What’s the use of proofs of God’s existence? Will they persuade anyone to believe anyway? These are thoughts that crossed my mind recently when I attended the excellent lectures presented at the Thomistic Week of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (I.V.E) near Washington DC. The following is a personal reflection in response to this.
In this article, I am suggesting that the 4th Way of St Thomas is a powerful tool for evangelization, but not through an explanation of the proof itself, no matter how engaging it might be. Rather, the 4th Way describes after the fact, a mode of thinking that leads naturally to faith as a response to the world around us. It is seen most commonly, therefore in those who already have faith regardless of whether or not they have even heard of St Thomas Aquinas, let alone read his proof. This being so, as a method for evangelization, one approach to using the ‘4th Way’ is to do so indirectly. Accordingly, the goal is to stimulate and nurture the natural facility in us for ‘4th-Way’ thinking (leading in turn to faith in God), through the influence of the culture, and our actions and interactions with others. That mode of 4th-Way thinking is one that uses analogy in connecting beings to each other, recognizes the natural place of a hierarchy of being, and that all lesser beings participate in the fullness of Being which is the ultimate cause of their existence. This mode of thinking comes so naturally to us that even small children can employ it. Furthermore, when we apprehend beauty, we intuitively employ all of these modes of thinking and so in many ways, the 4th Way is itself analogous to, if not directly identifiable with, the Way of Beauty. Finally, and in the light of this, after suggesting general principles by which we might create an environment that evangelizes, I illustrate with some specific examples that occurred to me.
The forum which sparked this reflection was the Thomistic Week presented by the Institute of the Incarnate Word (I.V.E). at their seminary near Washington DC, the Ven.Fulton Sheen House of Formation. This is one of a cycle of seven annual conferences that study the writing of St Thomas through the prism of the writing of the highly respected Italian Thomist, Fr Cornelio Fabro (d.1995). The focus this year was modern atheism. This included presentations that explained the philosophical roots of atheistic philosophies, with a particular emphasis on philosophers since the Enlightenment, of rational proofs for the existence of God to counter these, and responses to the common objections by atheists and other critics to those proofs.
Of the proofs referred to the strongest emphasis was put on the 4th Way of St Thomas, described in the Summa Theologiae, and in the Prologue to his commentary on the Gospel of John. St Thomas thought this was the most persuasive of the proofs, we were told, and two presentations were devoted to this one proof alone.
Here it is as described in the Summa:
The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings, there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.
Put another way: we observe degrees of perfection of properties found in beings (good, better, better still...etc), by analogy this establishes a hierarchy of beings with that property and this hierarchy indicates to us that there is something, which might not be otherwise known, but which is the greatest in each property. In turn, and again by analogy, we see that the best in all categories exist in a single being which contains all attributes of being in perfection, which is Being itself. All of lesser beings owe their existence to that greatest possible Being and are said to participate in that fullness of Being.
My understanding is that the intention of St Thomas in presenting this was not to convert, but rather to demonstrate that faith is consistent with reason - faith seeking understanding. For those with faith, understanding is certainly a noble goal. But does this mean that this Way has no application as a tool for evangelization? I suggest that the answer to this is, no and, in fact, the Fourth Way is indeed the most powerful tool we have for conversion. Though perhaps not in the way that some people might think.
If we have faith, then it is as likely that we already think in such a way that the concepts of hierarchy, substance, analogy and participation are natural modes of thought for us. We may not be able to articulate how we think or define the terms in such as way that a philosophy professor would be happy, but it doesn’t stop us thinking in that way. For so many who have faith, they are engaging in 4th-Way thinking deep in their hearts, naturally and intuitively, and in response to the world around us.
If our mode of thought changes, as it can under the influences of bad education or culture, then faith will decline too. This being so the task is not so much to teach people about the 4th Way of St Thomas, although doing so might help with some, but rather to stimulate and nurture this mode of thinking. In the context of its use for evangelization and preservation of the Faith, the need to teach people about the argument of the 4th Way itself is primarily to the few who are in a position to influence the pattern of education and of the culture so as to reflect and in turn cause it.
What do we do to encourage 4th-Way thinking?
I think that the approach should be similar to that by which we might encourage people to apprehend beauty naturally. Here's why:
One simple definition of beauty is ‘the radiance of being’. When we grasp the beauty of something we are in relation to it and we are apprehending truths about its existence that are transmitted, so speak, to us. When we respond fully, we see it as beautiful and it causes us to look instinctively for the perfection and superabundant source of that beauty, which is Beauty itself, God. And we look also to the source of that object’s existence, Being itself, which again is God.
The desire for the original source of beauty and being can be so great that it has been compared to a wound. Benedict XVI, for example, quoted Nicholas Cabasilas the 14th century Greek Father, who said that: ‘True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of beauty that wounds man: being touched by reality, “by the personal presence of Christ himself.” This visceral response to beauty is powerful ‘4th-Way’ thinking that directs us to the contemplation of God.
Furthermore, when we see something as beautiful we are are seeing a pattern of related parts within a being (or of interrelated beings within a community of beings), harmoniously arranged. Either way, to do so we must be capable of recognising beings - substances - (as well as communities of beings) as entities that really exist and recognise also that they are interrelated through common properties of being and see how, collectively, they point to the highest being possible. Again, to think ‘beautifully’ is to employ 4th-Way thinking. Every time we see a pattern in which we can see that something is missing and fill in the gaps, as it were, we are thinking in this way.
So, I suggest, when Benedict XVI and John Paul II stressed the power of beauty in evangelization, those modern prophets of beauty were simply reiterating in their own way what St Thomas told us several hundred years ago when he spoke of the power of the 4th Way.
A formation in beauty encourages 4th-Way thinking: This being the case, the simple answer as to how we might encourage 4th Way thinking is that we work to create the liturgical city here on earth - the New Jerusalem - that is we strive to create a beautiful culture that is informed by the divine order. Furthermore, others should see that our response to the beauty around us is faith and joy and that as a result, we conform to that order in our own behaviour and especially interactions with others so as to compound it.
My book, The Way of Beauty describes my general ideas for how we can work towards such a culture, but here are some specifics that occurred to me that are informed particularly by this consideration also of St Thomas’s 4th Way.
As with nearly all human behaviour and thought, whether directly or indirectly, the most important influence is the liturgy. If we get this right it catechizes the faithful and evangelizes the faithless. Here are some suggestions:
Ad Orientem: This is perhaps the most striking and immediate way of symbolizing that we look to and recognize a Higher Power. My own conversion was influenced by seeing an ad orientem Mass in which the priest seemed to be at the head of a body of people leading us towards a common destination. This impression just described was accentuated by the architecture and art which served to focus my attention on and present to me visually images of what I otherwise would not have intuited.
Sacred Images: In regard to sacred images, in particular, we must again learn to pray with and venerate sacred images, especially in the context of the liturgy. For to do so requires us to think analogically and hierarchically when we recognise that the image presents to us in a particular way the prototype in heaven. Accordingly, when we venerate an icon we understand that the respect we show is transferred to its prototype; and furthermore, we understand that there are degrees of respect. These are traditionally seen as latria - worship, which is the highest and is for God alone; next is hyperdulia, which is accorded to Our Lady only among the saints and angels; and then dulia which is for saints and angels. This mode of thinking which takes delight in and recognises degrees of perfection that point us to an ultimate Being is powerful 4th-Way thinking.
So important is this to our faith that the Church asserts that sacred art is not just permitted but necessary in the Christian life. When we cease to pray with images they become superfluous to our worship and this, in turn, undermines further the authenticity of our worship.
The natural extension of this proper sense of their place in the liturgy is iconoclasm. So powerful a part does sacred imagery have in preserving and stimulating a faithful mode of thought that I suggest that what might seem like minor neglect opens the way to a chain of progression that has the direct consequences. We see connected: iconoclasm, the rejection of the authority of the Church and the inversion of the hierarchy of being which seeks to bring ‘god’ down to us (rather than allowing him to draw us up to Him by our partaking of the divine nature), and then atheism which rejects Him altogether. People may doubt that these things are connected, but I am certain that they are.
It is not the only thing to think about, but I suggest nevertheless that until devout Catholics once again engage actively with sacred images in the act of worshipping God, in the liturgy, we will not stop the decline in the Faith that we see in the West. One cannot underestimate the importance of this or how far from this ideal we have strayed today. Remember that Christians died in order to defend the orthodoxy of holy images. Today in the Roman Church, it seems, we so often give away freely what saints in the past fought so hard to defend. We have a situation (in both forms of the liturgy I might add) where, generally, the imagery is irrelevant to our worship. Even for the pious prayer is so much an internalised, eyes-closed affair which makes the reduces the role of art and architecture, at best, as a beautiful but irrelevant backdrop.
In the wider culture?
Here are just a few examples of how we might envision such a culture:
Polis and metropolis: When possible we should design cities and towns so that God has pride of place - the heart of the community is where we worship because that is where we meet God, not the shopping mall or even the government building. This is the tradition going back centuries which has been lost in the last couple of hundred years. Vitruvius knew that the temple ought to be the focal point of the city. This meant placing it centrally and prominently and the source of an architectural style in which all other buildings participated, with design modified to suit the purpose of each building.
We often have to start from where we are, and if our church and neighborhood don’t conform to this standard already, it doesn’t always mean that we have to flatten everything and start again. Wherever the church is, to the degree that it is beautiful and it houses right worship, a community will naturally develop around it and it will start to become the natural heart of the community. Then organically and slowly, but still perceptively, the neighbourhood around will order itself to the natural focal point. People who are outside of that religious community will notice that it is the worship in the church that is the beating heart of a community, and will be curious to see more.
Recovering the art of thinking and acting symbolically: This encourages an appreciation of the natural connections between things that convey meanings to us. We must learn again to look symbolically at the culture of faith, at nature and the world around us and then strive to create a culture that reflects this symbolic way of thinking. This is not simply the re-establishment of the old symbolism that has been lost, but rather a creative and discerning retrieval informed both by tradition and our new understanding of things, for example of nature in the light of developments in natural science. The pelican symbolized the Eucharist at the time of St Thomas because it was thought to feed its young with its own blood. This was reasonable at the time, but nowadays nobody seriously believes it anymore. I wonder if might be, beautiful though the symbolism might seem, that to persist with this sort of symbolism makes us look superstitious and foolish, for example?
Natural hierarchies in society: We must strive to re-institute or preserve the natural authorities that exist in society, based upon, for example, family, nation and Church. When we visibly and joyfully respect those authorities it tells others that we are happily conforming to the natural order of things and will provoke curiosity. Similarly, when we are in positions of authority we must assert it but responsibly and lovingly otherwise people will rebel. These are high ideals and we will fall short, but the effort will bear fruit I believe. As an aside, I always thought that one of the things that made the series Downton Abbey so popular was the portrayal of a community in which, generally, people respected authority and those in authority recognized their obligations to those they had authority over and did their best exercise them lovingly. This contrasted with the usual dramatic narrative, in which the hero leads a rebellion against tyranny or fights injustice. Sometimes rebellion against unjustly exercised authority is right, I don’t deny, but it's not an inevitable dynamic in society and not the only story worth telling!
Nurture our inherent facility for 4th-Way thinking from the earliest age, ‘Suffer the little children…’: Cornelio Fabro describes how even young children have the natural faculty for recognizing the existence of God as a personal God and Creator. It is still natural to them, perhaps because the awareness of hierarchy is so strong. They depend upon their parents who have full authority over them, and are the apparent source of all that is good in their lives.
Another reason that children have this natural inclination to faith might be that they have not yet had it knocked out of them by our culture, bad education, or bad liturgy.
Modern secular education deliberately, it seems to me, seeks to undermine faith by subtly but powerfully undermining 4th Way while professing an open mind to personal belief. This will be no surprise, but what is sad is that sometimes what we generally think of as a good Catholic education can do it too. Any education which is too focused on what Newman called scientific or analytical thinking will stifle our sense of the beautiful if our abilities to think synthetically are not nurtured in parallel with our ability to analyse. There is little point in learning anything, even if a true fact if we are incapable of bringing it into the whole body of learning via synthetic thinking, which then places it into the context of our ultimate purpose in life, union with God. A formation of beauty develops this facility.
There is a prejudice in academic circles, even amongst Catholics, that says that book and classroom-based learning is the real education, while other activities that develop our ability to apprehend beauty (a powerful mode of synthetic thinking) are just recreation. Whereas, in point of fact, if education is not re-creating the person, then it fails to attain its highest goal. Very few Catholics argue would with me on this point, I suggest, but then when it comes down to curricula design, many seem to hesitate to actually devote time to the formation of synthetic thinking through creative pursuits. This is a subject I address at length in The Way of Beauty.
Social graces and good manners: These are natural modes of behaviour that indicate respect for others in accordance with the natural hierarchy. They tend to be disparaged today as old modes of behaviour that are restrictive and stifling for the ‘natural expression’ of thought for others. A rigid rulebook of manners can be stifling, but when it is understood that good etiquette can promote when well taught, respect in accordance with the natural order of things, then it can be liberating. The virtuous gentleman is one who makes all around him feel at ease and for most of us, this is a skill that usually has to be learned.
Behave and dress so that we demonstrate to others that we respect authority: Even what we wear can send out visual messages. It is right to dress up on certain occasions, and even the seemingly innocent trend of no longer wearing ‘Sunday best’ for church contributes to the destruction of the faith more than we imagine. The clothes we wear reveal something of our attitudes and who we are. We all make judgements about people based on the clothes they wear, whether we like to admit it or not. In church, we should dress and behave in such as way that it reveals to others the respect we have for God. When we go for an interview we take great care to make sure that the clothes we wear and the way we behave indicate respect for the person who is going to give us a job, so much more should we remember this is God’s house. Formal dress does not alienate fellow worshippers if appropriate to our actions and our subsequent interactions with others speak of the love of God. Then our appearance will contribute to the sense that we want to invite others to join us, rather than to push them away. The goal here is to do so in such a way that it tells people what we think about God, not what we want them to think about us. This should be thought of a principle that we apply to ourselves and those beholden to us, not one by which we can criticise others!
This is a true humility. All that we do ought to draw the attention of others, not in a way that says, ‘Look at me’, but rather, ‘Look at the One who made me,’ or, ‘Look at the One who inspired me’. Potentially all that we do can speak of the love of God and so direct others to Him. When we strive for this ideal it is a true humility for it recognises our responsibilities as a Christian and our place in relation to our fellows and to God. Reflection upon the lives of Our Lady and the saints, especially through the prism of the liturgical year will help us in this regard, for they are the experts in showing us God through their lives.
Cultivate and ordered appreciation of the beauty of the natural world: Nearly all people recognise the beauty of the natural world, but not all recognise the natural hierarchy of being within nature. Hence, that hierarchy as it ought to be - man highest, then animals, plants and then inanimate nature - is often distorted or inverted.
Furthermore, in the right way of things, man is made to cultivate nature and when he does so well (and it has to be admitted he can do this badly!) he raises it up to something greater than what it was originally. I would argue therefore that there is a hierarchy of beauty in nature too that puts the work of man at the pinnacle: with gardens cultivated for beauty highest, land for production of food next and wilderness lowest. The task here is twofold, we must change our understanding of this hierarchy, as well as strive to work in harmony with the cosmic order so that what we cultivate reflects this hierarchy.
People used to see things this way, but it is not so common now. Those who hate God aim to destroy our natural desire to praise God for it by inverting the hierarchy so that man is at the bottom of the pile. Some forms of extreme environmentalism do this. For them, man in the ideal is the noble savage who is in harmony with nature. Modern man, however, has been corrupted by the false constructs of society, and as a result of this corruption is inferior to the rest of nature. ‘Corrupted’ man, it is maintained, will tend to destroy nature for he no longer lives in harmony with it. The only way to save the planet, so the argument runs, is to restrict man’s activity. The easiest way to do this is to aim to reduce the number of humans. This is why abortion and contraception are promoted across the globe and why, I suggest, the garden is a powerful and underappreciated antidote to this as a symbol of the culture of life. I wrote about this in a blog article here: Come out of the wilderness and into the garden!
In this regard, it is interesting that after the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Lord for a gardener. Our Lord did not deny that he was when asked, rather he made himself known to her more fully. I suggest that Mary was correct, although perhaps she didn’t appreciate why, for as the new Adam, Christ is the gardener par excellence who cultivates Eden. We participate in the creation of Eden through all human activities that synthesize and use the natural world gracefully and beautifully and within this gardening particularly speaks of this special role of man in nature.
The liturgy can form us here too. Our delight in the beauty of creation is consummated when we sing our praises to God for his creation in the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy - for example, the Canticle of Daniel, or Psalm 18(19). This not only trains us to see God through his works but supernaturally forms us as people who might imitate the work of the Gardener.
Work to change the things that have the opposite influence: Sometimes one wonders if atheists and anti-Catholic forces understand better than we do ourselves how the changing of our mode of thinking leads to faith, so skillfully do secular educators and shapers of the culture promote the values of atheism while appearing to promote the values of freedom and tolerance. They seem to realise that they don’t need to attack faith directly but can destroy it by restricting the parts of our culture that reinforce the sort of thinking that leads to faith. We must learn to recognise it and learn to assert what is good and true and beautiful to counter this.
All the structures a false egalitarianism (which fails to recognise the unique value of each person) in the guise of an exaggerated identity politics and tolerance for individual faith. They promote a culture of ugliness and disrespect for natural authorities while asserting respect for unnatural authority and an unnatural hierarchy (by creating, for example, too authoritarian and centralized government).
It has occurred to me that perhaps they do so because deep down, they recognize in themselves the power of this 4th Way thinking, and because they hate God, wish to erase all evidence of Him and our tendency to a natural and healthy response to that evidence.
The antidote to the art of protest, or any other form of cultural Marxism, is the art of suffering and redemption through Christ, which is the art of hope.