06 May 2002

Fergus Kerr, the Scottish Dominican theologian, had an interesting article at the end of last year called "Theology in Philosophy: Revisiting the Five Ways" (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 50:115-130, Dec 2001). The bulk of the article is a consideration of St. Thomas Aquinas' "five ways," not to re-examine the arguments (which has been done ad nauseam), but to attend to how they function within their original context. I don't entirely agree with everything Kerr says (or, rather, I don't think he took his considerations far enough), but several of his observations are quite helpful and on target.

Kerr begins by noting the way in which Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God are routinely lifted from the text, isolated, and evaluated as a set of five distinct, a posteriori cosmological proofs that function to demonstrate the existence of God in an almost evidentialist or foundationalist manner. Aquinas' arguments are thereby turned into proofs that depend entirely upon "non-religious, non-human, and non-supernatural features of the world" that should neutrally show that God exists to any rational subject, bracketing out issues of faith, morality, revelation, and the like. And that, of course--as almost all Aquinas scholars today emphasize--is clearly a gross misreading of Aquinas.

So, how do we avoid such a misreading? By paying attention what Aquinas actually says elsewhere in the Summa Theologiae, particular in the Questions leading up to the Five Ways.

One thing we can note is that Aquinas feels he must argue for the conclusion that the existence of God is something that needs a rational defense. After all, he lived in a world that found, as Kerr says, "the sacred or the divine unmediatedly visible in the face of things," in which "the presence of God was transparently displayed in the world."

Whatever Aquinas is doing in his five ways, he is not providing proofs that are intended to make up for the lack of evidence. He raises several objections to arguing for God's existence: that a knowledge of God is implanted in each of us, that the existence of God is self-evident in the very term "God" (alluding to Anselm's ontological argument), and that God is truth and it's obvious that truth exists.

Aquinas rejects none of these objections outright. He allows that there is a natural awareness of God's existence, a true knowledge, though he suggests that such an awareness is somewhat vague and general, especially compared to revelation and in virtue of human sinfulness. In particular, God is the blessedness (beatitudo) of human existence and all people naturally desire this blessedness, but in our finitude and sin we are easily mistaken and deceived about where true blessedness is to be found. Even if we all know that there must be a creator God, we do not understand precisely what God is.

He further allows that the existence of God is self-evident in itself since God's essence is identical with his existence (and thus "necessarily existing" is part of the meaning of "God"), but not everything that is self-evident in itself is necessarily self-evident to human subjects (e.g., that the square root of 5,041 is 71 is self-evident in itself--true by definition--but it is not self-evident to me).

Yet God's self-evidence means that God in himself is intelligible to human reason precisely because he necessarily exists, a corollary to the doctrine of divine simplicity. God's simplicity, however, is also why God cannot be known to us by a direct perception of his essence, but only through his effects (including divine revelation). That our knowledge of God always proceeds from created effects is, in part, why God's existence can be argued for, one indication that the five ways actually presuppose a doctrine of creation. Thus a theological exposition of the nature of God, based largely on revelation, is presupposed as the basis upon which arguments for God's existence can even be made.

Moreover, Aquinas allows that it is obvious that there is truth and certainly agrees that God is the first truth (prima veritas). But this first truth is not "known in itself to us" since, as he has already argued, God's essence is not directly known by us and, furthermore, as he will argue later, the first truth is the object of faith and arouses faith. And as the object and source of faith, the first truth is primarily a matter of revelation through created effects.

Why, then, are arguments for the existence of God at all necessary, given that Aquinas maintains that God is intelligible, that he can be known through his effects and by revelation, and that God grants all people a certain awareness of himself? The rationale that Aquinas gives is, again, one that he draws from Scripture: "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'" (Psalm 52:1). The real possibility of atheism is not something that Aquinas establishes from experience (indeed, it is unlikely he ever actually met an atheist), but from revelation.

But the existence of atheism (even as a possibility) shows that even though the existence of God is self-evident in itself, it is not necessarily self-evident to us since it is impossible to even think the opposite of something that we perceive as self-evident. Moreover, whatever natural awareness of God is given in the world, that awareness is not of a sort that compels belief, let alone faith (as Aquinas will later say, paradoxically, though unbelievers can be said to believe in a God, they really do not believe in a God at all, though they are aware of God, since defective belief in a simple being is to not know that being at all).

This is not to leave the atheist off the hook, however. Note that Aquinas' concept of atheism is a theological conception: atheism is a sin, for it is the fool that says, "There is no God" (and Aquinas will take considerable space explicating the sinfulness of unbelief later in the Summa).

The explanation of why such unbelief is possible, however, is the theological one we encountered above: that God cannot be known by us in his essence, but only by his effects, thereby allowing for the suppression of a proper understanding of those effects. Still, for Aquinas, it is an unquestioned assumption that these effects, these "things of which we do have knowledge" and by which God is known are, indeed, effects. Thus Aquinas, from the very beginning, presupposes a doctrine of creation and the doctrine of divine simplicity, even before getting to his five ways.

Before getting to the five ways, however, Aquinas will go on to argue that not only does God's existence need to be argued for in the face of atheism, but also that God's existence can be argued for. While I will not explicate Aquinas' argument here, we can again note that this is, for him, a theological conclusion based upon his understanding of Romans 1:20, a doctrine a creation, and a belief that God is analogically disclosed in and through the created world.

Kerr explains these various facets of Aquinas' approach reasonably well (though I have a few quibbles here and there). It is mistaken to take the five ways as neutral, non-theological arguments. What he leaves out, I think, is the interesting question of the larger theological and philosophical underpinnings of Aquinas' thought, for instance, Aquinas' belief that in every act of knowledge, God is already implicitly known, that the awareness of the divine presence is the horizon against which anything is knowable at all (see his De Veritate). Still, it is good to see Aquinas continuing to be extricated from the ways of reading and appropriating him that have held sway for far too long.