Rational Theology

Natural theology, once also termed physico-theology, is a type of theology that provides arguments for the existence of God based on reason and ordinary experience of nature. This distinguishes it from revealed theology, which is based on scripture and/or religious experiences, and also from transcendental theology, which is based on a priori reasoning.
Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) established a distinction between political theology (the social functions of religion), natural theology and mythical theology. His terminology became part of the Stoic tradition and then Christianity through St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Natural theology is thus a type of philosophy the object of which is explanation of the nature of the gods, or of one supreme God. For monotheistic religions, this principally involves arguments about the attributes or non-attributes of God, and especially the existence of God, using arguments which do not involve recourse to supernatural revelation.

Aristotelian Rational Theology

What seems to be the oldest argument within Western rational theology is based on causality, the first-cause argument. We see that an effect e1, arises from a cause c1, but c1, is also an effect e2 arising from another cause c2, which is, in turn, an effect e3, and so on. There cannot be an infinite backward series because there would be nothing to get the series started. Thus it would appear that there has to be a first cause for there to be any effect at all. This first cause, it is concluded, is God (presumably the best candidate), who is uncaused, having aseity, or is self-caused, as we find in some Indian theology. The argument is adumbrated in Plato (Laws 10.884—889d). Aristotle gives it clearer expression, expanding it—in the first part of our selection—to include God as the ultimate final (or motivating) cause (the unmoved Mover) as well as the first in a series of active or efficient causes.
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A Rational Theology, by John A. Widtsoe - Produced by the Mormon Texts Project.

A rational theology, as understood in this volume, is a theology which (1) is based on fundamental principles that harmonize with the knowledge and reason of man, (2) derives all of its laws, ordinances and authority from the accepted fundamental principles, and (3) finds expression and use in the everyday life of man. In short, a rational theology is derived from the invariable laws of the universe, and exists for the good of man..
This volume is an exposition; it is not an argument. ..... Those who are led to study this rational theology in the light of the best knowledge and soundest thought, will enter a fertile field, and will find a surprising harmony between the Gospel and all discovered truth. Read the article at www.gutenberg.org


St. Augustine’s proof of the existence of the Soul

For Augustine the soul comprises the entire personality of the living individual, who becomes aware through self-consciousness, not only that he is a real integrated existing person but also that he knows with absolute certainty his own activities and powers of memory, intellect, and will.

Hence the three aspects of the human soul (or personality) may be described as sources of idea, judgment, and will; or as activities of being, knowing, and willing. Note the corresponding three aspects in Augustine’s view of God’s personality, namely, omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and absolute goodness (highest good).

The most important aspect of the soul is will, the faculty which enables man to live, make his salvation possible, and is responsible for having brought the world into existence ex nihilo (out of nothing).

The Augustinian concept of the soul as a self-conscious unity of the total personality anticipated a fundamental idea in modern philosophy. That concept assigned to the human soul a higher role and function than those which either Aristotle or the Neo-Platonists had suggested.

Immortality and Ethics

Augustine held that the soul, which is immaterial, did not exist prior to the birth of the individual human being, but that, subsequent to his birth, it possesses an immortal nature, living on into eternity.
Its immortality arises from the fact that it shares in the immutable truths of the universe and thus unites its essence with the eternal processes 0f reason and life.
Because sin impairs these natural processes, it must be regarded as evil which is attributable to the will of mankind.

Because God created all things out of nothing; therefore all natural things, based upon the divine decree, are necessarily good, while any impairment of the natural processes is evil.
Evil has a deficient cause (not an efficient cause), for evil is merely the absence of good, a negative condition of privation or, in other words, a loss of good, of virtue, of beauty, of happiness.
Consequently, evil cannot exist without violation of a corresponding moral good, for it is a concomitant of good. An absolute good could conceivably be achieved, but an absolute evil – evil without good – is an impossibility.

Augustine’s view of the relationship between good and evil can be illustrated by examples from everyday experience. Thus, injury to a person’s healthy arm would be an evil event, but such evil could not exist without the previous existence of a healthy, uninjured arm; and after the limb has been restored to its natural state of health - goodness – then the evil state disappears; it does not shift to another place but ceases to exist.

Sin made its first appearance in the world when Adam, impelled by his own evil will and free choice, disobeyed the commandments of God. With Adam’s fall from grace, his sin became the sin of all later ages of humanity.

This inherited corruption of human nature therefore called for remedial action to effect the redemption of man. Divine justice demands that all mankind be punished for original sin, but God in his inscrutable wisdom, mercy, and grace has elected some men to everlasting blessedness and other men to everlasting suffering. Without the aid of God’s grace, man is unable to progress toward the good, for all good issues from God alone. Thus, as a result of Adam’s disobedience of God’s command (which occurred through the foreknowledge of God, yet was effected solely by the will of Adam), man became subject to death as his just and merited punishment. Augustine asserted, however, that there are two kinds of death: physical death when the soul abandons its body, and death of the soul when God abandons it; evil-doers must face not only physical death but death of the soul as well. Augustine’s conception of immortality includes both physical resurrection and eternal life for the soul. In his infinite wisdom, God has given man a free will which man so misused as to place him in his present predicament. The proper exercise of his free will makes it impossible for men to sin and constitutes the highest form of freedom enjoyed by the elect who have been granted salvation.

Augustine’s doctrine of freedom of the will and his doctrine of predestination are viewed by some to be contradictory and irreconcilable.

God and Free Will

One of the age-old enigmas that has had theologians and laymen alike scratching their heads is this: If God is all knowing and all-powerful, how does this gibe with the notion of free will and the existence of evil in the world? If God knows in advance what people will do and allows it to happen, then God allows evil to exist and people should not be held responsible for their actions, for those actions existed in the mind of God eons before they were born.

Augustine suggests that time, as we measure it, is meaningless to God. God exists in an Eternal realm where linear time has no meaning. There is no past and no future. There is only an Eternal Present, the Big Now.

In today’s hectic world, it is fashionable for the New Age sages to exhort us to “live in the moment”. People often try in vain to stay in the now. Yesterday is history, and tomorrow is a mystery, the old adage tells us. According to Augustine, this is God’s natural state. Linear time is an illusion and a limitation that does not afflict God. God’s infinite wisdom and omniscience has no bearing on our free will. Personal responsibility still rules the human condition. Yet God is there to guide us if we seek Him out.

Again, the big question is this: If a perfect and perfect good God created the world, how can such rampant naughtiness flourish? Augustine espoused that evil is not a diabolical force ravaging the souls of the sinful, but rather the absence of God.

Not every Christian agrees with this idea. Even today, depending whom you talk to, modern Christians still maintain that Hell is either the fire-and-brimstone inferno of legend or merely the absence of God. The inability to bask in the warmth and love of God for eternity is in itself a terrifying and abysmal prospect to men and women of faith. We have the free will to embrace the light, and if we eschew its beacon and skulk in the darkness of sin and despond, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Such is the price of free will. Just as goodness is its own reward, sin is its own punishment – a descent into maelstrom of nothingness – because according to Augustine, sin, the absence of good, is a terrible void. The sinner is more harmed than anyone he may afflict through his actions, and it is only through God’s grace that we can be saved.



Concerning God, Modern Man, and Religion

Excerpt and condensation

The answer is nothing. Atheism is not new, nor is irreligion, nor is secularism. These are very old even when they sounded in the work of the eminent modern predecessors of the new theologians - in the work, for example, of men such as Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All, at bottom, denied the existence of the supernatural. Yet all persisted in talking about God.

I must try to explain what is entailed in the pivotal conception of God — pivotal because it is that conception which is denied by the atheist, affirmed by the theist, believed by the religious, and thought by the agnostic to be beyond the grasp of our knowledge.

In what I have to say about these matters, I will speak not as a man of religious faith or as a dogmatic theologian, but as a philosopher or a natural theologian. Natural theology is a branch of philosophy which stands on a plane apart from faith and dogma. I will not speak as an apologist for Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, though what I will have to say philosophically, which bears on an understanding of God, will accord with the traditional conception of God in the three great monotheistic religions of the West. As a philosophical theologian, I will confine myself to only three notions that are essential to the conception of God.

They are 1) that God is transcendent, 2) that God is a necessary being in contrast to the contingent being of all other things, and 3) that God is the cause of the being of everything else that exists. I will not go beyond these three notions, nor will I try to prove that God, so conceived, exists. My intention is simply to make clear what is affirmed by those who affirm the existence of God, and what is denied by those who like the new theologians deny it.

At one point, I will raise the question (without trying for an answer) whether the conception of God shared by the three great traditional religions of the West is present also in the religions of the East — or indeed, whether the very term “religion” stands for the same thing in the Far East as it does in the West.

1) The First of the Three Basic Notions: God is transcendent
The meaning of “transcendent” can perhaps be more dearly seen when it is viewed through the focusing lens of a conjectural question. If God exists, what is God like?

The three possible answers are exclusive and exhausting. They are that:
■God is totally unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.
■God is totally like everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.
■God is both like and unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.

What are the consequences of saying that God is totally unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know? “God” then becomes a word devoid of meaning. Why? To convey a meaning, a concept must have something in common with other concepts we have in mind when we use other understandable words in our vocabulary. The concept of “animal,” for example, has something in common with other understandable words such as “lion,” “bear,” “dog,” “horse,” “cow.” But if the concept of God has nothing in common with anything else we can intelligibly describe, it is as senseless to deny the existence of God as to affirm it. Atheism becomes as meaningless as theism. In fact, the only question that would then be worth asking about God is how men ever came to use so meaningless a word and why they still everywhere continue to use it, as they do in the new theology and all current forms of atheism.

What are the consequences of saying that God is totally like everything else in nature that we know or are able to know? God would then have to be conceived as corporeal, finite, sensible, mutable, contingent, along with all the other attributes that we ascribe to the natural things we know. But if those attributes are ascribed to God, are they knowable in the same way as other things we know? Can God, for example, be investigated in the manner of the natural sciences where a hypothesis in physics, chemistry, and biology can derive its validity from the outcome of controlled tests and experiments? It is enough merely to ask the question to see that God cannot be known in the same way we know the attributes of other things. So we must rule out as false the proposition that God is totally like everything else in nature.

If the first two answers are not tenable, then we are left with the third one — that God is both like and unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know. It is like everything else in that it must be thought of as a being. I am not here asserting God exists. I am only saying that God must be conceived as a being about which we can meaningfully ask whether or not it exists, just as we must conceive of a mermaid or Hamlet as a being about which we can ask that existential question.

While God, conceived as a being, is thus like all the other things about which we ask whether or not they exist, God is unlike everything else with respect to this mode of being. We conceive of everything else in nature as material or corporeal beings, as mutable beings, as sensible beings, as finite beings. All the italicized words refer to their mode of being. But if God were like everything else in mode of being, God would be totally like everything else, a proposition we have already rejected.

What is meant by the “analogy of being” is central to an understanding of the concept of God as a being who is at one and the same time like and unlike everything else in nature. Two things are analogous if, in any given respect, they are at once the same and diverse.

………. -------- -------

2) The Second of Three Basic Notions: God is a necessary being
The second notion of the conception of God is that God must be thought of as a necessary being. There is no space here to trace the evolution of this concept from the time it was first formulated by St. Anselm in the eleventh century, through its amendments by St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and other critical writers. Without putting too fine a point on the matter, something maybe gained on the side of understanding by means of the following statement. St. Anselm pointed out that when we think about God, we must have in mind a Supreme Being than which no greater can be thought of. We must also think of God as existing necessarily, because if we did not, we could think of a greater being. God, therefore, must be conceived as the only being that cannot not exist, though the question would remain whether the necessary being we have thus conceived does in fact actually exist. In other words, we must still discover whether there is in reality — outside our minds — anything that corresponds to the concept of God we have formed in our minds.

3) The Third Basic Notion: God is the cause of the being of everything else that exists
The third basic notion in the conception of God is that God is the cause of the existence of whatever else that does in fact exist. No natural causes ever cause the existence of anything; rather, they are causes of change or becoming. The simplest way to grasp the point quickly is to consider animal progenitors or human parents. These do not cause the existence of their offspring, but only their coming to be - their generation.

Now the existence of whatever exists in the world must have a cause — must have a reason for its existence, either in itself or in another. The point being made here is reinforced by the principle of parsimony which governs all our scientific and philosophical thinking, including our thinking in natural theology. The principle says that we cannot affirm the existence of anything we conceive unless we can show how its existence is needed to explain what we already know exists. More immediately, the same principle says that unless God is conceived as the only cause of the existence of whatever exists contingently, and so needs a cause of its existence, we cannot prove that God exists. The proof depends on the truth of the factual proposition that this cosmos as a whole exists contingently — which is another way of saying that it is capable of not existing at all. If the latter proposition is false, there is no valid argument for the existence of God.


I have not in this essay asserted, much less tried to prove, the existence of God. I have done nothing but present the minimum philosophical analysis that is required to expose the inanity and double-talk of the new theology and the death of God movement, and to raise some serious questions about secularism and religion, applicable to both East and West. It is this very last point - applicable to East as well as West, and applicable in the same way to both — to which objection may be made. To meet that objection, or at least to challenge it, let me state for you the two controlling principles underlying everything that I have said.

The first controlling principle is that science, though mainly a Western invention and development, is now neither Eastern nor Western, but universal. Anyone who in any way or degree lives by means of technology (which is nothing but an application of science) tacitly acknowledges this. If there is no truth in the science of aerodynamics, we would be fools to trust our lives to airplanes. To acknowledge the usefulness and trustworthiness of technological applications is also to acknowledge the truth of the science that is applied to them. In short, both Eastern and Western cultures must agree that science gives us a measure of truth, not the whole truth, but considerable truth about the world in which we live — about nature, about society, and about man himself. In short, science is at least a part of the truth about the world — nature, society, and man.

My second principle is that there is one whole of truth. There are not three separate kinds of truth, three separate modes of truth - scientific truth, philosophical truth, religious truth - unrelated to one another and incapable of being inconsistent or incompatible. One of the greatest disputes that ever took place in the thirteenth century occurred when Aquinas stood up and defended the doctrine of one truth against the double-truth theory of the Latin Averroists who wished to keep the truths of science and philosophy and the truths of religion in logic-tight compartments. St. Thomas, the inheritor of the science of Aristotle which had become available at the end of the twelfth century, had his books condemned and was almost excommunicated for heresy because he insisted that the truth of science, the truth of philosophy, and the truth of religion belonged to a single, integral realm of truth.

This principle applies to philosophy as well as to religion — and to both in the same way. Though philosophy may add truth to the truth learned by science, nothing can be true in philosophy which in any way violates or contradicts what we know by science. To make this point clear, let me use the phrase “scientific philosophy,” not for a philosophy that is developed by scientific methods, but for a philosophy that in every respect tries to be consistent with, although it goes beyond, the truths known by science. Similarly, though religion — through revelation — may add truth to the truths learned by both science and philosophy, nothing can be true in religion or as a matter of religious faith that in any way violates or contradicts what we know by science.

Let me call such religion “scientific religion.” I do not mean scientific in method, but compatible with science. At the beginning of Western theology, one of the great moments occurred when the greatest of all our Western theologians, St. Augustine, before he was converted to Christianity, and still in search of the truth, came upon the doctrine of the Manicheans. He studied with the Manicheans and read their books. But, as he tells us in his Confessions, when he discovered that the astrological views propounded by the Manichean religion were incompatible with the science of his day — the astronomy that he had learned from the Greeks — he dismissed Manicheanism as superstition. When he accepted Christianity, he found nothing in Christianity that at that time was incompatible with the scientific knowledge of his day. If he had, he would not have accepted it. His principle was absolutely right. There cannot be any truth in Christianity that is inconsistent with science, if science is true.

If these two controlling principles are sound, they apply equally to Eastern and Western thought - philosophical or religious - and they apply in the same way. Like Western philosophy, Eastern philosophy can have truth beyond what we know by science, which is the same East and West. Like Western religion, Eastern religion is separated from superstition and fraud by a line that divides what is and what is not compatible with the truths of philosophy and of science. In other words, what I am saying is that, to be sound, Eastern philosophy and Eastern religion must be wholly compatible with science in exactly the same sense that Western philosophy and Western religion must be wholly compatible with science.

You can try to avoid these conclusions in only two ways. One way is to deny that science and technology are common to West and East; but this is almost impossible to do, for the truth of the one, science, and the usefulness of the other, technology, are clearly the same in both East and West. Failing this, you would have to take refuge in the abhorrent doctrine of two truths or three truths, the doctrine that the truths of science, the truths of philosophy, and the truths of religion, can have no relation to one another and can be quite incompatible and yet all be true in some sense of the word.

It is impossible to deny that science and technology are common to West and East. To take refuge in the doctrine of two or more modes of truth, separated into logic-tight compartments, is to embrace an intellectual schizophrenia that is the utter ruin of the human mind.

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