On Aquinas

Karen Armstrong’s discussion of Aquinas

Few thinkers have made such a lasting contribution to Western Christianity as Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), who attempted a synthesis of Augustine and the Greek philosophy which had recently been made available in the West.

During the twelfth century, European scholars had flocked to Spain, where they encountered Muslim scholarship. With the help of Muslim and Jewish intellectuals they undertook a vast translation project to bring this intellectual wealth to the West. Arabic translations of Plato, Aristotle and the other philosophers of the ancient world were now translated into Latin and became available to the people of Northern Europe for the first time. The translators also worked on more recent Muslim scholarship, including the work of Ibn Rushd as well as the discoveries of Arab scientists and physicians. At the same time as some European Christians were bent on the destruction of Islam in the Near East, Muslims in Spain were helping the West to build up its own civilization. The Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas was an attempt to integrate the new philosophy with the Western Christian tradition. Aquinas had been particularly impressed by Ibn Rushd’s explication of Aristotle. Yet, unlike Anselm and Abelard, he did not believe that such mysteries as the Trinity could be proved by reason and distinguished carefully between the ineffable reality of God and human doctrines about him. He agreed with Denys that God’s real nature was inaccessible to the human mind: “Hence in the last resort all that man knows of God is to know that he does not know him, since he knows that what God is surpasses all that we can understand of him.” There is a story that when he had dictated the last sentence of the Summa, Aquinas laid his head sadly on his arms. When the scribe asked him what was the matter, he replied that everything that he had written was straw compared with what he had seen.

Aquinas’s attempt to set his religious experience in the context of the new philosophy was necessary in order to articulate faith with other reality and not relegate it to an isolated sphere of its own. Excessive intellectualism is damaging to the faith, but if God is not to become an indulgent endorsement of our own egotism, religious experience must be informed by an accurate assessment of its content. Aquinas defined God by returning to God’s own definition of himself to Moses: “I am What I Am.” Aristotle had said that God was Necessary Being; Aquinas accordingly linked the God of the Philosophers with the God of the Bible by calling God “He Who Is” (Qui est). He made it absolutely clear that God was not simply another being like ourselves, however. The definition of God as Being Itself was appropriate “because it does not signify any particular form [of being] but rather being itself (esse seipsum).”36 It would be incorrect to blame Aquinas for the rationalistic view of God that later prevailed in the West.

Unfortunately, however, Aquinas gives the impression that God can be discussed in the same way as other philosophical ideas or natural phenomena by prefacing his discussion of God with a demonstration of God’s existence from natural philosophy. This suggests that we can get to know God in much the same way as other mundane realities. Aquinas lists five “proofs” for God’s existence that would become immensely important in the Catholic world and would also be used by Protestants:

  1. Aristotle’s argument for a Prime Mover.
  2. A similar “proof” which maintains that there cannot be an infinite series of causes: there must have been a beginning.
  3. The argument from contingency, propounded by Ibn Sina, which demands the existence of a “Necessary Being.”
  4. Aristotle’s argument from the Philosophy that the hierarchy of excellence in this world implies a Perfection that is the best of all.
  5. The argument from design, which maintains that the order and purpose that we see in the universe cannot simply be the result of chance.

These proofs do not hold water today. Even from a religious point of view, they are rather dubious, since, with the possible exception of the argument from design, each proof tacitly implies that “God” is simply an-other being, one more link in the chain of existence. He is the Supreme Being, the Necessary Being, the Most Perfect Being. Now, it is true that the use of such terms as “First Cause” or “Necessary Being” implies that God cannot be anything like the beings we know but rather their ground or the condition for their existence. This was certainly Aquinas’s intention. Nevertheless, readers of the Summa have not always made this important distinction and have talked about God as if he were simply the Highest Being of all. This is reductive and can make this Super Being an idol, created in our own image and easily turned into a celestial Super Ego. It is probably not inaccurate to suggest that many people in the West regard God as a Being in this way.

Armstrong, Karen (2011-08-10). History of God (Kindle Locations 4448-4486). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Now, I tend to agree with Armstrong on almost all of her points. Aquinas’ proofs are nothing of the sort and it’s fallacious to think so. But they are ways of thinking of God reasonably which is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, we can discuss God in clear terms but on the minus side such can easily lead to idolatry, i.e. the “celestial Super-Ego” who is the “Highest of all Beings.”

Aquinas’ first Three Ways, form his articulation of the Cosmological Argument for God. I find them persuasive not in their raw form, as Aquinas himself might have understood them. In fact, in isolation I find the first two somewhat weak (but then again I haven’t pondered them in depth). However, The Third Way has intrigued me. I do not find it at all weak and it holds substantial water when translated to our modern conceptions of our world. After all, I have the privileged position to be inculturated to value and appreciate science. I’ve seen different cosmological theories, they all struggle or simply are silent on contingency. The Big Bang with updates is pretty explanatory but it says nothing about what happened at the first instant of creation. The multiverse hypothesis holds our universe is one in an infinite series of universes (thus explaining its fine tuning as a matter of chance) and this super-domain is the framework in which our universe exists. But what created it or is it uncreated and necessary? Are we to assume it is transcendent, eternal and fundamental? These qualities are those attributed to the God of the philosophers as Armstrong has described him. Things have causes and science looks for them. So I find a Necessary Being hard to dismiss precisely because science looks for causes. The God of Einstein was like this and he was no a theist. Suddenly now we should stop looking for causes because it might support a view that God exists? Seems fallacious.