divine nature, that we are called to an eternity of blissful union with God, etc.

My own personal history is of having been persuaded at an early age that the philosophical arguments for God’s existence were bunk, and that consequently God didn’t exist; but then being subsequently persuaded that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are how we can know that God exists and what he is like. In the process, though, I’ve retained a sceptical attitude towards the philosophical arguments.

However, the above quotation (and other reading of works by/about Thomas) are making me reappraise my view slightly: that maybe it would be more accurate to say that (by God’s grace) I came to believe the mysteria fidei, without ever feeling much need to deal with the praeambula fidei; however, that doesn’t mean that I was right to conclude as a teenager that the philosophical arguments for God’s existence were wrong, but that I was being presented with (and rejecting) caricatures of those arguments. I’m still not persuaded, and my instincts remain to prefer Luther’s declaration that “I know of no God other than the one called Jesus Christ”, but still: that’s where my thoughts are at the moment.

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4 thoughts on “Philosophising about a god”

  1. One point: Aquinas wasn’t presenting these arguments to convince people of the existence of God; pretty much everyone believed God existed already. The proofs are more a step in a series of argumentation than standalone slap-downs.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t find them very convincing either. They’re based on the best science of their time, which has obviously dated. The most plausible to me is the one about God sustaining the entire process of creation – but it rests on the assumption such support is needed. It’s perfectly possible to believe it isn’t.

    1. Thanks for this. Yes, I get the impression they were more aimed at showing the philosophical credibility of faith in God, rather than being aimed at persuading the sceptics who, as you point out, didn’t exist anyway.

  2. “but then being subsequently persuaded that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are how we can know that God exists and what he is like. ”

    As we can’t even show that the first of those three happened with any accuracy, I don’t see how this helped you.

  3. I think some of the Corinthians had a hard time philosophizing about a resurrection. That is, the general resurrection from the dead. They accepted Jesus’ resurrection, but didn’t believe that the dead rise. But if they can see that Christ is raised, then they should see that the dead, too, must rise. It might be that standalone arguments for the general resurrection didn’t work for them, but once they see that Christ is risen, this becomes a necessary conclusion. Likewise here, I think. Something like the cosmological argument is assumed in Romans 1. A given presentation of the cosmological argument might be inept. But if Scripture be true, then some version must work. If Christ be raised, then the heavens do declare the glory of God.

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