Taken From the Question Box

New Edition


By Rev. Bertrand L. Conway of  the Paulist Fathers




Can you prove the existence of God from reason alone? If so, why do so many people persist in denying it? Why do Catholics believe in a Personal God? Do you not fashion God after your own image? Is not your idea of God a mere abstraction? Is not God identical with the universe?

    The Catholic idea of the essence and know ability of God is thus set forth by the Vatican Council: "The Catholic Church believes that there is one true and living God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, Almighty, Eternal, Immense, Incomprehensible, Infinite in intellect and will and in all perfection; who, being One, Individual, altogether simple and unchangeable Substance, must be asserted to be really and essentially distinct from the world, most happy in Himself, and ineffably exalted above everything that exists or can be conceived." Holy Mother Church does hold and teach that God, the Beginning and End of all things, can certainly be known from created things by the natural light of reason; "for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made" Rom. xi. 20)

    Our idea of God is acquired spontaneously at the very dawn of reason. Our certainty of His existence is not necessarily the result of scientific reasoning. But the mind of man, as we are assured by Wisdom (xiii.) and by St. Paul (Rom. i) , naturally rises from nature to nature’s Origin and Source; from things caused an contingent to a First Necessary Cause, on which all things depend. The universe points clearly to a One, True and Living God, from whom all existence comes, and without whom life and all its development would be impossible.

    Man feels instinctively that he is dependent and limited in his thought and activity; he feels within himself needs and necessities which call imperatively for complete satisfaction. Only a Supreme Being, All- Powerful and All-Loving, can satisfy the aspirations and longings of his inmost soul.

    The many proofs that Christian thinkers offer for the existence of God merely deepen and confirm the solid conviction of His Personality already abiding in our hearts. They are cumulative in force, and must be studied as a whole, if we are to realize perfectly their full value. They reveal God to us as the First Cause, the Necessary Being, the Prime Mover, the One and Perfect Being, the Designer and Orderer of the universe, the Origin of Life, the Supreme Lawgiver, and the Ultimate Good. Space forbids our developing these proofs in detail; they may be studied in the pages of any manual of natural theology (Boedder, Natural Theology ; Joyce, The Principles of Natural Theology).

    I think it good, however, to outline in the briefest manner possible the two argument which to my mind, make the most persuasive appeal to the man in the street—the argument from design and the argument from conscience.

    The argument from design may be thus stated. The adaptation of means to ends is an evident proof of an intelligent cause. It is clear that nature affords us thousands of instances of such adaptation. Nature, therefore, is the result of a Intelligent Cause, God. Our minds cannot help recognizing purpose and finality in nature’s operation. Mere chance, for example, cannot account for the complex arrangement of the countless parts that combine to form the retina of the human eye, or for the marvelous make-up of a bird’s wing (Joyce, The Principles of Natural Theology, 125).

    Not only is order everywhere present in nature, but beauty meets us on every side, whether in the sky, upon the earth, or in the ocean’s depths. We observe it in the gorgeous coloring of the sunset and in the bright plumage of the humming bird; in the daintiness of the tiniest fern and in the massive strength of the giant redwood of the California forests; in the grace of the fleet-footed antelope and in the litheness of the tiger of the Indian jungle; in the creations of man’s imagination—in the inspired lyric, in the ordered symphony, and in the world’s masterpieces of painting and sculpture.

    Nowhere is this purposive finality so striking as in man, who possesses characteristics in common with all the lower forms of nature, inanimate, vegetable and animal. Distinct from them, however, he lives a rational life, his intellect ever asking the why and the wherefore of things. He recognizes the laws and principles that govern his intellectual and moral judgments; he sees that they are not arbitrary and purposeless, but ordered and ruled fro definite and established ends.

    Do no this order and beauty, everywhere manifest in this universe of ours point, as the needle to the pole, to the Divine Intelligence, the Divine Beauty, the Divine Designer of all things —God?

    As the proof from design brings out clearly the Intelligence of God, so the proof from conscience brings out clearly His Holiness. What is conscience? It is the human mind, making a practical judgment upon the morality of our every thought word and deed. It commands us with decision: " This is right; do it. This is wrong; avoid it." And we feel at once an imperative call upon our obedience. Here we are dealing, not with an abstract idea, which the modern mind usually fights shy of, but with a simple, concrete fact, which everyone experiences day by day. There exists within us a strange, mysterious power which is constantly comparing all our actions with an absolute standard of right and wrong, and condemning them without appeal, when they go counter to its ordering. Conscience speaks of a necessary duty that we owe. It brings us face to face with and obligatory law, whose commands are authoritative, and whose dictates are final and unquestioned.

    Law implies a lawgiver. A command always implies a superior who issues that command. Who can this Final, Absolute, Supreme Authority be, save God, the Original Source of all morality, the One Perfect Arbiter of right and wrong? Conscience is merely His voice.

    Cardinal Newman puts the argument from conscience well He writes: "Conscience always involves the recognition of a living object towards which it is directed. Inanimate things cannot stir our affections; these are correlative with persons. If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which over-whelms us on hurting a mother; if, in doing right, we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing, satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some Person to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for who we yearn, towards whom se direct our pleadings, in us are such as require for their exciting cause an Intelligent Being. Thus the phenomena of conscience avail to impress the imagination with a picture of Supreme Governor, a Judge Holy, Just Powerful, All-Seeing Retributive" (Grammar of Assent, 109).

    If you ask me why some men still persist in denying the existence of God, despite the clear testimony of reason and the general consent of all peoples from the beginning go the world the answer is not far to seek. Just as the human will can freely and deliberately sin against the light and do the most abominable things, so the human mind can defiantly and illogically deny the most self-evident truths. The Psalmist is right in calling the atheist a "fool" (Ps. lii. 1). St. Paul is right in declaring him "inexcusable" (Rom. i 20). Personal sin too often blinds man’s vision of the unseen world of the spirit. "The sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God, for it is foolishness to him, and he cannot understand, because it is spiritually examined" (1 Cor. ii. 14).

    We know to a certainty that God exists, and we know positively what He is—but only in a very dim and inadequate way ( 1 Cor. xiii. 12). The agnostic is most illogical when he admits the existence of a First Cause behind created things, and then dismisses God as utterly unknowable, merely because he cannot dismisses God as utterly unknowable, merely because he cannot picture the Infinite and the Self- Existent in his imagination. We do know God in and through His works, and this is a true knowledge, however inadequate. The limited mind of man cannot hope to comprehend the Infinite God. He would cease to be God if he could. The Sacred Scriptures on page after page tell us of the utter incomprehensibility of God (Wisd. ix 13, 16; Rom. xi. 33,34).

    Catholic believe that God is the One Being, of whom we can say that He is and must be. God does not happen to exist like all things created; God Is necessarily and essentially. God gave His name to Moses in the burning bush as the " I AM WHO AM," that is, I am the One Being that really is. In no more perfect way can the Nature of God be brought home to the human mind.

    Many modern unbelievers confuse "being" viewed as universal term, with "Being," which we refer to God. The former word has the least content of any idea the human mind can form. It signifies merely that which is capable of existence. The latter word in reference to God implies the Fullness of All Reality, and the Infinite Unity of All Perfections. This is the Catholic answer to the charge that we make God a mere abstraction.

    It is also asserted that the Catholic idea of God makes Him a mere magnified man. When we and the Bible speak of God as seeing or hearing, or being pleased with just man and angry with sinner, everyone who thinks at all must recognize that we are speaking metaphorically. We do not worship a man made to our image and likeness—a god like the finite god of Mr. Wells, the English novelist.

    But you tell me: "All the terms you apply to God are drawn from the finite and limited things you know and experience. You must need then fashion God after your own image." Not at all. When we attribute to God the perfection we find in at all. When we attribute to God the perfections we find in creatures, we do not ascribe them to Him in an identical sense. If we did, God would indeed be nothing but a magnified man. On the contrary, we attribute the pure perfections of creatures,—such as goodness, truth and beauty—to God only by analogy. A comparison will illustrate our meaning. We may, for instance, compare the portrait of the President of the United States with the living man himself, saying of both portrait and person in different senses: "This is Herbert Hoover." In like manner, we assert in totally different sense: "Man is good; God is good." More accurately perhaps, we should say, God is Goodness; God is Truth; for He possesses these perfections in the most eminent degree. This analogical proportion of existence between creatures and God is the very essence of the know ability of God. It is the only possible way in which the Infinite can be accurately studied and known.

    We must not forget that in God all His attributes are identical with His Divine Essence; that every one of them, as we conceive them, implies all the others. Truth, Wisdom, Justice, Omnipotence, Omnipresence, is the Divine Nature of God, viewed—because of our limited faculty of knowledge—under a special aspect. We are forced from the very make-up of our minds to consider separately and piecemeal what in God is Infinite Unity of Essence.

    The God we worship, therefore, is not an abstraction, nor a magnified man. He is a Personal God, the Creator and Conserver of all that exists, Eternal and Unchangeable in His Almighty Intelligence and Will, Just, Merciful, Holy.

    It is certainly a most comforting and consoling thought that God, supremely happy in Himself, lovingly created the heavens and earth for His own honor and glory and for our eternal well-being. The fact of creation makes religion possible. I am not my own but God’s for He keeps me from the abyss of nothingness by the exercise of His perpetual, all-abiding care.

    Creation emphasizes the complete distinction between God and the matter and force of the universe. He is not a part of things. He is in no way identified with things. His relation to them is not a sum in addition, as we might add the number of soldiers in a regiment, or enumerate the specimens in a botanical museum. God is the Absolute and Transcendent Being, utterly over and above all possible modes of the finite creation, but at the same time Immanent in the universe which He has made out of its original nothingness. "In Him we live and move and are" (Acts xvii. 28). His Presence, His Power, His Activity are at all times and in all places necessary, not only to sustain finite thing in being, but also to make their every activity possible. A Creator who is not at the same time a Conserver is unthinkable.

    Creation tells us of a Divine Person, who loves us with an infinite love and craves for out love. The First Cause must be a Personal God, for an impersonal First Cause is self-contradictory. The highest thing on earth we know is human personality—intelligence, volition and self-consciousness. The First Cause, as the Creator of human personality, must have Intelligence, Volition and Self Consciousness, for It could not give what It does not possess. All finite things exist in God as in their Source, and since the Source of all things is Infinite, the dive Intelligence and Will are in God without the limitations under which they exist in creatures.

    Because God is our Beginning, He must needs be our Lord with a right to command us; because He is our Beginning, He must needs be our End, the final goal of our striving. Therefore St. John rightly defines religion : " I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End" (Apoc. i. 8).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Belond, dieu; Boedder, Natural Thelogy; Brosnan, God and Reason; God Infinite and Reason; Chetwood, God and Creation; Clarke, The Existence of God; Conway, Is There a God?; Cuthbert (ed.), God and the Supernatural; Delloue, Solution of the Great Problem; Driscoll, God; Garrigou-Lagrange, Dieu: Son Existence; Gerard, Agnosticism; The World and Its Maker; Hettinger, Natural Religion; Joyce, The Principles of Natural Theology; Labauche, God and Man; Matthews, Pantheism; Miller, God the Creator; Piat, De la Croyance en Dieu; Pohle, God and His Knowability; God the Author of Nature; Reys, God and His Attributes; Sheen, God and Intelligence; Religion Without God. A. Q. 1881. 92, 229, 643, 1891, 462; 1897, 278.—C. B. Jan., 1897; Jan., 1898.—C. W. xxix. 212; xxxi. 39, 257; ciii. 155, 289; lv. i.----D. T. iii. 2034-2201; iv. 756-1300.—R. A. April, May, 1928.


Permissu Superiorum: John B. Harney, C. S. P., Superior General

Nihil Obstat: Arthur J. Scanlan, S. T. D.,  Censor Librorum.

Imprimatur:  +Patrick Cardinal Hayes,  Archbishop, New York.  New York                                                  October 4, 1929.