Have you ever asked yourself, “What is God?” If so, pick up the new book by former atheist and professor Dr. Kevin Vost, which explores that very question.
Using insights from the foundational 13th-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, Vost shows why this question and Aquinas’ answers remain relevant today.
Too often we make the mistake of thinking God is simply the most powerful Being in the universe — like us, only without our limitations. But this erroneous view, popular even among theists, bears responsibility for the growth of the new atheists and their derision toward those who assert God’s existence. Take, for example, evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, who has stated:
You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it’s wrong to say therefore we don’t need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don’t need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. … If there’s not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it.
Here we see the faulty conception of God on full display. Like unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, and fairies, Dawkins assumes God is merely another being in the universe — one that simply has not been discovered by science and therefore must not exist. Yet, it does not seem to have occurred to Dawkins that God may not be the sort of thing that is hiding somewhere in the cosmos simply awaiting scientific discovery. In fact, as we will see, classical theists like Aquinas have never held such a cartoonish view of God.
That is why, as Vost notes, discussions of this nature best begin by answering the question, “What is God?” Only then will we know precisely what (or who) we are saying does (or does not) exist.
Indeed, it would be no surprise to someone like Aquinas that modern science has failed to find the god Dawkins has proposed or the heaven Sam Harris wants to spot with a telescope.
For Aquinas, God is not a being in the universe. Therefore science, which observes and categorizes the material world, cannot adjudicate questions about God’s existence. Rather, God is being itself.
As classical philosophers have understood for millennia, God is not existent in the world but the fullness of existence itself. He is, in other words, not something existing alongside us but the source and sustainer of everything in existence, including the universe itself. So it is no wonder scientific investigation has not found him lurking somewhere deep in the recesses of the cosmos — and to think science ever could simply misunderstand the nature of God.
The Role of Reason
Nevertheless, while science cannot discover God, Aquinas showed that reason can in several ways.
In fact, Vost does a nice job introducing the general reader to Aquinas’ famous “Five Ways.” These include arguments from motion (or change), “efficient cause,” “contingency,” “degrees of being,” and “final cause.”
Now, it is worth noting that Aquinas does not employ probabilistic reasoning. That is, he does not argue that it is likely God exists. Rather, he employs a method of philosophical demonstration such that, if his reasoning is sound, God’s existence necessarily (not probably) follows from the premises. As Vost explains, “Thomas’s five ways prove not that God may well exist, but that he absolutely must exist. Otherwise, the world brought to us by our senses, our own selves and the senses included, simply could not exist.”
This reasoning not only brings us to God, but it also helps us unpack the attributes that necessarily follow therefrom, attributes such as simplicity (or not being composed of any parts), perfection, omniscience (or being all-knowing), omnipotence (or being all-powerful), immutability (or being unchanging), eternality (or existing outside of time), unity (or oneness), and goodness.
As Vost describes, knowledge of these attributes comes in part through “apophatic” knowledge, or knowledge of God by negation — by knowing what God is not. For example, by knowing that God does not exist within time, we know he must therefore exist outside of time altogether (that he is eternal).
Nevertheless, as Vost notes, our knowledge of God is not entirely limited to negation. We can, for instance, speak of God analogically, or by analogy, given that we see certain qualities universally displayed within the world itself, and also given the principle that effects must in some way be contained within their cause. In other words, something cannot come from nothing.
The Problem with a ‘God of the Gaps’
Fewer people know Aquinas’ form of philosophical reasoning these days than prior to the Enlightenment, when philosophy lost the high status it had held for millennia. As a result, when theists argue for God today, they often give “probabilistic” arguments. These arguments tend to begin from current scientific knowledge and proceed to argue that God explains physical or biological discoveries better than a naturalistic explanation.
But such an approach concedes too much philosophical ground to science, which leads to a “god of the gaps” framework. This framework relegates God to the increasingly narrow gaps of explanation in modern science. Then, as science continues to advance, the gaps shrink to the point of vanishment — and voila, God disappears. Hence the dismissal of God from Dawkins above.
Thankfully, Vost’s book corrects this misguided approach. Aquinas’ method, like the method of classical theism more broadly, does not compete with science, and thus scientific advancements do not threaten it. Philosophy and science are distinct (but complementary) disciplines, and reading “What is God?” will not only help us grasp that, but it will deeply enrich our understanding of both the existence and nature of God.