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Contrary to conventional wisdom, this age’s crisis is not one of faith. If anything, there is plenty of faith around, in both good and bad things. What we lack is that which since the Middle Ages has been seen as a complement to faith: reason…

Thoughtful Theism: Redeeming Reason in an Irrational Age by Fr. Andrew Younan (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017)

There isn’t any world distinct from the objects which form it, any more than the human race is something apart from the members. Therefore, I should say, since objects or events exist, and since no object of experience contains within itself the reason of its existence, this reason, the totality of objects, must have a reason external to itself. And that reason must be an existent being.[1]

People who say that an ideal is a dangerous thing, that it deludes and intoxicates, are perfectly right. But the ideal that intoxicates most is the least idealistic kind of ideal. The ideal that intoxicates least is the very ideal ideal—that sobers us suddenly, as all heights and precipices and great distances do.[2]

In his 2017 book Thoughtful Theism: Redeeming Reason in an Irrational Age, Fr. Andrew Younan, a Chaldean Catholic priest who teaches philosophy, logic, and Biblical Hebrew at John Paul the Great Catholic University, brings up an interesting dilemma in light of the vigorously mutable times of the present day.[3] Contrary perhaps to some more secular perceptions and conventional wisdom, this age’s crisis is not one of faith. Rather, it is a crisis involving something which, since the Middle Ages, has been seen as a complement to faith: “I don’t think the world is having a crisis of faith,” Fr. Younan writes. “If anything, there is plenty of faith around, in both good and bad things. In some ways, there is too much faith, and too little reason.”[4]

What is unique to this observation is that of the phenomenon’s extending beyond faith and world religions, permeating instead into pronouncedly more secular spheres—spheres once thought to be untouched by the guiding hands of faith. Throughout the text, Fr. Younan takes to task the many and varied voices emanating from the New Atheism movement, engaging honestly and fully with these voices and yet endeavoring to point out where these at times possess greater audibility than substantive volume. His main approach in dealing with these consists of presenting several time-tested proofs for the existence of a supreme, divine being. Since reason is where the crisis of the current day and age uncomfortably rests, Fr. Younan scrupulously tasks the reader with focusing his or her rational acumen, as well as keeping to rigorous standards of argument, which he claims are more or less flagging of late.

Keeping to the theme of the beneficial relationship between faith and reason, Fr. Younan enlists the arguments of none other than St. Thomas Aquinas. This is not done because they are the only ones whose presentation is worthy, but because of their enduring clarity. Yet, Fr. Younan is clear on some fine points regarding them. “This does not, of course make them easy to understand,” he writes. “On the contrary, because they are difficult, they are often dismissed…. Of course, saying a proof doesn’t work or has been disproven isn’t the same as disproving it.[5]” In a fashion which mirrors the meticulous writings of the Angelic Doctor, Fr. Younan here is specific regarding the means utilized throughout these proofs: “While clarifying terms is important in philosophical debates, as I noted earlier, it’s backwards to begin with a definition of an idea and then go figure out the arguments that will prove your point.”[6] Instead of this backward approach, he points out what indeed can be achieved from this inquiry. “Perhaps the better way to describe what we’re doing is that these arguments discover God, and once discovered he can then be described.”[7] Thus, in place of beginning with definitions, Fr. Younan stresses following Aquinas and enabling the reason inherent in definitions to further an understanding of what is meant when the priest, to himself, says God.

It is with the first argument of Aquinas that Fr. Younan’s attention to detail stands out as not merely clarifying, but illuminating as well, of what the saint pointed to in his writings. As most students of medieval philosophy would have read, this argument, or “way,” is usually referred to as the argument derived from motion. “Thomas begins: ‘The first and most manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion.’”[8]

Here, Fr. Younan specifies that this argument being the most manifest way does not necessarily mean it is one which is able to be perceived without much difficulty. Instead, it is born out of the human ability to, through the senses, apprehend change. This, being a rather uncomplicated observation, leads to the very perception of God by Aquinas, one of a most foundational nature. Fr. Younan writes: “This is not a distant God who shoves a miracle through the cracks once in a while when prayers are shouted loudly enough; this is a God who is at the root of every movement and change in the universe.”[9]

In keeping with the concept of “discovering” God through the reasoning of Aquinas, there are then more things to consider. After all, the Angelic Doctor stressed that those things that are in motion did not themselves start this path, but were rather put in motion by another. This was because “nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing move inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.”[10] Fr. Younan recognizes here the Aristotelian and Thomist language in use and endeavors quickly to make clear what may be missed in the account. “Potentiality just means ‘it could be but isn’t yet’ and actuality means ‘it is right now.’ So a thing can only move or change when it is able to, and hasn’t yet. If my hand is on the desk, it is in potentiality to be raised.”[11] Implicit here, and integral, is the thought that if something does indeed move, it stands as part of a series or, “chain of movers-that there must be something ‘before’ it that moves it.”[12] Fr. Younan points out this is not merely philosophical, but also fundamental to the realm of science as an observable fact. Even one of the New Atheists with whom Fr. Younan engages with in the book attests to this basic fact. Lawrence Krauss, himself a professor of physics at Arizona State University, says something quite similar: “If you are at rest with respect to some charged particle, and you observe it to move, you know it must have experienced a force, because things do not suddenly start moving without a force having acted on them.”[13]

This finding from a professor of physics was echoed long ago by St. Thomas. Again, from his first argument, “nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality…. It is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects.”[14] A piece of wood, according to Aquinas, is potentially hot, only made so by something already hot such as fire. It is fire that leads a piece of wood to being a torch. Now, what is already hot—fire—cannot at the same time be potentially hot, such as the aforementioned piece of wood. Hence, potentiality must be moved, and is separate from the mover, or actuality. “It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another.”[15]

Fr. Younan briefly takes the time to answer a question that quite possibly could be asked at this moment from the back row of a philosophy classroom. There are obviously observable creatures that exercise self-locomotion and thus can be thought of moving themselves. “Incidentally, if you’re wondering about whether, for example, an animal can ‘move itself’ by walking, Aristotle (and Aquinas following him) would answer that one part moves another (one leg moves another) but no part moves itself.”[16]

It is precisely at this point in the book that Fr. Younan both clarifies and illumines a crucially important point regarding movers and those that are moved. “There are two ways to imagine this. The first is to rank these moving things as coming before one another in time.”[17] In this particular case, one could envision a chronologically reverse series of movements from the point of a lit piece of wood, being ignited by a lighter, which had been brought to a campsite, with the intention of cooking treats for the family on vacation. As this could be readily envisioned, it was not precisely what Aquinas meant. “Aquinas isn’t talking about one mover coming after another in time, but in nature. That is, one thing is moving another, which is moving another, all at once.”[18] This is one of the more challenging, though important aspects of the first proof according to Fr. Younan. “The wood is ignited by the lighter, which is at that moment held by the camper’s hand, which at that moment is being moved by the camper’s arm, which is controlled by his nervous system.”[19] The series of movements are not per se moving in segregated periods of time, with each movement appearing almost independent from what came before and after. Rather, the series of movements have greater cohesiveness in their simultaneity, when mover is moved by another as it moves something else.

It is possible to see this simultaneous chain of movement as going on infinitely. Yet, Fr. Younan reminds the reader of Aquinas and the latter’s insistence that this cannot go on backward ad infinitum. This is because if the series did indeed go backward infinitely, “there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover.”[20] Fr. Younan attests to the clean and inescapable logic herein. “The reasoning is difficult but airtight; if the chain of movers goes ‘back’ limitlessly, (remember, not in time, but at this moment), then there is no first one.”[21] Having no first mover would then mean there would not be a second, third, or fourth, all subsequent movements simultaneously. If there are no subsequent movements, then the piece of wood that becomes the torch never ignites. “But the fact is, the fire does ignite, as our senses testify.”[22] In a manner, as in the remaining proofs from Aquinas, the very existence of something, the torch on fire, or anything else, presupposes that first mover.

Fr. Younan ultimately points now to what may be discovered via the avenue of human reason. “Conclusion: There must be something that moves other things without itself moving/changes other things without itself changing.”[23] This first mover both St. Thomas and Fr. Younan would call “God.” “It might be abstract or difficult to think of things on this scale, but no step in the logic is flawed, and no part of the proof is disconnected from reality or from basic reasoning.”[24] He stresses that numerical concepts such as first and second are concepts of the most basic clarity to human minds. Likewise, motion is something readily perceptible by human senses. Essentially, these are all of what is needed for the first proof to work. The only possible way of escaping Aquinas’ vaunted logic is simple. “In order to escape it, one must deny either the validity of the senses or of the mind.”[25] Going back to the original crisis pointed out by Fr. Younan, a denial of the first proof would not mean one has found something else more rational. Instead, it would require rejecting reason, either as an act of the will, or perhaps as an act of faith in a faith system itself bereft of reason. A crisis indeed.

Fr. Younan’s book is a clarion call to those seeking more honest and rigorous intellectual engagement in a time when, and within a culture where, sentimentality and volition take upon themselves the appearance of reasoned thought. This review focuses on his thorough and commendable elucidation of one of five avenues paved with reason by Aquinas—avenues which lead the reader to a most important juncture. Fr. Younan likewise does similarly stellar work with the ensuing four proofs, and, rather comprehensibly, jousts with the New Atheists on topics such as the Big Bang, evolution, and morality. Each of these is worth the price of admission. His work speaks of the role of teachers as C.S. Lewis would have put it: not of cutting down jungles, but rather of irrigating deserts.

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Notes:

[1] “Fr. Copleston vs. Bertrand Russell: The Famous 1948 BBC Radio Debate on the Existence of God” (Bible Catholic).

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007), 133.

[3] Fr. Andrew Younan, Thoughtful Theism, (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017).

[4] Younan, Thoughful Theism, 194.

[5] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 23.

[6] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 26.

[7] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 26.

[8] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 26.

[9] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 27.

[10] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 27.

[11] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 27.

[12] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 27.

[13] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 28.

[14] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 28.

[15] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 28.

[16] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 28.

[17] Younan, Thoughful Theism, 28.

[18] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 29.

[19] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 29.

[20] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 29-30.

[21] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 30.

[22] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 30.

[23] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 31.

[24] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 31.

[25] Younan, Thoughtful Theism, 31-32.

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