(This is the twentieth of a periodic series on Christian Apologetics. Each will bear the “Apologetics” title together with a number so that they can be collected or read sequentially, even though other posts will be interspersed amongst them.)
From time to time throughout this Apologetics, I will offer “Summary Conclusions.” This is the first, completed.
Philosophical and other reflections
Several issues were mentioned in the preceding First Summary Conclusion as requiring further comment.
(1) Proofs for the existence of God
St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is the locus classicus for theology’s articulation of arguments for the existence of God. A good disciple of Aristotle, Aquinas offers five such arguments. In very brief summary, without exegeting their full Aristotelianism, they are: (a) the argument from motion/change which in essence states that motion/change cannot continue back through causation ad infinitum and thus an “unmoved mover” must exist to serve as the cause of all motion/change, this being what is meant by “God.” (b) The argument from efficient causes, employing the same logic as above and asserting that nothing can exist prior to its self, and again claiming that an ad infinitum regress is in effect a denial of all existent things, concludes that the first efficient cause is “God.” (c) The argument reductio ad absurdum applied to contingent and necessary beings, it being asserted that if all things were contingent nothing would ever in fact exist and thus there must be a necessary being, this being “God.” (d) The argument from gradation of being which asserts that every perfection or quality in a thing derives from that which is “more so than itself” and thus that which provides perfections and qualities to all things is that which is called “God.” (e) The argument from design which asserts that unintelligent things are able to achieve goals because they are guided by an intelligence (think of a hammer and a nail) and thus all natural things are guided by the ultimate intelligence, “God.”
There are other arguments not considered by St. Thomas. Most notable is a group of arguments referred to as the ontological arguments. They are much discussed in contemporary philosophy. An ontological argument is a category of argument; one which is based not on empirical evidence in any way, but relies solely on the use of reason alone, using a priori premises to conclude that “God” exists. They can be traced to back to St. Anselm’s version. His argument can be summarized: “I conceive of a being than which no greater can be conceived. If a being than which no greater can be conceived does not exist, then I can conceive of a being greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived that exists. I cannot conceive of a being greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. Hence, a being than which no greater can be conceived exists.”
Getting back to the points I have presented in this Apologetics and especially in the “First Summary Conclusion,” I need to urgently stress that these proofs and arguments are each and all taken together flawed in ways that need not detain us. Their power and interest is not in that they “prove” anything, but rather that they articulate and thus provide an intellectual framework for that which is believed of God independently of them. They are attempts to make pistology sophisticated. There is nothing at all wrong with this aim, but it is a very different aim than their alleged intent. It is worth repeating what was stated earlier in this First Summary Conclusion:
God, like all things we claim to know, is more than what we know. A “proof of God’s existence” is simply part of that wider “knowledge.” Instead of offering God as an object of knowledge and thus as just another imperfect thing, Genesis 1 – 11 makes an assumption …. This is the basis for the rabbinic notion of God as Nothing, or No-thing, a thing being part of everything, the Not-God.
Which leads to ….
(2) Mystery and the ephemeral
An observant reader will have noted two things: that in the review of the proofs given above, I was careful always to place the word God within quotation marks. Secondly, throughout this Apologetics to this point I have not applied a personal pronoun of any kind to God. The reason for these two restraints is one. Language is inadequate. (I have made this point more than once in different contexts.) Words mean things, of course, and care must be taken in their use, but words never mean all that they seek to state.
Consider myth. One definition of myth is that it is the intentional use of words to say that which cannot be said. An example would be the mother going in to comfort a child with a nightmare in the middle of the night. “There, there,” she says. “Everything is alright.” Of course, everything is not alright; even as she speaks people are still dying, the starving ache for food, and so on. Her words are pure myth and, precisely because they are, they are true.
At one level all language is mythic. It is especially important to acknowledge that pistological language is mythic. God-talk is supremely mythic. This insight has been made in a variety of ways perhaps most famously in Martin Luther’s notion of deus absconditus (the hidden God) and deus revelatus est deus velatus.
This directly relates to language about God’s doing and indeed is the encouragement towards an apophatic approach. Thus, a temptation always to avoid is the idolatry of words, to assume that what I have said is indeed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of the matter. If indeed our words could capture the truth there would have been no need for incarnation. Incarnation is the final word to all arrogance about words.
More on all this much later. For now, the quotation marks around God can be removed provided they are not forgotten. God is no more definitive than “God.”
As for pronouns? I am a stickler for grammar. God as “he” is not an assertion of biological masculinity, of maleness. It is a linguistic, not a genital, gender phenomenon. Woman/wife/Mrs. in German is neuter! “Das Frau.” A window in French, la fenêtre, is feminine. Elohim, a grammatical plural in Hebrew, takes a masculine singular verb, as does YHWH. I will be referring to God henceforth using the third singular masculine pronoun. Nothing is intended, no agenda is being pushed, by this.