Theology studies God. So, we need to know that God exists. We will follow the lead of the Catechism down this path.
After a section on the religious nature, or religious sense of man (and much more can be said about this in a later post), the CCC describes two ways of coming to know God (from the standpoint of “reason alone”). The whole passage says:
Created in God’s image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of “converging and convincing arguments”, which allow us to attain certainty about the truth. These “ways” of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world, and the human person. (31)
In other words, our concern at this point is to examine proofs for God’s existence that come to us based upon the light of human reason.
The world acts as a starting point as man examines movement, becoming, order, beauty and the contingent nature of things. These point to an origin and an end (CCC 32).
The human person displays an openness and desire for truth, beauty, justice, goodness and love. He exercises freedom and conscience as well as expresses deep longings for the infinite (CCC 33).
Thus, man, by his own faculties can come to knowledge of God through the twofold point of departure: the world and the person. Our next task will be to see how these proofs work.
Proofs: What they are/are not.
Much could be said here. I will focus on one major theme: the enduring role of free assent.
Let’s start with what proofs are not. They are not automatic. By this, I mean that, in fact, there is no such thing (in any field of study) as “automatic intellection” (ie. assent without a free act). In other words, proofs do not replace the need for faith, but instead open the way for a faith that is not blind.
Proofs for God’s existence, like any deductive exercise, advance through various premises before reaching the logical conclusion. Then, the individual assents (ie. expresses agreement) to the conclusion. The will, the free will of the person, must come into play in order to hold knowledge.
This holds true for any branch of knowledge. 2+2 indeed equals 4. My intellect grasps it, and my will confirms it. “Yes, I see/believe/know that 2+2=4.” This is also the case with science. A given experiment produces x result. Some scientists will agree with this result, and others will reject it for whatever reason. Just because one arrives at a given truth via science, math, logic, etc. does not make it part of my intellect automatically. Man’s freedom is always at play.
The same holds for Proofs of God’s existence. They are not automatic. Nor do they diminish the role of faith – as if reasoned arguments for God’s existence can serve as a substitute for faith. No. One reasons in order to take the step into the light of faith – one reasons to believe, one finds reasons to believe.
Case in point: look at the reaction of the crowds, disciples, and apostles when Jesus walked the face of the earth. He performs miracles, signs, wonders, mighty deeds, and calls himself the Son of God. Many believe then fall away. Some believe, fall away, and then believe again. Most don’t believe him at all, and so forth. Freedom was always at play. For this reason, when speaking particularly about the religious act and its implication, theologian Henri de Lubac says, “Just as the act of faith is the freest of all acts, so the expression of faith is the most personal of all expressions.”
While proofs are not “automatic intellection,” they do provoke man’s reason and his will, and can lead him to certainty about the existence of God. Should one say that “certainty” is too strong a word in this regard, I may reply that many of the things we are most certain about are not the result of a scientific method, mathematical formula, or long string of syllogisms. Man operates most often off of high probabilities and the reasons to believe this or that. Here, one could speak of things like the love of a spouse, the belief I have in my legs that they will operate properly upon rising from sleep, or the nutritional values listed on my carton of milk. For a number of reasons, I would consider these truths to be certain – I believe to know, and know to believe. Proofs for God’s existence operate within this realm of knowing and believing, which is really no different than any other branch of knowledge, and it is certainly not contradictory to daily experience.
(Want to read more on this topic? I’d recommend Faith and Certitude by Fr. Thomas Dubay. Or, if you’re really ambitious, you can check out Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.)