JMC : The Knowableness of God / by Matthew Schumacher, CSC


If truth is God's handwriting, the ink is indelible and the page indestructible. If the world is God's, it cannot deny its allegiance. The Conception of God as found in the works of St. Thomas is the expression of the power of the Creator as witnessed to by the work of His hands. The question of God has never been a problem of the past; in some phase it has always demanded the best thought of the best thinkers of all epochs. There are times, however, when it seems to arouse especial attention -- when its full import for all thought is pressed home. We are now in such a time, for we have gone to the very root of the problem -- we are now concerned with the Idea of God. Not so much the existence of God, nor a discussion of His Attributes specifically, but the quest is for a Conception of God that will quell our uneasiness in presence of many apparent confusions, and satisfy our demand for an adequate explanation. Many have been and are to-day seeking this Concept, but it is an idle attempt unless the path that leads to it has been shown to be sure and consistent, for this Idea is not the product of bare thought. In other words, our Concept can only have the validity of the methods that have been employed in reaching it. Prof. Ladd has pointed out what he considers preliminary to the formation of the Concept of God. We must know the development of man's religious life, we must know human nature in its totality, and, finally, we must have "points of view for regarding the sum-total of human experience which will bear the test of the severest critical and reflective thinking."{1} This last point as stated in another place -- "A tenable and consistent theory of knowledge is then, an indispensable part of the prolegomena to an argument for the being of God,"{2} is what we wish to show in the present paper. Our aim -- and this is the implicit burden of all Scholastic treatments of this subject -- is to show the intimate connection between the Theory of Knowledge set forth by St. Thomas and his handling of the Knowableness of God. The principles he uses in arriving at a knowledge of any subject are unchanged when he comes to discuss the question of our knowledge of God. Ladd also notes that we must have some theory of reality -- we shall state likewise the theory of reality held by our author and follow it throughout. "In general the cause of Theodicy is bound up with that of Metaphysics. The science of God is a part of the science of being."{3} The relation of the knowableness of God to the theory of knowledge is so close in Aquinas that a presentation of the two together may give a more satisfying view of the position he held, and which Christian Philosophy also holds, than those unacquainted with his works and not in sympathy with his thoughts are accustomed to have. With this purpose we have written what cannot be new to students of Scholastic Philosophy, but what may serve to awaken in others a friendly regard for a Conception of God arrived at by ways so unlike the ones they are wont to use.

There are a few points in the method of St. Thomas that are worth noting at the outset. He begins with a vague sort of a Conception of God that he considers common to all men. By induction he arrives at a concept more specific yet not complete; this concept he treats by deduction and evolves its implications. The development of this concept by deduction is done according to carefully formulated tests; its necessity is due to the nature of our mind, for God is truly one, all attributes are identical in Him, but we can only know Him by considering them separately. As a result we have a full and many-sided concept, and no one attribute in particular is made to bear the burden of the whole. One of the most striking differences between the attitude of Aquinas and that of Moderns who have no specific interest in the Conception of God they reach, provided it harmonizes in some way with the general trend of the philosophical systems they are following or framing unto themselves, is the directness and consistency with which he meets the problem in all its developments. "Even when we recognize that the modern spirit is less trammeled in its researches, we shall be forced to admit that it is to some extent hampered by the restrictions which arise from the cultivations of 'systems' and from loyalty to the traditions of the 'schools.' "{4} St. Thomas sees his way clearly and he utilizes his light to the fullest measure -- there is no hesitation when it is asked is such an attribute to be found in God. At once the answer is given -- and this is so because his principles are plainly before him and they are the test of his Concept. This fact is highly commendable whether we agree with his principles or not. There are few Conceptions of God given us at present -- outside of Christian Philosophy -- where the position is ever essentially the same, that cannot be criticised on the score of unwarranted assumption, inconsistent development, incomplete presentation, -- some offend against all three.

If we contrast a thought taken from Spencer and one from Paulsen with the position of Aquinas this will be evident. It will show how he admitted the truth in each of their doctrines and yet did not stop where they did. With Spencer from a consideration of Causation in the world he comes to a First Cause; but Spencer says, if we reason on the nature of this Cause we land in contradiction -- "the conception of the Absolute and Infinite, from whatever side we view it, appears encompassed with contradictions,"{5} and hence is practically unknowable. Paulsen, speaking of the God of Pantheists, remarks: "We cannot presume to give an exhaustive definition of the inner life of the all-real God. . . . The difference between human and divine inner life must indeed be great and thorough-going, so great that there can be no homogeneity at any point."{6} With this statement St. Thomas holds that we cannot have an exhaustive definition of God; his fundamental thesis -- we can know God from creation as a likeness of Him -- is opposed to the second half of Paulsen's view. "From sensible things", Aquinas says, "our intellect cannot attain to a view of God's essence (inner life) because creatures are effects of God not equalling the power of the Cause. . . They lead us, however, to a knowledge of God's existence and from them we learn what we must ascribe to God."{7} Agnosticism wishes to know too much, Pantheism is too modest, as usual the mean is more satisfying. What Caldecott says of the Idea of God found in Bradley's "Appearance and Reality," we quote in a more general sense as applicable, in our opinion, to the shortcomings of much writing on this question. "Is it an impertinence to suggest to an original thinker that a consideration of the canon of 'application of terms of human thought to the Deity' formulated by Aquinas, and never surpassed in penetrative and judicious subtlety, might relieve the vacillation and inconsistency, which is the great defect of Mr. Bradley's work as it stands."{8} This, to our mind, is also the defect of Prof. Royce's "Conception", as we shall point out in the text; Prof. Royce uses the same terms as Mr. Bradley.{9} There is no need of presenting the views of the thinkers of all times on our question. At most we might show how their Idea of God was an outcome of their Theory of Knowledge and Reality. We shall be content to bring to light again the view of Aquinas, for we are apt to overlook what has been done when all energies are bent on doing something new. As far as we know, the question has not been handled explicitly in the way we are presenting it, at least in English.{10} It seemed more satisfactory to give the Theory of Knowedge of Aquinas as a basis for his Conception of God, rather than start with the Conception itself and be constantly referring to a set of principles that are nowhere given together, and yet are closely connected with the subject itself. It is but fair to admit that Aquinas had advantages in the construction and development of his Idea of God that are not at hand for many to-day who are busy with this problem. He saw guiding-posts on all sides and he was presented with a set of ideas the value of which he did not question. The teaching of the Fathers, especially St. Augustine, the attitude of his age toward the Scriptures, the doctrine and influence of the Church in her varied activities, were all helps to one who gave his attention to the Supreme Thought of all these factors. Yet withal, Aquinas saw clearly the work of reason in the question of God and set himself to know what the powers of man could do to solve its meaning. His works bear testimony to the careful and detailed method he brought to bear on this question. We are told, however, by Dr. Carus, "the God of mediaeval theologians is a mere makeshift." "The more I think about the God-problem, the surer grows my conviction that the God of science is the true God, and the God of mediaeval theologians is a mere makeshift, a substitution for the true God, a temporary surrogate of God, a surrogate which at the time was good enough for immature minds, but too often only lead people astray."{11} Dr. Carus tells us that our conception of God will be true "if only we agree to be serious in the purification of the God idea, if only we think of God as a truly divine being, if only we are serious in looking upon Him as truly eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, etc." He adds the astounding sentence: "The theologians of the past have never been serious in thinking out these qualities of God to their very last conclusions." Without speculating on what led to this statement, or inquiring into the author's acquaintance with the writings of mediaeval theologians, I will simply remark that had he sat in the lecture-hall of Aquinas and was determined to swear by his word, he could not have followed more faithfully, in essence, the method of Aquinas than he gives signs of in the present article, especially in the paragraph beginning, "God's thoughts are not transient successive representations." The method of Aquinas in this problem is golden, and its main import is to be 'serious in the purification of the God idea'. As Dr. Carus acknowledges no allegiance to the formulator of this method, it may be advantageous to consider that when the human mind is serious, no matter at what age it lives, it will be true to itself, and its methods will be commendable, though the result reached may vary. Dr. Carus violates his own dictum in dealing with the mediaeval theologians; he says, "in my opinion it is the duty of the philosopher to judge every religion according to the best interpretation that its best representatives have given it." His attitude is sufficient warrant for our recalling the Conception of God according to Aquinas, for it is certainly a Conception of a worthy representative of the mediaeval theologians.

{1} Q. T. Ladd, Prolegomena to an Argument for the Being of God. Phil. Rev., v. 12, pp. 130-187.

{2} Loc. cit., p. 136.

{3} Janet et Séailles, Histoire de la Philosophie, p. 888.

{4} Prof. W. Turner, Recent Literature on Scholastic Philosophy. The Journal of Phil., Psychol., and Scentilic Methods, April 14, 1904, p. 201.

{5} First Principles, p. 42.

{6} Introd. to Phil., p. 252, trans.

{7} Sum. Theol., q. 12, a. 12.

{8} The Philosophy of Religion, p. 396.

{9} The Conception of God, pp. 44, 45.

{10} A Commentator on St. Thomas, Capreolus, handles the question practically in this way. He discusses the basic principles of knowledge, and then applies them to God. Cfr. Revue Thomiste, v. 8, Pégues.

{11} "The God of Science," The Monist, April, 1904.

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