Kant’s critique of the traditional proofs [for the existence of God] has been taken as definitive, but is this so? Not quite. As formulated in the ethos of modernity, it conceives of nature in terms of Newtonian mechanism, where at most we might make a plausible inference from the machine to the machine maker. In his Third Critique Kant moves in a somewhat different direction to rethink nature in qualified teleological terms. But as I said, the ethos of his thought lies quite far from Anselm, far also from the ethos of Aquinas. I will confine myself to one major point. Nature here is not a machine. The scholastic philosophers often argued like forensic lawyers, but beneath the surface of disputatious univocity, there is more at work. Aquinas’s attunement to the being of the world is redolent, if hesitantly named so, of the glory of creation. The world is a creation, and communicates the glorious, albeit initially ambiguous, signs of the creator. His third way, the way from possible being, later called the proof from contingency, hangs on the fact that the world is a happening that carries no self-explanation. It is, but it might possibly not be; there is no inherent necessity that it must be. It is a happening that happens to be, but the happening as happening points to being beyond contingency that is the source or ground of happening. This he names as God.
I would suggest that if this way has any power, it is not just as a logical argument, but only insofar as it presupposes deep openness to the ontological enigma of the “that it is” of beings. This is the elemental wonder of metaphysical astonishment: astonishment at the sheer being there of the world, its givenness as given into being, not the “what” of beings, but “the that of being at all.” This is at the edge of determinate science and more akin to religious reverence or aesthetic appreciation. Perhaps it is even a kind of unknowing love. There is a taste of the intimate universal in it. What can we say about Aquinas the theorist? His theories might seem as thin as the arguments of forensic lawyers if we lack finesse for the living concern at stake, but this concern has to do with secret loves. Pascal suggests something like this: when we are reflecting on the arguments we might be intellectually engaged, but a few minutes later they are out of mind and we forget them. But this is also to forget the love that remains shy in the arguments.
And are not the proofs, or better “ways,” sourced in a variety of different forms of metaphysical astonishment or perplexity? These sources are as much intimate to us, as intimating something universal. The argument from design: does it not grow out of metaphysical astonishment at the aesthetic marvel of the happening of the world? Remarks in Kant’s Critique of Judgment border on this, but in either an aesthetic or a moral way, not in a more robustly religious way. Or consider the anomalous excess of human transcending. We are self-surpassing beings: but is this an excess overreaching into emptiness or into something other? Nietzsche will claim we are creatively exceeding ourselves—to ourselves. Is this excess enough for us—or for what exceeds us? Consider how Kant tried to canonize our moral being: is not this seeded in the great wonder of our sense of unconditional good? All of this suggests to me what I would call hyperboles of being: happenings in finitude excessive to complete finite determination, beyond objectification and subjectification; and yet about which we must think as philosophers, both as intimate and as intimating something universal; and in whose excess our unknowing love of being—and perhaps God—already blindly moves.