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What Kind of God Can Reason Prove?
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Reason Alone Favors an Aloof, Impersonal God
Meeting Jesus on the Road to Emmaus
Was the Old Covenant Canceled?
Minimum Age for Communion From the Cup?


Q: I recently listened to a course entitled “Faith and Reason: Philosophy in the Middle Ages.” I must say that I found Anselm’s proof for God’s existence to be more clever than persuasive. Similarly, the proofs of St. Thomas Aquinas are not exactly airtight.

How do Franciscan scholars feel about proofs of God’s existence? I think that Søren Kierkegaard had it right when he spoke of a “leap of faith.” I think God is beyond our ability to grasp—other than a few blessed snippets—much less prove. Thus, belief or not is a choice we make.

A: “Proofs” for God’s existence rely exclusively on the evidence of reason. Proofs from order, causality, Anselm’s “ontological” proof (based on the concept of being), etc., are in this category. This is fine as far as it goes. St. Anselm (d. 1109) famously described theology as “faith seeking understanding.” He employed reason to draw out the implications of his faith.

Reason alone tends to “prove” an impersonal God—a pale imitation of the loving, generous God revealed in the Scriptures. The pagan philosopher Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) spoke of the “Unmoved Mover.” This is logical but cold. Reason may prove a Supreme Being but hardly a God who creates people in the divine image and wants to share divine life with them. St. Thomas Aquinas reworked some of Aristotle’s ideas from a Christian perspective.

Deism, a system of thought used by the 18th-century Enlightenment but still alive today, favors an aloof, minimalist God who sets the world in motion and then moves on to something else. Deism is ultimately not comfortable with God’s self-revelation in the Bible. For example, Thomas Jefferson produced an edited version of the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus as a moral teacher but deleting all references to Christ’s divinity or to his miracles.

In modern terminology, that might be called a “good-enough Jesus.” Deism favors a “good-enough God,” but one who falls far short of the God revealed in the Scriptures.

I was mulling over my response to your question when Advent began. A ninth-century Latin hymn, sung especially in Advent, is titled “Creator Alme Siderum” (“Loving Creator of the Stars”). Deists could certainly accept Creator Siderum, but only God’s self-revelation in the Bible justifies the all-important adjective Alme (“Loving”).

Only a loving God explains the Incarnation of Jesus; only a loving God can be compared to the forgiving father in the Prodigal Son parable. A strictly logical “proof” for God cannot rely on love, the main reason why anything other than God even exists. You and I can ask questions about proving God’s existence only because we already exist—made possible through God’s love.

Deism implicitly tends toward atheism because people eventually start asking, “Who needs such an impersonal, aloof God?” The Bible doesn’t say that God is impersonal or aloof, but reason alone cannot get beyond that hurdle. Faith is not against reason, but it is beyond reason.

Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and many writings of Pope Benedict XVI address these and related issues. From its earliest days, Christianity has spoken of “natural law.” That terminology assumes that reason has a role to play in understanding God. This concept makes dialogue with non-Christians possible.

Franciscan scholars such as Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure and Blessed John Duns Scotus (all 13th-century teachers in Paris) upheld the compatibility of faith and reason. To do otherwise would mean one of two errors: fideism (reason has nothing to contribute to faith) or rationalism (faith cannot contribute anything to reason). Even so, Franciscan thinkers then and now tend to emphasize the importance of God’s loving will to create, to share life—something that cannot be proven by reason alone.

Enlightenment thinkers saw biblical faith as the enemy of human progress. In fact, such faith is ultimately the ally of genuine progress.

History reminds us that what is done in the name of reason is not always reasonable. Intolerance of various kinds can be made to look reasonable. Faith offers a transcendent perspective to differentiate between pseudo-reason (to the advantage of some people) and the real thing. If someone uses reason to rule out any transcendent dimension to human life, then tyranny cannot be far behind.

Both faith and reason are gifts from God.

Meeting Jesus on the Road to Emmaus

Q: I am very interested in the post-resurrection events because these define Jesus as the Son of God. I want to teach my students with reasonable authority and write songs that will emphasize what really happened on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-35). I would like to write a song about this conversation.

A: This powerful story has already inspired several songs. When I lived in Italy between 1985 and 1992, there was a popular hymn, “Resta con noi” (“Remain With Us”), based on this story. To do justice to this experience, your song needs some reference to the disciples as recognizing Jesus “in the breaking of the bread [Eucharist].” We cannot literally meet Jesus on the road as the disciples did, but we can meet Jesus in the Eucharist, which is where they finally recognized him.

On the road, Jesus helped Cleopas and the other disciple (possibly his wife) to reread the Scriptures accurately. After they finally recognized Jesus, they immediately set out to share the good news of his rising from the dead.

Jesus was the Son-of-God-made-flesh all his life. The post-resurrection events showed that in a unique way.

Q: Did Jesus’ New Covenant cancel the old one? If not, were St. Peter and the apostles wrong in converting Jewish people to Christianity? Does the Catholic Church teach that salvation is possible without conforming to the New Covenant?

A: The Catholic Church teaches that salvation for anyone is possible only through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Can only those people who have an explicit faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and their savior be saved? No.

Christianity has used an either/or approach only where absolutely necessary. St. Paul addresses this issue in his Letter to the Romans (Chapters 9—11), noting that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (11:29).

St. Peter, the apostles and their successors were not wrong in inviting Jewish men and women to an explicit belief in Jesus Christ. No one’s salvation, however, is wholly dependent on whether they accept Baptism or not.

In Article 1260, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Since Christ died for all, and since all [people] are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery” [quoting #22 of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World].

The Catechism immediately states that everyone “who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

Ultimately, only God’s judgment about a person's salvation matters. To believe otherwise would be to engage in a subtle form of idolatry because it would substitute human judgment (always finite) for God’s judgment (always complete).

Q: Our pastor says that our parish should not offer Holy Communion from the cup to those under 18 years of age. Our eucharistic ministers are confused because neighboring parishes do this. What is going on?

A: The Catholic Church makes no age distinction regarding reception of Holy Communion from the cup. Anyone old enough to receive the host has the option to receive from the cup as well. To my knowledge, all state laws regarding underage drinking of alcohol make an exception for its use in religious services. Why 18? It is not currently a legal age for drinking in any state. The “accidents” of wine (a philosophical term to describe color, taste and alcohol content, for example) remain even after the “substance” (the deepest reality) becomes the Precious Blood of Jesus.

Your diocesan worship office can clarify whether your pastor’s directive reflects diocesan policies on this issue.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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