Can philosophical arguments convince someone to believe in God?

 One day, the famous French historian of philosophy Étienne Gilson was giving a lecture on Christian philosophy. Gilson asserted that Saint Thomas Aquinas’ five philosophical ways for proving God’s existence never convinced anyone, unless they were already believers.

But a hand went up during the question period. And the question asked greatly irritated Gilson.

I don’t know the exact wording of the remarks, but the question was asked by Father Benedict M. Ashley, O.P., the Dominican priest who tells us the story in his book, Barefoot Journeying: The Autobiography of a Begging Friar.

Father Ashley needed only to say: What about me?

The question could have begun quite simply. Father Ashley needed only to say: What about me?

In response to Gilson’s skepticism about philosophy, Father Ashley on that day offered his own life as counterfactual evidence.

His life story is interesting, and quite worthy of an autobiography, because he had been an atheist who, in point of fact, actually was convinced by Aquinas’ proofs during his student years.

At the time, he had been an atheist Marxist. However, as he intensified his study of philosophy, he would soon abandon his atheism, converting to Catholicism and eventually becoming a priest.

When he was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, Ashley became part of a group of graduate research assistants for the famous philosopher Mortimer Adler.

Adler was working on a book that was never published, Summa Contra Marxistes

Adler was working on a book that was never published, Summa Contra Marxistes, in which he sought to build bridges between Marxism and Thomism.

Ashley was a Trotskyite communist, passionately committed to world revolution. He considered the Trotskyites, who were opposed to Stalin’s Russian nationalism, to be the true Marxists.

But Adler’s seminars irreversibly influenced Ashley’s intellectual development. Adler exposed Ashley to arguments in Aristotle and Aquinas for the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul.

Ashley would later come to disagree with Adler concerning certain details in these arguments. Adler would go on to argue that they were merely probable arguments. But Ashley, in his later academic career, would go on to argue passionately for the certainty of their logic.

I think Ashley went in this direction on the basis of personal experience. He had been convinced out of his atheism by the arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas. But when Ashley became a Catholic in 1938, he still remained a Trotskyite.

While he was convinced by the Aristotelian-Thomistic proofs for God’s existence and the immortality of the human soul, Ashley had nonetheless arrived at a conviction that atheism was not essential to the social theories of Marx.

He judged Marxist ideals to be compatible with Catholic social teaching

Thus, at the time of his conversion, Ashley initially judged his youthful Marxist ideals to be compatible with Catholic social teaching. But over time, as he continued his studies, he refined his views.

Ashley was at first attracted by communism’s proclamation of the inevitability of progress, which was the metaphysical part of the Marxist dialectics of history.

But he would soon replace that problematic Marxist metaphysics with metaphysical views of his own, which he came to develop as he learned in his studies more about Thomism.

In an interesting disagreement with the great Thomists of the day (such as Gilson), Ashley went on to criticize the dominant metaphysical trends in 20th century Thomism. Ashley came to develop an alternative Thomistic metaphysics during the course of his later academic work, which he considered to actually be truer to Aquinas.

You can read Ashley’s profound thoughts on Thomism in his greatest books, such as The Way toward Wisdom: An Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Introduction to Metaphysics and Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian.

The young Ashley would eventually do a second PhD in philosophy, but his Chicago years set him on the path to his first PhD, which was in political science. He ended up writing a dissertation on the idea of slavery in Aristotle and Aquinas.

Ashley thought the problem of economy slavery was perennial

Ashley thought the problem of economy slavery was perennial: even if economic exploitation is not described by using the name “slavery,” the injustice of such exploitation is still a contemporary reality. Ashley wrote that this ugly reality is “covered up by democratic slogans” in an America that is not really a democracy.

Although Ashley began by blending his Marxist social views with an early version of his Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, Ashley eventually repudiated Marxism because of its incorrigibly materialistic metaphysics.

He wrote under the conviction that Marxist theory needed to be clarified “in the light of the Aristotelian tradition and disciplines,” which supply a better metaphysics for philosophers concerned with justice in the world.

Ashley never stopped posing uncomfortable questions to thinkers like Gilson. He blazed an impressive trail for anyone looking to think outside the box and to avoid tribal groupthink.