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Reading the Five Ways 15

Reading the Five Ways
15. On not following Aquinas

With this fifteenth post, I come to the end of my little exploration of the Five Ways. [Edit: not quite.] I’m not sure why I embarked on it, to be honest. I think I simply wanted to see what I really made of a famous theological text that in the past I have tended to dismiss.

Well, it turns out that I’m still not convinced by the Five Ways when they’re playing the role most often assigned to them – i.e., when they are held to be ‘proving the existence of God’ in the most straightforward sense of that phrase.

I hope I’ve made it clear that I have various problems with the details of the Ways. The fifth leaks like a Whitehall department; the fourth relies (in its present form) on presuppositions not now widely shared; the first needs work to translate it from medieval to modern physics (even though it is not simply a physical argument); and the third as it stands is formulated very strangely. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve also made it clear what form I think the basic argument behind the Ways takes, and that I think it can at least be put forward plausibly

However, I do not think that the job will be done even by a more detailed reconstruction of the Ways around the more basic argument that I have sketched. On the one hand, I am not absolutely convinced that the metaphysical grammar assumed by the Ways is unavoidable. There may, for instance, be other ways of formulating the question that make different kinds of answer work, or that make it less clear that Aquinas’ answer does the job required of it, or that make the question itself less compelling. That I can’t see such alternatives is unsurprising: I am no metaphysician.

On the other hand, it seems to me possible to give up altogether on the intelligibility of the world in the strong sense I have used here: to declare the question posed by Aquinas unanswerable, or even unaskable. The mind may revolt at such constraint – but maybe the way things are simply is revolting.

So, no, I do not think the Ways provide a knock-down proof of the existence of God, in the sense that they absolutely compel any reader to follow them all the way to the end.

Nevertheless, I do think that the Ways both pose a real question and provide an answer to it, and so make a coherent and powerful proposal for making sense of the world. That proposal is not simply a proposal about some additional fact to be bolted on to one’s existing view of things: it is a proposed articulation of the most basic ways in which the world might be intelligible. (And even the fourth and fifth ways might be part of such a proposal, even if they don’t work as any kind of probative argument.)

Furthere, it seems to me not to be obvious that one can do better than this proposal; that does not simply go without saying.

More than that, though, the Ways lead on (as I have been trying to suggest in the last few posts) to a theological grammar that has a great deal of power. It seems to me that any theology that claims that God is creator needs to take seriously the way of articulating that claim that Aquinas offers: the way in which he gives us concepts with which to speak about the distinction and the relation between God and creatures; the way in which he grounds God’s mystery in the very fact that God is creator, the way in which he re-reads contingency and mutability as creatureliness and gift, and so on. There’s a good deal here that is theologically rich and interesting, and even if my own attempts at theological articulation end up traversing this terrain from rather different directions, I don’t think Aquinas’ Ways can be dismissed simply as a bit of ‘philosophy’ with nothing to say to ‘theology’.

Reading the Five Ways 14

Reading the Five Ways
14. Absolute Dependence

The demonstration of the Five Ways involves God being made evident to the inquirer indirectly. That is, the Ways do not make God clearly graspable and definable; they make God evident only by making the character of the world evident. The Ways teach the inquirer to see the world as an ordered whole, a cosmos – as held together by webs of interdependence. And the Ways teach the inquirer to see this whole cosmos as utterly dependent upon a mystery from which it flows – so that, as it were, she begins to see that the world is patterned by lines of perspective, whose vanishing point remains tantalisingly out of view.

The Ways point to a basic reorientation of one’s understanding of the world. The inquirer who fully internalises the Ways will begin to see the movements and actions of things in the world as the expression of an Activity flowing through them; she will begin to see contingency not simply as mutability and decay but as creatureliness, and as the marker that finite things are gifts; she will begin to see the world as coming from and going to mystery. She will, in other words, begin to see the world as creation.

It strikes me that we are not a million miles from Schleiermacher at this point, despite the vast differences in idiom and philosophical machinery. I’m thinking of Schleiermacher’s discovery of the feeling of absolute dependence woven in to all his active and knowing engagements with the world. Of course, Schleiermacher’s emphasis falls more on this dependence as the thread that holds together the subject in the world, and Aquinas’ emphasis falls more on this dependence as a thread that holds together the world known by the subject, and so (to use the terms in a rather clumsy fashion) Schleiermacher is more psychological where Aquinas is more metaphysical. Nevertheless, there’s a similar intuition at the heart of both accounts, and both Aquinas and Schleiermacher are fundamentally theologians of creation.

Reading the Five Ways 13

Reading the Five Ways
13. The Five Ways as Foundation

I said before that

Aquinas’ central intention in these three articles is … to show how a bridge can be built from knowledge of our world to knowledge of God…. Much of the rest of the Summa then consists of driving all sorts of freight over that bridge, in both directions…. [T]he Five Ways are foundational to his whole project not in the sense that without them he would have to give up on Christian faith, nor in the sense that they everything that follows is unpacked directly from this starting point, but in the sense that the failure of this bridge would mean that the Summa would have to take an utterly different form.

I want to unpack that comment just a little.

It seems to me, as I have said, that the prime point of the Ways in context is not to demonstrate to the sceptic that God exists (though Aquinas certainly thinks that the arguments have the power to do that). Rather, they yield a grammar. Someone who has worked through the Ways (and through the material that immediately follows them) should start manipulating in new ways claims about God and God’s ways with the world.

(In fact, because (a) belief in God is not truly at stake for Aquinas in the Five Ways, and because (b) the Ways lead inevitably to discussion of the manner of God’s existence, there is a sense in which (as I once heard Nicholas Lash say), Aquinas asks ‘Does God exist’ in the same way that one might ask ‘Does the number 2 exist?’ – that is, he asks in what sense it is proper to use ‘existence’ language of God.)

The Ways should prevent the theologian from taking claims about God as if they were straightforwardly, unproblematically descriptive claims. After all, our language is fitted for talking about the world precisely in insofar as it is intelligible – insofar as it can be gripped by thought, brought under concepts, arranged, and spoken. The Ways, as I have been stressing, show that the strings of such intelligibility must be snipped in the case of God, even though it is that intelligibility that itself demands reference to God.

The Ways provide a pair of scissors for snipping the cords that tie our language about God to our grasp.

They also, however, set out the way in which language about God can work. As it were, having knocked over any language about God which tries to stand on its own two feet, they allow it to get up again provided that it can stand upon God’s creation – upon the patterns of God’s ways with the world. The Ways suggest a certain kind of decoding of theological language: claims about God will always be claims about God as the Mystery who has done this or that with the world – ‘God as the beginning and end of creatures.’ (For us, even talk about God’s immanent life is and can only be talk about the life of the God who creates, guides and saves the world.)

These ground rules do not say everything that needs to be said about God. They do not implicitly contain the whole content of theology. They do, however, provide rules by which any theological content can be stated, arranged, and manipulated – how it can form the basis of arguments, rather than remaining as the expostulations of unreasoning faith. The Ways are, for Aquinas, a necessary first step; they make theology possible.