Tuesday, May 09, 2006

the metaphysics of christian belief

Well, lemme tell ya, these papers were really stressfull! But only because I procrastinated so much! I'm done with all of them though and am now concentrating on my two remaining finals. Here's the first of a few I still need to post, my fifth one this semester: Sokolowski on Aquinas and the Metaphysics of Christian Belief. I really like Soko (as we call him), I used him on several papers this year.


In his book, The God of Faith & Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology,[1] Monsignor Robert Sokolowski pioneered what he calls the Theology of Disclosure. Briefly, in his own words, this is “the reflective study of how the Christian distinction between God and the world is presented to us.” This distinction is dependent on the distinctively Christian understanding of God that lies at the intersection of faith and reason; and this is the heart of the matter. Throughout the book, Sokolowski thoroughly and clearly treats the problem of faith and reason, a problem that concerns their compatibility and the tendency to either reduce faith to “rational thinking and to natural human experience” or to regard faith as “unreasonable and arbitrary.”[2]

“In chapter five [of Sokolowski’s book], the metaphysics of St. Thomas is interpreted as a development of the Christian distinction between God and the world.”[3] This allows us to move from a discussion of the Christian understanding of God – and the ways in which it is unique and different in light of the pagan understanding – toward discussions of: the differences and disclosures of natural and theological virtue and action; Sokolowski’s Theology of Disclosure; a reexamination of God’s existence; the Scriptures’ understanding of God; our experience of Him; and the Sacraments that bring all of this together. Thus, chapter five amounts to a critical step in the solution of the problem of faith and reason, of the Christian understanding of God, and the Christian distinction between God and the world.

Sokolowski grounds the chapter in Aquinas. He notes that Aquinas speaks of God as ipsum esse subsistens and describes all other beings as existing through a participation in esse. In other words, God is described as Subsistent Act of Existing Itself (or “existence in its fullness”) and creatures as having merely the act of existing. But, what does Aquinas mean by this?

First, in chapter one of his treatise, On Being and Essence,[4] Aquinas explains that “being can be attributed to anything concerning which an affirmative proposition can be formed.” In this way, we could call “blindness” a being because it is in the eye but it does not have an essence.[5] Aquinas describes essence as “that through which something is constituted in its proper genus or species” or “what a thing is.” It is what Aristotle calls quod quid erat esse, “the what a thing was to be,” that is, “that through which something is a certain kind of being.” Ultimately, essence is potential and must receive an actualizing principle, esse, to really exist in the world.[6]

Now, applying this to God, when we say that He is Subsistent Act of Existing Itself we mean that He is the one being whose essence is to exist; what He is equals that He is.[7] On the contrary, in chapter four of Aquinas’ treatise we see that a creature’s act of existence, its esse, is other than its essence: “every [such] essence or quiddity can be understood without its act of existing being understood. I can understand what a man or phoenix is, and yet not know whether or not it exists in the nature of things.” Aquinas then explains the reasonableness of the creature’s participation in esse:

It is impossible that the act of existing itself be caused by the form or quiddity... for then something would be the cause of itself and produce itself in existence, which is impossible. It is therefore necessary that everything whose act of existing is other than its nature have its act of existing from another.[8]

Why is this important? Because we must properly define the Christian understanding of God before we can move on to Sokolowski’s further treatment of this understanding and the Christian distinction.

Sokolowski adds that God is “the sheer act of esse subsistens, the sheer act of existing.” Also, “He is not confined to being this kind of thing as opposed to that kind. He is not a ‘kind’ of thing at all, only sheer esse.” Now, he is gradually setting up the distinction between God and man that he will develop throughout the rest of the chapter: “Between God and creatures there is no exclusion like the exclusion among finite beings.” Furthermore, at the beginning of the third paragraph he states that “Creatures then are limited in two ways.” Our train of thought was grounded on Aquinas and is now firmly set on a path of distinctions, a path on which we can now form responses to “the presentation of differences in which two things emerge as other to each other.”

We are always distinguishing, making distinctions, in our experience, but we cannot experience the distinction between God and the world. This is unlike the pagan understanding of the divine, because the world, the whole, was for them the “final context” and the divine was just as much a part of the world as the creatures. This repeats the uniqueness of God because his existence is understood as being possible without the world and independent of it.

Sokolowski then explains, interestingly enough, that Aquinas’ description of esse can only work in the Christian distinction between God and the world, i.e. in the “un-necessary-ness” of the world. Existence, esse, doesn’t dawn on the pagan mind because with it he would have to address non-existence which he could not fathom after having setup the world as the fullness of “place” or “stage,” or again, as Sokolowski earlier referred to it, the “final context.” Only with Christianity do we have a notion of existence (and therefore non-existence).

Next, Sokolowski presents a distinction between what we will call the “Christian Dilemma” and the Euthyphro Problem. In the Christian Dilemma,

[E]ither created natures are inherently arbitrary, and things seem to lose their natural necessity; or created natures are somehow integral and determined apart from God’s will, at least in their potentiality to be what they are, and God’s creative power seems to be confined by something outside himself.[9]

This is similar to the Euthyphro Problem, only with respect to essence (he also applies this dilemma to goodness and being capable of speech) rather than the pious and the loved. In the Platonic dialogue, Euthyphro, Socrates asks, “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”
[10] But, as problematic as these both may seem, they are only so because of our temptation to address them in the same limited context the pagans used. We must allow ourselves to think within a Christian “world-view”.[11]

Aquinas shows us how to avoid these dilemmas. In his “doctrine of the divine ideas” he explains that the ideas or forms in the mind of God are the “exemplars according to which things are created.” His use of the word “forms” here reminds us of Plato but in Plato’s doctrine things are not created according to the forms, they mirror them. And Aquinas himself explains that what he is describing is not what Plato had in mind. In chapter five of his treatise On Being and Essence, Aquinas says,

If we say God is only an act of existing, we do not necessarily fall into the error of those who have stated that God is that universal existence by which each thing formally exists. The act of existing which God is, is such that no addition can be made to it. Hence, by its very purity, His act of existing is distinct from every other act of existing.[12]

And this is precisely the point Sokolowski has been making all along. “ ‘What things are’ retains its necessity because the essences of things are the ways esse can be determined, but esse subsists only in God, so the basis for the determination of things is not distinct from him: it is his own existence.”

Sokolowski then reiterates the Christian distinction between God and the world, reminding us that philosophy can help theology make this distinction more explicit. We must be careful to have a proper understanding of the world and God; only through the cooperation of philosophy and theology can this be accomplished. Sokolowski then summarizes by saying that misunderstandings can be prevented by:
· Respect for the whole and its necessities;
· Awareness of God as ipsum esse subsistens and the language that this requires; and
· Studying the unique character of the God - whole distinction.

And once again, Sokolowski repeats the uniqueness of the Christian distinction: “diversities do not occur to the Christian sense of God precisely because it is defined, not by contrast to other beings in the world, but in contrast to the world as the whole.” Because God is pure esse and not pure “whatever a culture would wish him to have or be” (e.g. thinking, life, power, etc.) he is more universal and can be all for all.[13] The pagan understanding of the divine was so ingrained in a particular people or culture that if the god was separated from the people than the god was demolished. And if one culture assumed another than the assumed god was destroyed as well. On the contrary,

If the Christian distinction is correctly appreciated and correctly lived, then the cultural forms in which it is realized, the habits, music, language, gestures, work, and social order, the nuances of moral life and of human relationships, can be brought forward in their own excellence and still be in the service of Christian faith.”[14]

Toward the end of chapter five, Sokolowski presents one more important distinction but only briefly develops it. This is the distinction between Christian theology and Averroistic interpretations of Aristotle and brings us back to our Thomistic treatment of being and essence at the beginning of the chapter:

Averroƫs wrote with the intention of rescuing Aristotle from Neo-Platonic and religious impurities, especially as found in the works of Avicenna. In particular, whereas for Avicenna existence is an accident of essence, or in other words, the universal or form precedes the individual thing, for Averroƫs individual substances are the primary existents, and the distinction between them and their essence is the work of the mind.[15]

The other non-Christian doctrines he held where the eternity of the world, the absence of individual providence, and the doctrine of “merely collective immortality.” Because of these errors, Sokolowski adds, Aristotle was considered a threat to Christianity. Plato, though, was more widely accepted because his doctrines seemed more orthodox. But Sokolowski warns us against condemning Aristotle (and praising Plato) too quickly. We must be careful to make the proper distinctions here as well. Sokolowski echoes the clarification from Aquinas that we saw before: “oneness or goodness is what thinking catches glimpses of when it reaches the edge of rational order and tries to think about what lets the order be: but this letting be is not creation.” And finally, “the Christian sense of God is to be distinguished not only from natural necessities but from the oneness and goodness that permit such necessities to be what they are and to appear as they do.” Now that philosophy and metaphysics have gotten us this far, it is up to theology to take over and make this distinction.



[1] Catholic University of American Press, Copyright ©1995. All Sokolowski quotes are from chapter five: “The Metaphysics of Christian Belief.” Hereafter referred to as “Sokolowski”
[2] Sokolowski, p. xiii
[3] Sokolowski, p. xiv
[4] Selected Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, translated by Robert P. Goodwin, Library of Liberal Arts, Prentice Hall, Copyright ©1965. Hereafter referred to as “Aquinas”
[5] Aquinas, p. 34: “some things are said to be beings which do not have an essence, as is evident in privations.”
[6] Cf. Notes from Dr. Seaton, Metaphysics, 3-10-06
[7] Ibid.
[8] Aquinas, p. 55
[9] Sokolowski, p. 43
[10] Cf. Euthyphro 10a-11b from Five Dialogues, Second Edition, translated by G.M.A. Grube, Copyright ©2002 Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
[11] Seaton’s fourth pedagogical principle
[12] Aquinas, p. 58
[13] Cf. 1 Cor. 9:22 “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
1 Cor. 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
1 John 2:2 “and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
[14] Sokolowski, p. 48
[15] Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, “Averroism,” Copyright ©1996

No comments: