The Inner Way to God (Part 1)

There are many arguments for the existence of God. Among others are Thomas Aquinas' "Five Ways" for the cosmological existence of God, and St. Anselm's "ontological argument" for God from the perfection of his essence. The first, Thomas', explores an approach to the divine as the necessary cause of all existing things—which could not be their own causes. The second, based on ontology, argues that God's existence must be necessary since God is a perfect being, and therefore must always and unfailing exist in reality.

Here, though, I want to look at a third (and somewhat under-valued) argument for the existence of God: the inner way.

Perhaps one of the most striking cases for the inner way to God, at least in my mind, comes from Karl Rahner's argument for the Vorgriff auf das Sein. While Rahner is a rather complicated read, and to really understand his thought requires quite a bit of work, his idea of Vorgriff auf das Sein—or the "pre-apprehension of being"—is something almost anyone can come to grips with.

Rahner's basic premise lies in the fact that we, as human beings, are limited in our ability to conceptualize (i.e. form abstract notions) about things we encounter in reality. In other words, we can see a pencil, lying on a desk; and we can form a pretty good "concept" of what that pencil is in our minds (viz. yellow, thin, long, includes-eraser, sharp-pointed, etc.). Still, though, something of our concept is left lacking, and there remains an understanding of the pencil-as-a-whole that eludes us. The longer we stare at the pencil, the more we come to learn about it.

Now imagine that deficiency when it comes to our "concept" of God. We can say lots about him—that he is good, true, loving, merciful, etc.—but our abstract sense of him always fails to capture the fullness of his being. And to a far greater degree than with the pencil. Since God is immaterial, any understanding of his "essence" is one that relies on our apprehension of a spiritual reality, which isn't easy!

Rahner's idea is that, in our fundamental and 'regular' human experience, we have a "pre-apprehension" of something that transcends our situation in the world. To put it another way, although I am faced with countless particular situations each day, there is something about the "I" that is identified with me that persists no matter what the situation, and that I come to experience in a non-conceptual way. "I" am more than the decisions I make; "I" am a person who acts in the world.

This fundamental realization (pre-apprehension) of our deepest being is the basis for all further conceptualization. In fact, only because I am "I" can I possibly form a concept of the pencil on the table. It's length and color and weight are all things foreign to "me"; but when I see them and think about them, I can come to understand them.

But more importantly, my fundamental realization of myself—the Vorgriff auf das Sein—tells me quite a bit about the way I stand in relation to what is superior to me. Whenever I act or think, I always have a sense of an infinity beyond me; and an infinite number of things that I will not and cannot be/know. To be a human person is to be limited. I am what I am. But this constant pressing against the infinite, though, is a common experience shared by all human beings. And it is, in Rahner's estimation, the common acknowledgment of something beyond me and something superior to me. It is a primal acknowledgment of the Infinite that is not me. And this is God.

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    # by StMichael - May 25, 2009 at 11:57 AM

    It seems to me there are at least two potential problems with this line of argument. First, the infinite being sought or encountered seems to be the infinite potential being of the Ego (always in temporal ex-stasies), not of God. Second, witnessing someone like Heidegger, this infinite could be argued to only be the futility of death - our encounter with our ownmost "unrelationality." Third, it seems to beg the question, in that infinite potential intelligibility (even if it exists) does not necessarily point to God. It could easily counter-indicate merely natural being or the limited scope of the intellect.

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    # by Andrew Haines - May 25, 2009 at 7:08 PM


    Thanks for your comments. I think you are definitely right about quite a bit.

    My first response would be that, in discussing Rahner's idea of Vorgriff, I only intend to say what I've said. Namely, that fundamental human experience warrants an apprehension of a central principle of personal unity/self-hood; and that such a "pre-apprehension" of being on the most foundational level 'presses against' the expectation and awareness of some infinity beyond me. This does not preclude an Heideggerian reading, wherein the "infinite could be argued to only be the futility of death." But, I think the nature of Rahner's argument (if read in its entirety) is something quite different.

    Second--and I hope in response to your other main objection--Rahner's understanding of the Vorgriff auf das Sein does not (at least as far as I've formulated it) point directly to the "infinite potential being of the Ego." I say this because to have a pre-apprehension of being, beyond the categorial being of our regular experience, is not to positively grasp anything beyond ourselves; but only to encounter--as a sort of horizon--the basis of all our categorial experience. If this is the case, to call it an encounter with "infinite potential being" in the Ego is, I think, too strong.

    As for the idea that it begs the question of God...well, that's trickier. And I intend to deal with that in the next post: The Inner Way to God (Part II)

    [On a side note, are you at CUA? I would love to talk more sometime. I'm interested in meeting other young philosophers who are serious about both studies and the faith. Give me an email sometime:]