Jacques Maritain Center : Art and Prudence / by Ralph McInerny


The God of the philosophers, Pascal remarked, is not the God of Abraham and Isaac, and of course he meant something by it a good deal more divisive than I might mean by saying that the God of Pascal is not the God of Paul Claudel. Nor would the contrast be the same if Pascal were separating Abraham and Isaac from those cuius deus venter est. Pascal is calling our attention in a dramatic way to the contrast of faith and reason. Perhaps the contrast is in itself dramatic whether it be found with its relata located in different persons or in the same human breast. Certainly it provided intellectual drama of a high order in the 13th Century when the Christian West was suddenly confronted with an influx of philosophical literature, Greek and Arabic, which dealt in novel and, as it seemed to many, threatening ways of fundamental theological matters.

Those of us living now, beneficiaries of the two great Vatican Councils, may pardonably feel that whatever difficulties might attend the relations of faith and reason have long since been sorted out. After all, we can read the following in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, on Faith, of Vatican I:

Hoc quoque perpetuus Ecclesiae catholicae consensus tenuit et tenet, duplicam esse ordinem cognitionis non solum principio, sed objecto etiam distinctum: principio quidem, quia in altero naturali ratione, in altero fide divina cognoscimus; objecto autem, quia praeter ea, ad quae naturalis ratio pertingere potest, credenda nobis proponuntur mysteria in Deo abscondita, quae, nisi revelata divinitus, innotescere non possunt. Quocirca Apostolus, qui a gentibus Deum ‘per ea, quae facta sunt’ (Rom I.20) cognitum esse testator, disserens tamen de gratia et veritate, quae ‘per Jesum Christum facta est’ (cf Io I.17), pronuntiat: ‘Loquimur Dei sapientiam in mysterio, quae abscondita est, quam praedestinavit Deus ante saecula in gloriam nostrum, quam nemo principum huius saeculi cognovit: nobis autem revelavit Deus per spiritum suum . . . . (Denz. 3015)

Faith and reason, coming from the same divine source, cannot conflict and the believer who accepts truths on the basis of God revealing can be confident that they will not conflict with truths gained by inquiring reason.

Well, things did not always look so clear. In what follows I want to do two main things: (1) with particular reference to the historical setting in which he worked, I want to discuss what Thomas Aquinas made of the God of the philosophers, and then (2) I want to take up the point latent in the Pascalian phrase, discussing it ad mentem divi Thomas, ut ita dicam, and say why it is that we respond favorably to the suggestion that there is something radically inadequate in philosophical proofs of God’s existence – or if, not precisely inadequate, dissatisfying.


Let me begin with a reference to an early sixth century work on which Thomas Aquinas wrote an incomplete commentary, namely the De trinitate of Boethius. This wonderful little opusculum sets out to discuss a central Christian mystery in a way that will show the influence of St. Augustine’s massive work of the same title: the Trinity of Persons in the divine nature. At the outset of Chapter 2, Boethius recalls for his reader that speculative science is divided into three kinds: physics, mathematics and theology. The distinction is Aristotelian and the way in which Boethius goes on to describe the objects of these three sciences owes a good deal to Aristotle’s discussion in E. 1 of the Metaphysics. As it happens, Thomas’s commentary breaks off just after treating of the division of speculative philosophy and the mode of treatment appropriate to each branch of it.

What is particularly puzzling about Boethius’s procedure is this: wishing to discuss a matter of Christian faith, a mystery, he introduces a division of intellectual labor borrowed from a pagan philosopher, with the suggestion that what Aristotle or, more generally, a philosopher, meant by theology indicates the area to which discussion of the Trinity belongs. That is surprising if only because of its suggestion that there is an effective identity of the God of the philosophers and the God of Christian belief. Whether or not Boethius really meant this suggestion is not a matter into which I intend to go here. In any case, he provided Thomas with an occasion to speak of two senses of the term “theology” with the possibility of allocating the philosophical discussion of God to theology in one of its senses and the Christian discussion of God to theology in the other of its senses.

In order to grasp what he has to say on this point, which is the chief one interesting us, we must at least allude to what Boethius and his commentator say here about what will formally characterize the subject matters of different theoretical sciences. For reasons which Thomas spells out at some length, it is the mode of defining which is the crucial point of reference, and the various ways in which the sciences exclude matter from the definitions of their objects is the formal basis of the plurality of speculative sciences.

Arcane matters, these, but in the case of what were for Aristotle non-problematical instances of science, namely physics and mathematics, easily enough grasped. The naturalist speaks of things defined in such a way that it is clear that they are subject to change and possess sensible qualities; mathematicals, on the other hand, are not thought of as heavy or light, smooth or rough, warm or cool. The mathematician is thus said to abstract from sensible qualities, to consider things without thinking of matter or sensible qualities. Do such things exist? Are there existent things which respond just as such to the considerations of the mathematician? Aristotle’s answer to that, you know, was in the negative, and Thomas agreed with him.

Against that background, the possibility of a science beyond physics (and mathematics) can be expressed as one whose objects are defined without matter and which exist without matter. Metaphysics, theology, divine science, considers things which are both thought of without matter and which can exist without matter. The Greek term theion modified things which persist in being, which are not subject to change. A thing whose grasp on existence is easily lost is less of a being than one with a more tenacious grasp, and the best things of all, divine things, are those which cannot cease to be. You may question this hierarchy by citing the example of a persistent cold or pain to which a fleeting pleasure seems preferable. Of course it is. Disease is considered by the Greek to be a disorder, a lack, a want, and pain is a sign of its presence. Suffice it to say that the Greek thought of these difficulties and came up with ways to dismiss them as threats to the notion of a hierarchy of being.

The difficult question asks what reason we have to believe there are immaterial things. One can grant that, if there are such things, they are better than corruptible things, but that does not decide the issue. Aristotle’s view, which Thomas followed, had it that it is not self-evident that there are immaterial things. If the statement that something immaterial exists is true, its truth must be established, proved, derived, from truths about material things. This is the very structure of proofs of God’s existence.

The medieval did not have to await the late 12th Century in order to become aware of proofs for the existence of God. Early in that century, Anselm had fashioned a cosmological proof as well as his more famous ontological one, and there were proofs deriving from Augustine which purported to show that, given certain truths about the world, about creation, it follows that there must be a God. Perhaps it was because such proofs occurred in settings the believer found congenial that they did not disturb him or lead to dark thoughts about the God of the philosophers. You remember how reluctant Augustine was to allow that Plato could have taught the things he did without contact with the Jews, as if any truth about God must derive in some way from Revelation. The case of Boethius, already alluded to, is instructive. It is not really until the 13th Century that we find clearcut distinctions between philosophy and theology or, as is the case with Thomas, between philosophical and Scriptural theology.

In order to know that being and material being are not synonymous one must have a proof that there exists something immaterial. A proof for the existence of God attempts to show that given material things there must exist something else and that something else is God. What proofs actually conclude to is that there is a first unmoved mover, or a first efficient or final cause, or some such descriptive phrase asthose which is taken to refer to what the term God refers to.

How laborious all that must seem to one who has believed in God from his mother’s knee. For such a one, God is a father, is incarnate in Jesus, made heaven and earth, and so on. These truths are not accepted against the background of any argument or sophisticated inquiry. That is the first contrast we notice between reason and faith, philosophy and faith, with respect to the conviction that there is a God.

But there was something far more than a difference in origin, as if some pagans proved that God exists while believers accept on the basis of Revelation, thanks to grace, that there is a God. Christians of the 13th Century, confronted with the philosophy of Aristotle, along with Islamic commentaries on it, came to hold, some of them, most notably St. Bonaventure, that the philosopher said false things about God, and that was the real difference. So it was not that the true things the philosopher says are based on argument rather than faith; the philosopher is uttering falsehoods which must be labeled as such.

It was the errors of Aristotle that Bonaventure insisted on: Aristotle held things which called into question personal immortality, divine providence and the creation of the world in time. Bonaventure was sure that Aristotle was teaching things which went contrary to the faith and that consequently Aristotle was wrong.

Let us pause for a moment at this initial result of the juxtaposition of faith and reason. If faith is the acceptance of certain matters as true, it follows that whatever stands in contradictory opposition to what is believed must be false. Two things are operative here: (a) that faith bears on the true and (b) the principle of contradiction. If the principle of contradiction is the basic ground of rationality or reasonableness, then the policy of the believer is eminently reasonable. For him to entertain the possibility that something which is contradictory to what he believes to be true might be true, would be an irrational policy.

That is why it would be wrong to deride St. Bonaventure. He is right as rain in his assumptions and Thomas Aquinas is in perfect agreement with him. Where the two men disagree is in their assessment of what Aristotle actually said. As it happens, Thomas denies that Aristotle teaches the things which are undoubtedly contrary to revealed truth and thus false. In the De aeternitate mundi Thomas argues that, while we know from revelation that the world had a beginning in time, the contradictory is, while false, not impossible. That is, Thomas does not think he can fashion an argument which would show that the world must necessarily have had a beginning time. And he does not think Aristotle thought he could show that. If then Aristotle is merely assuming that the world could have existed always, that is not in contradiction to the faith. (Later, in commenting on the Physics, Thomas somewhat alters his view of what Aristotle meant.)

In the De unitate intellectus, Thomas argues against the Averroists, that Aristotle means to say that the agent intellect is a faculty of each and every human soul and that, consequently, the proof for the incorruptibility of the human soul is a proof for the lastingness of my soul and yours and all human souls, that is, it is tantamount to a proof of personal immortality.

As for the assumption that Aristotle’s definition of God as Thought thinking itself is incompatible with Providence, Thomas denies that this entails that God is not aware of all the things he causes.

Thomas clearly spent a good deal more time than Bonaventure in the effort to understand Aristotle. We have not a single Bonaventurean commentary on a work of Aristotle, whereas the Opera Omnia of Aquinas contain more than a dozen such commentaries to say nothing of such occasional works as those just cited. Nor were these commentaries on Aristotle products of Thomas’s tasks as a theologian. Nonetheless, one can say that his overall aim in poring over Aristotle was a theological one.

Thomas and Bonaventure are one in this, that if A is a truth of faith and some philosopher taught -A, we know immediately that -A is false. Thus far, we have Bonaventure and Aquinas disagreeing over whether Aristotle taught -A. Well, let us say he did.

First, there is the inescapable fact that “God exists” is not only a truth philosophers attempt to prove, it is included among the things that have been revealed; indeed, one might say that it is implicit in every other truth God reveals. Very well. There is a truth which is numbered among the truths about God which can be proved, and which if Thomas is right has been proved by philosophers, but which is also numbered among truths about Himself that God has revealed and which believers accept on that basis.

We might attempt to escape this by saying that “God exists” is not the conclusion of any historically formulated proof for the existence of God but that won’t do. As is clear from each of the quinque viae of St. Thomas, the conclusion of the proof is taken to by synonymous with “God exists.” Thus, after he has recounted the proof of the existence of a Prime Mover, Thomas adds, and this all men take to be God. God is described as the prime Mover and is proved to exist under that description. Could we not then say that God is known under some descriptions and believed under others? And would we not then have a way of distinguishing the God of the philosophers from the God of religious belief?

As it happens, this is not a route Thomas Aquinas takes. He holds that God is known under descriptions which are identical to those we find in Revelation. That is, if the philosopher can prove that there is a first cause on which all else depends, and God is this first cause, the God of revelation is also the first cause of all else. How can Thomas hold both (1) that there are truths which are both known by philosophers and included in revelation and (2) that knowledge and faith are formally distinct.

It is quite clear that he holds a formal distinction between knowing something and believing, something. A knowledge claim reposes on evidence, one sees that something is true; a belief claim reposes on authority, one holds something is true on someone’s say so. But what is revealed is held on the authority of God revealing. It would seem then that Thomas cannot consistently hold that the same truth can be known and be revealed.

What Thomas does is to distinguish (a) what has been revealed and (b) what must be taken to be true on authority. Since the equivalent of “God exists” can be known and since “God exists” is included in Revelation, he concludes that Revelation includes at least some truths which can be known to be true quite apart from Revelation. Thus there is no overlap of knowledge and Revelation. But there is no overlap of knowledge and faith in the strict sense. This is why Thomas distinguishes revealed truths into Preambles of Faith and Mysteries of Faith. The mysteries of faith are those truths which can only be held to be true on the authority of God, e.g. the Trinity and Incarnation. The Preambles of Faith are revealed truths which we can come to know to be true. That there is a God, that He is one, that there cannot be several Gods, – these are truths we believed from our mother’s knee, but which can be established on the basis of sound argument.

The bulk of the truths about God which have been revealed are mysteries – from first to last we hold them to be true on God’s authority. One who believes A to be true may be certain that -A is false, but that does not mean he is in possession of an argument which shows -A to be false. And, unless one is believer, he is going to need some ground for saying that -A is false. This is why Bonaventure set out to show that it would have been impossible for the world always to have existed. His argument rests on the assumption that, if the world had always existed, there must now be some largest possible number, that is, a number to which no further unit could be added. But if the world continues, further units are added. Ergo, etc. He uses several examples, among them planetary movements and human souls.

If Thomas is right, Bonaventure is not going to be able to prove that it is impossible that the world should always have existed. Nonetheless, again, the two men are in agreement that whatever is opposed to faith is de facto false. The further question whether or no it is also impossible is just that, a further question.

In the Summa contra gentiles, Thomas speaks of two kinds of truth about God. One that is derived from what everybody knows, another that is accepted as true because God reveals it. This suggests two distinct, non-overlapping sets of truths. However, if we ask Thomas for examples of naturally knowable truths about God, he will mention “God exists”, “There is only one God” etc. Examples of the second kind of truth about God are likely to be the Trinity and the Incarnation. But it is obvious that we cannot maintain this non-overlap.

This leads Thomas to ask two questions: (a) Why did God reveal to us truths about Himself that we could have come to know, truths which even pagan philosophers came to know? (b) Is it reasonable to accept as true things which we cannot know to be true?

The answer to the first question can be surmised if we think of other truths which God has revealed but which are, unlike the truth that God exists, all but self-evident. I have in mind the Decalogue. Most of the commandments are, for Thomas, principles of natural law. That means, that they are either self-evidently true or very close to being so — that is, very easily demonstrable. Well, it is easy for us to see that the sanction of revelation for the great truths of the moral order, even though they are in principle knowable without such help, is all but practically necessary for mankind. Because of sin. Well, sin affects the theoretical reason as well, quite apart from the difficulties of doing metaphysics. Furthermore, even with luck and talent, our chances of getting to the term of philosophy, to natural theology, are slight. But the truth that there is a God is one we need early, middle and late in our lives. Thus, mercifully, God reveals even knowable truths.

The second question provides Thomas with the real significance of the notion that Revelation contains both Preambles and Mysteries. If some of the things God has revealed can be known to be true, it is reasonable to accept the rest, the Mysteries, as true. Here is a proof of the reasonableness of faith.

That proof of the reasonableness of accepting as true things which one does not understand but which God has revealed is reminiscent, as we shall see, of an argument on behalf of Christianity that Pascal devised. But before turning to that, an important precision must be made with respect to St. Thomas Aquinas’s attitude toward the God of the philosophers.

Thus far, what we have seen is that (a) he proceeds in the serene confidence that nothing known can conflict with what is believed by the Christian; (b) that if there is a conflict, that is an immediate sign that the knowledge claim is unfounded; (c) but we want to make sure the philosopher is indeed saying something in conflict with the faith. The remarkable fact (d) is that the human mind can, unaided by faith, come to knowledge of God; this is clear from the fact that pagan philosophers have done so. The comparison of natural and supernatural theology is made on the basis of known or believed starting points, but Thomas argues that the contrast is not between what is known and what is revealed because some knowable things have been revealed. Thus, we must distinguish within Revelation the Preambles from the Mysteries.

Now, all of this stresses the great influence Aristotle had on the thought of Aquinas. What of Plato? As we know, that question cannot be answered simply by observing that Thomas had available to him no more Plato than had the men of the previous several centuries. It is true that Plato was not translated and transmitted to the Christian West with the speed and zest that Aristotle was. Bonaventure had a way of commending Plato over Aristotle, saying that while the former was a metaphysician, the latter was merely a philosopher of nature, but we have no reason for thinking Bonaventure would have devoted any more time to the text of Plato, had it been available to him, than he did to that of Aristotle which was at hand. The Plato that functions for Bonaventure is the Plato of the Latin tradition, stemming as much as anything from question 46 of the 83 Diverse Questions of St. Augustine. The Platonic Ideas become the creative ideas of God and ultimately are one with the Second Person of the Trinity.

The Aristotle of the Treatises is, as you know, occasionally harsh with his long time mentor Plato. He regards the doctrine of Ideas as a category mistake, based on faulty assumptions. At least one motivation for the Ideas, the fact and behavior of shared or common names, can be handled with logical dispatch, a theory of universals being devised that does not seek their counterpart, as universals, outside the human mind. The concept of participation, the essential link between the really real and the evanescent things of this world, is dismissed by Aristotle as an empty metaphor. Does it follow that Thomas Aquinas, who takes Aristotle as his philosophical master, adopts as well these dismissive attitudes toward Platonism?

The answer is no. In recent years, a number of scholars have drawn our attention to the presence within Thomism of a plethora of items of Platonic origin. The notion of participation pervades the thought of Thomas. How can this be?

One possible explanation is that Thomism is just an eclectic mess of ideas stemming from different and conflicting traditions, not the much touted synthesis we have heard so much about. Another possibility, urged by some, is that Thomas despite initial appearances is fundamentally a Platonist. My own view, which neatly coincides with the way things are, is that Thomas is fundamentally an Aristotelian and that he takes on Platonism to the extent that it is compatible with that Aristotelianism. I give you two citations. First, the commentary on the Liber de Causis, a work Thomas showed is made up of snatches from Proclus' Elements of Theology. A more Neoplatonic work can scarcely be imagined. Thomas comments on it with care and sympathy. But I invite you to consult the index nominum in the Saffrey edition and check out all those references to Aristotle.

Secondly, I refer you to Thomas’s proemium to the commentary he wrote on the De divinis nominibus of Pseudo-Dionysius. Here we find what might be called Thomas’s policy statement on Platonism. Commenting on the obscurity of Denis’s style, Thomas says this is not due to incompetence but rather to design: to protect sacred things from the derision of the infidel. Nonetheless, the style and manner of speaking of the text causes difficulty because they are Platonist and uncustomary nowadays. He then gives a brief statement of the Doctrine of Ideas taken as an answer to the Problem of Universals. Then this:

Haec igitur Platonicorum ratio fidei non consonat nec veritati, quantum ad hoc quod continet de speciebus naturalibus separatis, sed quantum ad id quod dicebant de primo rerum Principio, verissima est eorum opinio et fidei Christianae consona. [This argument of the Platonists agrees neither with faith nor with the truth with respect to what it says of separate natural species, but with respect to what they said of the First Principle of things, their opinion is most true and in agreement with Christian faith.]

In short, Platonism as construed by Augustine is all right with Thomas. But it is more than that. Platonism provides Thomas with a great many of the conceptual tools he needs to say the things that must be said about our talk of God. A glance at Quaestio 13 of the Prima Pars of the Summa theologiae will indicate what I mean.


We have now a way in which we must say that, for St. Thomas Aquinas, there is identity of reference, so to say, between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham and Isaac. The descriptive phrases which are employed in sound and successful proofs of God’s existence refer to the God of Jewish and Christian belief. The God of belief may be described in ways different from and undreamt of by philosophers – as e.g. God incarnate, God triune – but for Thomas there is even sometimes identity of descriptive phrase as between philosophical theology and Revelation. So it looks as if Thomas is wholly out of sympathy with the point of Pascal’s distinction.

But is that really so? And, even if it were so, is it not the case that we respond with sympathy to Pascal’s statement? Sometimes the sympathy can lead to a standpoint which is clearly incompatible with the views of Thomas Aquinas. Often, what people hear in Pascal, is the echo of what they take to be the evident fact that the existence of God cannot be proved. “Of course you can’t prove that God exists.” How often I have heard that confident remark over the years. Coming from a Catholic, it is to say the least surprising – though not necessarily culpable or even blameworthy, given the parlous state of religious education in recent years. Nonetheless, it should be no secret that, for the Roman Catholic, it is de fide that human beings can from their knowledge of what has been made come to knowledge of the invisible things of God. Paul (Romans, I:20) was used, as we saw earlier, by the Fathers of Vatican I to make that point. That is why it is not a matter of opinion, but of faith, that God can come to be known from knowledge of the world without the aid of Revelation.

I mentioned earlier that Pascal fashions an argument on behalf of Christianity that is reminiscent of Thomas’s argument that it is reasonable to accept as true on God’s authority what we do not understand. I refer of course to the famous pari de Pascal. Pascal rightly holds that no direct proof of the truth of Christianity can be had, as if it could be seen as true independently of faith. Nonetheless, Pascal says, we can see that it would be irrational not to accept it as true. Christianity includes essentially talk of an eternal reward which comes to those who accept it. All right. If you accept it as true and it turns out to be true, you win eternally. If you accept is as true and it turns out to be false, you are not there to lose. If however you reject it as false and it turns out to be true, you lose forever. The only rational thing to do, therefore, is to accept Christianity as true.

I hasten to add that I don’t think Pascal was any more impressed by this than you are. Accepting Christianity as true is not like buying a ticket in the Lottery. Faith relates us to a personal God, as our creator and savior. When we think of someone coming to be a Christian, we do not imagine them grudgingly conceding that some argument is valid and sound. We speak of conversion, not of changing our mind.

There, I think, is the source of Pascal’s appeal. It has nothing to do with whether or not there are sound proofs for the existence of God. There have been men – Cardinal Newman and C.S. Lewis among them – who held that there are sound proofs for God’s existence but who also say that such proofs played no role in their conversion. Of course they didn’t. Not immediately. How could they? Speculative truths are no proximate principles of action. The analogy we need is found in the moral order.

It is a sad fact of everyone’s experience, that knowing what we ought to do and doing it are not the same thing. We may see or come to see that a certain kind of behavior is inappropriate for a rational agent. Let us say we change our minds about such behavior. The moral task is more onerous. We must change our lives. No argument can do that for us. We change our moral character not in the quince it takes to see that an argument is sound, but only gradually, as the result of repeated acts of the same kind. The only way to learn how to play the harp is to play the harp. The Romantic thinks that he can be a hero by enacting in fantasy heroic acts. We may emerge from theater with the uptilted chin of one who has done great things. But heroism is not achieved in imagination. Kierkegaard distinguished between thought and existence. Existence is the moral order, the order of action. To change our lives is a task very unlike changing our minds – which can be difficult enough in its own way.

Such considerations enable us to see why Pascal, within the Pari passage, goes on to say how it is that one becomes a Christian. Say your prayers, he urges, use Holy Water, attend Mass. It is as if he were saying: in order to become a Christian perform the acts of a Christian. This is not Pelagianism. Grace would no doubt already be operative in one’s ability to perform one such act.

What I am suggesting, then, is that we respond as we do to Pascal because we know the vast difference there is between conversion, moral or religious, and the theoretical use of our mind, fashioning sound arguments, etc. It does not follow that there are not sound proofs of God’s existence. It certainly does not follow that the realm of faith is wholly distinct from and utterly indifferent to the realm of reason. That would be, or would soon lead to, the fideism the Church has always condemned.

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