How to Be an Atheist: An Unspeakable God

by | Jul 26, 2012 | Uncategorized

Letterbox by MrBG at Flickr

The 5th and Final Letter to a Young Atheist

Editor’s Note: prior letters to a young atheist can be found here: letter one, letter two, letter three and letter four.


Dear Timmy,

I delighted the other morning when you stopped me in the hall to say that you were puzzled by Aquinas’s minimalism when it came to the God of the Five Ways. You’re perfectly right in noting that Thomas says surprisingly little about God. Instead of describing this God, he simply seems to be saying that it is legitimate to hold that there is a God, that Deus est.

Your follow up questions were perfectly on the mark as well: “What about the Eucharist?  The Immaculate Conception and the Sacred Heart?” you asked. “What about the Incarnation?” I know we both had to run to our respective classes before I could give your questions a thoughtful response, but (having taken some time over the last few days) I’ve realized that none of these particulars matter if there isn’t a God in the first place. They might be worthwhile to think about as idle thought experiments but, unless there is a God, thinking about them seems about as useful as watching that Kardashian show everyone keeps talking about. Luckily, Aquinas realizes this, and he also knows that he needs to show that the word God is meaningful, that it actually points something, before he considers any specifics. The funny thing about God, though, is that what the word refers to is totally off the map of creation. As we’ve discussed, “God,” as both Aquinas and I are using it, does not refer to some thing, some ens; instead, it is the word that points to that by which there is something rather than nothing.

If you’re willing to come with me this far, to define the word “God” as referring to the reason that there is anything at all, then I feel compelled to point out that you are moving steadily away from atheism. Indeed, if we are on the same page, then you are close to a healthy agnosticism. Regardless of where your own beliefs stand at the moment, however, this kind of agnosticism meshes quite perfectly with the kind of humility St. Thomas had when speaking of God. Let’s look at Alfred Freddoso’s translation of the start of Question 3 of the Summa for example (again I’ve bolded the passages I think are more relevant for us):

Once we have ascertained that a given thing exists, we then have to inquire into its mode of being in order to come to know its real definition (quid est).  However, in the case of God we cannot know His real definition, but can know only what He is not; and so we are unable to examine God’s mode of being, but instead can examine only what His mode of being is not.

Generally, once I know that a drug has been slipped into my beverage and what that drug is, I can match the effect to the cause. So, too, can I match the murder victim to his murderer. As I said before, here we are matching an ens to an ens. In the case of God, though, we are not dealing with another ens, another being on our level. We are trying to use words forged in our day-to-day lives and apply them to the reason we have lives at all.

Do you remember how I gave Patrick a hard time in class for his language he used about his girlfriend? Bragging about her to Justin and Michael he said, “Dude, she is so hot!” Justin and Michael were, rightly, incredulous. “How hot?” they asked. “She’s smoking hot. And she’s so wonderful. I mean, I can’t even tell you how great she is,” Patrick replied. After we confronted his language, it seemed like Patrick was actually just smitten with his first love, and, like most of us, struggling to find words appropriate to his subject matter. What he wanted to say seemed to evade capture in his words.

Crumpled Map by kendura99 at Flickr

Discarded Map

Whenever we strain to put our feelings and thoughts and experiences into words we get a glimpse into the fragility of our language. If our words strain to talk about another ens occupying space on the map, how much more strain is put on language when we try to use our words to talk about the God who is off the map. Our words simply fail us when we attempt to apply them to God. The question, then, really becomes: does this mean that our fragile language can say nothing of God?  Well… not quite.  Aquinas defends our God-talk by appealing to analogy.

The failure of our fragile words to grasp wholly the meaning of God should not dismay us. Thomas thinks we can speak of God, even speak well of God, but that since God is not some ens we have no idea what we are talking about. This should encourage us, for once we realize that our words will always fail to say enough, we can move to a position of listening. Awed at the sheer existence of the world, standing in wonder at its gratuity and beauty, we may begin to listen to see if the Author has anything to say to us, if the Creator is attempting to solicit our friendship and draw us into some type of relationship. All of theology builds upon this position: the human being as an enabled listener who awaits, patiently, a word of revelation. Theology may reflect on the human person and what it means to be created, it may speculate upon the nature of God, but all such endeavors are futile and laughable if there is no God. In fact, should we ever come to agree that there is a God, then the topic of analogy is the next one I would suggest we take up. Given that I am helping you to be a rigorous atheist, however, it might be best to forestall such a discussion for the moment.

As I said at the beginning of our letters, I do think that the question of God’s existence is an answerable question. I think that the statement “There is a God” is either true or false. For I as a theist, just like you as an atheist, must be able to engage the same question, “Why anything at all?”

Timmy, I know I’ve pushed you on this, but I’ve only done because I feel so strongly that so much hangs on the outcome. If I may be so bold I would put the consequences this way: If Deus est, and if our words fail to express fully what God is because God is no thing, then you and I can together fall silent and listen for a word revealing the Author of all that was, is, and will be. Our response to this revelation – what theists like myself call faith – draws us into the life of the Author, making the action of the Creator our own action. To share the life of the Creator, to share the Creator’s activity, is to become a co-creator here and now.

It is the beauty of such co-creation, and how much I hope that you can experience it, that I always think of when I consider our class discussions, and especially these letters we’ve written back and forth. Imagine what type of world we would inhabit if we took seriously the creative activity of God… a world of ecological sensitivity, a world where we encouraged human flourishing, a world where creation rather than profit stood as the motive for all action.

That’s why all of this is so important to me, Tim.  I hope that you continue to engage the question of God’s existence with seriousness and maturity and hope – just like you have been.  It’s been a pleasure writing and thinking with you.

Blessings on your mind and heart, Tim.


Mr. Ryan Duns, SJ

AKA: Loquacious Listener