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Part One - of God

how to begin

When you start with Aquinas, the only thing he asks you to believe is the evidence of your own senses. He thinks you should recognize that you do indeed exist, that the world is real and that knowledge about the world is real: no silliness about thinking we're just brains in jars imagining it all. We stay firmly rooted in the physical world and start asking questions.

why is there not nothing

The most basic question we can ask is this: Why is there not nothing? It may seem sort of dumb, but asking such a question helps you step back and twirl your life around in your hands and get a feel for the basic "is-ness" of things, the sense you might get if you cleared your head of the million details that fill it and just relaxed and contemplated.

Aquinas asks you to notice two things about this basic stuff of life. The first is that we do exist, with all the oddness and peculiarity this implies. Why do we exist? Where did the whole universe come from? We're figuring out the mechanics of it with the Big Bang and other theories of cosmology, but that really just tells us the When, the Where and the How. It's astounding but doesn't really address the Who, the What or the Why, or cut to the basic strangeness of the fact that we exist at all. Then he asks you to notice another thing. He asks that you notice that we all haven't yet perished. Did you ever wake up in the morning and say, "Wow, I'm still here, I'm still me"? Have you ever been sort of surprised by your own continuing being? Not only do we exist, but we are continually (and sometimes overwhelmingly) kept in existence. So Aquinas wants you to ask not only "why is there not nothing" but "why is there not nothing day after day after day."

For Aquinas, theology begins with these questions. His whole concept of God is set in motion as a result of staring into the ultimate mystery of life, asking the "why there is not nothing" questions, deducing an answer and giving that answer a name.

a totally different context

The following two approaches to God and the world couldn't be more different:

  • You simply state that God created the world.

  • You reason and name as follows: We all know we're here; we all know the universe exists. But we have absolutely no idea why it all came to be and why it hasn't yet perished; at the heart of life lies mystery. But let's just accept that somehow we exist, and go ahead and deduce a mysterious cause for our mysterious existence, because we're human and we know that things have causes and we like to give things names. And let's call this mysterious cause God.

Aquinas takes the second approach, not the first.

Much has been made of the “Five Ways” that Aquinas described to deduce the existence of God, and that is often the only thing for which he is known. But I think focusing on them misses the more intriguing point. The whole structure of his theology (and ultimately that of the Roman Catholic faith) begins with the acknowledgement that we don't know why we exist and proceeds to give the name "God" to the cause of the ultimate mystery of existence.

just face it and name it

This quote from Victor White in Brian Davies' book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas makes this point nicely as it describes the difference between a Thomist (i.e., a fan of Thomas Aquinas) and a modern agnostic:

"St. Thomas's position differs from that of modern agnostics because while modern agnosticism says simply, 'We do not know, and the universe is a mysterious riddle', a Thomist says, 'We do not know what the answer is, but we do know there is a mystery behind it all which we do not know, and if there were not, there would not even be a riddle. This Unknown we call God. If there were no God, there would be no universe to be mysterious, and nobody to be mystified.'"

So Thomists and theologians go the extra step. If life is a mystery, and if in our experience mysteries have origins and (eventually) resolutions, then let's put that same framework on the mystery of why there is not nothing. And let's give that framework's origin and (eventual) resolution a name (i.e., God) and try and figure out some things about it. If agnostics did this simple framing of the mystery of existence, they'd turn into theologians.

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"We begin as knowing the world in which we live. So we will have to be content with reasoning to God's existence from that."
- Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, pg. 25

 

"The delight we take in our senses is an implicit desire to know the ulitmate reason for things, the highest cause."
Ralph McInerny, in the introduction to Happiness and Contemplation by Josef Pieper.

 

"The real mystery of things is not what they are, but that they are."
- Thomas F. O'Meara, Thomas Aquinas Theologian, pg 6.

 

"Why is there change at all or why is there a world at all? Insofar as he believes that questions like this have an answer, Aquinas believes in God." - Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, pg. 39

 

"To assert the existence of God is not to state a fact within an established intellectual system but to claim the need for exploration; it is to claim that there is an unanswered question about the universe: the question 'How come the whole thing instead of nothing?'"
- Herbert McCabe, God Matters, pg. 10

 
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