Autumn 2015‎ > ‎

4. The Rose (and God) is Without ‘Why’

Joshua Harris came to ICS from Trinity Western University and admits to being a little uncertain about pursuing a PhD at such a small and relatively unknown institution. However, a few years in, he says, “ICS has proven to be nothing less than a godsend for me—academically, personally and (most notably) spiritually.”

by Joshua Harris

It is often suggested that classical arguments for the existence of God present a sort of hollowed-out conception of the divine—one that is better suited to close down the mystery of God than to exalt it. Merold Westphal puts the matter succinctly in his important book Overcoming Onto-Theology, arguing that the God of such arguments often serves as a drug for “those [who] have sold their soul to philosophy’s project of rendering the whole of reality intelligible to human understanding.” These are harsh words, indeed, for traditional theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, who offers his (in)famous “five ways” in order to demonstrate the existence of God in Summa Theologiae, 1.2.3.

While acknowledging that the God of such arguments has indeed been employed this way in the past, I propose an alternative, poetic interpretation of Thomas’ “second way”—one that is curiously similar to Angelus Silesius’ profound poem, “Die Rose ist ohne Warum” (The rose is without ‘why’). In other words, there is a sense in which Thomas’ argument means precisely the opposite of what the overzealous theologians Westphal criticizes would have us believe. Indeed, for a technological world that is characterized first and foremost by its insatiable desire for the Warum, the God of Thomas’ second way is precisely who he is because he is ohne Warum.

Aquinas’ “first” cause is nothing other than the perduring,
nameless mystery which suffuses the existence of all things

The crucial point of contention here is the meaning of Thomas’ notion of the causa efficiens prima or “first efficient cause.” While it is tempting to render this divine name as “first” in the sense that it precedes every other member of a temporal or numerical series, this is not what Thomas means. On the contrary, it is crucial to recognize that Aquinas’ “first” cause is nothing other than the perduring, nameless mystery which suffuses the existence of all things—including temporal or numerical series themselves. On this latter interpretation, Thomas’ causa efficiens prima is a way of getting at the “why-less-ness” of Silesius’ rose. Far from being something like the “first domino” or “whatever got this whole mess started,” Thomas’ first cause is a name for the mysterious thatness which is simultaneously the most intimate companion of—and the strangest foreigner to—the many investigations we hapless creatures conduct here below.

Now of course it is true that Thomas’ argument is ultimately designed to bring us to “affirm” or “say yes to” the proposition, “God exists.” For these purposes, though, I think it is fair to say that such arguments are more instructive when read for the more humble task of orienting us towards the full mystery to which this contentious (but true!) proposition ultimately refers. This is what Thomas’ argument and Silesius’ poem help us to do when considered together.