The Restoration of the Supernatural
In accord with the Teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas
By James Larson
A great spiritual miasma has now descended upon the civilized world – a kind of poisonous ambience of culture and thought which has made it virtually impossible to perceive spiritual realities. Apart from an extraordinary grace from God, the only human weapon capable of dispersing this poisonous fog is the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. The great tragedy of our age is that for several decades this weapon has been largely placed under lock and key by those within the Catholic Church who have been assigned as its custodians and champions.
Since Vatican Council II, it has been the overwhelmingly prevalent view, especially among the Catholic hierarchy, that the Church must seek a new philosophical and theological basis for its teaching – an approach which will somehow bypass what is alleged to be the “intellectualism” of St. Thomas Aquinas. It has been repeated ad nauseum that St. Thomas’ approach to the faith is static, rigid, rationalistic, and even Pelagian, and that a new approach (usually leading back to St. Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus) is necessary in order to restore some sort of original, gospel-centered “heart” to Catholic thinking and spirituality.
This criticism of Thomism extends especially to the question concerning man’s “deification.” It is the contention of these same people that the “rigid” categories of thought, which they claim are inherent to Thomistic thinking, allow absolutely no room for any possible communication between God and man, that they destroy the basis for mystical prayer and contemplation, and thus ultimately negate any possibility for final union between God and man.
This long article is being written expressly to refute this position. It aims to prove that just the opposite is indeed the case – that it is the rejection of Thomism which is largely responsible for the loss of the sense of the supernatural among Catholics. Largely, this loss of the transcendent dimension to human life has been due to the effect of reductive scientific analysis, and the rationalistic philosophy which is its constant companion, upon the thought processes of modern man. Only Thomistic philosophy can provide the intellectual orientation capable of shattering this reductiveness, of opening up our perceptions of created realities to the presence of God, and of re-establishing communion between God and man. Finally, only the metaphysics of St. Thomas can provide the proper foundation for understanding contemplative and mystical prayer, and the epistemological and psychological understanding of how the Beatific Vision of God’s Essence can be made possible for a creature like man who is infinitely beneath this Divine Essence.
This does not in any way imply a “rationalistic” approach to prayer. The various stages of union with God are all due to His gratuitous grace. Man can accomplish nothing supernaturally without this grace. But it is also true that God requires man’s cooperation, and that this cooperation intimately involves a true mental orientation towards both supernatural faith and created realities. Man’s mind and heart are doors through which God’s grace enters, and these can be seen as wonderfully open towards His action, or as tragically closed through intellectual orientations which make reception of these graces impossible or unfruitful.
This should not be construed to mean that every Catholic has to be a trained philosopher and theologian in order to pray properly. It does demand, however, that if modern man has deeply absorbed philosophical and theological attitudes and thought processes which have effectively accomplished the “closure” of which I have spoken above, then proper philosophical and theological re-formation are necessary in order to once again open his mind and heart to these truths in both the natural and supernatural orders.
It is also important to emphasize here that this negation of the transcendental dimension of human life has been effected not only by theological errors which affect one’s supernatural faith, but also through philosophical errors concerning the nature of created realities. In his Motu proprio on St. Thomas titled Doctoris Angelici, Pope Saint Pius X writes the following:
“For just as the opinion of certain ancients is to be rejected which maintains that it makes no difference to the truth of the Faith what any man thinks about the nature of creation, provided his opinions on the nature of God be sound, because error with regard to the nature of creation begets a false knowledge of God; so the principles of philosophy laid down by St. Thomas Aquinas are to be religiously and inviolably observed, because they are the means of acquiring such a knowledge of creation as is most congruent with the Faith; of refuting all the errors of all the ages, and of enabling man to distinguish clearly what things are to be attributed to God and to God alone.”
This truth – that it is false philosophy which is at the root of modern man’s estranged relationship to God (and from himself, and his fellow man) – is a teaching which has been reiterated by many Popes over the past 250 years. In the year 1775, only 14 years before the French Revolution, Pope Pius VI, in his encyclical Inscrutabile, wrote:
“Who would not be shocked when considering that We have undertaken the task of guarding and protecting the Church at a time when many plots are laid against orthodox religion, when the safe guidance of the sacred canons is rashly despised, and when confusion is spread wide by men maddened by a monstrous desire of innovation, who attack the very bases of rational nature and attempt to overthrow them? …yourselves, established as scouts in the house of Israel, see clearly the many victories claimed by a philosophy full of deceit. You see the ease with which it attracts to itself a great host of peoples, concealing its impiety with the honorable name of philosophy….While they pursue a remarkable knowledge, they open their eyes to behold a false light which is worse than very darkness. Naturally our enemy, desirous of harming us and skilled in doing so, just as he made use of the serpent to deceive the first human beings, has armed the tongues of those men with the poison of his deceitfulness in order to lead astray the minds of the faithful….In this way these men by their speech ‘enter in lowliness, capture mildly, softly bind and kill in secret (St. Leo the Great)’….”
The fact that Pope Pius VI states that these false philosophies have captured, blinded, and killed “a great host of peoples” clearly indicates that he is here speaking of specific ideas and mental orientations which have invaded entire cultures and made it impossible for man to be open to the supernatural dimension of human life. These murderous ideas are not therefore confined only to the world of professional philosophers and theologians, but rather are the cultural inheritance of the entirety of what was once Christian civilization. We will be dedicated here, therefore, to exploring those principles of Thomistic teaching necessary for the liberation of the minds and hearts of “modern man” per se. It is true that, within the Church especially, the re-embrace of these truths and principles must largely begin with the hierarchy, and with theologians and philosophers. It is only then that these liberating truths can be gradually, but systematically, “incarnated” in the minds and hearts of the faithful through all the various aspects of the Church’s life – evangelization, catechetics, sacramental life, worship, and prayer.
The Primacy of Truth
Pope Pius VI’s assertion that false philosophy “attacks the very bases of rational nature” is equivalent to stating that it denies both the existence of objective Truth and therefore man’s ability to know this truth.
The single greatest victim of post-Vatican II life in the Church is the perennial Catholic teaching concerning the primacy of the concept of Truth. Belief that God’s Being is primarily to be identified with Truth is largely no longer operative in the modern Catholic mind. The average contemporary Catholic would rather believe that God is Love, and leave it at that. The corollary of this error is a denial of the human mind’s aptitude and capacity for knowing this Truth, and the consequent denial that man’s ultimate happiness and fulfillment consist in the direct vision and knowledge of the Essence of God Who is Truth. This heresy finds its ultimate expression in agnosticism and atheism. But it also comes to fruition among believers in a form of what might be called Caritasism, which elevates love over truth, and reduces man’s ultimate union with God to a love that is not derived from an intellectual vision of the Divine Essence.
This denial of the primacy of truth necessarily distorts belief in the Triune God.
All traditional catechisms teach that man is created in the image of God, and that this “image” primarily resides in the fact that he possesses intellect and free will. But the analogous relationship of man to the Trinity does not end there. St. Thomas teaches that the Father is the source of all proceedings within the One Being of the Godhead. The Father, in knowing His own Being, for all eternity generates His only begotten Son as the Word which is the Infinite Knowledge of His own Being, and therefore is Infinite Truth. The Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of Love, proceeds from both the Father and the Son as the Spirit of Love between Them. Thus is the circle and communion of relationships within the Trinity.
For our purpose the important point to be made here is that the Holy Spirit must be seen as proceeding not only from the Father, but also from the Word as the Spirit of Truth. In other words, Love must proceed from Truth. This is why the Filioque (the Catholic doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son – Filoque) is absolutely essential to the Catholic understanding, not only of the nature of the Trinity, but also of the working of the Holy Spirit within the Church and in individual men.
The primacy of Truth over all of men’s other concepts and operations is, as it were, the main entrance door to the human soul which must remain wide open if it is to remain alive to God and to the spiritual life. This means, of course, that man must submit his mind and heart to God’s revealed truth, but it also has much more extensive ramifications. Most fundamentally, this primacy entails that there is an affinity – what Thomism speaks of as the “analogy of being” – between the mind and heart of man and the infinite Mind and Will of God.
This belief in the knowable, analogous relationship between man and the very essence of God is a defining characteristic of Catholicism. No other religion in the world is in possession of this belief. It does not exist in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any type of Gnosticism; nor does it really exist in Eastern Orthodoxy or Protestantism.
I realize that this may seem an astounding claim, and it therefore deserves some explanation. Any religion which posits an Infinite God, or even an Infinite Abstract Absolute (such as in philosophical Hinduism), is faced with the problem of how to connect a finite creation to this Infinite Being. By definition, an Infinite Being cannot tolerate the existence of any “other” which would limit its infinitude. Nothing therefore more clearly reveals the poverty of other religions than an examination of their attempts to come to terms with this dilemma.
Hinduism, for instance, “solves” this problem by claiming that all which is perceived as being outside of the Infinite is an illusion or “maya.” Its ultimate formulation of belief is “Thou art That” – what is perceived as the individual soul (Atman) is really Brahman (the Absolute).The apparent difference, distinction, or separation between the two is an illusion. The consequences of such a belief should be fairly obvious. Any values associated with personal and individual lives must ultimately also be considered an illusion. The devaluation of all things human is a logical consequence.
Islam does not really try to solve the problem, simply because it is considered blasphemy to assign any nature whatsoever to God. Here, all that can be known is Allah’s will. This is the heresy of “voluntarism.” In Islam, it is even blasphemy to try to apply the primary principle of non-contradiction to God. The Koran is in fact redolent with the contradictions of Allah’s alleged will.
Gnosticism (in all its varieties) posits a monistic first principle, or God, which is also Infinite. The finite world comes into existence through some sort of decay (often through a very complex sequence of “births”, “emanations”, or “manifestations”), which is totally inexplicable when applied to an Infinite Being. Human attainment of perfection then becomes a process of “gnosis” – of knowledge or remembering – attained by asceticism and esoteric spiritual practices which negate the created world and accomplish a reunion with the Divine within.
The dominant form of Eastern Orthodox theology (Palamism) posits that the Essence of God is totally unknowable, unnamable, and therefore beyond all conceptualization. The only thing that man can ever know about the divine is exclusively associated with what are called the “Divine Energies” (which, since the Essence of God is completely unnamable, must logically include the three hypostasis or persons of the Trinity), which according to Palamite theology are, uncreated and eternal, and yet, inexplicably, an infinity of infinities beneath the Essence of God, and are in no way to be identified with the Essence of God. These Energies are in the world, and within man, and require a process akin to Gnostic asceticism and apophatism (negation of all positive attributions to the Essence of God) in order to lift the veils preventing a union with the Divine. This Divine is identified with the Holy Spirit, Who does not proceed from Christ (denial of the Filioque is an absolute dogma for all Eastern Orthodox), and is considered by some Orthodox writers to be the very Soul of the World. In other words, Eastern Orthodoxy is constituted as a syncretism of Gnosticism and Christianity.
As for Protestantism, Luther, for one, considered the human mind to be irretrievably fallen and corrupt, and totally incapable of any solution to such a question. The Word of God (the Bible) thus tends to become something akin to what the Koran is for the Muslim – an expression of God’s Will and Truth, with no basis in rationality or intellectual vision.
Something absolutely distinct, different and liberating is present in Thomistic Catholicism. Thomas teaches, for instance, that there are names or attributes which we apply to God – names such as One, Good, Truth, and Love – which are substantially applied to God. Here are his words, by which the analogical relationship between the human and the Divine is wonderfully expressed:
"Therefore we must hold a different doctrine – viz., these names signify the divine substance, and are predicated substantially of God, although they fall short of a full representation of Him….So when we say, God is good, the meaning is not, God is the cause of goodness, or, God is not evil; but the meaning is, Whatever good we attribute to creatures, pre-exists in God, and in a more excellent and higher way." (I, Q.3, A.2)
Our comprehension of the depth of meaning contained in these names and attributes is certainly profoundly limited by our own finitude as contrasted with the Infinitude of God, but the names and the analogies are real. In direct opposition to Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholic theology asserts that these names are not something which must eventually be shed in favor of an apophatic (negative) spirituality which denies all conceptualization of God. In other words, there is an affinity between the nature of God and the nature of man’s soul that is profoundly real. This reality comes to its ultimate fulfillment in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and it is fulfilled in the human soul through that final union with Christ accomplished in the Beatific Vision.
Creation Ex Nihilo
The entire structure of Catholic teaching concerning the affinity which exists between the human soul and the nature of God – an affinity which enables man in this life to know substantive things about the Essence of God, and to actually possess direct knowledge and vision of the Divine Essence in Heaven – is erected upon a proper understanding of the Catholic doctrine creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing).
The doctrine creation ex nihilo is absolutely unique to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. No other religion has postulated anything even remotely similar. It can be known only through Divine Revelation. But it is also true that, although it has been historically accepted by virtually all those who consider themselves Christians, it is little understood, and even less integrated into a consistent theology and metaphysics.
The doctrine of creation ex nihilo simply states that God, through an Act of His infinite Intellect and Will, created everything which exists outside of His Divine Being from nothing. It also demands that we affirm that every created thing possesses no independent being of its own apart from the continuing sustaining-creative Act of God. St. Thomas in fact teaches that, apart from the aspect of initial creation, God’s sustaining Act is of the same nature as His creative Act. When this is properly understood, it has immense consequences for our understanding of many other Catholic doctrines: the metaphysical and physical constitution of created things, the nature of free will, the doctrines concerning Divine Providence and predestination, and the doctrine concerning the Beatific Vision. These topics we will be exploring in subsequent sections of this article.
For the present, we need only to grasp the extent to which the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, when properly understood, makes knowledge of and communication with God possible, without this knowledge compromising the Infinitude of God, and without it in any way confusing or mixing the Being of God with the created being of creatures. The key to this understanding is the Thomistic concept of participation, which acknowledges that God is able to create spiritual beings in His own image who, with the aid of God’s created graces, possess the aptitude for intellectual knowledge and love of God – a knowledge and love which elevates the soul to union with God without there being any necessity of identifying the being of man with the Supreme Being of God. We will be exploring this subject in more depth when treating of St. Thomas’ teaching on man’s glorification in the Beatific Vision. However, in order to establish the proper foundation for our understanding of man’s final destiny, we must now turn our attention to St. Thomas’ Metaphysics.
"We so heartily approve the magnificent tribute of praise bestowed upon this most divine genius that We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own." ( Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem)
“We therefore desired that all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned that if they deviate so much as a step, in metaphysics especially, from Aquinas, they exposed themselves to grave risk.” (Pius X, Doctoris Angelici)
“Metaphysics” can tend to be an intimidating word to most Catholics. It is usually defined as the science of “being, considered simply as being,” a definition which itself can seem imposing. Since metaphysics is considered the basis of all other philosophical inquiry and disciplines, it is therefore imperative that we begin by eliminating much of the unnecessary “scariness” concerning this subject.
The word itself is a composition derived from two Greek roots: meta, meaning “beyond” or “after”; and physika, meaning “physical.” But its actual meaning is derived from Aristotle’s philosophical works. After treating of “Physics” – the analyzable and quantifiable nature of physical things – Aristotle went on to treat of the deeper realities of things (including physical things) which take us beyond quantification, and beyond all the analytical tools which we would now consider to be the methods of the various analytical empirical sciences. The word “metaphysics” literally means, therefore, “beyond physics.” However, we must be very clear from the beginning of our inquiry that this does not at all mean that metaphysics deals exclusively with things that are beyond the “physical.” In fact we shall begin by stating this primary principle: without understanding the metaphysical being of created things, one is incapable of understanding the substantial nature of any created substance whatsoever.
The first thing we need to know about metaphysics, therefore, is that the word itself is dedicated to a science which establishes the truth that no physical substance is reducible to analysis by any physical science. In other words, there is something “beyond” analytical physics, chemistry, etc. in the very composition of every physical substance itself.
Such a notion should be immediately thrilling to any Catholic, and an immediate incentive to look into this subject further. The very idea that there is something “transcendent” (in the sense of “transcending” physical analysis and quantification) as the defining essence of every created substance shatters all scientific reductionism and opens up our entire world to the presence of the supernatural. It restores divine poetry (and every other true form of beauty and goodness) to the world. Metaphysics is, in other words, the gateway to the supernatural. It is the gateway to the good, the beautiful, and the true. I therefore ask some patience from the reader while we explore the various steps in this metaphysical journey.
The Two Fundamental Kinds of Being
We have already spoken of the “analogy of being” in our application of certain human concepts to the substantial nature of God. These concepts and names are “analogical” rather than “univocal” (terms or concepts that apply equally and exactly in the same way) simply because there are two fundamental kinds of being which can never be mixed or confused “in themselves.” These two types of being are Infinite Being and finite being. The former is possessed by God alone; the latter is possessed by everything else that exists.
There are certain metaphysical concepts (concepts regarding being) which can only be applied to Infinite Being – to God. In understanding these concepts, we open up a vast field for understanding the being of created things, and especially of man.
The absolutely primary metaphysical concept in regard to God is what is called His Absolute Divine Simplicity. There can be no composition in God – God cannot have “parts.” As human beings who are by our very nature “compositions,” and limited in intelligence, we necessarily apply a variety of very valid concepts and names to God: Intellect, Will, Truth, Love, Beauty, Goodness, Justice, etc. In God, however, these attributes are all one in the Unity of His Absolute Divine Simplicity. St. Thomas writes:
"The perfect unity of God requires that what are manifold and divided in others should exist in Him simply and unitedly. Thus it comes about that He is one in reality, and yet multiple in idea, because our intellect, apprehends Him in a manifold manner, as things represent Him.” (I, Q.13, A. 4).
God therefore is His Intellect, is His Will, is His Truth, Is His Love, etc., and all these are absolutely united in His Divine Simplicity. In human beings, on the other hand, these faculties and concepts are manifold, because human beings are themselves composites. They possess the distinct faculties that we know as Intellect and Will. Further, such things as Truth, Love, Goodness, and Beauty truly are distinct values and concepts.
The second concept which we must be very clear about in regard to the Infinite Being of God is that He is Pure Act. We must understand, however, that when we use this concept in regard to God, we must be careful not to confuse its scholastic usage with many of its connotations in English. Scholastic metaphysics distinguishes between “Act” and “Potency.” When we use the phrase “Pure Act” as a scholastic concept, we are saying that in God there is no “potency” or potential to become something different or attain to something different (such as knowledge, love, etc) which has not been integral to God’s Essence for all eternity. In other words, when we say that God is Pure Act, we are saying that God for all eternity is fully and totally actualized. There is, in other words, no potency whatsoever in God. Very simply put, God does not change.
Something very different is the case with creatures. Every created being possesses both act and potency. The fact that it possesses “act” is attested to by the simple fact that it exists. The equally obvious truth that it possesses “potency” is attested to by the fact that it is always subject to future change. A tree, for instance, can undergo many “accidental” changes (such as size and quantity, ) which still leave it a tree; or it can also undergo a substantial change by which it dies and ceases to exist as the substance “tree.” Similarly, a human being undergoes all sorts of changes during his life, even to the point of the death of his body. What is more, he is always in potency towards his final destiny – whether it be union with God, or eternal condemnation.
This brings us to a third concept, closely related to the distinction between Act and Potency: the distinction between Essence and Existence. Every created substance is created with an essential form which determines what it is as a substance (we will be looking into the concepts of “form” and “substance” shortly). There may, however, be a very great difference between the essence of the thing and its actual present existence. For instance, the essence or substantial form of a human being is a rational soul. If a person has suffered an injury to the head and is presently in a coma, his present existence is not rational, but that does not at all deny his humanity or the fact of his still possessing a rational soul as his essence. But it is not necessary that we look only to the exceptional in order to discover this distinction between essence and existence in our lives. Something similar happens to each one of us when we fall into a deep sleep at night. Therefore, with all created things, we must always maintain the distinction in them between essence and existence, just as we must hold firmly to the distinction between act and potency. As we shall see shortly, the failure to acknowledge or retain these distinctions between act and potency, and between essence and existence, totally destroys our ability to explain substantial stability in the midst of change. Without these distinctions a tree becomes something substantially different every time it grows a new leaf, a person becomes a new substance every time he takes a nap.
We have carefully noted that there is no potency in God – He is Pure Act. This can be explained only by the fact that His Existence is His Essence. When Moses asked God what he should say to the Israelites when they asked of him the Name of God, God said to Moses, “I AM WHO AM. God, in other words, is the One Being Whose Essence is identical with His Existence. His Essence is purely actualized in His Existence. He is Pure and Supreme Being.
Having made these fundamental distinctions in regard to the Infinite Being of God and the finite being of man, we are now prepared to examine the mystery of creation itself.
The philosophical discipline devoted to the study of created being is called “Cosmology” or “The Philosophy of Nature.” As, we shall see it is a study intimately related to metaphysics, and profoundly dependent upon metaphysics for its fundamental analysis of the concept of being. It is here, especially in our study of the constitution of physical things, that we will see the power of Thomism to shatter scientific reduction, and the means to restore the transcendental dimension to human life and thinking.
Both Aristotle and St. Thomas establish that there exist ten fundamental categories of being: one category of substantial being, and nine categories of accidental being. Again, we must caution from the beginning of our study not to confuse the English word “accidental” with its use in scholastic philosophy.
Substance is a reality which is “suited to exist as itself, and not as the mark, determinant, or characteristic of some other thing.” We can immediately perceive that there is only one category of substance since all those things which we consider as substance fit under this definition.
Accidents, on the other hand, are realities “which are not suited to exist as themselves, but exist as the mark, determinant, modification, or characteristic of some other thing, and ultimately of a substance.” There are nine categories of accidents: quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, place, time, posture, habit. We can now see why we must be very careful to distinguish scholastic usage of this word from its English connotations. Accidents are real being, and are not something to be considered “accidental,” unimportant, or non-essential to our understanding of created things. Accidents are said to inhere in substance. Substance is said to “stand under” the accidents of which it is the subject.
If this seems to be getting too complicated, then we should realize that what Aristotle and St. Thomas have put into philosophical terminology is simply common sense. We know that somehow the mature tree possesses identity with the seed or seedling, despite the fact that there have been innumerable “accidental” but very real changes in its being. The only way of explaining this “substantial” identity in the midst of all this change is to philosophically and scientifically posit this distinction between substantial and accidental being. Without this distinction the whole concept of substantial reality is lost, not only to science, but also to simple human experience and values. All notion of substantial reality becomes lost in the ever present reality of change.
At the same time, this real distinction between accidental and substantial being is equally important for us to explain change in the midst of permanence. This is a philosophical problem which paralyzed much of Greek Philosophical thinking up to Aristotle. Such philosophers as Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Zeno taught that all change was an illusion (only immutable Being was real – shades of philosophical Hinduism)), while the philosopher Heraclitus taught the equally absurd doctrine that only change was real – there is no stability or substantiality to anything.
This problem with explaining the relationship between substantial permanence and real change does not, however, reach to the depths of the folly of pre-Aristotelian Greek philosophy. What this philosophy effected was a profound intellectual and spiritual disorder within the soul of Western man, a disorder which has plagued Christianity throughout its 2,000 year history, and which now appears to be virtually fully triumphant. Therefore, it will be much to our advantage to spend some time in examination of this disorder in order to facilitate understanding of its Thomistic remedy.
The Greek Perversion
It is part of the intellectual accouterment of every American school boy and girl that much of what constitutes the modern values which we hold most dear – freedom, democracy, the primacy of respect due to the individual rather than the collective, and the real beginnings of what we recognize as rational thought and philosophy – began with the Greeks. Somehow, according to this popular perspective, it all boils down to the idea that what we owe to the Greeks is some deep internal change within the mind and heart of man by which science began its long march of triumph over superstition.
All serious historians of science and its affects upon modern thought conclude that it all began with the “Greek miracle” over 2500 years ago, specifically with the philosopher Thales and the MIlesian School . It is quite wrong to place these early Greek philosophers in a category which only perceives their errors and naivety. What began with them was something radically new and different. It consisted in a proposal to the human spirit that truth was to be found only in that which human reason could discover and confirm. Daniel-Rops put it this way:
“Athens and Jerusalem are the epitome of two contradictory attitudes of the spirit: one calls only on the intellect for an explanation of the world, of life, and of man, while the other relies exclusively on faith to reach the same ultimate goal. In the fifth century B.C., these two paths are pursued independently, totally oblivious to each other. They will eventually collide…; the ultimate showdown was to build up through a lengthy journey across history.”
All of this is true enough. Yet I also believe this explanation does not truly penetrate to the real depths of what its admirerers call the “Greek Miracle,” but which I prefer to call the “Greek Inversion” (which is at the same time a profound perversion).
Virtually all of the early Greek philosophers practiced one form or another of a very strange scientific reductionism. Imagine, for instance, gazing at two very different things standing next to one another – let us say, the extraordinary thing that is a fully flowering peach tree and a very large boulder - and concluding that the substantial natures of both of these things are reducible to water. You would then have the “science” of the Greek philosopher Thales. Or, picture a large substantial thing called an elephant, and imagine that its substance is entirely reducible to air, and you would have the science of Anaximenes. Finally, but certainly not exhausting the list, imagine that all things, including water and ice, are reducible to fire, and you have the Greek Perversion as practiced by Heraclitus.
Now, we should realize that something truly extraordinary and perverted has happened to the intellectual soul of man in order for him to do such a thing – something on the scale of that original perversion and inversion by which Adam and Eve attempted to become “like gods” in replacing God as the source of the knowledge of good and evil. The one thing which we should notice that all of these “sciences” have in common is their philosophical monism – the reduction of everything in the universe to a unity of one material substance. The interesting thing is that each of these gentlemen also considered their “One” divine. Heraclitus even identified his “fire” with “logos” – the divine principle of reason in the universe. All of this would indeed seem to be the ultimate form of that idolatry described by St. Paul in Romans 1, in which man “changed the glory of the incorruptible God” into the likeness of created things. The significant difference, however, is that these new objects of man’s “glorification” are not the idols of birds, beasts, and snakes which we associate with the Old Testament concept of idolatry, but rather idols concocted of his own ideas, conceptualizations, and quantifications. Idolatry, in other words, has been fully internalized, and in this process the entire cosmos has been inverted.
The roots of this fundament inversion – this turning of everything upside down – lie in what might be called a fundamental “philosophical idolatry”: the identification of accidental reality with substance. This might at first be a little difficult to see. Water, for instance, is not an accident, but rather a real substance. But science (or the reductive philosophy that accompanies it) never knows water as water, just as it never knows man as man or atom as atom. If Thales had really known water as water he would never have tried to make it into a peach tree or a boulder. Science can only know the quantification (and the other 9 categories of accidental being) of a thing. Pythagoras, because of this inbuilt reality of the scientific method, even went so far as making “number” the substantial essence of all things. But in identifying the accidents of the things with their substantial nature – whether those accidents are of water, air, fire, number, or atoms – and in identifying the accidents of any one of these substances as the unitary substance behind all created reality, reality is perfectly inverted. Such “science” makes accidents into substance, and makes substance into an accidental appearance for which we have no explanation except the subjectivity of our own minds. Thus we end up in that philosophical idealism which will plague Western man from Plato through all the nightmare of relatively modern Western Philosophy – from the Nominalism of Ockham to contemporary Phenomenalism.
This whole tradition of reductive analytical science can be viewed as sort of a “diabolical transubstantiation.” After engaging in such analysis, accidents remain as the real substance, and our normal perception of substantial reality is reduced to “appearances.” Analytical science then becomes the perfect Anagram of reality, in which the “word” or “logos” of God’s creation is perfectly inverted, turned upside down, and read backward. I fully believe that the same force which draws a Man to say the Mass backward or invert a Crucifix is the same as that which was at the source of the “Greek Miracle.”
In other words, what is effected by the Greek Perversion is not, as postulated by Daniel-Rops, merely a substitution of rational knowledge for faith. Rather, what occurs is the most profound perversion of the inner consciousness and intellect [and thus “rationality” itself) of man at a level which is bound eventually to destroy any possibility of faith in God. This, of course, is Satan’s Master Plan. He desires not only the destruction of myriads of individual souls, but also that final alteration of human consciousness which makes it impossible not only to believe in God, but even to desire Him.
In the ancient Greek world, this reductionism reached its pinnacle in the Atomism of Leucippus, Democritus and, most of all, Epicurus, who formulated a logical structure to the theory of Atomism which would remain practically unchanged for the next 2,000 years. With Atomism, philosophical Idealism is in a very real sense completed. Substance becomes totally invisible and unrelated to normal human perception, objective reality ceases to exist as something graspable by the human intellect, subjectivity and idealism triumph, and, matter replaces God as being eternal and infinite.
With some notable exceptions, Atomism was suppressed in the West by Christian realism and the power of the Church from the 1st century AD until the time of the Renaissance. Since the Renaissance consisted largely of the “reawakening” of Greek and Roman culture and thought, the reemergence of Atomism was bound to happen. It exploded upon the scene at the very beginning of the Renaissance in the person of William of Ockham. The great significance of Ockham is that his Atomism was united to his Nominalism, and thus constituted a specific attack upon the metaphysics of St. Thomas. From that point we can gaze upon an ever-increasing tide of Atomism engulfing the West – people like Bruno, Bacon, Galileo, Gassendi, Descartes, and onward through all the empiricists, phenomenologists, etc. We must also include Luther among the Nominalists – he was educated at the University of Erfurt, which was under the control of professors who were Nominalists. Luther himself detested Thomism and opted for the Nominalism of Ockham, which denied the minds ability to grasp universals and the substantial forms of real things.
The immediate victim of the Greek Inversion is the epistemological (epistemology is the branch of philosophy which deals with how we know things, and with the validity of our knowledge) health of man’s mind itself. To convince a man that what he ordinarily perceives as substantive is only subjective, and that what is truly substantive are the reductive formulations, particles, or waves of scientific analysis is to destroy the reliability and objectivity of all of man’s perception and knowledge. The ultimate victim, however, of this intellectual nightmare is faith and trust in God Himself. If God created man to see delusions, then the ultimate delusion must be the trustworthiness of God Himself and His Revelation.
What began as ambrosia for wooly-headed philosophers 2500 years ago is now the daily bread of our children. Every child in the public educational system of this country is taught a reductive scientism which produces in them a state of epistemological schizophrenia. And since one can only will on the basis of what one knows, this also results in increasingly widespread moral inversion and perversion.
If we wish to know why we have with us the wholesale destruction of what was once Christian civilization; if we wish to know why we now have the murders of millions of the unborn every year, wholesale pornography, child-abuse (and yes, priestly pedophilia), rampant homosexuality, children murdering their fellow students and teachers in school shootings, the drug problem, increased suicide rates, a vast loss of civil courtesy and honesty, the virtual total loss of all public morality, and an endless list of other evils, we need only to look at the common link that connects all these evils. Human beings and societies have simply lost that basic spirituality and rationality founded upon belief in the substantial reality of man’s natural perception, which in turn has profoundly undermined man’s ability to believe in any notion of objective, absolute Truth. Consequently, they have also lost the moral will capable of following through upon what the mind perceives to be absolutely true. This loss of mind and will is the absolutely logical fruit of a worldwide scientific "ambience" which reduces all of creation and all human beings and their activities to blind material forces. Nothing is absolute, nothing is substantial, and the human heart and mind react with confusion, despair, irrationality, perversion, and violence.
The Thomistic Remedy
The Greek perversion has as its root cause one fundamental metaphysical error: belief that the nature of substance is quantifiable by the human mind. It was the genius of Aristotle and St. Thomas to see that this is not the case. But such a conclusion should not have taken genius. It is really a matter of common sense. The notion, for instance, that the marvelous substance which we call water could in any way be equated with, or reduced to, a particular atomic structure is absolutely absurd. There is simply no reasonable way that the human mind can equate electrons, spinning at comparatively immense distances around protons and neutrons, with what it knows as the substance water.
But there remains one more level to be explored in our attempt to understand the metaphysical constitution of created, material substances. The proper distinction between substantial and accidental being, while freeing us from the absurdity of trying to equate substance with any sort of quantification or measurement, does not yet reveal to us what substance is in itself. It does not reach to the depths of the reality constituted by physical things. It therefore remains for us to look more deeply into the reality of substance itself.
The Thomistic-Aristotelian term which explains the nature of substance is hylemorphism, this word being composed of two Greek words (hyle and morphe), meaning matter and form respectively. In scholastic terminology, we would say that any physical substance is the union of primal matter with substantial form. The philosopher Paul Glenn offers an explanation of these two principles of any physical substance:
“Now all bodies – solid, liquid, gaseous, living, non-living – are at one in this point: they are bodies. There is something, therefore, in all bodies, some substratum, some substantial principle, which is common to them: it makes bodies. There is also in bodies something substantial which distinguishes them into different species or essential kinds of bodies. By reason of the first substantial principle each body is a body; by reason of the second substantial principle each body is this essential kind of body. The first substantial principle is called Prime Matter; the second is called Substantial Form." (The History of Philosophy, p. 90-91).
There is a point to be made here which is absolutely crucial to our discussion concerning the nature of all created things. The reader will remember that in the Aristotelian-Thomistic scheme of things there are only ten categories of being – one of substance and nine of accidents. We are now at the point of analyzing physical substance itself. We are therefore ontologically “below” or “previous” to any category of being. Substantial Form and Prime Matter are not to be considered as in any way independent being, or as in any way “existents” previous to their union in some particular substance. Substantial Form and Primary Matter, while being totally real and necessary to our understanding of the nature of any physical thing, and of God’s creative action, are not in themselves to be considered any sort of being. They are, in the terminology of St. Thomas, principles of being.
And yet we know that these principles of being are absolutely necessary to our understanding any physical thing. It is our everyday experience that when we encounter any substantial thing, we are face to face with something that must have a form which makes it what it is and not something else. A cow is a cow, and not a man or molecule of water, or a banana. Yet this form is not identifiable with anything (including atomic structure) that we can quantify or with any of the other accidental categories of being. At the same time, we also encounter the fact that this thing is “material”, and that the form itself would not exist without being informed in matter. It is therefore integral to all our knowledge of created, physical things that these two principles of being are real. And since these principles cannot be categorized as any sort of existent being, it is at this point that any created substance devolves upon God’s creation of all things from nothing. It is here that the human intellect hovers over what scripture refers to as the glorious, mysterious, hidden, and secret work of God. We must be clear, however, that these two principles of created being are not in any way to be identified with God’s Being. They are the first principles of being encountered by the human intellect within creation itself.
With these two principles, we also stand at the source of all integrity and truth in philosophical knowledge. We are at that point where the human mind assents to two truths which are absolutely essential to both human and divine integrity. These two truths are:1) that every created substance is what it is simply because God willed its creation, as such, out of nothing and, 2) that God is absolutely distinct from all created reality. These two truths are encapsulated in one absolutely defined dogma of the Catholic Faith: Creation ex nihilo. And it is here where, I think, all heresy begins.
It is this wondrous, mysterious, and hidden point that human hubris finds so difficult to leave alone. There can be no creation ex nihilo if this point is violated, and yet it is astounding the extent to which Christian philosophers of all sorts of stamps and denominations, who would never have admitted to denying the doctrine of God’s creation from nothing, have violated this point in their metaphysics.
Reductive science is the most destructive heresy of our times. But it is more than a heresy. It is, as I have already pointed out, an ambience, a poisoned atmosphere, which modern man takes in with virtually every breath. This poison convinces modern man not only that material realities are reducible to accidental and quantifiable being, but it also creates that intellectual ambience which convinces him that he himself is reducible to accidental properties – that his love is reducible to hormonal reactions; his aspirations for truth reducible to conditioned responses; his belief in God a neurological reaction to fear and uncertainty.
But its most destructive effect is that it eliminates that fundamental mysteriousness about life and creation which leads a person to think about and hunger after God. This is why there is now so much indifference towards God. And this is also why, despite all the scientific and technological advance of our time, man becomes more and more confused not only as to his own nature, but also as to the nature of the smallest substance. It is not that analytical science is intrinsically evil, but rather that it is intrinsically superficial simply because quantitative analysis can never touch or understand the nature of any substance created by God out of nothing.
That modern, reductive analytical science has generated superficiality, confusion, and despair is not my conclusion alone. Anyone interested in this subject would do well to read John Horgan’s best-selling book The End of Science (Broadway Books, 1996). Mr. Horgan, former senior writer at Scientific American, interviewed several dozen of the most famous and prize-winning scientists in the world as to their views regarding the “meaning of science”, the “end of science”, etc. He discovered and chronicles what he calls a world of “ironic” science: a world in which virtually no one is sure of any reality, or that there even is such a thing; there is total confusion in regard to the science of epistemology – whether there is or can be any true correspondence between the human mind and objective reality (or whether this is even a valid distinction or question); there appears to be a radical discontinuum between the world of ordinary human experience and perception and the “scientific” apprehension of things; and yet most, including Mr. Horgan, still continue to believe in the supremacy of analytical science as an “unfolder” of the depths of reality, while at the same time holding to a contemptuous view of religious faith (and certainly Thomistic philosophy).
This is the world that science has built, and it is the world which now faces a decay and dissolution which will make any previous holocaust appear miniscule. The "scientific" experiments of Communism and Nazism are only mild precursors and foreshadowers of what is yet to come unless the hold is broken upon this "Brave New Scientific World," and we return to a truly Christian civilization, which achieved perfection of intellectual expression in the great synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas.
In Him We live, and Move, and Are
At the very center of the magnificent Thomistic philosophical understanding of man and his analogical relationship to God is the beautiful passage from the book of Acts in which St. Paul, while addressing the Athenians, proclaims:
“That they should seek God, if happily they may feel after him or find him, although he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and are.” (Acts 17:27)
The only philosophical approach, the only metaphysics, which makes possible this intimacy with God, without this in any way involving a false pantheistic identification of human nature with the Divine, is that understanding of creation which sees the substantial nature of all created substances as being the action of God creating and sustaining them out of nothing every moment of their existence. St. Thomas writes:
"I answer that, God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident; but as an agent is present to that upon which it works…Now since God causes this effect in things not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being; as light is caused in the air by the sun as long as the air remains illuminated…. Therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it, according to its mode of being Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly." (Q. 8, A.1).
Again, Thomas writes: "He is in all things as giving them being, power, and operation,” this is in accord with the passage from the Book of Isaiah: "Lord…Thou hast wrought all our works in us. (Isaias 26: 12).
Again, all of this makes sense. The Infinitude and Perfection of God require that absolutely nothing in the universe exist independent of Him. In the Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul writes:
"For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created by him and in him." (Col 1:16).
This intimacy between man and the creative-sustaining power and presence of God has immense consequences for the integrity and reliability of the human mind. St. Thomas writes:
“And thus we must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types. (I, 84, 5).
In other words, the reason we possess a true knowledge of substances is because God created the intellectual light that is within us in such a way that, despite the fact that our minds possess no innate knowledge at birth, they are created and structured in such a way as to perceive the substantial nature of things whose types or substantial forms exist eternally in the mind of God. In other words, with the metaphysics and epistemology of St. Thomas, the whole world becomes real once again. At the same time, the world of epistemological skepticism which began with the Greeks, blossomed in the philosophy of Descartes, flowered into subjective madness with Kant, and invaded the Church in the form of Phenomenalism – all this subjectivism, and the mental confusion and relativism which are its fruit, are put to route. In other words, sanity is restored to the human race.
But much more is given to us through Thomistic philosophy than mere natural sanity. Man has once against been connected, in the deepest faculty of his soul - his intellect – to God. Man’s knowledge is reliable because it is rooted in a participated likeness in the light of God’s intellect. And because we can now truly believe that man sees creation as God sees it, we can now also believe in the possibility of man seeing God even as man is seen by God.
God, Whose intimacy to us is such that He sustains us in our natural being every moment of our lives, has yet willed for us a union with Him which infinitely surpasses our natural being and power. He has willed our deification – the vision of, and communion with, His Divine Essence.
In order to philosophically and theologically penetrate into how this can be possible we must once again emphasize the extent to which the concept of "being" and “analogy of being” is absolutely central to our understanding of both God and man.
God is the One Supreme Being and, as we have seen, this “Being” possesses a specific Nature. God created man in His own image and, therefore, the fundamental principle of man's existence, as it is in God, is the principle of being – a being with a specific nature. Who man is, is determined by God creating his substantial form or essence out of nothing. Like God, man's essence we find expressed in his nature. And so we say that man is created in the image of God because he possesses a spiritual soul with the faculties of intellect and Will. The proper object of the intellect is truth; the highest expression of the will is love. Therein we have what Catholic theologians term "the Analogy of Being, in that man is created with the faculties and the destiny to image his God Who is Truth and Love.
This truth is immensely important for understanding man's relationship to God, and the possibility of his deification. The essence of God is not totally incomprehensible to man. The essence of God is transcendent, but not remote. As we have seen, the Analogy of Being provides us with a way of understanding that there is an intimate relationship between our highest values and Who God is in His Essence. It also provides us, as we shall see, with the ability to understand that there is a certain proportion (St. Thomas' word) between God and man which is the basis upon which God's Grace can enable us to see and be united with His very Essence in the Beatific Vision.
This vision of the Essence of God is made possible, first of all, because God is not unknowable, but, on the contrary, is infinitely knowable. St. Thomas writes:
“Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable.” (I, 12, A.1).
As we have seen, this concept concerning the infinite “knowability” of God is in direct opposition to the rest of the world’s major religions.
Second, this vision of the Essence of God is possible because there is true proportion between the intellect of man and the Essence of God. This "proportion" extends to the possibility of the Vision of the Divine Essence. St. Thomas, in Summa Contra Gentiles, LIV, writes:
"There is indeed proportion between the created intellect and understanding God, a proportion not of measure, but of aptitude, such as of matter for form, or cause for effect. In this way there is no reason against there being in the creature a proportion to God, consisting in the aptitude of an intelligent being for an intelligible object, as well as of effect in respect of its cause."
This proportion (a proportion of aptitude in accordance with the analogy of being) is also why, as St. Thomas says, and as we have already discussed, the positive Names of God such as Essence, Being, Love, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty apply to God substantially. In other words, the highest values of which the human intellect can conceive bear an actual proportion to Who God Is. And this is also the reason why the Light of Glory is able to raise the created intellect to the direct Vision of God's Essence. St. Thomas further writes:
"Moreover, this light raises the created intellect to the vision of God, not on account of its affinity to the divine substance, but on account of the power which it receives from God to produce such an effect: although in its being it is infinitely distant from God, as the second argument stated. For this light unites the created intellect to God, not in being but only in understanding." (Ibid).
The human intellect, in other words, created in the image of God and bearing a proportion of aptitude to the vision of God, also bears the aptitude to receive the Grace of Glory from God which will enable it to see God's Essence. Again, in Article 5 of Question 12, St. Thomas writes:
"On the contrary, It is written: In thy light we shall see light (Ps. xxxv. 10).
I answer that, Everything which is raised up to what exceeds its nature, must be prepared by some disposition above its nature; as, for example, if air is to receive the form of fire, it must be prepared by some disposition for such a form. But when any created intellect sees the essence of God, the essence of God itself becomes the intelligible form of the intellect. …And this is the light spoken of in the Apocalypse (xxi. 23). The glory of God hath enlightened it – vis. the society of the blessed who see God. By this light the blessed are made deiform – that is, like to God, according to the saying: When He shall appear we shall be like to Him, because we shall see Him as He is (1 John, ii. 2)."
St. Thomas gives us the following description of the blessed in Heaven:
"But the blessed possess these three things in God; because they see Him, and in seeing Him, possess Him as present, having the power to see Him always; and possessing Him, they enjoy Him as the ultimate fulfillment of desire." (Ibid).
This Vision of the Divine Essence is not to be confused with "comprehending" God in all His Fullness. Again, St. Thomas:
"God, whose being is infinite, as was shown above, is infinitely knowable. Now no created intellect can know God infinitely. For the created intellect knows the divine essence more or less perfectly in proportion as it receives a greater or lesser light of glory. Since therefore the created light of glory received into any created intellect cannot be infinite, it is clearly impossible for any created intellect to know God in an infinite degree. Hence it is impossible that it should comprehend God." (Ibid, A.7).
In other words, because we are granted the eternal vision of God’s Essence does not at all mean that we will ever totally comprehend Him. This, again, is a beautiful affirmation of our humanity which will not be destroyed, but only perfected, in Heaven. Even in terms of human relationships we speak of really coming to know a person, of somehow having seen to the very core of who he or she is, and of being united in love, without this in any way meaning that we possess total comprehension of all that is in that person’s mind and heart. In other words, man does not comprehend God, not because His Essence in unknowable, but because He is infinitely knowable and therefore never subject to full comprehension from a finite being.
We thus have the perfect Catholic solution as to how the human person can come to full union with God in the Beatific Vision, and be in complete and Eternal possession of the Vision of the Divine Essence, without this union or vision in any way involving a pantheistic confusion of the human and Divine.
God’s Will, Man’s Free Will, and Predestination
We have spent a good deal of time and space establishing the primacy of the intellect, and the consequent primacy of truth over all other human values. This does not at all devalue the other great faculty of the human soul – the will; nor does it undermine the immense importance of its primary operation, which is love. Love is humble. It does not seek a primacy, but only union with the Beloved in all Truth.
Our study up to this point has revealed the tremendous intellectual disorientation common to the thought processes of modern man. Since, according to St. Thomas (and simple common sense), man can only will or choose what he knows, and as he knows, then we might fully expect that man’s will has suffered a corresponding corruption; and that his loves, which depend upon these choices, should, to a very great extent also be perverted.
It is not, however, only his individual choices in regard to particular acts which suffer from this corruption. Rather, this disorientation reaches down into the deepest recesses of modern man’s understanding of the nature of the will itself, and to the nature of man’s freedom as embodied in the concept of “free will.”
To orientate ourselves properly in regard to this subject, we must begin by realizing that in considering the faculty of human will, and love, we have entered once again into the domain of “analogy of being” with the very Being of God. It is necessary, therefore, that we make the necessary distinctions involved in this analogy by beginning with the will of God
The first thing that we must understand about God’s will is that it has no cause. St. Thomas simply declares: In no wise has the will of God a cause.” (ST, I , Q.19, A.6).
It is therefore theologically wrong for us to apply a cause or an “in order to” to any of God’s actions. St. Thomas further writes:
“Now as God by one act understands all things in His essence, so by one act, He wills all things in His goodness. Hence, as in God to understand the cause is not the cause of His understanding the effect, for He understands the effect in the cause, so, in Him, to will an end is not the cause of His willing the means, yet He wills the ordering of the means to the end. Therefore, He wills this to be as means to that; but does not will this on account of that.” (Ibid, A.5).
Absolutely integral to God’s Infinitude and Omnipotence is the phrase which I have rendered in bold print in the above passage: “by one act, He wills all things.” Just as God’s Act is not subject to causation (determination by any source outside himself), so it is also not subject to time. God, and His act by which He wills all things, is eternal. It is wrong therefore to conceive of God as “waiting to see” what we will do before He acts. God did not wait to see what Adam and Eve would do in the Garden of Eden before He willed either their punishment, or the subsequent Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity which would accomplish man’s redemption. All this was known and willed with one act from eternity.
St. Thomas is also therefore clear as to the fact that God’s eternal Will does not depend on His foreknowledge of what His creatures will do. What He does, for instance, is in no way dependent upon our prayers. Such dependence would make God’s will “conditioned” and thus limited in some way by something outside Himself. Rather, our prayers, which are very much our own free acts and very necessary for our salvation, are eternally willed by God. We rightly speak of God hearing and answering our prayers, but He has heard and answered our prayers for all eternity in the depths and mystery of His eternal Will.
I realize that at this point the hackles of some readers may be rising. The question naturally arises, “Where, in all of this, is there room for human freedom?” We will address that question in a moment. First, however, I would like the reader to be convinced that what St. Thomas has written about God’s Will must be true if God is to be God. His Will must be free from all determination from without, and it must be universal and always fulfilled. In another passage, St. Thomas simply writes, “The will of God must needs always be fulfilled" (Ibid, A.6). Nothing can be made to happen “outside” God’s Will. This should be a “simple” truth which any Christian, understanding the Infinitude of God, should acknowledge readily. This must be the first truth which we keep in mind, and we must keep it there all through our examination of all other theological and philosophical truths which are somehow related to the question of God’s Will.
How, then, does human freedom fit into all this? Here, again, St. Thomas is faithful to common sense: man definitely possesses free will. In order to make this clear, Thomas offers the following explanation:
“In order to make this evident [that man has free will], we must observe that some things act without judgment; as a stone moves downwards; and in like manner all things which lack knowledge. And some act from judgment, but not a free judgment; as brute animals. For the sheep, seeing the wolf, judges it a thing to be shunned, from a natural and not a free judgment, because it judges, not from reason, but from natural instinct. And the same thing is to be said of any judgment of brute animals. But man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things.” (Ibid, Q.83, A. 1).
In other words, free will does not operate in a vacuum, or as being something free from all causation. It proceeds “from some act of comparison in the reason.” There are therefore all sorts of causes involved in our free choice of a course of action: the knowledge we possess, habits we have developed, environmental influences, rewards or punishments perceived as a consequence, etc. Even when something that we do “makes no sense” to the rest of the world, it should, if it is to be a truly human act, make sense to us. And this phrase makes sense indicates that there is a reason for what we do, which in turn simply indicates a cause for our decision and action. In fact, a choice which is merely random or truly “makes no sense” is not at all associated with the common-sense notion of a free human act. Rather, it is something either brutish and non-human, or an act of pure rebellion; and there is no act that is less free than the autonomous act of rebellion for its own sake.
This is why the Catholic concept of free will requires so much more than the ideas of independence, autonomy, or self-directedness which most often constitute its secular definition. The Martyr-Saint whose death “makes no sense” to the world because he gives up everything that the world considers of value, including life itself, is the supreme embodiment of human freedom. And yet this act which seems so senseless and causeless to the world is, in fact, supremely contingent upon the saints understanding of Who God is. It is, in other words, supremely caused, while at the same time, being the most truly free act that a human being can make.
Now, if we can thus see that free will is so intricately dependent upon various contingencies and causations in this world, then we should have no problem believing that the exercise of this freedom falls totally within the ambit of God’s Will and eternal Providence. Thus, St. Thomas writes:
“Free-will is the cause of its own movement, because by his free-will man moves himself to act. But it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither for one thing to be cause of another need it be the first cause. God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes [acts of free choice] He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.” (Ibid, Q.83, A.1).
St. Thomas, in other words, saw no contradiction in holding to the following two truths: that we produce acts which are truly from a free will and, that God is the primary cause of these acts. St. Thomas states:
“Now there is no distinction between what flows from free will, and what is of predestination; as there is no distinction between what flows from a secondary cause [which is what we are in our acts of free will] and from a first cause [which is what God is]. For the providence of God produces effects through the operation of secondary causes, as was above shown (Q.22, A.3). Wherefore, that which flows from free-will is also of predestination. (Ibid, Q.23, A.5).
Further, St. Thomas explains that this universal causation of God does not impose a necessity on human will which would violate its freedom:
“The divine will imposes necessity on some things willed but not on all….Since then the divine will is perfectly efficacious, it follows not only that things are done which God wills to be done, but also that they are done in the way that He wills. Now God wills some things to be done necessarily, some contingently [as through our free wills], to the right ordering of things, for the building up of the universe. Therefore to some effects He has attached necessary causes, that cannot fail; but to others defectable and contingent causes, from which arise contingent effects. Hence it is not because the proximate causes [such as our free will] are contingent, but because God has prepared contingent causes for them, it being His will that they should happen contingently.” (Ibid, Q. 19, A.8).
In other words, because of the cultural inheritance of the past 500 years – dominated by such events as the Protestant, French, American, and innumerable other Revolutions, we have inherited ideas concerning human freedom which make it virtually impossible to understand the true relationship of human free will to God’s Will. As Christians, we are willing to accept that God created everything out of nothing. Further, we can accept that He now sustains us by a continuing act which is like unto this initial act of creation ex nihilo, and that without this continuing act of creative causation we would immediately fall back into nothingness. We are, in other words, willing to submit everything that exists to the act of God’s primary causation and determination. Everything, that is, except one thing: the exercise of our free will.
The other barrier which prevents the acceptance of the truth that “God wills all things” is the presence of evil in the universe. We need, therefore, to examine the existence of evil and its relationship to God’s Will.
It is integral to the eternal Will of God that we be free, and it is also integral to the Infinity of God that for all eternity our acts of free will, even though they might be defective or evil, do not escape His universal causation or predestination. We may never say that God directly wills evil, but we may certainly say that God wills the good of the existence and freedom of human beings, to whom evil is accidentally attached as a defect.
This is not really as complicated as we might at first think. Again, common sense can lead us to some understanding.
Let us imagine that I am an Old Testament patriarch who has the power of life and death over my son. This son has committed many grave sins, and shows no signs of immanent repentance. Because I will not to kill him, but rather will that he should live, does that mean that I will the evil that he continues to do? Let us be quite honest about this. It certainly cannot be said that I am myself willing evil. On the other hand it can, in a certain sense, be said that I am willing that what is evil should actually happen, simply because I will the continued existence of my son.
Transferring this same scenario to God, the first type of will (“will no evil”) is called by St. Thomas, God’s “antecedent will”. The second type of will (“will the continuance of a good to which evil is attached as an accident”) St. Thomas calls, “God’s consequent will.” We can rightly say therefore that God (or our patriarch) does not in any sense will evil, but at the same time we can say that even the sins which this son commits do not escape God’s causation, will, and predestination. Of course in saying all this we must be careful to keep in mind the absolute Unity of God. From a human standpoint we distinguish between antecedent and consequent wills, but we must maintain their eternal Unity in God. This should not be hard for us to do – we can recognize this unity among apparent complexity even in the will and action of our fictional patriarch; and we can further understand that it compromises neither the unity of his will, nor the goodness of his being.
Above all, we must understand that nothing in our freedom escapes from God. Adding somewhat to the words of St. Paul, we may say, “In Him we live and move and are, and exercise our free will.” As long as we are in accord with His Being and Life we thrive. To detract in any way, to exert our independence in any way from His light and truth is, is to initiate a spiraling movement into darkness and decay. The irony, of course, is that those Promethean-like figures such as Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, or even a Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, who imagined themselves to be “free” in proclaiming their rebellion or indifference to God and His ordered plan for this world, were every moment of their lives subject to God’s causation and predestination.
It is an immense perversion, therefore, to in any way assert the independence of man from God. I think that scripture offers the perfect litmus test for our spiritual health in regard to this absolutely fundamental truth of our Faith:
“And whom he predestinated them he also called. And whom he called them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Rom 8:30)
If we inwardly rejoice at this infallible link of causation that links our acts of free will to God’s eternal causation and predestination, then we truly are in spiritual accord with what it means to say that “God is all in all” and, consequently, with that truth absolutely central to the spiritual life that our freedom “lives and moves and has its being” only in God. If, on the other hand, we in any way draw back from the import of these words, then somehow we are severely compromising the foundation of our entire Faith.
There is a flip-side to this perversion by which we somehow assert that man exercises his free will independent of God’s will. It consists in our attempts to reverse this dependency by placing a “necessity” in God in His relation to His creation. In other words, in one way or another, we attempt to bind God’s will to His creature.
The argument goes something like this: “Unquestionably, God willed to create. If God’s Will is identical with His Essence, and His Essence is had by Him necessarily (‘I am Who I am’), then it follows that the act of will to create is also one of necessity.” Such an argument amounts to an attempt to invert the whole order of creation by profoundly violating the Freedom of God, and the gratuitousness of His relationship to creatures.
It certainly is true that God's essence "is had by him necessarily." St. Thomas writes:
"Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being [God] having of itself its own necessity." (I, Q.II, A.3).
But we must not confuse the necessity which is integral to "Who God is" with His relationship to His creation.
All arguments which claim that Absolute Divine Simplicity and Unity require identifying God's "will to create" with Divine necessity, fail to understand how necessity and freedom are One in God. And this, in turn, is rooted in the failure to understand that necessity and freedom do not function in God the same as they do in man.
In man, exterior determinacy operates. Man's nature is determined by God. His life is largely determined by forces outside of himself. And yet man possesses a free will to make choices, especially those between good and evil.
In God, however, necessity operates from within. As Thomas says in the above-quoted passage, God is the only being "having of itself its own necessity." It is very difficult for us to conceive of such a thing. From a human standpoint we are used to opposing freedom and necessity. But God has his necessity "of Himself." Therefore, all that constitutes His own “necessity” is freely willed and chosen by Him. God's freedom and His necessity are therefore one in His Absolute Divine Simplicity.
If Divine necessity in regard to "Who God is" (His Divine Nature) in no way compromises this being a totally free willing, then so much the more (in a manner of speaking) is there total freedom in God's exterior acts. St. Thomas writes:
"As the divine existence is necessary of itself, so is the divine will and divine knowledge; but the divine knowledge has a necessary relation to the thing known; not the divine will to the thing willed. The reason for this is that knowledge is of things as they exist in the knower; but the will is directed to things as they exist in themselves. Since then all other things have necessary existence inasmuch as they exist in God; but no absolute necessity so as to be necessary in themselves, in so far as they exist in themselves; it follows that God knows necessarily whatever He knows, but does not will necessarily what ever He wills." (I, Q. 19, A. 3).
God therefore possesses total freedom in regard to all things willed outside Himself.
Finally, I would imagine that there still exist in the minds of many readers questions concerning the meaning and efficacy of prayer. Simply stated, if God’s eternal will is immutable and infallible, then why do we pray?
St. Thomas’ answer runs as follows:
“I answer that, Among the ancients there was a threefold error concerning prayer. Some held that human affairs are not ruled by Divine providence; whence it would follow that it is useless to pray and to worship God at all: of these it is written (Malachi 3:14): You have said: He laboreth in vain that serveth God. Another opinion held that all things, even in human affairs, happen of necessity, whether by reason of the unchangeableness of Divine providence, or through the compelling influence of the stars, or on account of the connection of causes: and this opinion also excluded the utility of prayer. There was a third opinion of those who held that human affairs are indeed ruled by Divine providence, and that they do not happen of necessity; yet they deemed the disposition of Divine providence to be changeable, and that it is changed by prayers and other things pertaining to the worship of God….
“In order to throw light on this question we must consider that Divine providence disposes not only what effects shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed. Now among other causes human acts are the causes of certain effects. Wherefore it must be that men do certain actions, not that thereby they may change the Divine disposition, but that by those actions they may achieve certain effects according to the order of the Divine disposition: and the same is to be said of natural causes. And so is it with regard to prayer. For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate [beseech] that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers in other words that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give, as Gregory says (Dial. 1. 8).”
In other words, prayer is not a means of changing God’s will, but of entering into full unity and communion with God’s eternal will for us. It is the premier act by which we immerse our freedom in God by seeking all things from Him and through Him. The truly extraordinary thing is that such prayer, as part of that process by which our free wills are brought into total accord with God’s election and predestination, culminates not in the loss of anything truly human, but rather in the very possession of God through the Beatific Vision.
The Way of Love
The primacy of Truth over Love in no way amounts to a denigration of love. Love must submit to Truth, or it becomes false love. On the other hand, it would be totally inappropriate to say that Truth must submit to love, simply because there are many false loves. It is, however, proper to say that the possession of truth without love is dead.
When speaking of love, we enter once more into a subject concerning which there is also an analogous relationship between God and man. It is therefore again necessary for us to explore the likenesses and distinctions involved.
There is possibly no Catholic concept more subject to confusion than is Love. The reason for this is that it is a word applied to two very different human faculties – the will (which St. Thomas calls the intellective appetite, because it stems from a free choice of that which the intellect perceives as good) and the passions. At least in English usage, we virtually never distinguish adequately between the two. We say “I love my wife,” “I would love a cup of coffee,” “I love the music of Bach,” “I have a special love for St.Teresa,” and “I love God,” all with equal aplomb. We can even say that “we love” things that are sinful (although we must be careful to make the Thomistic distinction that it is impossible to directly will or love evil in itself).
Let us first consider God’s Love. In God there are no passions. St. Thomas simply says, “He [God] loves without passion.” Now, this can be very hard for us as human beings to accept. But it must be so. The very word “passion” means to undergo or suffer something. It demands limitation and finitude in the subject who experiences such passion. God cannot be subject to such things. In other words, God’s love can only be of the will (the intellective appetency), and in no way subject to passion.
Human beings, of course, possess both that love which is properly considered a function of the will, and also those “loves” which are connected with passions and the feelings. We can, for instance, love God in the midst of total spiritual aridity, with no accompanying passion or feeling of love at all. Such love would be considered an act totally ascribable to the will (the intellectual appetite). This sort of love is very evident in the recently published letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It is the highest and most meritorious form of love simply because it continues to choose and will good towards the Beloved with no reward or consolations.
At the other end of the spectrum are those “loves” which are entirely the function of “undergoing” passions of the sensitive appetites. At this level we are at the stage of almost pure animality.
Most human acts of love are, of course, combined acts of both will and passion. This is one of the things which makes human life seem so complicated, and also makes the spiritual life so subject to deceptions. All of this complexity is simplified for us, however, when we come to an understanding of the Thomistic concept of appetency, in which all the various forms of love come to be seen as a movement within the human being towards what is perceived as good. Scripturally speaking, these various “loves” can all be seen as movements of the “Heart.” Spiritual integrity then becomes primarily a matter of where we choose to place our heart, and of bringing all of our loves into a unified pursuit of this goal.
This is why the intellectual vision of reality offered to us by St. Thomas is such a delight to the human heart that is able to perceive it, and therefore such a powerful means to accomplish this integrity. It draws all the scattered forces of our being, and the multiplicity of our loves, into the simple intention of desiring to see and love the God Who is revealed to us through this vision.
Finally, we must also yield to Love its own form of primacy. Having, as it were, put Love “in its place” – not by reducing its profound importance, but rather by subjecting it to Truth – we are now in a position to explore a “primacy” which is very much love’s own domain.
St. Thomas says that considered absolutely, the intellect must be seen as a higher faculty than the will. The Beatific Vision consists in the intellectual vision of the Divine Essence. The Beatific Vision is the supreme goal of all our faculties
But it is also true that, this side of death and the Beatific Vision, love possesses a kind of superiority that is very essential to our spiritual lives and growth. Basically, St. Thomas’ argument runs as follows. In this life we do not possess direct knowledge or vision of the Divine Essence. In other words, we do not here possess intellectual vision of God as He exists in Himself, but only a vision of faith, through the ideas and truths of which our minds are in possession. The will, however, “is inclined to the thing itself, as existing in itself.” (I, 82, A.3). It is able therefore to effect a much deeper union with God in this life. It is able to give itself in complete union to God. This “love” may or may not be accompanied by feeling, passions, ecstasy, etc. Most fundamentally, however, it must be seen as a choice of the will (the intellectual appetency), and not these passions. Here again, therefore, we see the primacy of the intellect and its perception of truth.
The story is told of St. Thomas, that kneeling before the Crucifix, after having written his great passages on the Eucharist, Our Lord appeared to him, told him that he had written well, and offered him a reward of anything he might ask. Thomas’s reply: “I will have Only Thyself.” This statement and prayer is a perfect image of the coming together of all man’s appetitive faculties in Christ. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that St. Thomas came to that point in his life where he announced that he had seen such things as to make all his writings appear to be as straw, or that on his deathbed he asked for the entirety of the Canticle of Canticles to be read aloud to him. The soul that comes this close to God in the grace of His love can no longer be happy with any discursive thought (despite its immense and necessary value on the way), but only with that divine poetry which hovers close to the direct vision of God. This is the divine fruit we must seek in all our intellectual efforts, and all our understandings of the Faith. We may think this love to be extraordinary. Yet such a love is the necessary state for all those who attain to salvation. Therefore, such intimacy with God has to be the primary desire of our lives, the constant object of our prayer, and the spiritual passion which motivates all our intellectual efforts towards seeing the Face of God. Such is the Heart of Catholicism.
In Christ, God became man, and therefore shares all our passions which are not subject to sin and ignorance. We will never again be alone in our physical weaknesses, pain, suffering, and tears. Yet it is also true that in the depth of His human “abandonment” – “God, God, why hast thou forsaken me” – the human nature of Christ made the same act of love which we must all make: the fundamental choice of God, independent of all passion and consolation. This is the way of true love.