Aquinas: Apologetics

Another little interesting nugget today. Aquinas opens 1a.32.1 by asking ‘Can the Trinity be known by natural reason’. Ultimately, he argues, it cannot. One way of knowing God is by knowing what His creatures look like: “they lead to the knowledge of Him as effects do to their causes.” But, Aquinas argues, we can’t really extrapolate the Trinity from these created things. This is just by way of preface, by the way – I’m not super concerned with whether or not the argument’s correct. I’m just giving the context for this next bit of commentary, which is what we’re focusing on today. I’ll quote this bit at length:

“He who tries to prove the trinity of persons by natural powers of reason detracts from faith in two ways. First on the point of its dignity, for the object of faith is those invisible realities which are beyond the reach of human reason. St Paul says that ‘faith is of things that appear not.’ Secondly, on the point of advantage in bringing others to faith. For when someone wants to support faith by unconvincing arguments, he becomes a laughing stock for the unbelievers, who think that we rely on such arguments and believe because of them.”

So there’s a few things going on in here. Most of it’s relatively self-explanatory, but we’ll run it through anyway. Firstly, God is supposed to be all mysterious and shit, and we’re kinda robbing that mystery if we’re like ‘Yes here are the seven proofs that the Trinity exists and they all derive from Newton’s Second Law and they’re basically irrefutable.’ It’s undignified, for Aquinas. This concept of faith is a bit interesting – obviously Aquinas is quoting Paul, in, ah, Hebrews 11.1, but if you look at other places, faith is defined differently. For example, Jesus talks about how he’s performing miracles so that people might start believing in God. In John 14.29, he says “And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” Faith in that moment hinges on what is seen. It’s the exact opposite of the quote from Paul above. Aquinas’s point is still basically valid – the object of faith (God) is something that isn’t visible and running around in the world, right. It’s just interesting to note this tension in how we think about faith as seen/unseen.

Second, and perhaps more importantly for our purposes, the idea of conversion. When people make shit arguments about religious belief, we all look bad. There’s a point about the role of apologetics here. Briefly, apologetics doesn’t meant apologising for Christianity – it’s an intellectual defence of the faith. When you make stupid arguments, Aquinas says, you make the faith look bad – partly because you look like an idiot, but also partly because people think that we believe because of these arguments. This is almost a broader problem that applies to apologetics regardless of whether or not the arguments hold water. It’s one thing to defend the faith intellectually, but also faith isn’t necessarily an intellectual exercise. We’ve talked about this a bunch: Christianity is about a relationship between God and the believer, and not an intellectual assent to a series of propositions. There are some interesting implications in terms of salvation here – do you have to believe the correct doctrines about the Trinity in order to go heaven? Is God gonna drop the banhammer if you’re into transubstantiation? Aquinas suggests that we don’t believe in God because of a series of intellectual arguments. When those arguments are awful, they draw attention away from the actual heart of the faith and towards something that’s really not that important in the first place.

Aquinas goes on to say this:

“Therefore one should try to prove the truths of faith only by authoritative tests to those who are ready to accept them. In talking to others it is enough to defend the position that what faith upholds is not impossible.” 

Couple interesting things to note here. Firstly, even though Aquinas thinks the arguments aren’t that important, he also treats them as authoritative. That is, they can be used to demonstrate objectively true facts about God. This is a fragile balance: the truths of faith are authoritative, but they should only be shown to those who are ready to accept them – because those who aren’t ready to accept them won’t believe them, even though they’re supposedly authoritative. Are people just stupid, or are the arguments maybe not as authoritative as Aquinas supposes?

Secondly, Aquinas says it’s enough to defend the point that religious beliefs aren’t impossible. This is interesting in the context of some of the earlier stuff about predestination. On the one hand, Aquinas’s whole mission in the Summa is to make a bunch of logical arguments about God. He’s demonstrating the feasibility of some of these different beliefs. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of stuff where Aquinas says there’s really just no explaining it. I’m thinking of predestination, specifically. It might not be impossible, but it seems monstrous – and if God is all-good, surely it’s impossible that He has such a monstrous doctrine. Ultimately Aquinas can’t really resolve this problem. He falls back on the idea that God is good, and if predestination is really divinely ordained, then there’s probably something we’re missing about it. It’s not an awful argument, but it seems very open to abuse. Imagine: “Eating babies doesn’t seem good, but if it’s divinely ordained, there’s probably something we’re missing about it.” The problematic assumption is that it really is divinely ordained. So perhaps Aquinas is failing with his own agenda when it comes to predestination. It’s not that it seems incoherent, but it just doesn’t seem right – and fuck, I mean, I am a Christian. If he can’t convince me, what’s going on?

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