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In the Tangle of Our Minds: “Thoughtful Theism” by Fr. Andrew Younan

June 8, AD2017

There are any number of reasons to believe that a God exists. But actually proving that God exists is much harder. And once you prove that a God exists, you still have to connect said God to the God of Christianity. Philosophy is hard mental work; most of the bad ideas driving our culture today stem from bad philosophy characterized by sloppy thinking. You could even say that Fr. Andrew Younan wrote Thoughtful Theism: Redeeming Reason in an Irrational Age (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, $18.95) because he was sick of the mental laziness that permeates most arguments between believers and non-believers.

The First Two Chapters

Father Younan is a Chaldean Catholic priest who teaches philosophy and Biblical Hebrew at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California. But while the endorsements make something of his experience with youth, I can’t concede that Thoughtful Theism is pitched towards young millennials or Generation Z. Rather, the book is oriented towards ordinary Christians who have had little to no effective exposure to philosophy on the college level and who have never learned how to argue — a skill many if not most people lack.

This is hardly an irrelevant point. For instance: “The bulk of the work of philosophical thinking,” Fr. Younan reminds us, “… is in clarifying what exactly we mean by the terms we use, and the many philosophical mistakes come from misusing terms, or using a term in two or more different senses” (pp. 15-16). But many arguments begin (and continue ad nauseam) without either side bothering to agree on what they mean by crucial terms — indeed, without recognizing that either side could mean something different. Another problem in such debates is an implied time limit: if you don’t answer the argument right away, you lose, or so we’re supposed to assume.

For this reason, Fr. Younan spends the first chapter explaining the importance of taking plenty of time to thoroughly consider your beliefs and arguments. “Proving that God exists is not at all the same as proving that he … is omnipotent, or omniscient, or good, or even that there is one of him” (p. 7). He then uses the second chapter to dispose of arguments which obscure rather than settle the question of God’s existence. If you don’t address the best arguments against your position, Fr. Younan asserts, then it doesn’t matter how many bad arguments you destroy (cf. p. 19).

Fr. Younan Explains the Five Ways

Father Younan then devotes the whole of Chapter 3 — and it’s a long chapter — to explaining St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways”. The Five Ways are harder to understand than they first appear because St. Thomas uses certain terms in ways specific to Aristotelian philosophy, such as motion. Because they’re easily misunderstood, Fr. Younan walks us through the arguments, taking most of his time on the First Way to head off objections that can be repeated on the other Ways. Chapter 3 alone is worth the price of the book.

Many apologists, such as Dr. Peter Kreeft, consider St. Thomas’ Five Ways to be the most robust arguments for the existence of God in the theist’s tool belt. For his own part, Fr. Younan declares, “There have been many times in my life when my belief in God was strengthened and I became more and more confident that it was true that he existed, but nothing strengthened my belief in God as much as reading the books of the New Atheists. … When I saw for myself how deeply they misunderstood, for example, Aquinas’s proofs for God’s existence, or how weak their counter arguments were, any remaining doubt I may have had was destroyed” (p. 37).

That’s not to say that atheists consider the Five Ways to be 800-pound gorillas. “I’ve even noticed a tendency to just brush aside Thomas’s proofs as if they have been fatally disproven” (p. 23). However, an answer is not ipso facto a disproof … especially if your answer consists of straw-man fallacies and flip, offhand dismissals. “I’ve looked quite earnestly for someone who gives Aquinas a real refutation based on what he is really saying, and have found nothing. Let me know if you have better luck than I do. Honestly” (p. 44). In a sense, then, we don’t really know how sturdy the “Five Ways” are because they haven’t been effectively challenged.

The Big Bang, Evolution, and Evil

From St. Thomas’ Five Ways, Fr. Younan goes on to address the Big Bang, evolution, and the problem of evil. Here, the robustness of St. Thomas’ Five Ways pays some dividends. For one thing, the Five Ways put God right at the back of the natural processes of the universe. Put another way, they don’t require miracles and therefore don’t require a “god of the gaps”. For another, they’re impervious to the immensity and complexity of the cosmos; neither the potential number of universes nor the potential number of planets bearing intelligent life are relevant to the proofs.

But Fr. Younan doesn’t simply dismiss atheist arguments on such matters. In fact, he is at some pains to point out the major flaw in the best arguments concerning creation ex nihilo: naturalistic arguments can’t get something from nothing without fudging the meaning of nothing. As for evolution, Fr. Younan quotes an old Jesuit professor of biology who addressed the topic in his class: “The debate about evolution is not a debate between science and religion, and never has been. It is a debate between atheists and Protestants” (p. 102). He has more to say; suffice it for now that Fr. Younan sees no Christian need for “irreducible complexity”.

The problem of evil, however, calls for a different treatment, as it’s one of the two most robust challenges to St. Thomas’ Five Ways. But St. Thomas addresses the problem directly from the Fourth Way (the Argument from Goodness), citing St. Augustine (Summa Theologiae I, a. 2, q. 3, ad 1; cit. Enchiridion 11). Fr. Younan pulls no punches, reminding us that: 1) the God described by the Five Ways must necessarily be a God we can’t fully comprehend due to our own limitations; and 2) we obviously cannot and do not approach such a God as equals to Him.

Beyond Deism

I’ve said that Fr. Younan is not trying to prove the existence of the Christian God. However, having got us past the most robust challenges to the kind of God a deist could believe in, in his final chapter he challenges deism itself:

Deism isn’t an isolation of the God discoverable by reason; it’s a denial that this God could be anything more. That God began the world and works through natural forces is (to me, at least) clear beyond any doubt. But that he cannot interact differently with his creation, or does not, or has not, is an entirely different claim. In this case, deism requires the examination and falsification of every religion before it is reasonably proven. (p. 152)

With this postulate, Fr. Younan takes up many of the sweeping generalizations and bald assertions atheists have been making about religion ever since David Hume in the late 17th century: people become religious to address some emotional or psychological issue; religion causes cruelty, or war, or tyranny; you don’t need religion to be moral, and so on. Fr. Younan spends a good half the chapter on the intermix between religion and politics, and is just as apt to castigate the religious person as the irreligious:

Using either religion or irreligion as a shortcut to thought is both lazy and harmful to society. Espousing one political ideology because people call it “scientific” is as ignorant as espousing another one because people call it “Christian.” If either science or Christianity are [sic] worth a straw, there must be more to them than a political party. This is because political issues are, if nothing else, unbelievably complex, and such shortcuts only make a bigger mess of things. (p. 188)

Summary: Answering the Challenge

For all that Thoughtful Theism is explicitly written for the non-philosopher, it still requires a second reading at times. In the last chapter, for instance, Fr. Younan’s writing calls up the mental image of a puppy chasing a kaleidoscope of butterflies; without the second reading, you can’t see the point towards which he’s striving. In expository writing, the writer’s first duty is to impose order on his subject even when, as with the various objections Fr. Younan deals with, a logical order isn’t necessarily implicit.

Nevertheless, I recommend Thoughtful Theism as a good starting place for the would-be Catholic apologist, as well as for young Catholics questioning the rationality of their faith. The style is very engaging, explaining the bare minimum of Aristotelian lingo necessary and avoiding jargon elsewhere, with occasional quips and comments that keep the subject matter from being too heavy. Moreover, Fr. Younan writes straight talk, refusing to dance around sensitive areas or to give weight to emotional appeals (one section is well-titled, “I Don’t Care How You Feel”). And he gives atheists their due, acknowledging their just complaints and refusing to blackguard their morals.

The best thing that Fr. Younan does is deny the virtue of an unchallenged faith. As Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas More says in A Man for All Seasons, “God meant for man to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” If St. Peter’s admonition to “always be ready to make a defense” (1 Peter 3:15) means anything, it means each of us reasoning through what we believe and why we believe it. If we can’t answer the challenge right away, we must still find the answer eventually. For a blind, unexamined faith is indistinguishable from an irrational belief.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps, and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works in the home-mortgage industry in Dallas, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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