Patrick struggled with faith — he wanted proof of God’s existence that lived in his guts, not just in his head. On a New Year’s backpacking trip in Texas, on the top of a mountain and under a dome of stars, he felt God reaching for him. Looking back, he can see how his searching — and a famous set of rational arguments — opened a door to this encounter.
My friends and I had a tradition of spending the first few days of each new year backpacking somewhere remote. The High Chisos of Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas was our destination one year. It took us a day and a half to drive there from Atlanta, and the last eight hours of the drive was cold desert: desolate, empty, monotonous.
The dull rumbling of that desert highway resonated with my own flat weariness. We turned south from Marathon, and the flat dusty profile of the desert began to change. On the horizon, the High Chisos slowly began to rise, somehow breaking the desolation of that west Texas highway. Within a few hours, I would be on the south rim of the Chisos, looking out over the Rio Grande and northern Mexico, contemplating an experience that would change my life.
I had been struggling with faith since middle school. The reasons are too many to list here, but suffice it to say, sickness, loss, and an overall feeling of desolation clouded my teenage years and my early 20s. That road across the Texas desert seemed a perfect metaphor for my own faith struggle. Despite 13 years of Catholic education and caring and devout parents, I still felt out of place when it came to God. I found it hard to believe God even existed.
I was haunted by a longing for something more, which is a common human experience. Despite what answers we land on, the very fact that we ask these kinds of ultimate questions — What is love? Where is God? What is my purpose? — means that, on some level, we are searching for someone or something out there, beyond us. We have an innate sense that we can find meaning, that we belong, that our lives make sense. We don’t want to accept the desolation of feeling like our lives are an empty desert.
When I was in high school, we studied a list of “proofs” for the existence of God from St. Thomas Aquinas. When I first encountered the Aquinas’ five ways to know God, I wasn’t affected. A proof, to me, had to be substantial, physical evidence — not the philosophical or rational arguments that Aquinas offered. I wanted proof that I felt in my guts, and wasn’t just in my head. But looking back, I can see that they opened a door for me to expand my search.
Most modern thinkers believe Aquinas’ ways are limited in their ability to “prove” God’s existence, at least in terms of how we define proof in our modern age. Aquinas wrote these ways 700 years ago to an audience quite different from our own, so I think the best way to approach these arguments is to get to the root of what he is trying to tell us about God and creation. Simply put: Aquinas is arguing that we can observe the created world and find evidence of a divine being who exists beyond time and space and creates the universe for us.
If — and this is an important “if” — we combine this evidence with an open heart that desires to encounter God, then Aquinas’ arguments are great tools in our search.
Here is the fundamental outline for how Aquinas’ five arguments play out:
- Argument from motion: Everything is in motion relative to something else. We can see this in the world around us. But what put the first thing in motion?
- Argument from causation: Everything in the observable world is caused by something else, but what about the first thing? What caused that?
- Argument from necessary being: Everything comes and goes in this universe. There was a time when everything did not exist. But nothing can come from nothing, so what was there at the beginning?
- Argument from gradation: There are levels or grades of goodness in the world — good, better, best. This suggests that there is a perfect goodness. Is that God?
- Argument from design: Everything in the natural world appears to have a purpose or some form of design to it. The natural world does not seem to need any sort of “manual control” in order for it to work. Does this suggest a designer?
Now, there are all sorts of potential problems with these arguments if we think of them as incontrovertible proofs. But they are effective questions to contemplate when we are deep in the desert, feeling alone and anxious for purpose or meaning. These five ways are opportunities to open our minds and our hearts so we become receptive to the fact that God might be reaching out to us. I know, because I felt God reaching for me on the south rim of the High Chisos in Big Bend National Park.
On that clear, January late afternoon, my friends and I made our dinner half a mile above the rocky desert that separated us from Mexico to the south. The immensity and perfection of the brown and green hills meandering between mesas to the great river 12 miles away is unparalleled in all my excursions.
Sitting there that evening, I was not thinking about finding proof of God’s existence — but being in the presence of such beauty and transcendence opened my heart to something more. In my smallness, I felt large, and in my desolation, I felt found. Chisos, I’m told, is a Native American word meaning “spirit” — I certainly encountered a powerful, invisible, personal force reaching for me on that mountain.
It took a while, but I later understood that the desert, the dusty highway, and my fitful faith struggles led me to that place. Up there, I was part of the motion, causation, being, gradation, and design that Aquinas described. The value I felt there planted in me some sort of belovedness or purpose that I can’t prove or measure, but that has become a foundational reality for my life.
With his five arguments, I think Aquinas wanted to give us some way to speak about our encounters with God — not necessarily before we set out to find Him or to prove His existence, but instead, to reveal to us that He is with us throughout our entire journey to find Him.
Creation is God’s first revelation to us, a way for us to encounter Him and for Him to encounter us. He gives us a heart and a head by which we can contemplate and experience that beautiful form of revelation — and (if we are humble enough) deepen our relationship with Him.