If an essentially atheistic attitude toward God was fixed more than 50 years ago, how bad are things today? “In contemporary culture,” summarizes Dr. Matthew Levering in his excellent new book “Proofs of God” (Baker Academic, 2016), “discourse about God has become deeply impoverished.” Many professional philosophers simply avoid or dismiss the matter of God altogether; the situation is even worse in the popular realm. Levering provides the example of a bestselling book titled “How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most” (Penguin, 2009), which goes out of its way to not mention or discuss God!
Modern philosophy, put simply, has proven unable or unwilling to ponder the arguments for the existence of God. And popular (and, alas, widely read) village atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have shown themselves lacking the sort of chops necessary to play the tune, never mind identify the proper key. “Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most well-known scientific critic of the demonstration of God’s existence,” remarks Levering in his evenhanded but direct manner, “but he is notorious for his failure to grasp them.” A widely noted example is how Dawkins, in his 2006 bestselling screed “The God Delusion,” cannot even correctly summarize or explain the famous “five ways” of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The prolific Levering — author of books on Aquinas, Augustine, Scripture and much more — is exceedingly adept at summarizing the “Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth” (the subtitle of his book) without ever sacrificing detail and precision.
Levering helpfully breaks down arguments, views and responses into three historical epochs. First, the patristic and medieval eras, during which fundamental arguments were developed and deepened by Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, among others. Second, the Reformation and Enlightenment eras, during which the Protestant John Calvin and the Catholic Blaise Pascal (to name just two of seven figures) put forth arguments during a time of cultural transition and intellectual unrest. And, finally, the 19th- and 20th-century responses, which include those from John Henry Newman, Maurice Blondel, the great Thomist Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and the influential Protestant Karl Barth. In all, 21 thinkers are discussed.
Levering makes it clear he will not shy away from the “controversial term ‘proofs,’” noting that the discomfort some have with the word “proofs” is both mistaken and unhelpful. Yes, it is true that God cannot be comprehended by finite minds, and that God is known in a unique way through divine revelation, at the center of which stands Jesus Christ. But, as Aquinas stated, “The existence of God can be proved [probari] in five ways.” This approach is a biblical one, as Wisdom 13 (a deeply philosophical work) and Romans 1 demonstrate. In the Christian tradition, God’s existence is demonstrated through reason that is grounded in both Scripture and Greek philosophy. Christianity, of all religions, has the least to fear from reason. In fact, Christians should emphatically promote the pursuit of right reason. St. John Paul begins his encyclical Fides et Ratio, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth.”
“The person who knows the truth,” says Augustine, “knows it [Truth], and he who knows it knows eternity.” Or as the French philosopher Blondel argued, we all act — and we should ask why and for what end we act. The question of action “is the question, the one without which there is none other.” In an arid culture crying out for ultimate meaning and lasting purpose, these arguments and proofs of God are not mere dry intellectual exercises but compose a refreshing gift of life-giving water.