By Maureen Shumay, University of Dallas
When entertaining the idea of ‘God’, one may come to a reasonable understanding of his existence, but when it comes to God’s knowledge of us, we may seem all too insignificant to merit the care of the creator of the universe. In other words, while the idea of a “first efficient cause,” or a “cause of all causes” may be understood and defended by any such philosopher, the idea of this First Cause knowing man exists, and, much less, caring about the individual existence of each man, tends to be a thing left for faith, not philosophy, to consider. St. Thomas Aquinas, however, claims the truths and attributes we may come to understand and associate with God through faith (e.g. His love for us) can be defended philosophically. He claims,
“whatever arguments are brought forward against the doctrines of faith are conclusions incorrectly derived from the first and self-evident principles imbedded in nature. Such conclusions do not have the force of demonstration; they are arguments that are either probable or sophistical. And so, there exist the possibility to answer them.”[i]
This gives us security, that the question of God’s care for us can be understood philosophically. Within the Summa Contra Gentiles Book One, Aquinas philosophically defends not only God’s existence as First Efficient Cause, but also the many attributes which follow therefrom. When it comes to God’s knowledge and love for his creatures, he does not, like Aristotle, place God, the ‘self-thinking thought’, estranged from the world. Rather, from the basis of God being the First Efficient Cause, Aquinas derives and defends God’s knowledge of, and love for, us.
This notion of a First Efficient cause, or an ‘unmoved mover’, on which Aquinas’ argument is based, is seen in Aristotle’s perception of God, found within his Metaphysics. He says, “since that which is moved must be moved by something, and the first mover must be in itself unmovable, and eternal movement must be produced by something eternal and a single movement by a single thing.”[ii] For Aristotle however, while the world depends on God, God doesn’t seem to know the world exists. Aristotle holds, as God is the most perfect being, it is fitting He does the most perfect act – thinking – with the object of this act being the most perfect thing, Himself. Therefore, God is perceived as the ‘self-thinking thought’. If one follows this definition as is, it seems as if there is ‘no room’ for God to think of things less perfect than Himself, such as that which He creates. Therefore, although God causes the world, He remains ‘blissfully ignorant’ of our existence. If God is completely ignorant of man, then it assuredly follows that He has no care or love for man.
Aquinas, on the other hand, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, argues that God’s knowledge of us follows directly from His being the Aristotelian ‘unmoved mover’, i.e. the First Efficient Cause. If we understand God is the cause of everything in existence, nothing exists which God has not caused to exist. Now, if the cause of a thing is known, so too are the effects: “For effects bear within themselves, in their own way, the likeness of their cause.”[iii] We can come to know what the effect is and consists of if we know the cause itself. God is the cause of all things, therefore, “whatever is in each and every thing can be known if we know God.”[iv] Further, if we accept God knows Himself perfectly, it necessarily follows that, as Cause, He knows that which He causes perfectly, the effects of His cause. Therefore, since God is the cause of all things in reality, He knows all things in reality.
This knowledge, however, is not just knowledge in a ‘general’ sense, i.e. knowing that things in reality exist. Rather, God knows things in reality distinctly. Aquinas claims, “The distinction in things must be from the intention of some causes.”[v] The cause of the distinctions found in the world cannot be attributed to ‘secondary cause,’ such as causes found in nature, as these causes themselves belong to a world which contains distinctions. Therefore, the first cause, which causes the world, must be that by which things are distinguished in reality. Since God is the cause of all things, He is then the cause of all things in their distinction. Thus, He knows all things in their distinction. In response to Aristotle, then, it seems God, the ‘self-thinking thought’, not only thinks of and knows Himself, but, too, each creation distinctly.
Even if God does know His creatures exist, does love of all things follow from knowledge of all things? One must, of course, clarify love, as we are speaking here, isn’t referring to the passionate emotional love we may be more accustomed to, but love as the willing of the other’s perfection. As God is the Cause of all things, He wills His creation to be, just as He wills Himself to be.[vi] “We must assert that in God there is love: because love is the first movement of the will.”[vii] When one wills, he “desires the perfection of that which is willed and loved by him for its own sake.”[viii] God’s ‘willing things to be’ in reality, therefore, is a very ‘loving of things,’ as willing the perfection of a thing for its own sake is loving.
Further, as God loves Himself, He loves that which He causes, for that which He causes bears His likeness. “Whoever loves something in itself and for its own sake consequently loves all the things in which it is found.”[ix] Therefore, as God knows and wills Himself, He knows and wills that which He creates; He loves Himself and, in that, loves that which extends from and reflects Himself, as effect reflects cause. Recall, too, God knows created things in their distinction. So, then, does He love things, each thing distinctly. At this point, we may still have trouble accepting the Creator of the entire universe bothers with us, insignificant humans. After all, the human race is, as the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking once said, “just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”[x] Especially in our time, where we can truly realize how little man is compared to the rest of the known universe, the idea that The Supreme Being even knows we exist could seem absurd. Yet, to this common conception, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his book Introduction to Christianity, points out a fundamental error in this thought. He says,
“although we may think that in this way we are speaking truly appropriately about God, in reality we are in fact thinking of him in a very petty and only too human way, as if his retention of a general view involved making a choice. We thereby imagine him as a consciousness like ours, which has limits, must somewhere or other call a halt, and can never embrace the whole.”[xi]
What Cardinal Ratzinger points out here is extremely important, for we cannot ‘domesticate’ God by defining him according to our common conceptions of words. That is, we cannot limit God according to how man is limited, for God is that which causes and holds everything in existence. By this fact, His love is extended to all things which exist, especially to that which bears his greatest likeness.
“The boundless spirit who bears in Himself the totality of Being reaches beyond the ‘greatest’, so that to him it is small, and he reaches into the smallest, because to him nothing is too small. Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and reaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit.”[xii]
Thus God, as unmoved mover, knows and loves that which he moves perfectly.
By defending, philosophically, God’s love for us based on the Aristotelian notion of God as the ‘Unmoved Mover’, Aquinas brings a whole new significance to the ‘God of the Philosopher.’ In his argument, the God which Aristotle reasoned to and defended is realized as the personal God which Abraham encountered. In other words, “The Christian faith gave a completely new significance to this God of the Philosopher, removing him from the purely academic realm and thus profoundly transforming him.”[xiii] This God, as philosophically understood by ancient philosophers, knows and loves his creation more fully and more absolutely than we could conceive a man to love. It seems, then, man cannot simply be invaluable, ‘chemical scum.’ Not only are we created by God, but we are loved by Him and bear unique significance among the worldly creatures, as we bear His ‘image and likeness.’ Perhaps, then, in an age of rapidly increasing knowledge of the world, we have forgotten our significance is not solely found in this world, but in the Uncaused Cause of the world.
Edited By: Zachary Maher
[i] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles Book One: God, trans. Anton C. Pegis (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), Chapter 7 pg.75.
[ii] Aristotle. Metaphysics. Translated by W. D. Ross. (The Internet Classics Archive) Bk.7 pt.8.
[iii] Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles. Book 1 Ch.8 pg.76
[v] Id., Book 1 Ch.50 pg.182
[vi] Id., Book 1 Ch.75 pg.246
[vii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province Iowa, q. 20, arts 1
[viii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles. book 1 ch.75 pg.246
[x] Stephen Hawking, 1995 interview with Ken Campbell on Reality on the Rocks: Beyond Our Ken
[xi] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004) Chapter 3 pg.101
[xiii] Id., Chapter 3 pg.99