Question & Answer
Q: By A Reader
As a scholar of Thomas Aquinas can you help me understand his teleological argument for his belief in the existence of God?
A: By Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox
First, too much can be made of the term “proofs for the existence of God” by Thomas Aquinas. As scholar Mary T. Clark advises, he “never claimed that the five ways for trying to prove God’s existence … were his ‘proofs.’” They are found in his summa theologica right after he talks of how God’s existence is not self-evident to us. He seems more to be addressing pagan philosophers in his remarks; and, in his eminently ecumenical way, offers guideposts on where to look into science for overlaps between believers and non believers around God talk. (110f)*
Your question alerts me to a point British biologist Rupert Sheldrake made to me a number of years ago. “The future of biology is Aristotle… because the future of biology is teleology.”
Here are Aquinas’s words on the subject of the teleological argument which, he says, “is taken from the ordered tendencies of nature. A direction of actions to an end is detected in all bodies following natural laws even when they are without awareness, for their action scarcely ever varies and nearly always succeeds; this indicates that they do tend toward a goal, not merely succeeding by accident. Anything, however, without awareness tends to a goal only under the guidance of someone who is aware and knows; the arrow, for instance, needs an archer. Everything in nature, consequently, is guided in its goal by someone with knowledge, and this one we call ‘God.’” (124)
Placing this within a postmodern scientific worldview, we might ask: Is evolution entirely random? Each species and individual within a species seems to have its goal (or purpose or aim): To Live. To survive. This goal or aspiration we might call the divine imperative since “God is life, per se life.” (Aquinas)
Aquinas’s argument takes on a fuller context within his and Aristotle’s teachings about the Four Causes which they name as Efficient; Material; Formal; Final (or goal or end). What is the Final Cause? It “signifies the aim, that for the sake of which something is… The question, why?’ expects a cause.” (120)
Aquinas says, “Every agent acts for an end. Otherwise, only by chance would definite results come from an agent’s action.” (128) And “the aim is called the cause of causes, since it causes the causality of all the causes.” (172) He offers the example of when we exercise to stay healthy, health is our final cause.
I think it is useful also to consider the Four Causes in light of the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality. My major work on Aquinas, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, is centered around the Four Paths; and, in the course of my interviewing him, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that Aquinas is steeped in all of them–the Via Positiva, Via Negativa, Via Creativa and Via Transformativa (as is his disciple, Eckhart).
Is it just coincidence that the Four Causes and Four Paths are developed so richly by both Aquinas and Eckhart? Is the final cause akin to the Via Transformativa, namely, Compassion and Justice, Celebration and Healing? Interestingly, both Aquinas and Eckhart call God Compassion and also Justice (“compassion means justice” Eckhart adds). It would follow that where justice and compassion are, God is.
Is that a teleological argument for God also?
~ Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox
About the Author
Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox holds a doctorate in spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris and has authored 35 books on spirituality and contemporary culture that have been translated into 74 languages. Fox has devoted 45 years to developing and teaching the tradition of Creation Spirituality and in doing so has reinvented forms of education and worship (called The Cosmic Mass). His work is inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions and has awakened millions to the much neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West. He has helped to rediscover Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas. Among his books are Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society; A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey; Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Times; Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times; Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest; Stations of the Cosmic Christ; Order of the Sacred Earth; and Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Name for God…Including the Unnameable God. To encourage a passionate response to the news of climate change advancing so rapidly, Fox started Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox – See Welcome from Matthew Fox.