Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Can You Reason Your Way to God? Is This a Trick Question? (CCCC #3)*

I had a friend in college, a philosophy major, who used to sit in the cafeteria and argue against—and for—the existence of God. The fact that he could take either side, and win, left me cold.

So the third question in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCCC) leaves me kind of cold too: How is it possible to know God with only the light of human reason?

I think to myself, But is it? And then I think, Is this a trick question? It turns out that it kind of is.

Because, and you’ll read this in tomorrow’s post, there’s a follow-up question (#4), which says, in a phrase, Not so fast. Reason can give you knowledge of God—but not understanding of the Mystery of God. . . .

For now, though, the question is, Can you reason your way to God? 

I thought scientists were the ones with reason, and don’t scientists say that God is an unnecessary hypothesis? The abbreviated answer of the CCCC is little comfort to the agnostic who still occasionally shows up for handouts in a dark corner of my mind:

Starting from creation, that is from the world and from the human person, through reason alone one can know God with certainty as the origin and end of the universe, as the highest good and as infinite truth and beauty.

The beauty of the full Catechism is in the details. Where the Compendium gives a single-sentence answer to each question, the CCC (3 C’s, not 4) is much longer and richer. Here’s where we come to St. Augustine. The great man is pictured above, looking a bit like he’s been pondering God without sleep for too long.

Augustine’s argument for the existence of God, one of them anyway, is briefly excerpted in paragraph 32 of the CCC. It has always been moving to me. Here’s a longer excerpt:

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air; their souls hidden, their bodies evident; the visible bodies needing to be controlled, the invisible souls controlling them; question all these things. They all answer you, “Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.”

Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable? . . . 

Here is a “proof” of the existence of God that touches me, a proof based on beauty, a proof that appeals to the heart as well as to the intellect.

Today was an exceptionally beautiful December day in New England. Temperatures touched the 50s. It was the kind of day when I looked to see if the tulips under my office window weren’t coming up early. Then tonight I took a walk after dinner under a clear and starry sky. The breeze coming off the ocean, the sighing of the surf, the unaccustomed quiet of our neighborhood . . . It was a day and an evening that together argued loudly for the existence of God, and in a way far more convincing than my friend, the philosophy major. 

* NOTE: This post is third in a series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in honor of the new liturgical year and to do my small bit to evangelize in this Year of Faith declared by Pope Benedict. To guide myself through the CCC, I am using the question-answer format of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (that makes 4C’s). I am no expert and will try only to make some kind of personal sense of the Catechism by relating it to the experience of each passing day.

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