Four ways to grasp natural meaning from the God Who Is
I have set myself a bit of a task here, and it is all the fault of four excellent authors who have tackled the modern dismissal of God in four significantly different ways, all during the past fifteen months. I say “tackled the modern dismissal of God”, but they might not all conceive of their task in such pugnacious terms. Still, in one way or another, Leo Severino, Gerard Verschuuren, Michael Augros, and Edward Feser have expressed serious concern about those who suffer from the absence of God.
Indeed, each has written a deeply philosophical book which proves in one way or another that the hollowness of human life without God is not only completely unnecessary but also irrational. Each book is intended for a different audience, and all make the point in significantly different ways. To understand how these authors proceed is to learn which book will work best to deepen your own understanding or to help a friend, relative or coworker who has begun to wonder about the contemporary denial of God.
Going Deeper: A Reasoned Exploration of God and Truth
Ignatius Press 2017, 133pp
Leo Severino is a filmmaker (remember Bella?) with a background in philosophy and law. He is not a scholar, and you would be right to guess that the brevity of his book makes it the best choice for those who want to know the basic arguments concerning God’s existence; His nature; the reality of purpose, design and meaning in the universe; knowing and loving God; and the problems posed by omniscience, evil and pain.
As the cover suggests, Severino begins with an autumnal falling leaf and essentially draws a straight line from that leaf to the realities of God, intellect, will, goodness and love. The writing is simple and straightforward, even sprightly, full of examples, and—like that falling leaf—refreshingly down to earth. The author takes the reader step-by-step through the classical arguments on all the topics mentioned. The book does not seek to explore these arguments in great depth, nor to respond to all possible objections. It is very much the work of an exemplary generalist.
That is why Going Deeper is the best choice for those who have never been exposed to the strong classical arguments for God’s existence and God’s providence, or who need a rapid refresher, perhaps for the purposes of what we call natural apologetics. The uninitiated may have many questions after reading this book, but they will also realize how carefully they have been sealed off in the past from vital theistic arguments which, for some suspicious reason, the surrounding culture has not wanted them to hear.
The Immortal in You: How Human Nature Is More than Science Can Say
Ignatius Press 2017, 324pp
Michael Augros eschews the classical approach, probably for this reason: In our contemporary culture, people are more likely to be led into questions about God out of a sort of interior desperation. This is especially true of young people, who live in a state of conflict between their inner experiences and the scientistic denials of meaning imposed upon them by our educational and other formational institutions. Indeed, to detach someone from pleasure and distraction for more than a few minutes—and this will happen to everyone—is to raise unsettling questions about the meaning of life and, eventually, about self-worth.
Hence the title, The Immortal in You. Explaining his approach in the Prologue, Augros notes the difference between the interior view we have of ourselves and the exterior view, which we share to a significant degree with others. The exterior view is usually based on physical observation; the interior is most emphatically not. And so the author tackles head-on the limitations of our contemporary scientism:
The first limitation is that these sciences reason from only some of the facts about you, while ignoring others that are extremely useful for answering our particular questions…. Their second limitation is that such sciences require outsiders to take many matters on faith. It is part of my unusual purpose not to ask you to place your faith in my experience of anything, or in anyone’s expertise in things, but simply to consult your own treasury of experience for every conclusion I mean to draw. [p 17]
Faced with this approach, those who have had their innermost thoughts and aspirations reflexively discounted as meaningless by the reigning savants of modern culture may well find hope in someone who, at long last, takes them seriously. From this premise, Augros considers our hidden powers, our intellect and will, our difference from animals, our need and ability to see things whole, the proper ways in which we can know both ourselves and nature, and even our entry into an afterlife—which, indeed, we already perceive in our own sense of immortality.
We are still in the realm of the popular here, in that this is not a book aimed at scholars. But as a hint of where a scholarly reader might turn next, Augros, who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and teaches at Thomas Aquinas College, provides an appendix with chapter summaries and related passages drawn from the works of his college’s namesake, St. Thomas himself.
Gerard M. Verschuuren
Aquinas and Modern Science: A New Synthesis of Faith & Reason
Angelico Press 2016, 240pp
Gerard M. Verschuuren has written a very different kind of book in that he does not address head-on the God-and-Reason questions at the heart of these discussions. Rather he offers an extended reflection on how the work of St. Thomas Aquinas sheds considerable light on the project of modern knowledge. Thus, after introductory material on the life of the saint and the role of his metaphysics in understanding the relationship between faith and reason, Verschuuren considers St. Thomas’ insights into epistemology; into the sciences in general; and in particular into cosmology, physics, genetics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and the social sciences.
For those who do not know, epistemology is the discipline which considers how we know, while cosmology concerns itself with the universe considered somewhat abstractly—where it comes from and what it signifies. The other topics should require little explanation, but the point of the book is to demonstrate, using the ground-breaking work of Aquinas himself, how a new synthesis of faith and reason is eminently possible today—one that neither detaches scientific study from the whole of reality nor pretends that what science can study is all there is.
This strikes to the heart of the same questions raised in the other books. A human geneticist with a doctorate in the philosophy of science, Verschuuren has been using his semi-retirement to reflect, write, teach and consult, as his biographical blurb states, “at the interface of science and religion, faith and reason.” The book has a broader range than any of the others, introducing the reader to key questions and controversies within a great many areas of human study. The author considers how these studies relate to a potential new synthesis, and why it is such a knowledge disaster to confuse one part of reality with the whole.
Despite its range, the book is of moderate length, and it succeeds in its intention of being “a readable and wide-ranging introduction to the thought of Aquinas”. The author hopes it will also serve as an introductory book for scientists who are new to philosophy. Again, this is a bit different, but precisely because St. Thomas saw things whole, the project challenges modern scientism on every page.
“Let Aquinas be your teacher,” Verschuuren advises. “Let him give you a clearer and more coherent view of what modern science tells us. Aquinas’s principles continue to serve as an anchor of intelligibility in a sea of confusing claims.”
Five Proofs of the Existence of God
Ignatius Press 2017, 330pp
The most academic book in this quartet, and by a smidgeon the longest (slightly exceeding The Immortal in You), is Edward Feser’s Five Proofs. Here we have a thorough and detailed treatment of the great and seminal proofs of God’s existence as originally developed by Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz. These are proofs that have stood the test of time. The youngest is about three hundred years old.
Feser has given us a book for serious study, but the method he uses ensures that non-specialists can understand it if they will take the time. The author presents each proof in two parts. The first part is a two-stage introductory presentation. Here he avoids the “explicit step-by-step format beloved of contemporary analytic philosophers”, preferring a less formal discussion so that “readers unfamiliar with philosophy” can understand the arguments, and also so that he can “digress into more general issues of metaphysics so as to make clear exactly what is going on in the proofs and to forestall potential misunderstandings or irrelevant objections” (11).
Here are the two stages in the first part of each chapter, in Feser’s own words:
- In stage 1, I argue for the existence of something fitting a certain key description, such as (for example) the description “an uncaused cause of the existence of things”.
- In stage 2, I argue that anything fitting the description in question must have certain key divine attributes, such as unity, eternity, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness.
This is very effective. Only in the final section of each chapter does he set forth the arguments step-by-step so that the reader can focus on the precise logical process necessary to make the entire case. The result, as may be evident from the two points offset above, is that even the non-specialist can see both that the existence of some described entity is proven and that this entity can only be what we call God.
For clarity, the proof from Plotinus can be renamed “the Neo-Platonic proof” and the proof from Leibniz can be renamed “the Rationalist proof” (the others are the Aristotelian, the Augustinian and the Thomistic, as befits three of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known). In addition to thoroughly covering these proofs, Feser includes two other major chapters: A sixth on the nature of God and his relationship to the world, and a seventh on common objections to natural theology—which, after all, is what all of these authors are doing.
Indeed, all four authors are arguing the case, depending on how we wish to express it, for God or for seeing things whole or for seeing things as they are, and they are arguing this case not from Revelation but from reason. That is what makes the subject of these books (or a substantial part of the subject in Verschuuren’s case) “natural theology”. Readers are additionally blessed by the fact that all four authors are not only excellent writers in the stylistic sense but also well able to illustrate their abstractions with concrete and often entertaining instances. This makes it far easier for the reader to grasp both the necessary questions and their essential answers.
Nearly every reader will benefit from one of these books. The purpose here has been to acquaint readers with all of them, so that each might more easily know which one to choose.
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