What, then, are the issues, and how will the argument proceed? As to the issues, two very broad questions are the subject of this essay: first, is a natural theology - the claim that the existence of the one true God can be known by human reason alone - possible? And this is a philosophical question. For even if the Vatican decrees are statements intended as articulations of faith, and are not proposed on philosophical grounds, nonetheless what they make a claim for is a rational, philosophical, possibility. That being so, it is a claim in principle vulnerable to philosophical counter-argument, namely to the demonstration that the existence of God could not in principle be proved, as many philosophers other than Kant have in fact argued. Moreover, if the possibility of proving the existence of God is said to be entailed by the nature of faith, as the Vatican Council says it is, then it would after all seem to follow as the 'Barthians' would have it that, in accordance with its account of faith, faith itself is logically, if not in fact, vulnerable to philosophical refutation, that is to say, it is refutable via its philosophically refutable entailment. And this much I concede to be true, that faith is logically vulnerable to philosophical, as also to empirical, refutation. For there are possibly true, if in fact false, states of affairs such that, if they were actually true, then Christian faith would be false: manifestly the claim to the existence of the historical person of Jesus is an empirical claim, and so it logically could be false, and if it were, then all Christian faith must fail. But note that even this does not place faith in thrall to the 'deliverances of reason' or of 'history', as the 'Barthians' would say, for the Vatican Council is emphatic: there cannot be any conflict between faith and reason, and such is the epistemic superiority of faith over reason that 'every assertion contrary to the truth of enlightened faith is totally false'.

At this point, then, it is necessary to enter one further point of clarification. The Vatican Council declares that it is 'contrary to faith', and therefore false, to say that the existence of God cannot be known with certainty by reason. It follows, on this account, that philosophical arguments, such as those of Kant, which purport to show the impossibility for speculative reason of the demonstrability of God, must fail on their own terms of philosophy. The case here seems to be in most ways epistemologically parallel to that of belief in the resurrection of Jesus. For if, in faith, you maintain that the body of Jesus, which was his in his pre-mortem natural life, is one and the same with that body of Jesus which is now raised by the Father to immortality, then your faith would appear to be in principle vulnerable to empirical refutation. And so indeed it is - in principle and as to its epistemic standing. For if, as is logically possible, the archaeological discovery were to be made of the bones of Jesus' natural body preserved somewhere in the deserts of Palestine, then it could not be true that that identical body was raised by the Father to immortality, and belief in the resurrection - in those terms - would turn out to be false and indefensible. And this, of course, is the reason why many theologians today, wishing to preserve the epistemic autonomy of faith, deny that the resurrection of Jesus requires belief in the numerical identity of Jesus' pre-mortem and raised bodies. For if that numerical identity obtained, then it would have to follow that the tomb in which Jesus was buried must have been empty on the third day after his death, and that, some say, would appear to make an object of faith out of a merely empirical fact. But such a ploy, fraught as it is with conceptual difficulties about personal identity,32 is not needed in the defence of faith's epistemic precedence over reason, for to maintain on grounds of faith that the tomb was empty is not to entail that its being empty or not ceases to be a matter of plain empirical fact; neither, conversely, is the empirical standing of the claim that it was empty such as to place faith in thrall to empirically factual refutation.

For if it is true that the dead body of Jesus is that identical body which was raised by the Father, then it is true that no such archaeological remains will be discovered, for they could not exist - and you will know that in faith. For any true proposition, just in so far as it is true (and however known to be true), rules out the possibility of there being any facts conclusively to falsify it. And this entailment holds even for empirical

32 Quite how such theologians propose to guarantee the continuing identity of the pre-mortem person Jesus with him who is raised, without appeal to some non-bodily, and so potentially 'dualist', criterion of personal identity (which they seem equally inclined to reject) is not often made clear. Could one also be permitted to note here that just because belief in the resurrection of Jesus is logically defeasible by evidence that the tomb was not empty, it does not follow that the resurrection of Jesus can be believed on the evidence that it was empty, or that resurrection faith is reduced to some empirical, quasi-historical, fact? 'If resurrection-belief is true, then the tomb was empty' is not reducible to 'Belief in the resurrection is belief that the tomb was empty', even on the condition that, were the tomb not empty, resurrection belief would be false.

truths. It is a common fallacy (having its origin in Plato) to infer from the de dicto necessity of the proposition, 'What is known is true', the de re conclusion, 'Only the necessarily true is known.' Just because if it is true that Jesus' body was raised from the dead then necessarily there are no bodily remains resting in Palestine, it does not follow that there being no remains of Jesus' dead body in Palestine is a necessary and not an empirical truth. As Thomas Aquinas says, so long as the proposition 'Socrates is sitting' is true, then necessarily Socrates is sitting. But it does not follow from this that Socrates' sitting is necessary, for 'Socrates is sitting' is plainly a contingent truth. He just has to stand up and walk away, and the proposition 'Socrates is sitting' becomes false.33 In the same way, even if we know for certain that, Jesus having been raised from the dead, there cannot be such bodily remains awaiting archaeological discovery, it remains an empirical truth that there are none such and an empirical falsehood that there are such.

The case is thus far analogous to the relationship between faith and reason generally, on the Vatican Council's account. If, in faith, you maintain that the existence of God is rationally demonstrable, then it follows that there cannot be any philosophical arguments which succeed in demonstrating the impossibility of such a proof. Of course, the force of the 'cannot' here is such that the proposition 'Rational proof of God is impossible' is false; but it is not nonsense to think it true, the proposition being quite plainly intelligible. For which reason, it does not follow from the falsity of that proposition, that there are no philosophical arguments to be had with those philosophers who, contrary to what faith entails, maintain it. Hence, on the Vatican Council's account of the relationship between faith and rational proof, while it would seem worthwhile for apologetic reasons to show if you can that Kant is wrong philosophically, it will not matter from the point of view of your personal faith if Kant's philosophical arguments are too much for you and you are not intellectually up to pulling off a refutation. No more does it matter from the point of view of your personal faith if you cannot get a satisfactory rational demonstration of the existence of God off the ground, or even if no one ever does. But theologians ought to view it as a role of theirs, as far as they are able, to rebut any philosophical argument to the effect that a proof of the existence of God is a rational impossibility. Even then, though any such rebuttal will have to be philosophical in kind, from the fact that there is a genuine philosophical argument to be had about the possibility of proof of God it does not follow that faith is thereby placed in thrall to the debatable outcome of a rational argument. And much of the argument of this book

33 ST 1aq14 a13 ad3.

is concerned with such philosophical rebuttals: for in this matter, the truth lies in whatever survives the elenchus, that is, in whatever survives the refutation of the counter-arguments.

Defending the rational possibility of proof of God against philosophical objections is therefore one main purpose of this essay; that purpose is connected intimately, however, with a second question: is the Vatican Council right about what Christian faith entails by way of rational proof? Is it perhaps true, after all, that the case for the possibility of a natural theology - even if it can be defended in philosophical argument - is inconsistent with what Christians claim for the God of faith? Are the 'God of reason' and the 'God of faith' the same God? The answer which is most common among Christian theologians today is that a correct understanding of faith excludes in principle the possibility that the God believed in by Christian faith can be known to exist without faith. For a theologically pretentious 'reason', it is said, is a reason which seeks to occupy the territory proper to faith's knowledge of God with that to which it can attain from within its own resources; and such could offer nothing theologically but the displacement of the God of faith, truly revealed in Jesus Christ, by means of an idolatrously diminished godlet of reason's own devising. A god known through creatures is, it seems to be thought, a god limited by the scale of creatures, for, it will be said, however extrapolated from creatures and projected upon an infinite object, such a god could be no more, logically, than an infinitely inflated creature. A god whom creatures can know by reason is a god all too knowable because all too creaturely, being inevitably contained within the bounds of reason: hence, a God known by reason is not the true God but an idolatrous displacement. Much of the argument of this essay is designed as a rebuttal of just that inference.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment