Proving God’s existence

Jared Staudt

If someone asked you if you could prove that God exists, what would you say? What would you have to draw upon to answer this question — revelation, science, or philosophy? Revelation gives us knowledge of God as a free gift and does not require us to prove its contents, but to understand them with the help of the Church. Science cannot prove God’s existence, because God is not an object of empirical study that can be measured with earthly means. This leaves us the option of philosophy — making arguments of reason based upon the nature of things and the dynamics of causality.

Thomas Aquinas makes an important distinction about proving God’s existence through reason: we can know naturally that God exists, that there is an infinite and perfect Being who created the universe, but we cannot know who God is by reason alone. The universe may bear the footprint of its Creator, but God is not a being or object within the universe, but BEING itself — he IS the One who IS. Nonetheless, knowing that God exists does help the mind a great deal, recognizing its natural dependence on the Creator and removing a major obstacle in coming to faith.

Edward Feser has become one of the most distinguished Catholic philosophers in the United States and his new book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (Ignatius, 2017), can help Catholics to be prepared to answer objections to God’s existence and will strengthen our own understanding of the truth. It is significant that of the five thinkers Feser uses for the arguments of the book, two are pagan, Aristotle and Plotinus, and another Protestant, Leibniz. The other two are St. Augustine, one of the greatest Fathers of the Church, and the Common Doctor, Aquinas. The variety of historical and cultural contexts from which these figures come itself proves the point: reason, not simply Christian revelation, can know that God does exist.

A little more than halfway through the book, Feser offers a brief recap of the five arguments:

The Aristotelian proof begins with the fact that there are potentialities that are actualized and argues that we cannot make sense of this unless we affirm the existence of something which can actualize the potential existence of things without itself being actualized, a purely actual actualizer. The Neo-Platonic proof begins with the fact that the things of our experience are composed of parts and argues that such things could not exist unless they have an absolutely simple or noncomposite cause. The Augustinian proof begins with the fact that there are abstract objects like universals, proposition, numbers, and possible worlds, and argues that these must exist as ideas in a divine intellect. The Thomistic proof begins with the real distinction, in each of the things of our experience, between its essence and its existence, and argues that the ultimate cause of such things must be something which is subsistent existence itself. The rationalist proof begins with the principle of sufficient reason and argues that the ultimate explanation of things can only lie in an absolutely necessary being (169).

The book explains each of these proofs at length and details the more technical terms employed. The beginning of chapter six also explores some of the philosophical concepts in more depth and offers a brief primer that helps readers to understand the logic of the arguments.

Feser makes it clear that the book is not a study in the history of philosophy. His arguments refer to key elements of the thought of each of the five thinkers, but he actively constructs a compelling argument that stands on its own terms today. He also spends a considerable amount of time engaging opposing views and objections raised by atheists, both throughout the book and in an entire chapter to conclude the book. The book is not written in scholarly language, but will provide a challenging read. Ultimately, it provides another way of forming our minds in faith.

COMING UP: Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr