Home Page Douglas Lancashire Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols

Book Review: A Grammar of Consent: The Existence of God in Christian Tradition

by Aidan Nichols, O.P.
(Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1991)

ISBN 0 567 09591 6

THE heart of the Christian faith is its understanding of God. I remember E.O. James, the well-known Professor of the Philosophy of Religion in the University of London, telling us, his students, how on one occasion, when travelling by train, he found himself seated opposite a man who, noting his clerical collar, said, disdainfully, 'I suppose you believe in God!' James replied, 'Well, it all depends - You tell me what you mean by God, and I'll tell you whether I believe in him or not!'

One of the best expressions of the Christian understanding of God is to be found in Lecture VI of
Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lectures, delivered to candidates for Baptism in the year 330. This great bishop, pastor, and upholder of Christian orthodoxy, said:

'What we say about God is not what should be said (for that is known only to him) but only what human nature takes in, and only what our infirmity can bear. For what we expound is not what God is, but (and we frankly acknowledge it) the fact that we have no sure knowledge about him; and that is to say that our chief theological knowledge is confessing that we have none'.

Not surprisingly, Cyril is asked how, if the divine Being is incomprehensible, he can justify the good things he says of him. Cyril's reply is as follows:

'Come now, am I not to take a reasonable drink because I cannot drink the river dry? Of course I cannot bear to fix my gaze upon the sun in his strength. But is that any reason for not glancing up at him if I need? Or supposing that I were to go into a huge garden such that I could not possibly eat all the fruit on the trees, would you have me leave it still hungry? I praise and glorify our Maker, seeing that "Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord" is a divine command. I am now trying to glorify the Master, not to expound his nature, for I know... I shall fall far short even of glorifying him as he deserves. Nevertheless I hold it to be a religious duty at least to make the attempt'.

In spite of all his proclaimed reticence, Cyril is not afraid to make the most far-reaching and exalted claims for the God he worships. In Lecture IV, for example, he asserts that God is:

'one alone, unbegotten, without beginning, unchanging and unchangeable, neither looking to any other as the author of his being, nor to any other to succeed to his life, of which life he had no beginning in time, nor will it ever come to an end; then that he is good and just...'

Clearly, the important thing to notice, so far as Cyril is concerned, is that as a theologian his understanding of God is dependent on his life of worship and on his reflection on Christian scripture. He claims to speak of God primarily as a man endowed with the gift of faith, and we can assume that he would have insisted that that is the proper role of all theologians. This did not mean, however, that he regarded his faith as something irrational and incapable of reasoned defence.

In his book here under review, Aidan Nichols does not refer to Cyril of Jerusalem, but we can surely see a connection between the thought of Cyril and that of the eleven persons in Nichols' study. Anselm (1033-1109), for example, who was Archbishop of Canterbury and 'the Father of Scholasticism', and whose thinking is examined in chapter 4, is remembered chiefly for his argument put forward in his Proslogion that God is 'that than which a greater cannot be conceived'. As Nichols points out, however, Anselm was not so much seeking to deduce God's existence from a definition of God as necessary perfection as 'to identify the God to whom he is in the course of praying with what he calls "something than which a greater cannot be thought'".(p.73)

Nichols reminds us (p.71) that the Proslogion is a meditative work, and that in its first chapter we read the following:

'Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height, for my desire is in no way equal to that, but I do desire to understand a little of your truth which my heart already believes and loves. I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand'.

Despite Anselm's 'spiritual' or 'mystical' approach to his understanding of God which, as Nichols points out, is regarded by some defenders of Anselm's 'unique argument' as essential to his intention (p.70), Nichols holds it to be a 'modern fallacy to suppose that a monastic and spiritual concern... must necessarily exclude a philosophical and rational concern...' and quotes approvingly the following judgement on Anselm by E.L. Mascall:

'He believed by faith that God is supremely rational, and it therefore seemed obvious to him that, if only one could find out how to do it, it must be possible to prove the existence of this supremely rational being. He believed that God had shown him how to do this, and he could never thank him sufficiently for it. I think, therefore that one key at least to the Proslogion is to be found in the fact that it could never occur to Anselm that there was anything irrational or anti-rational about faith and revelation'.

'The relationship', Nichols continues, 'between faith and reason in Anselm is a complex one, partly because the question has not yet become a topic of discussion in its own right'. Moving backwards in time from Anselm, Nichols surveys the contributions made by the remarkable fourth century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, and the great philosopher and bishop of Hippo, Augustine, whose life spanned the fourth and fifth centuries. He reminds his readers that in the fourth century the line between philosophy and theology was still not 'nicely distinguished', and that for Gregory, education was 'both a matter of a share in the life of Christ and a question of appropriating the insights of the pagan philosophers' For the Christian, learning of Christ meant imitation of him: allowing Christ to 'take shape in him'. But being also an outstanding classical scholar, Gregory likewise believed in the 'development of the human personality that could do justice to the highest demands of Greek educational philosophy'. (quoting Werner Jaeger's study). His criticism of pagan education on its own was that it was 'always in labour but never giving birth'. (p.39,41).

It is in his On the Creation of Humankind, however, that we have the clearest expression of Gregory's understanding of God and of his relationship to man. Written, clearly, under the influence of neo-Platonic imagery and thought, he envisages man's return to God 'by purification, illumination, and finally personal union with him'. (p.44) Faith begins with a 'desire and longing to share in what is good', and the process consists of 'liberation from the passions, and from that point on, an angelic life devoted to contemplation; it is also love'. Seeking to put Gregory's understandings in dress more meaningful to modern man, Nichols borrows some words from the philosopher, F.C. Copleston's Religion and Philosophy. There

'He suggests that the search for a metaphysical ultimate, for one final ground of finite existence, is based on "an experience of limits, coupled with a reaching out" (cf. epektasis!) "towards that which transcends and grounds all limits." In this act of self-transcendence we can see, he thinks, "an expression of the orientation of the human spirit to the divine reality". God manifests himself to us as the "attractive but hidden term or goal of a movement". If this is not what Gregory means by the divine eros, it is hard to see what it could be...' Nichols concludes (pp.48,49)

Turning next to Augustine, it quickly becomes clear that we have here a philosopher, albeit a religious philosopher, rather than a theologian exclusively. Nichols points out (p.60) that in his Problem of Free Choice written shortly after his mother's death in 389, he introduces an interlocutor, Evodius, who says that his certainty of God's existence results from faith, and that if interrogated by atheists, he would appeal to the authority of the Evangelists whose writings witnessed to the Son of God. While agreeing that faith might precede understanding, 'Augustine draws attention to the phenomenon of shared truth which "...is present and offers itself in common to all who behold unchangeable truths like light which in wonderful fashion is both secret and public"'. Evodius is enjoined to 'embrace and enjoy' this truth, But then, Nichols continues, 'with a marked shift in rhetorical inflection', Augustine tells Evodius that he should therefore "delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart's desire" (Psalm 36.4). "Truth", concludes Augustine, "is close to all its lovers throughout the world who turn towards it, and for all it is everlasting. It is in no place, yet nowhere is it absent; from without it admonishes us, within it instructs us. It changes all its beholders for the better; it is itself never changed for the worse; without it, no one judges rightly"'.

Nichols notes that whereas in his Soliloquies Augustine suggests that the authority of faith must, for practical reasons, supplement reason, in The Problem of Free Choice 'the successful realization of Augustine's philosophical project brings about the need for theology, as is shown in the change of rhetorical register'.

From these writers, thinkers, philosophers and theologians, Nichols takes us through succeeding chapters into the intellectual and religious reflections of a succession of persons, ranging from Thomas Aquinas, through such individuals as John of the Cross, Blaise Pascal, Kant, Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, G.K. Chesterton and John Henry Newman and, in passing, writers and thinkers like C.S. Lewis. In each study he draws out the dominant themes of their lives and thought, and, leaning heavily on the works of other students of these important characters as well as his own insights, seeks to show both the roots and results of their understanding of God and of humanity's relationship to him. In his 'Introduction' which he calls 'The Voices of Experience', Nichols states that the aim of his book 'is to show how we can reasonably assent to the existence of God and, indeed, respond to God's presence in the depths of our experience'.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from this great tradition of reflection on the ultimate significance of mankind and on the creation in which he finds himself, as reflected in this selection of thinkers and exponents of the life of faith, is that all journeys and enterprises of the mind need, if they are not to lead us down blind alleys, to be 'earthed' - to be tested over and over again in the experience of daily living in its broadest sense.

Douglas Lancashire
3rd May 2000

Section Contents Copyright © Professor Douglas Lancashire 2006

Version: 6th February 2008

 Home Page Douglas Lancashire Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols