What Reason Must Know

Some years ago, a Baptist friend of mine insisted: “There can be no empirical proof of the existence of God.”  He proposed, as if it went without saying, that the totality of Christian doctrine was founded, and founded exclusively, on the faith that is a gift of the Spirit.

In that view, the world was an unintelligible flux of matter and motion disclosing nothing to us but its own proceedings. Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker had good reason to describe the world the way they do, for only by the gift of faith could we discern anything more.  To those attentive to the raw facts and those alone, nothing that falls within the realm of Christian truth can be discerned.

I do not think I had ever heard the matter painted so starkly before, at least not by a Christian.  It seemed a rather unhistorical claim not to mention an unorthodox one.

Unhistorical, because the world in which Judaism and Christianity appeared saw the spiritual or the intellectual governing the order of things. And that was the first and most obvious deliverance of reason.  The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales wrote: “All things are full of gods” – a basic assumption of the culture. The very movement of material things testified to the divine governance of them and the presence of spirit within them.

Socrates proposed that this divine governance was ultimately seated in the transcendent, overflowing light of the intellectual Good. That was initially met with accusations of atheism.  It seemed an irreverent disenchantment to his contemporaries that there was just one divine source of the splendid plenitude before our eyes.

Socrates was not aiming to disenchant the world, however, but merely to show that it all held together as one good order, a cosmos.  And later generations approved his aim.  By the dawn of Christianity, the Roman religions may have been promiscuously polytheistic, but Roman philosophical convictions had converged with those of the wider world. The truth was one and divine; it causes, gives form and order, and so governs, all that is.

The materialism of the Stoics and Epicureans during this period was merely an exaggerated form of this long, reflective, rational absorption of many gods into the one, ruling father god.  The Stoics clarified the idea of the logos as specifically the divine intellect ordering all of nature.

When Christians began to proclaim the Gospel, apologists insisted that the faith in and love of Our Lord included much that the pagan philosophers knew by reason.

The pagans doubted that, but only because the Christian idea of creation ex nihilo and the explanation for it – God is Love Itself, whose goodness desires to give itself away and to invite other beings to share in its Being – seemed to them, at first, to replace the coherent intellectualism of the logos with the arbitrary voluntarism of eros. Christians would eventually show that logos and eros are one.

To deny that we can come to a limited but substantive knowledge of God by reason alone would have struck the ancient world as not only impious but imbecilic.


Saint Paul used this point to convict unbelievers who refused to receive the fullness of the Gospel as a completion of their own rational knowledge. (Cf., Romans 1:20-21)  The First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution, Dei Filius, follows Saint Paul in affirming that, “God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason from created things.”  For Catholics, it is an article of faith that God can be known by reason.

But how does this operate?  What is the object of intelligibility that reason encounters enabling it to rise up from things to the Creator of all things?

Dei Filius suggests one answer.  The “external proofs” of miracles and prophecies convince the reason of divine truths.  But they cannot constitute a comprehensive answer; these things work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit and are not subject to our thinking the way rational propositions are.

The eighteenth-century theologian William Paley appealed to particular elements in nature that clearly indicated the intervention of a divine designer.  The eye was his classic example.  How could such a thing occur by chance? Recent advocates of intelligent design have asked the same question.

But isolated features within nature will always be insufficient to convince us of nature’s dependence on, and evidence for, God.  Aristotle saw as much.  Any one particular formation, however impressive, could be ascribed to “chance.” But consider, he instructs us, what it means to speak of “chance.”  We can only attribute something to chance if it stands out from a broader context of intentional and orderly activity.

The elements that compose the world mostly operate in a regular, intentional fashion that we can perceive and describe in terms of causes.  Within that complexity, however, causes sometimes converge in an odd way and something unintended happens.  This, everyone calls chance.

It would be meaningless to call the world as a whole “chance” or “accidental,” precisely because the orderliness of things in general is our basis for calling something “chance” in particular.  It is not this particular miracle, or that particular, ingenious thing that allows the reason to proceed from Creation to Creator.  It is, rather, that the whole of reality is intelligible; that is, it gives itself up to be known and be known in abundance.

The Creation can be described by mathematics and other laws. And each thing we encounter offers itself, in itself and in terms of its own being, as a kind of intellectual gift.  Things are “objects,” they ob-ject, they throw themselves at us, asking to be known, in an overwhelming profusion.

This is what Aristotle meant when he said the world was full of wonders.  Things exist and, in virtue of their very existence, they give themselves to be known. We human beings, finding them wonderful in themselves, begin to wonder about them.

It is this marriage of knowable and knower, so self-evidently flush with intelligence, that proves to us that the intelligible world is only because the creative divine intelligence first gave it to be known.  This conviction of the reason cannot help but see in the greatest mystery of our faith – Christ, the Logos, in his reckless abandon of self-giving on the Cross – a fundamental expression, deepening, and completion of what the world continuously reveals to reason.


*Image: The School of Athens by Raphael, c. 1510 [Apostolic Palace, the Vatican]

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.