Father Thomas White
Professor of Theology, The Dominican House of Studies

Reasoning About God

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Are those content to simply have faith in God “incomplete” compared to those who try to reason about his existence? Dominican Friar Fr. Thomas Joseph White talks to Big Think about the spiritual importance of reason, and the doubts that a rational approach to spirituality may or may not lead to.

Father Thomas White

Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P. is one of the youngest professors at the Pontifical Academy of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., the seminary for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph and a center of Thomistic learning for both priests and laity. Fr. White is an expert in Thomistic metaphysics, Christology and Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue. Fr. White converted to Catholicism at age 22, while studying at Brown University.

Fr. White is the author of the upcoming Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Modern Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press).


Question: What is Aquinas’ proof of the existence of God?

Thomas Joseph White: Aquinas has a number of writings on the rational demonstration of the existence of God, and he wants to avoid two extremes: one extreme is what you would consider a certain kind of Christian triumphalism or overoptimism which would say that God’s existence is self evident to the human mind:  rationally self evident, not by faith but by reason. Another extreme is the extreme which you would term a kind of Fideism which would say that we simply have to believe that God exists and there is no rational demonstration, philosophically, or lack of demonstration:  it’s simply a question the human mind cannot cope with by its own natural lights. He offers maybe in his whole corpus as many as 20 or 25 different kinds of arguments for the existence of God, but famously he has a centerpiece, a synthesis of this, briefly [in] the Summa Theologiae, where he offers five ways to convince [someone] of God. And those are not arguments from cosmology of his age or strictly speaking, not from the scriptures or the Bible:  they’re arguments based on what we might call the metaphysical structures of reality.

So he looks at contingency, change, and movement of things, examined philosophically. He looks at efficient causality:  that things are both causes of other things and in themselves caused and dependent. He looks at radical contingency, the capacity of a thing to "be" or "not to be" which, of course, characterizes everything around us, including ourselves. Grades of perfection in things. Degrees of beauty and truth and goodness in persons, in reality. And then he looks, lastly, at purpose or ordered teleology in realities that tend toward final ends.

What he’s trying to do is highlight, in each of these five ways, how there’s a certain kind of interdependency in the realities we experience, including in ourselves, that shines forth - that pushes you to ask the question of what exists or perdures over the horizon of contingency and interdependency. And he’s showing that there’s what he calls an a posteriori demonstration, from effects to causes, that there must exist some transcendent cause of this web of interdependent realities of which we make -  a part [of] which is the fabric of existence around us.

So he thinks there are indirect demonstrations of the existence of God. Not immediate intuition, not a mere question of faith but a kind of fragile but real reasoning towards God as a term of human thought.

Question: Is having faith in God is more important than rationalizing his existence?

Thomas Joseph White: Well there’s always been, in the Christian tradition, a certain more marginal strand of thought that is a radicalization of Augustine’s thought. Augustine himself held that there are arguments for the existence of God by reason alone, but this strand of thought would argue that, in fact, human reason is so frail, so diminished by compromises, the complacency of the human will have so diminished reason’s capacity to vibrantly reason lucidly for itself, that really trying to reason about God or argue philosophically for the demonstration of the existence of God is a waste of time and in fact probably a pretension. And this is actually, I think, rather forcefully argued in Luther’s thought and it has become a commonplace theme in some Protestant thinkers like Carl Bart.

Aquinas has the famous dictum: Grace does not destroy nature but heals it and perfects it. Yes, human nature is frail and human reason is sometimes very weak and fallible. It’s also very noble and dignified. And if you in the name of grace in the exultation in the divine revelation of God diminish human reason, not only do you diminish God’s creation thereby and dishonor God, the creator. But you also will end up repressing one of the deepest most noble dimensions of the human person which will have its revenge on you. And your human nature will seek, eventually, to reassert itself and establish its own rational autonomy. So you can get a dialectic that exists between a position of faith alone versus rational autonomy which is one of the oppositions that Aquinas is careful to avoid in which is a very false opposition.

Question: Does relying on faith alone lead to inevitable doubts?

Thomas Joseph White: Not necessarily but you’re going to be an incomplete person. If you rely on faith alone, without the cooperation of your natural reason, that could be by humility, because there are people who are simpler. They are not going to be able to solve all the great problems of the world. And faith is a grace, a supernatural grace. We’re talking about divine faith, not simply human trust in other people, which is not always a bad thing. But divine faith, the trust in God that comes from the grace of faith, enlightening the heart and mind allows people, even simple people, to have great intimacy with God on a very sophisticated level.

That’s one of the amazing things about faith but it shouldn’t be used as a pretext to diminish or suppress what in us is deeply good and natural. And well a danger is you’re going to end up harming the human person and in fact, compromising the rational intelligibility of faith itself.

Question: What if reason leads to atheism?

Thomas Joseph White: Well, since the enlightenment, you had a number of extremely influential thinkers reassert the autonomy of reason. And to say that the autonomy of reason really, to be itself fully, has to askew the good of faith, or that reason can demonstrate the illogical or unhelpful character of faith - the first Vatican counsel of the Catholic church of the 19th century took a contrary view by arguing that the dignity of reason is such that it can ascend towards the question of God. And the question of God should not be neutralized because that actually diminishes the nobility of man. So allowing the question of God or the question of the soul, the question of the religious and metaphysical meaning of human existence to emerge, is a sign of liberation of human reason.

And human reason can also come to reflect on its own limitations, not by artificial frustration of itself by something outside of itself, but by being aware that going to term of its own reflections, it’s never the less seeing that there’s certain fundamental questions that [it] can’t fully resolve for itself.

When you hit up against questions like the meaning of evil or the meaning of human death or the question of God, [or] the moral drama of the human condition, there’s a certain amount of intelligibility natural reason can shed on those subjects, but [there's] also going to be frontiers where the mind is left looking off into a horizon, and it has questions that remain unanswered; natural questions. And that’s a natural openness towards the idea, or the question, of divine revelation. Why could God not reveal something which addressed [the] deepest aspirations of my human reason? While, in fact, doing so in such ways liberates me to seek the truth more deeply.

Question: What do you find to be the strongest case against the existence of God?

Thomas Joseph White: Well St. Thomas says that the stronger argument against the existence of God is the existence of evil in the world, which is the argument also mustered by David Hume. As I have gotten older in life, I've thought that that made a lot of sense because I have experienced more moral or physical evil in the universe. It's not convinced me, but I think that's an interesting argument. Actually, Aquinas has a really interesting argument  positing that the ontological reality of evil, the privation of good in things, is itself ultimately rational grounds for arguing that God does exist, because there is a supreme good that's the measurable of the inferior goods that get eroded by evil.

However, my own education was more in the post-modern guild and I was experiencing – at 18, 19, 20 years old - the literature of Foucault and Nietzsche and that kind of crowd. So for me the real problem wasn't arguments for or against existence of God, it was the question of finding any kind of stable orientation or foundation upon which you would build any kind of rational or logical structure by which to understand reality. I was very skeptical about that. I still think that - although I don't agree with that position anymore - I still think that Foucault and Nietzsche, particularly Nietzsche, diagnose a lot of the syndrome of the relativism of modern human discourse and reason. They put their finger on the crisis, I think, rather profoundly. So I think Nietzsche is a really important figure for helping us to understand where we are as a culture today.

Recorded on: August 20, 2009