Question: I have a hard time convincing my high school students about the existence of God using the arguments from contingency or motion. Many people seem to have no problem with causes going back infinitely. One student even said that he can line up mirrors so that they reflect back upon each other infinitely. Some of the students also look puzzled at the idea of an unmoved mover. Any thought on how to better explain these arguments?
— Ben Jerman, Chicago
Answer: Many who consider the “argument from contingency” for God’s existence think of it horizontally, when they should think of it vertically. Basically, the argument from contingency notes that things are caused by something else. For example, you and I depend on the existence of our parents to exist. They depend on their parents, and so forth going back in time. Think of it like a ladder of existence, each of us a rung on the ladder. But at some point, for the ladder and rungs to exist at all it must rest on someone or something that does not owe its existence to anyone or anything but serves as the foundation for all that that is contingent (i.e., dependent) on it. This cause is not contingent but is necessary. And this we call God.
Some find this argument less compelling because they think of it as a kind of horizontal chain extending back in time for as far as we can see (a bit like endless mirrors). But this misses the impact of the argument, which should be thought of as a vertical ladder of being. At some point there must be a foundation on which the ladder rests; it cannot stand in mid-air. Your student’s image of mirrors is not a proof of infinite regress; it is only an optical illusion.
As for the argument from movement, many do struggle to understand the phrase “unmoved mover.” But here, too, it many help to consider the argument from a different perspective.
Consider the image of a train. Each car is pulled by the car in front of it and depends on that car for its movement. However, at some point there must be a car that does not depend on a car in front of it but has its own principle of movement, the locomotive. It is unlike any other car of the train because it does not need to be pulled, it pulls. The illustration is less perfect because, in the argument from motion, while God sets everything in motion, he himself does not move, whereas the locomotive does. But the main point is preserved, namely, where there is movement, there must ultimately be a first cause for that movement or chain of movements that is not contingent or dependent on anything outside itself to be moved or set in motion.
Some highly trained philosophers might object to my simplifications. But at the high school level, the main points are preserved, and the finer points can be distinguished later.
Question: Our priest and many people make the Sign of the Cross at the pentitential rite. Others don’t. What is right?
— Name, location withheld
Answer: There is no directive in the instructions that the priest makes the Sign of the Cross at the penitential rite. Some older Catholics and priests recall this practice from the traditional Latin Mass where there is a prayer (called the indulgentium) that required a Sign of the Cross. But that prayer is not said in the Ordinary form of the Mass, and the Sign of the Cross that accompanied it is also gone.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.