- 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
- 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.
"We begin as knowing the world in which we live. So we
will have to be content with reasoning to God's existence from
- Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas,
"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
- 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
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
- Herbert McCabe, God Matters, pg. 10