Can the Existence of God
be known by reason?

"Things diversified by different degrees of existence, so as to be more or less perfect, must be caused by one first and most perfect being." Thomas Aquinas

Attempts at proving the existence of God by the use of reason have a venerable past, but in the eyes of many Christians they appear to have no future. Is this true? I don’t think so.

A series of misunderstandings often brought on by the poor presentation of the traditional doctrine has cut us off from an important and even fascinating part of our Christian heritage. The proofs for the existence of someone like St. Thomas Aquinas were often presented to us as if grasping them and being convinced by them was simply a matter of logic alone. The tone of these presentations was: "Here are the words; here are the inferences between the statements, and here is the conclusion: God exists (and if you don’t quite get it, you should believe it, anyway.) St. Thomas’ proofs were presented as logical arguments in what could be called a hyperconceptual style. The words were presented, but rarely did anyone take the time to see if the metaphysical insights of St. Thomas that made these words come alive for him existed in us. That was one problem.

Another was to confuse on the practical level knowledge by faith with a metaphysical knowledge of God. A metaphysical knowledge of God does not, by itself, bring us into a living contact with the God of faith. It is a much more remote kind of knowledge that rises from the things around us to a knowledge that God must exist. But this knowledge of God is wrapped in darkness, a darkness that reason cannot dispel. This metaphysical knowledge has a very different feel to it than a knowledge of God that comes through faith. It can generate a certain certitude that God exists, but this knowledge does not bridge the distance between us and God. It doesn’t have the same warmth and personal quality that comes through knowledge by faith. And so even if reason were to begin to give us some real knowledge about the existence of God, we might simply overlook it because it doesn’t feel like we expect it should.

But reason actually can know the existence of God. St. Thomas gives five arguments, but I think that it is more useful to concentrate on the insight that is the foundation for them. Then the argument for the existence of God runs along the same lines as Thomas’ ideas on essence and existence (see The Metaphysics of St. Thomas in one easy but not simple lesson.) We are surrounded by existing things: trees, birds, stars and oceans. We know both that these things are different from each other, and that these things exist. These commonplace yet indubitable experiences are the starting point for metaphysical insights.

The existing things around us present us with two interconnected dimensions, or two fundamental ways in which our minds can address them: what a thing is, and that it is. Another way of putting this is to say that the existence that we experience in the existing things around us comes in many different flavors or colors. There is existence, for example, that we meet as the existence of a stone, and another kind of existence that we meet as the existence of a butterfly.

But if existence can come in all these colors, then in itself it cannot be confined to any one of them. Existence overflows all the particular ways in which we see it manifested. The existences we see are existence as this or that particular kind of existence, existence as limited, but existence as limited demands existence as unlimited, as its source, just as a rainbow of colors demands the sun. Existence without limit, the very to be which is the source of all existing things, is the metaphysical name of God.

This reasoning, I think, is sound. But the conviction that it brings is in direct proportion to the depth of our metaphysical insight, and that is the hard part. This kind of insight, while rooted in the intuitive depths of the human intellect, can come like a gift, and then fade away. But if we work at it we can develop this metaphysical insight so that we can say that reason can know the existence of God.

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How to contribute to this discussion

Reading: The Existence of God