God as the eternal watchmaker or violinist

St. Thomas Aquinas and philosopher William Paley offer different proofs for the existence of God

By Bob Hunt

Recently, I had the honor of leading a Communion service at my parish on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, where I offered a reflection on St. Thomas. It seemed to go over well, so I thought I might share it here:

In honor of St. Thomas, I am going to make a statement that may be regarded as controversial inside the walls of this church. I do not believe that God exists. Now, I am going to make a statement that will certainly be regarded as controversial outside the walls of this church. I know that God exists.

Belief is the language of faith. But the Church has taught since the days of St. Paul (Romans 1:20) that faith is not required to hold for the existence of God. Reason or rational thought is sufficient to know that God exists. Faith, then, is what we believe about the God whose existence reason demonstrates. Our Creed does not begin, “I believe in God … .” Our Creed begins, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty … .” You see, there’s a comma there, not a period. It doesn’t take faith to know that God exists. We can know God exists as a matter of reason, of rational thought. It does take faith to believe that God is a loving Father who cares for us and desires a relationship with us. I know that God exists. I believe that God is my Father, my Redeemer, my Advocate. Why do I believe this? Because God has revealed this to us, through Scripture, tradition, the Church, and, not incidentally, through personal encounters with Him. Catholics, and the Jews before us, are peculiar in that way: we know there is a God, and we believe that He has made the truths about Himself known to us by revelation.

My second point relates to St. Thomas’ idea of God as the First Cause. Thomas is most famous among Catholics and non-Catholics for his Five Proofs for the Existence of God. Unfortunately, Thomas’ proofs are often misunderstood, which is why there continue to be so many atheists in the world, atheism being foundationally an irrational claim.

When we think of cause and effect, we think quite naturally of one thing causing another thing to happen. A first billiard ball hits a second and causes the second ball to start moving. Michelangelo sculpted the Pietà, so Michelangelo was the cause of the Pietà coming into existence. Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa, so Leonardo was the cause of the Mona Lisa coming into existence. Cause and effect. In the middle of the 18th century, a philosopher named William Paley came up with the idea of God as a sort of eternal watchmaker. When he looked at the various parts of a watch, the intricate details of each part, and how they required being placed in just the right way in relation to each other in order for the watch to work, he expanded that to the idea of the universe being like a great watch that included many intricate parts that required being placed in just the right way in relation to each other to make the universe work as it does. He understood God, then, as the eternal Watchmaker.

There’s a problem with the idea of God being an eternal watchmaker, or sculptor, or painter. Once the watch is made, or the sculpture sculpted, or the painting painted, the watch, sculpture, and painting no longer need the watchmaker, sculptor, or painter to continue to exist. Michelangelo is long dead, but the Pietà still stands at the Vatican. Leonardo is long dead, but the Mona Lisa continues to hang at the Louvre. If you’re wearing a watch, there’s no watchmaker who follows you around all the time making certain of the watch’s continued existence.

Thomas thought of God as the First Cause less as a watchmaker, a sculptor, or a painter and more like a violinist. Now, he didn’t use that analogy. He used others like it. The point is the same. When the painter moves on or dies, the painting continues to exist, independent of the painter. But when a song is played on the violin, the song never exists independent of the violinist. If the violinist should move on or pass away, the song would stop. So long as the violinist continues playing, the song continues to exist. God as First Cause is more like an eternal violinist and the universe His song. God brought all creation into being, and He sustains it in being. Of course, that includes us!

When you hear the lilting notes of a violin wafting through the air, you may believe it is a lovely tune or an ugly one. You may believe that the performance is that of a maestro or an amateur. These opinions can be resolved by debate or investigation. But what you don’t believe—rather, what you know—is that there is a violinist somewhere playing his song.


Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville and is a candidate for the permanent diaconate.

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