Some time ago, when the hubbub of the New Atheists commenced, philosopher of religion Brian Davies wrote a column that was subtitled, presumably by The Times where it appeared, “Aquinas proves atheists are closer to God than they think.” Davies’ piece was not an exercise in woolly thinking, calculated to cast the net of inclusivity as wide as possible by purporting to dissolve the hard distinction between affirming God’s existence and denying it. His point was to ask what kind of God our atheist friends deny the existence of and to ask whether that is the God whose existence someone such as St. Thomas Aquinas affirms.
We might ask the same question. Atheists sometimes think of God as a being who exists alongside other beings in the universe. In this view, God may be thought of as the biggest and the best being in the universe, but he is still a being like the rest of us, an interesting feature of all that happens to be.
A Being outside All Others
If that is what you mean by God, argues Davies, then Thomas would agree that such a God does not exist. God, Davies quotes Thomas as saying, “is to be thought of as existing outside the realm of existents, as a cause from which pours forth everything that exists in all its variant forms.” In other words, there is no such being as the God who is thought to exist as just one more thing along side a can of beans or the planet Jupiter.
A complicating factor is the word exists. We think we understand perfectly what that word means because everything we see around us can be described by using that word. The device on which you are reading this article exists, as does the roof over your head and the sky above. Likewise, you exist. It seems such a straightforward thing to say. And of course in some ways it is, when we’re talking about everyday things. Yet things become complicated—for us limited beings—when we take that little word exists and apply it to God.
It may seem obvious to say that a Christian or even a generic theist is someone who says, “God exists,” and an atheist is someone who says, “God does not exist.” However, the traditional Christian (even the mere theist) wants to say more things about God, things that affect the use of the word exist as applied to God. Here is where Thomas comes in. When he says, “God exists,” he doesn’t mean by exist exactly the same thing that he means when he says, “Rome exists” or “Jupiter exists” or even, “I exist.”
There are, says Thomas, things that receive their existence, that are dependent for their existence. I exist because my parents existed; I received my existence from them. That mountain exists because the earth exists and certain geological principles exist that go into the formation of mountains. And so on.
Not everything, argues Thomas, can be a receiver of existence. Something (or Someone) must exist in its (his) own right, and not because of something else. Otherwise, there would be no existence to be passed on by all the various receivers of existence we encounter in the world around us. That something which (or Someone who) exists in its (his) own right and not as dependent on another is God. He, says Thomas, simply is, with the fullness of all that the word “is” can contain. This is why God is called “the Supreme Being.” Lesser beings are dependent for their existence on others. Not so God.
I have just summarized one of Thomas’s arguments for God’s existence. Whatever you make of it, my point here is to focus on the kind of existence that Thomas says God has, not on Thomas’s argument for God’s existence. God’s kind of existence is uncaused and independent. That is why Thomas can say that God “is to be thought of as existing outside the realm of existents” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Peri Hermeneias, 1.14). That does not mean it is right to say, “There is no God.” If we use the word existent to refer to beings that get their existence or are dependent for it on another or others, then it is right to say that God is “outside the realm of existents.” Indeed, God, in this view, would be the cause of existence, the reason there is something rather than nothing. Yes, there is a perfectly good sense in which we must speak of God as “existing,” but, as Thomas would quickly add, God’s existence is radically different from the existence of everything else.
Only God Truly Exists
Davies says we can look at the same truth from a different angle. If we want to use the word exists for God’s kind of existence, then everything that is not God can be said to exist only in a qualified way. The atheist, in such a scenario, is as wrong as he can be. For he says that God does not exist, but if we use the word exist in the fullest possible sense of the word, then only God exists. Other beings can be said to have existence—they get their existence from something else. Only God fully exists, only God is existence; that is, only God exists by nature. Only God is not dependent on anything or anyone else for his existence. He simply is.
So if we want to talk about God using the word exists in the way we use it of everything else, the daily objects of our experience, then we can say, “God does not exist.” That is, he does not exist as dependent, as receiving his existence from somewhere else, the way everything else does. If we want to take God’s way of existing—uncaused, independent, not received—as full existence, then we must say that nothing but God exists, because everything else is caused, has existence as dependent, and received, etc.
The atheist would be on to something when he says, “God does not exist” if he meant by “exist” that God is a being or object like all the beings and objects of our immediate experience in the universe. That God does not exist. But the atheist is utterly off the mark when he means that God does not exist in any way whatsoever. It is the atheist’s existence (and everybody else’s) that comes in to question if we use the word exist in its divine, deepest sense.