Updated: Oct 20, 2022
The Human Capacity for God
Written By Fr Aidan Nichols. Click here for his Biography.
Having completed its Prologue, the Catechism of the Catholic Church now turns, in Paragraph 26, to its enormous if self-set task, which will not be completed until we reach Paragraph (wait for it!) 2865. It’s instructive to notice how the authors begin. Though the Catechism intends to honour the shape of the Creed, and thus to commence by a commentary on the opening words of that Creed (‘I believe’ or ‘We believe’), its makers wanted to avoid the style and manner of the great neo-orthodox Protestant dogmatician Karl Barth. For Barth what comes first must always be the immediate, mind-blowing proclamation of the Word of God. But rather than beginning with a bald – as well as bold – affirmation of the divine existence and the divine works, the Catechism speaks of the self-revelation of God (another term for Barth’s ‘Word’) as the illumination of man’s very own, native, inherent, self-propelled search for ‘the ultimate meaning of his [humanity’s] life’.
In other words: consonant with a long-matured option of Catholic Christianity, the Catechism wishes to emphasize how divine revelation answers to a human need – even if that revelation not only fulfils that need but super-fulfils it, going beyond not only the concepts, or even the imaginings, of the human mind, but beyond human aspirations themselves: something that will become plain as our text progresses.
The Catechism begins from human need. It sets out from the statement that human beings are desirous creatures. And surely everyone knows that! What novel could be written without its being true? What psychiatrist or even psychologist could stay in business in its absence? Like our neighbours, we have a multiplicity of desires, some more pressing than others, some easier than others to satisfy. Not everyone, though, is aware that in, with, and through these desires the human heart is also implicitly engaged on a search for a supreme Good that will fulfil us indefinitely even when other desires are slaked and come to their natural ending. But just this, explains Paragraph 27, is in fact how we have been made – referring here to a fine passage of the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council on the Church in the Modern World, according to which ‘the dignity of man rests about all on the fact that he is called to communion with God’ (Gaudium et spes, 19).
The Catechism sees that tacit desire for God (Paragraph 28) as the explanation for the whole variegated phenomenon of human religion – ‘ambiguous’ (a polite term for ‘inter-mixed with error and evil’) though such human religiosity has been. (Error and evil: think only of the human sacrifices practiced by the Aztecs in what is now central Mexico.) Though it is possible to list a whole set of causes of secularism (thus Paragraph 29), this underlying Super-cause – the natural desire for God – guarantees that secularism will never, in the long run, prevail (Paragraph 30).
That human need for an ultimate meaning also prompts, for the Catechism, the more specifically intellectual search that is philosophy. Here too the Catholic tradition wants to say that the philosophical quest for God is essentially valid (Paragraph 31), and generates answers that are worthwhile. Its answers are worthwhile because a sound metaphysics prepares the way for divine revelation, sketching out the most basic relation that holds good between the world and God, and between the human person and God (Paragraphs 31 to 35). To present that ‘basic relation’ is, we can say, the fundamental task of all Christian philosophy.
The Catechism does not, however, speak, as I just have, of ‘basic relations’, which would be what metaphysicians call an ‘ontological’ term (relationship, after all, is a fundamental category of all being, which in Greek is named by the little word on). Instead, the Catechism authors speak of these basic relations ‘epistemologically’, as so many ways of coming to know the existence of God (‘epistemological’ derives from the much longer Greek word for knowledge, namely episteme).
The ‘proofs’ of God’s existence: that is the Catechism’s topic. ‘Proofs’ is how these approaches to an affirmation of God’s existence have generally been described in modern apologetics, though our authors are keen to point out that the word ‘proof’ could, unless we are careful, serve to mislead. The model to have in mind is not, they say, that of the natural sciences.
So what is the picture of knowledge we should be entertaining? The Catechism appears to be quoting Newman, though his name is not given, when it answers this question. It speaks of the sort of multiple convergent considerations that lead us to accept many ordinary truth-claims in everyday life. For example, why do I think McTaggart is an honest man? I think so for a variety of reasons probably too many to count, but they include how other people react to McTaggart, my own experiences of McTaggart in different contexts, and the more general observation that evil reputations (and McTaggart has none I know of) spread faster than good ones. A whole host of reasons, some more persuasive than others, indicate that McTaggart is a reliable chap. So likewise where arguments for the truth of God’s existence are concerned, the Catechism puts its money on quantity quite as much as quality.
Thus for Paragraph 32, various features of the cosmos – not least the simple fact of its existence – form the starting point for a philosophical move to affirm the being of God. There was an opportunity here to mention the celebrated ‘Five Ways’ of Thomas Aquinas, but the Catechism does not take it. Perhaps that is because Thomas himself had regarded the Five Ways as just a suitable selection from earlier philosophers and theologians – not an original and crucial breakthrough of his own.
Likewise, for Paragraph 33, various features of the human person indicate the essential spirituality of the human soul, and if such spirituality is not by itself a complete argument for the existence of God it is at least a refutation of philosophical materialism. In our own time, a dogmatic materialism such as characterizes the ‘New Atheists’ (not really, so new – in the nineteenth century these thinkers would already have been familiar as ‘Positivists’) is generally regarded as the best way to remove the topic of God from philosophical discussion. For their part, the authors of the Catechism are inclined to think that a spiritual soul ‘can have its origin only in God’.
Fusing together these cosmological and ‘personological’ arguments, then: there is a Reality that constitutes plenary Being, the fullness of Being in which the world and the human person have merely a share, and this – now at last citing Aquinas – ‘everyone calls God’ (thus Paragraph 34). That God, so evoked, is ‘personal’ might seem a further step for which the Catechism has not yet offered justification. But having argued that the spirituality of the soul is only intelligible if we recognize its origin in a God in whom, by its being, it participates, we can safely presume that the same God must be, like the soul, personal in nature.
So far, so good. But how far have we actually come? We have produced a set of considerations that make it highly probable – morally, but not mathematically, certain – that there is, transcending the physical cosmos and the spiritual soul, a Reality that includes in a way both original and originating the most valuable features of the world and the human person.
Probably needless to say, this is not yet the properly biblical knowledge of God – not by a long chalk. One only has to think of how Hebrew-speakers tell us that in the Old Testament ‘knowing God’ is comparable to the intimate mutual knowledge of spouses. There has been nothing in this philosophical meditation to which the word ‘intimate’ could possibly be attached.
But attach it the Catechism now does, in Paragraph 35, and specifically by going beyond the philosophical terrain it has been treading hitherto. Intimacy with God: that is feasible only on the ground of revelation, not that of metaphysics. As we read, ‘[F]or man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith’. That shift of location, from philosophy to faith, relativises the importance of the metaphysical knowledge of God. It relativises it, but it does not cancel it out. The ‘proofs of God’s existence’ (here for the first time the Catechism uses that phrase) at one and the same time predispose people to faith in relevation, and assist them to grasp the crucial fact that the claims of revelation are not contrary to the claims of rationality. In the sixteenth century, in the course of the attack by the Reformers on Christian Scholasticism, Martin Luther went so far as to excoriate a faith-free rationality as ‘the whore, reason’. Such a ‘fideist’ attack on philosophy (‘Give us faith alone!’) was not accepted by the Catholic Church. That is the basis of the old joke about the Catholic who apostasized and was asked whether he had become a Protestant instead. Not at all, he is said to have replied. I may have lost my faith, but I have not lost my reason.