Reading the Five Ways 12

Reading the Five Ways
12. The Ways to mystery

The Five Ways begin with the intelligibility of the world, and end with the assertion that something must end the chains of question and answer that constitute that intelligibility. Implicitly (in a way that his later arguments will make explicit), the same Ways that demonstrate the necessity of some such answer at the same time show that this answer is bound to be deeply incomprehensible. In other words, the Ways are arguments that lead from intelligibility to mystery.

My invocation of ‘mystery’ is here not meant to be any kind of hand-waving resignation of intellectual responsibility. The mysteriousness that stands at the end point of Aquinas’ arguments is a direct consequence of those arguments. When, in the ensuing discussion of the ‘manner of being’ that God is, Aquinas makes his explicit case for the mysteriousness implicit in the Five Ways, he is extremely precise about what kind of mystery he means: he shows that the Ways unavoidably lead us to characterise the answer they point to by a series of negations: this ‘X’ that the Ways point to is not a body, is not composed of form and matter, does not allow us to distinguish its essence from its existence, and so on. Those negations do not simply mean that the ‘X’ we are talking about is unlike anything we have met before; they make it impossible to give any kind of direct, positive description of ‘X’ at all. Without making the nature of X in any way self-contradictory, the Ways snip the cords that hold our ordinary language together. The Ways are, for Aquinas, a rational demonstration that the pinnacle of rational understanding – the heart and summit of our attempt to make full sense of the intelligible world – must be mystery.

I am reminded of a remark by Karen Kilby, in her paper, ‘Mathematics, Beauty and Theology’:

one of the beauties of some theology [is] that it aims to advance our knowledge not by letting us comprehend God just a little bit more, but by making us more aware of the incomprehensibility of God. Theology is at its most elegant … when the mystery of God and the clarity of the theology are directly, rather than inversely, related. Theology does not at its best, or at least at its most beautiful, acknowledge the mystery of God by vagueness in its formulations or half-heartedness in its assertions, nor does it achieve intellectual seriousness by in the end knowing quite a lot about God; at its most elegant, the more precise it is, the more effective it is in presenting us with the ungraspability of God. Part of the attraction of thinkers like Aquinas … is the way in which considerable intellectual resources and rigor are devoted to bringing to clarity the mysteriousness of God…

4 Thoughts on “Reading the Five Ways 12

  1. Isaac Gouy on May 6, 2008 at 5:23 pm said:

    > My invocation of ‘mystery’ is here not meant to be any kind of hand-waving resignation of intellectual responsibility.

    What are the consequences of this invocation of ‘mystery’ for the assumption that the world is intelligible?

  2. It qualifies it, certainly. Though I think there probably is a difference between an incomprehensibility that is simply assumed, and an incomprehensibility that is argued for. The incomprehensibility that Aquinas argues for is a consequence, not a premise.

  3. Clayton on January 21, 2009 at 2:28 am said:

    This is interesting. Why is it better for incomprehensibility to be argued for rather than assumed?

  4. On reflection, I’d want to rephrase this point. I don’t think the contrast is between incomprehensibility as premise and incomprehensibility as consequence (though that way of putting it might be appropriate to Aquinas). Rather, the difference would be between the acceptance and the refusal of the attempt to articulate the way that claims about God’s incomprehensibility themselves, in a faith-seeking-understanding kind of way, relate to a wider scheme of thought concerning God – such that one could meaningfully ask the question, ‘Why do we believe God to be incomprehensible?’ – and answer it in terms of other things that we believe about God. This seems to me to be necessary if one is to identify the limits and character of this incomprehensibility with any precision – and the alternative seems to me to be indistinguishable from a simple refusal to ask certain questions.

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