“What is God? What is God? What is God?”
So asked the intellectually precious and religiously minded five-year-old, time and time again, to the poor Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino in Italy.
The stories go that even as an infant, St. Thomas Aquinas had evidenced a thirst for knowledge. One day, when his mother, Theodora (whose name means “gift of God”), took him to the baths of Naples, he grabbed a piece of paper and refused to let go, bawling when it was taken from him. His mother found that the Hail Mary was written on it, and, in the interest of peace and quiet, she let him take it with him to the bath. The early biographer William of Tocco reported that after that, the only sure way to keep the young boy from crying was to give him something written on a piece of paper.
Our precocious young lad, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-March 7, 1274), was the seventh child of an Italian lord and a relative of the imperial family. His mother and his father, Landulf, had plans for Thomas to one day become the abbot of the famous Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Indeed, that was why he was taken there for training around the age of five, where he proceeded to pester the monks by posing again and again the most important of all human questions. We don’t know for sure how the monks answered young Thomas, but we do know that, in a sense, Thomas devoted his powerful intellect and indominable will through the rest of his life to providing us with the best possible answers.
This question—what is God?—and the many questions that flow from it are extremely important, not only for the fascination and edification of those who already love God, but because they can serve as a bridge to God for those who reject faith and swear to be guided only by science or reason. This I know both from reading and from personal experience.
Though raised Catholic, in my late teens, I was lured into a quarter of a century of atheism through reading the arguments of atheistic and agnostic philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Ayn Rand, as well as the psychologist Albert Ellis. (I’m too old to have been influenced by the current crop of new atheists, who, I might opine, are not quite up to the old standard.) These people were truly brilliant in some of their areas of expertise: philology, mathematics, fiction writing, and psychotherapy, respectively.
Still, I recall reading that Charles Darwin described the eminent scientists of his day as “mere schoolboys compared to old Aristotle!” I would discover the same thing when I encountered the writings of Thomas Aquinas in my early forties: that the atheists I had been reading were mere schoolboys (and a schoolgirl—Rand) compared to old Aquinas!
More than 700 years ago, Thomas had shot gaping holes in what I assumed were airtight atheist arguments, building upon the work of theologians and philosophers who had lived centuries before him. The Catholic answers, we might call them, to my atheism were always there waiting for me within the writings of the Church I grew up in—and I hadn’t had a clue! Hence, part of my mission since then has been to disseminate Thomas’s “golden wisdom” (as some popes have called it) far and wide.
Shortly after I came back to the Faith in 2004, I read Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris: Of the Restoration of Christian Philosophy According to the Mind of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor (since it was reproduced at the beginning of the first edition of the Summa I had acquired). The pope wrote in that encyclical that for whoever has rejected the Faith and claims to follow reason as his only guide, nothing will be more powerful in drawing him back, after God’s supernatural grace, than the writings of the Church Fathers and Scholastics, most prominently those of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, 125 years later, that was exactly the course I followed, as the Holy Spirit’s stirrings and Thomas’s writings drew me back to Christ and his Church after twenty-five years of atheism.
So a rational, Thomistic approach can be valuable in establishing common ground and drawing to Christ unbelievers who do not acknowledge the authority of Scripture, but who still honor reason and love truth. The powers of Thomas’s reason can indeed persuade some people that faith is eminently reasonable, beautiful, and true, inspiring them to take the leap toward faith.
I will note as well that perhaps even more than Thomas’s terse but famous five ways to prove the existence of God, which we’ll discuss in chapter 2, it was Thomas’s extensive analysis of God’s attributes—the stuff of our chapters 3 through 26—that helped draw me back to the fullness of the truth of Christ and his Church. It was within Thomas’s answers to those questions that I found that just as the mythical Paris, guided by the god Apollo, fatally pierced Achilles’s heel with his arrow, Thomas, working in the city of Paris, guided by God almighty, pierced with arrows of truth the Achilles heel of the atheists’ arguments, old and new, way back in the thirteenth century.
So, to the atheist who declares, “There is no God!”, the perfect question to ask to get a conversation rolling is, indeed, “what is God?” In essence, “just what (or who) do you propose does not exist?”
For the theist, who believes in God, and the Catholic, who also loves him as a Father, the same question is worth pondering. Consider the case of St. Rose of Lima, patroness of Peru. Since she was no formally trained philosopher or theologian, she once asked her priest confessor to compile for her a list of 150 perfections of God. The list would become the focus of one of her favorite prayers, as she frequently spent hours in meditation on God’s justice, mercy, omnipotence, wisdom, etc. Rose said this kind of prayer was pleasing to God and hateful to the devils that sometimes tormented her. She would be rewarded with many ecstatic visions during her brief life.
Perhaps Thomas’s rigorous rational explanations can open the path not only to a better understanding of the awesomeness of God, but also to a deeper prayer life in joyful union with him. (At least I hope and pray so!)
If you want to get to know God better—and thus love him better!—you can read more in What Is God?, just out from Catholic Answers Press. Buy it now at our shop.