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: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo
1538-1606
Peru

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes
1618-1645
Ecuador

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes
1900-1920
Chile

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya
1874-1949
Colombia

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales
1898-1926
Mexico

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”