Archive for the ‘Metaphysics’ Category

Knowing God Through Love

The knowledge of God is often talked about in purely intellectual terms. Aquinas most definitely thinks that some knowledge of God is possible through rational reflection, as he expounds on in his notorious “Five Ways” whereby he offers several rational methods to argue for the existence of God. However, the Johannine tradition challenges intellectual renderings of our knowledge of the specifically Christian God:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

God is love. Picking up on this, Augustine writes in Book VIII of De Trinitate that it is by love that we arrive at the knowledge of God:

No other thing, then, is chiefly to be regarded in this inquiry, which we make concerning the Trinity and concerning knowing God, except what is true love, nay, rather what is love. . . For as there are two commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets, love of God and love of our neighbor . . . because he who loves God must both needs do what God has commanded, and loves Him just in such proportion as he does so; therefore he must needs also love his neighbor, because God has commanded it . . . the Law and the prophets hang on both precepts. But this, too, is because he who loves his neighbor must needs also love above all else love itself. But “God is love; and he that dwells in love, dwells in God.” Therefore he must needs above all else love God” (De. Trin, Bk. VIII, ch. 7, n. 10).

In other words, we come to know God when we love because the love by which we love is God’s very self. We need not look for God in nature, nor in argumentation, nor even in Scripture. True knowledge of God is derived rather from true love. When we love, we come to know God because it is the very presence of God in our heart which makes love possible.

This Augustinian formula became central in the 12th century in Peter Lombard’s definition of grace as found in Book I of the Sentences. It is the Holy Spirit, Lombard tells us, that is the love by which we love God and neighbor:

It has been said above and it has been shown by sacred authorities, that the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son by which they love each other and us. It must be added to this that the very same Holy Spirit is the love or charity by which we love God and neighbor. When this charity is in us, so that it makes us love God and neighbor, then the Holy Spirit is said to be sent or given to us; and whoever loves the very love by which he loves his neighbor, in that very thing loves God, because that very love is God, that is, the Holy Spirit (Bk. I, Dist. 17, v. 2).

In other words, for Lombard, Christian love (charity) is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so when we love, it is actually the Holy Spirit working in us that is loving with the same love that exists between God the Father and the Son.

Now, Aquinas will openly disagree with Lombard on this point. For Aquinas, charity is not the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but rather a habit created in the will by the Holy Spirit. For Aquinas, it is the human will that loves by virtue of the fact that the Holy Spirit renders the will capable of loving through the supernatural habit of charity:

it is evident that the act of charity surpasses the nature of the power of the will, so that, therefore, unless some form be superadded to the natural power, inclining it to the act of love, this same act would be less perfect than the natural acts and the acts of the other powers; nor would it be easy and pleasurable to perform. And this is evidently untrue, since no virtue has such a strong inclination to its act as charity has, nor does any virtue perform its act with so great pleasure. Therefore it is most necessary that, for us to perform the act of charity, there should be in us some habitual form superadded to the natural power, inclining that power to the act of charity, and causing it to act with ease and pleasure (II-II, q. 23, a. 2).

Despite this very significant disagreement between Lombard and Aquinas about what charity is, they are in agreement that love (charity) is made possible by an intense intimacy between God and humans. For Lombard, this intimacy is defined in terms of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; for Aquinas, it is expressed in terms of friendship and a communication of God’s happiness to us (II-II, q. 23, a. 1). For both, hearkening back to the Augustinian position, love is a critically important way in which we come to know God.

Ultimately, Augustine’s, Lombard’s, and Aquinas’s positions on love are metaphysical in nature. They are not saying that we consciously choose to know and love God when we love our neighbor. They are all trying to characterize the essence of human love in light of the fact that God has revealed Godself as love. But for all three, metaphysical reflection on the nature of love can lead us into a more conscious understanding of the God who makes love possible. As Augustine writes,

Let no one say, I do not know what I love. Let him love his brother, and he will love the same love. For he knows the love with which he loves, more than the brother whom he loves. So now he can know God more than he knows his brother: clearly known more, because more present; known more, because more within him; known more, because more certain. Embrace the love of God, and by love embrace God (De Trin Bk. VIII, ch. 8, v. 12).

The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).

Henri Bergson on Intuition

In my experience, Henri Bergson, one of the most influential philosophers of his age, is hardly remembered much less studied in the current period. I became interested in Bergson in light of my studies on Maritain’s theory of poetic intuition, which I believe has significant relevance for ethics. Maritain attended Bergson’s lectures and his own theory of intuition was influenced by Bergson.

Bergson outlines his theory of intuition in The Creative Mind. His main opponent in providing a theory of intuition is Immanuel Kant who held that absolute knowledge, and subsequently metaphysics, is impossible. According to Kant, the kind of knowledge metaphysics requires depends on the ability to perceive the transcendent. It requires a faculty which can grasp the essence of a thing. As Bergson notes,

And precisely because he disputed the existence of these transcendent faculties, Kant believed metaphysics to be impossible. One of the most profound and important ideas in the Critique of Pure Reason is this: if metaphysics is possible, it is through a vision and not through a dialectic. Dialectics leads to contrary philosophies; it demonstrates the thesis as well as the antithesis of antinomies. Only a superior intuition (which Kant calls an ‘intellectual’ intuition), that is, a perception of metaphysical reality, would enable metaphysics to be constituted (The Creative Mind 164).

The “dialectic” Bergson refers to is the ordinary process of human knowing, what Aquinas calls “discursion”:

the human, intellects obtain their perfection in the knowledge of truth by a kind of movement and discursive intellectual operation; that is to say, as they advance from one known thing to another. But, if from the knowledge of a known principle they were straightway to perceive as known all its consequent conclusions, then there would be no discursive process at all (I.58.3).

Take, for example, the mug in front of me holding my steaming cup of hot coffee. I can see certain parts of the mug, and when I turn it or lift it (carefully, since it is holding hot coffee!) I can see some of the parts I couldn’t previously see. But I can’t see the mug in one pure vision, and even less so does it seem that I can penetrate to what the mug is. I see its properties and I piece together the idea of the mug in front of me. This is discursion, which is contrasted with pure knowledge in which all things that can be known about an object are grasped at once (the knowledge Aquinas claims the angels and God have). This is the knowledge Kant held to be impossible.

This pure or absolute knowledge is precisely what Bergson wants to restore in his theory of intuition. He calls this intuition sympathy “by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it” (The Creative Mind 190). He uses the example of an artist (200-2) who makes a series of sketches of Notre Dame in Paris.

Now at the bottom of all the sketches made in Paris, the stranger will probably write ‘Paris’ by way of reminder. And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, by descending from the original intuition of the whole, to place his sketches in it and thus arrange them in relation to one another. But there is no way of performing the opposite operation; even with an infinity of sketches as exact as you like, even with the word ‘Paris’ to indicate that they must bear close connection, it is impossible to travel back to an intuition one has not had, and gain the impression of Paris if one has never seen Paris (201).

Intuition according to Bergson is a method, a method of ridding the mind of the utilitarian habits it has acquired, that reduce an object only to its immediate usefulness. He holds that according to act on the world, our mind has to assume immobility. His concept of motion is integral to his theory of intuition but is too much to go into at length here. Briefly, Bergson differentiates between space and time. Time contains no juxtaposition of events, but is rather a duration. In time, we have a qualitative rather than qualitative heterogeneity, in which there is difference (hence heterogeneity) but no juxtaposition. In time, there is continuity and interpenetration as opposed to space (in which exists quantitative heterogeneity whereby we can assign a number). Qualitative multiplicity, that is duration, is inexpressible but is not unknowable, and it is the knowledge of duration which Bergson calls intuition. Intuition is the perception, the vision, of duration.

The reason intuition is also a method is that it requires the casting off of the habits of the mind which turn the duration into space. Bergson uses the example of a melody. When we hear a melody, we hear the whole, not a series of notes juxtaposed against one another. When we analyze the melody, we may indeed break it into a number of notes, but we are then analyzing the notes, not the melody. The melody, to be known, must be grasped as a whole. In other words, it must be intuited. It is through intuition that we really experience the world:

In this regard, the philosopher’s sole aim should be to start up a certain effort which the utilitarian habits of mind of everyday life tend, in most men, to discourage. Now the image has at least the advantage of keeping us in the concrete. No image will replace the intuition of duration, but many different images, taken from quite different orders of things, will be able, through the convergence of their action, to direct the consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to seize on. By choosing images as dissimilar as possible, any one of them will be prevented from usurping the place of the intuition it is instructed to call forth, since it would then be driven out immediately by its rivals. By seeing that in spite of their differences in aspect they all demand of our mind the same kind of attention and, as it were, the same degree of tension, one will gradually accustom the consciousness to a particular and definitely determined disposition, precisely the one it will have to adopt in order to appear unveiled to itself (195).

Thus, the method of intuition is at essence the task of metaphysics. Metaphysics is not a synthesis of knowledge, a sort of piecing together of the notes to form a melody, nor is it analysis, the breaking down of a melody into its component notes. Metaphysics is the experience of the melody. Thus concludes Bergson in his “Introduction to Metaphysics”:

metaphysics has nothing in common with a generalization of experience, and yet it could e defined as the whole of experience (l’experience integrale).

The Reason Behind the Artist’s Madness

In his monumental Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain cites a somewhat disturbing poem by William Blake:

All Pictures that’s Painted with Sense and with Thought
Are Painted by Madmen, as sure as a Groat;
For the Greatest the Fool is Pencil more blest,
And when they are drunk they always paint best.

For a Thomist, this poem sits ill because it seems to say that the best artists are the ones who are not rational, but for Aquinas, the human good is to be in accord with reason. What is even more disturbing is that the best artists really do seem to fit Blake’s description. In Caravaggio, Van Gogh, even Mozart, creative energy seems more tied with madness rather than reason. At first glance, the Thomist has to say either that Blake is wrong, that the goodness of the irrational artists is only a semblance of goodness, or that Thomas is wrong, and that the human good is not to be in accord with reason, or at least not always.

This is the question Maritain raises in Creative Intuition. “Art Bitten by Poetry Longs to Be Freed From Reason,” he writes, introducing his chapter on the preconscious life of the intellect. Modern art, he observes, seems to violate a basic Thomistic principle, namely, that art is an intellectual virtue. Modern art longs to be freed from reason.

Maritain is not saying this from the perspective of criticism. Unlike certain thinkers, and especially religious thinkers, Maritain is not trying to deny the value or beauty of modern art. He is trying rather to identify and describe the sort of knowledge integral to art. He calls this knowledge “creative” or “poetic intuition.”

A poetic intuition is an obscure knowledge, born in the preconscious of the spirit, in which the artist grasps both hiss own self and things together in a sympathetic union of connaturality effected by means of an intentional emotion, and which takes shape, bears fruits, and finds expression only in a work.

Because poetic intuition is knowledge, it cannot be divorced from the intellect. However, such knowledge is not the kind we normally associate with the intellect, that rational, abstractive, discursive, and above all conscious form of knowing distinctive of rational creatures. Poetic intuition is preconscious. It is the efficient cause of conscious intellectual awareness, as Maritain so beautifully describes it:

It is enough to think of the ordinary and everyday functioning of intelligence, in so far as intelligence is really in activity, and of the way in which ideas arise in our minds, and every genuine intellectual grasping, or every new discovery, is brought about; it is enough to think of the way in which our free decisions, when they are really free, are made, especially those decisions which commit our entire life–to realize that there exists a deep nonconscious world of activity, for the intellect and the will, from which the acts and fruits of human consciousness and the clear perceptions of the mind emerge, and that the universe of concepts, logical connections, rational discursus and rational deliberation, in which the activity of the intellect takes definite form and shape, is preceded by the hidden workings of an immense and primal preconscious life (93-94).

Art, therefore, is not a rejection of reason but a deepening understanding of what constitutes reason.

Reason does not only consist of its conscious logical tools and manifestations, nor does the will consist only of its deliberate conscious determinations. Far beneath the sunlit surface thronged with explicit concepts and judgments, words and expressed resolutions or movements of the will, are the sources of knowledge and creativity, of love and suprasensuous desires, hidden in the primordial translucid night of the intimate vitality of the soul (94).

Such knowledge seems like madness because it transcends the conscious activity of reason. Poetic intuition is not logical, nor can it be encapsulated in logic. Poetic intuition is emotional. One grasps an object by poetic intuition only by a means of a particular emotion. Poetic intuition is also not linguistically intelligible. It is obscure, anti-logical, unintelligible. And in this ways, modern art is truly an expression of knowledge but also a freedom from reason. Modern art is

a process of liberation from conceptual, logical, discursive reason. Though it may accidentally entail a general disregard for the intellect, and a suicidal attitude of contempt fro reason, it is by now means, in its essence, a process of liberation from reason itself, if it is true that reason possesses a life both deeper and less conscious than its articulate logical life. For reason indeed does not only articulate, connect, and infer, it also sees; and reason’s intuitive grasping, intuitus rationis, is the primary act and function of that one and single power which is called intellect or reason. In other words, there is not only logical reason, but also, and prior to it, intuitive reason (75).

The madness of artist, at least from the Thomistic vantage point, does not compel us to reject the role of reason in the greatness of the artist, but rather, to come an appreciation of the wider role of reason, and its integral connection to the emotions. An appreciation for the madness of the artist reminds us that we are not disconnected minds, but embodied spirits, who know the world only by sensing and feeling.

Must God Suffer in Order to Experience Compassion?

Jurgen Moltmann’s great theological contribution was the idea of the “suffering God.” In his book The Crucified God, Moltmann refers to the cross as the beginning of the Trinitarian history of the suffering God in which all human suffering is “taken up” into God. He writes, “There is no suffering which in this history of God is not God’s suffering; no death which has not been God’s death in the history on Golgotha.” The idea of a suffering God is also a recurrent idea in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology. He writes in one of his letters from prison, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us . . . The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”

The concept of the suffering God received widespread acceptance in the twentieth century among process theologians, liberation theologians, and feminist theologians, and the idea was also endorsed in Richard Kearney’s Anatheism, which I just finished. Why such broad appeal of the idea of God suffering? In short, the level of atrocities experienced in the twentieth century (World War I, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, and most especially, the Holocaust), brought into question the immutability and perfection of God, what is often referred to as the “God of metaphysics.” People assumed that an impassible, immutable, unchanging God must be indifferent, remote from creation, and uninvolved with human affairs, which was inconsistent with the Christian idea of the “God of love.”

As I mentioned in the last post and will probably repeat in later posts, I think this reflects an inadequate understanding of the God of metaphysics, and so I want to attempt to defend the impassibility and immutability of God as consistent with, not opposed to the Christian God of love.

First of all, one of the main critiques of the impassible God of metaphysics is that such a God cannot experience compassion for suffering creation. In human experience, compassion refers to the suffering one experiences at the distress of another, what is referred to as “affective compassion.” If God is impassible, then God cannot suffer, and hence, God cannot have compassion. Insofar as suffering is an evil in itself, and no evil can be in God, then critics are right in saying that God cannot have compassion, at least in the way we use the term in human experience.

But compassion also includes action on behalf of the person with compassion in seeking to overcome the other’s suffering as if it were her own suffering. That is, when we suffer ourselves, we act in order to make such suffering cease. Likewise, when we experience compassion, we take similar actions but on behalf of another. Aquinas says that mercy as “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him if we can” (II-II, Q. 30, art. 1). This action-oriented dimension of compassion is what is called “effective compassion.”

In this sense, God does have compassion, not because God experiences suffering, but because God acts to end the suffering of others. Michael Dodds writes in The Unchanging God of Love that “it is not the degree of suffering as such we admire in the compassionate person, but the degree of love that suffering manifests” (224). Because God’s essence is love, meaning that God is the pure act of love, God’s very essence is the act of ending the suffering of others. As Dodds says, “we attribute to God…the unlimited goodness of compassionate love— a love…bringing unending comfort, healing, peace, and joy” (225). This is what Aquinas calls mercy, “for it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succor others in their wants, which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy is accounted as being proper to God: and therein His omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested” (II-II, Q. 30, art. 4).

In Christology at the Crossroads, Jon Sobrino writes

“We must insist that love has to be credible to human beings in an unredeemed world. That forces us to ask ourselves whether God can really describe himself as love if historical suffering does not affect him… We must say what Moltmann says: “We find suffering that is not wished, suffering which is accepted, and the suffering of love. If God were incapable of suffering in all those ways, and hence in an absolute sense, then God would be incapable of loving.”

But if God is love, and if love is an action of ending the suffering of others, I see no reason to assert that God must therefore be able to suffer if God is to be able to love. Suffering is a privation, a lack of fullness. The fullness of God’s love is capable of overcoming such privations without requiring that God experience privation. This is the power behind the assertion that God is love—not that God has emotions in the sense that we say “God can love.” No, God’s very existence is love, a love which extends to all of God’s creation, and in a particular way to human beings, uniting them to the God of love through mercy in whom is found all peace and succor.

Why I Still Believe in the God of Metaphysics

In Richard Kearney’s new book Anatheism, he says we can no longer accept belief in the “God of the Philosophers,” the Unmoved Mover. There are many reasons to call the Metaphysical God into question–that this is not the way God is presented in Scripture but rather a later appropriation of Greek philosophy, that such a God is not a personal God, not the God who became incarnate and walked among us. However, I want to hold off on rejecting the God of metaphysics entirely.

At a Bible study recently, we read Herbert McCabe’s essay on “Forgiveness” in his collection of essays entitled “Faith Within Reason.” In this essay, he argues that forgiveness is the ability to see oneself as one is–a sinner. When that moment of realization, of self-knowledge, happens, we can begin to see God for who God is, not the Divine projection of our guilt or the inscrutable judge meting out punishment or a paymaster demanding retribution, but rather as the eternal God of love. McCabe writes, somewhat
strikingly, “Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you—that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him. That is why you are sorry. That is what our forgiveness is.”

It was hard for the members of the study to wrap their minds around this. After all, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as subject to God’s anger and God’s wrath when we sin; we confess in order to appease God’s anger and get back into God’s good graces. I have often heard people say that they cannot but help think of God looking down at them with anger and disappointment when they sin.

As with most images of God, these ideas of God do have some truth, and they are common ways of thinking about God throughout Christendom. But as I reflected on these images of the angry or disappointed God looking down on us, I realize that this is not an image of God that I have ever really experienced. Part of the reason is that from a very early age, I was influenced by the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas which has had the largest and most long-lasting impact on my understanding of God. The God that I learned from Aquinas is a simple God, a God who is God’s very own essence, who is pure act without potentiality. Because this God is simple and pure act, it is a God who does not change, an immutable God, a God who does not acquire any new thing and a God who does not move. Hence, when the Scriptures speak of God’s movement including the movement characteristic of emotion (anger, pity, joy), I always understood such passages as metaphorical representations, human accommodations of a God completely lacking in any emotion.

As such, it is easy for me to see where McCabe is coming from when he says that forgiveness is a human act of seeing God for what God is–pure and unconditional love. He concludes his essay, “It’s OK, you can admit the truth about yourself. It doesn’t matter: God loves you anyway. To admit your sins is to proclaim your faith in God’s love for you personally. To admit your sins is to proclaim your faith in God’s love for you personally. Telling your sins to the church in the sacrament of confession is just a form of the reed; you are saying, “I am really like this and all the same God loves me, God doesn’t care about my sins, he cares about me.” God is just infinite,
unconditional, unalterable, eternal love–and his love is for me and for all sinful people. That is the single statement that we make in the creed.”

Humans will always have a tendency to anthropomorphize God. When we
humanize God by attaching human qualities like emotion or the ability to change one’s mind or accept a bargain, in a way, we bring God closer to us and create a more intimate relationship with God. But such a conception of God can lead us to spend an awful lot of time and effort focusing on changing God rather than changing ourselves. The guilt that we feel from sin, as McCabe points out, and the pain that we suffer as a result of sin is not coming from God directly, but from ourselves. Rising above the guilt and suffering that results from sin is not a matter of appeasing God or convincing God to change God’s mind about us, but is rather a matter of reorienting ourselves to see God for who God is and always remains to be–the unchanging God of love.

Maybe WWJD is the Wrong Question

I’m spending the Christmas holidays with my in-laws and there is a lot of discussion about how different the values between the parents and the kids seems to be. The topic of these debates ranges from food (organic and local vs. economical), pastimes (urban activities like yoga vs. suburban activities like golf), alcohol consumption (enthusiastic vs. opposed), and attitudes (young professional cool-shoulder vs. Southern chattiness). Additionally, I am reading a collection of essays discussing Alasdair MacIntyre’s take on intractable moral disputes. All of this has me thinking about whether or not there is an objective universal morality, and if there is, how do we figure out what it is?

During the 17th-19th centuries, people assumed that there was some sort of objective universal standard of morality that transcended history and culture that was accessible to reason alone. This is what MacIntyre calls the “Enlightenment Project,” which he has, I think, correctly identified as a failure. Rational people simply do not agree on what sort of life towards what sort of goals is worth living, and due not, as it appears, to some failure in reason.

The goal of the twentieth century, advanced most notably by John Rawls and still supported by many modern liberal thinkers, was to argue that societies could agree on basic political, social, and economic institutions and procedures independently from any comprehensive agreement about what constituted a good life. Rather than argue rationally about metaphysics, argues Rawls et. al., we should just agree to disagree and focus rather on using reason to construct a basically just society, wherein people of all mindsets and metaphysical assumptions can flourish.

Let me explain this a little. When I talk about “metaphysical assumptions,” I am not just talking about an arcane topic that pertains only to scholars. Metaphysical speculations includes questions like “what is the good,” “what is my conception of God,” “how if at all is God actively involved in human affairs,” and “what goal is my life is ultimately oriented towards?” These are not trivial matters at all, and it is the answers to these questions that ultimately provide the basis for our morality.

Say, for example, you think there is a God, and that the world is corrupt and unjust, but that ultimately God will prevail and rectify what human beings are themselves unable to do. This metaphysical assumption may lead you to support more lenient penalties for convicted criminals, for example, because you believe that a human criminal justice system can only imperfectly mete out punishments, and ultimately, God’s judgment will prevail in the assignation of eternal punishments and rewards. Or, with such metaphysical assumptions, you may be less likely to concern yourself with human-caused global warming, because you believe that the fate of the earth is ultimately in God’s hands. You may also be willing to forgo pleasure, to live a simpler and more ascetic life in hope of maximizing pleasure in the next life.

Say another person does not believe in God or an afterlife, but rather believes that this life is all that we humans have. This person may support idealistic social program oriented towards constructing the most ideal society possible. This person may be very concerned with the impact human beings have on the environment, based on the assumption that if human beings don’t fix it, nobody else will. This person may believe in experiencing as many pleasurable situations as possible in order to “suck the marrow out of life,” since it is the only life we have.

You see where I am going. Each of my hypothetical individuals can be very rational and very intelligent and nevertheless disagree on almost everything. And so we end up with a bunch of shrill debates like the ones we have about politics in this country where liberals accuse conservatives of being unenlightened and uneducated and conservatives accuse liberals of being idealistic hedonists. If you’ve experienced a holiday gathering with a significant generation gap in values and political orientations, you know first-hand what I mean.

Rawls and others say that we will never reach an agreement on those big, over-arching metaphysical questions, but we can agree on such things like that goods should be allocated in such a way as to not unduly favor a privileged minority or that everyone in a given society should have enough freedom to pursue their basic goals (i.e. no slavery). The thing is, we don’t actually agree on such procedural claims.

MacIntyre argues, contra Rawls, that individual traditions with their own individual narratives can come to a rational agreement about metaphysical claims so that subsequently, they can agree about more specific moral questions and procedural claims. In MacIntyre’s own words, he offers “a conception of rational enquiry as embodied in a tradition, a conception according to which the standards of rational justification themselves emerge from and are part of a history in which they are vindicated by the way in which they transcend the limitations of and provide remedies for the defects of their predecessors within the history of that same tradition.”

But in a pluralistic world, what happens when two conflicting traditions clash? This question takes on immediate significance for me when I listen to my brother and sister-in-law arguing with their parents. My brother and sister-in-law argue that where they live, everybody has their values, their political leanings, their tastes, and their lifestyle (they live in Washington DC and live a young urban professional life). They could never come and live the suburban life in Dallas where their parents live because everybody is so different from them—they just wouldn’t fit in. Fine, but during the holidays, there is a week and a half of clashing values in practically every discussion they have with their parents, from very basic food choices to very weighty political questions like healthcare reform and abortion. Can they ever come to an agreement, or are they doomed to simply “throw up their hands” in futility and frustration at the end of each argument?

MacIntyre says that opposing groups like my in-laws can come to some broad agreements on questions of morality by adopting the standpoint of the opposing tradition to the extent possible (methodologically this is highly questionable but bear with him) and identifying irresolvable problems within the opposing tradition that could be solved by their own. MacIntyre uses the example of the clash between utilitarians and Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theorists, arguing that utilitarians cannot come to an agreement on what constitutes happiness (physical or intellectual pleasure based on individualistic or communal assumptions), on which the principle of utility is based, but that natural law theorists who know and can apply the concept of a natural end (telos) to human existence can solve this problem. Thus, he claims, the natural law tradition is rationally superior.

Here’s a simpler and more concrete example. My sister-in-law believes that everybody should ultimately do what is in their own best interest (rational egoism) but arguably, it is such rational egoism that has led to mortgage crisis and widespread recession we the United States is now in the midst of. As a political liberal, she is forced to support financial policies based on the widespread redistribution of wealth based on self dis-interest, such as corporate executives forgoing bonuses or credit card companies voluntarily lowering interest rates (and subsequently lowering their profit margin). Now, she could try to make these political arguments based on a more far-sighted rational egoism, that ultimately, eliminating corporate bonuses and lowering interest rates on credit card debt is in the best-interest of the parties in question, because it is in their best interest to have a stable and functional economy, but it is not clear this is the case. It seems that even now, the “smartest guys in the room” are able to figure out how to make a lot of money at the expense of a lot of people and the economy as a whole, simply by acting rationally in their own self-interest.

You could argue then that rational egoism is rationally inferior to a system like, for example, Christianity’s “love your neighbor as yourself.” If everybody tried to serve their neighbor’s interest before their own, and lived more ascetically, forgoing unnecessary pleasures like wine, exotic travel, fashion, and fine cuisine, our country’s economy would not be in the mess it was in now.

The problem is that my sister-in-law may agree on the rational foundation of this point and yet still adhere to rational egoism in her own life. This leaves an opponent with the option of either claiming her position is irrational or that she has not actually been convinced of the rational superiority of the opposing system. Practically, the way this shakes out is that she ends up criticizing my father-in-law’s way of life for insufficiently appreciating the finer pleasures in life like wine and gourmet meals and he ends up criticizing her way of life for its excessiveness.

In order to come to some sort of rational agreement, they would need to step back and ask themselves what it is that they mean by a good life, not accidentally, but essentially. That is, they need to ask themselves not what sort of ideal contingents they desire for their life, but essentially, what is constitutive of flourishing in this life. So they don’t need to debate whether it is better to live in a city or in the suburbs, or whether it is better to eat diverse and exotic cuisines or the same Caesar salad every day. These are accidental qualities of a good life. Rather, they need to ask themselves what, in every conceivable setting (city or suburb, rich or poor, educated or not) is essential to a good life. Even debating the merits of rational self-interest vs. altruism misses the point—we need to ask what both of these systems are oriented towards. What is the goal of self-interest or altruism? What is the good that both systems are implicitly working towards?

It is the answer to this foundational question that answers the question I poised at the beginning of this blog regarding the existence of an objective and universal standard of morality. If we can agree on this foundational, metaphysical question, then I think we can come to some sort of basic universal agreement on some foundational moral claims.

But I don’t think we can. I think that we might be able to agree that there is some ultimate good which we are all striving for, but I think that based on rational speculation alone, we cannot ascribe any content to this good. MacIntyre says that the good derives its thicker substantive claims within a tradition, but even that I feel is too idealistic. I think our true and substantive knowledge of the good rests on the elevation of the rational apprehensive power by the infused virtue of faith. It is faith that gives us eyes to see what we human beings are really meant to do on this earth (and consequently, it is hope and charity that give us the will and hearts to do what we are made to).

And this brings me to the title of my post. WHAT Jesus would do in any given situation doesn’t really tell us anything. The real question is WHO Jesus is. If Jesus truly is God incarnate, perfect in every way, the ultimate good, then He consumes our vision such that all other goods must be subordinated to Him. In Scripture, once people know who Jesus is (think Peter and Paul, for example), what they need to do becomes clear. Disagreements may exist, but they get worked out. This is why, I think, Paul goes out not to proclaim Jesus’ life, but rather, Jesus’ identity (see Colossians 3, for example).

Problem is, this knowledge only comes through faith. No rational arguments can convince somebody that Jesus is God. Faith is a gift. And so I think, so long as some of us have such a gift, and others are without, the disagreements will remain intractable. Reason cannot resolve our most deep-seated disputes, and maybe that’s ultimately okay. Maybe it is good that we have to be dependent on God’s grace to ultimately resolve what we cannot.

So for Christians, maybe we need to spend less time getting bogged down in intractable disputes and more time doing what Paul did—proclaiming who Jesus is: God incarnate, crucified and risen. We’ll leave the convincing to faith.

*Although I used my in-laws as examples throughout this post, my conclusion in no way reflects on them or their faith.

The Re-Emergent Interdisciplinary Nature of Scholarship

One of the complaints about scholarship these days, especially in the humanities but also in the natural sciences, is that each discipline has become so specialized, that it has become irrelevant to those on the outside. Young scholars in PhD programs are continually pushed to the marginalia in the search for new and original topics, and the dissertations they churn out are frequently so obscure and specific that nobody would read them except the author and their board.

My goal in this post is not to complain about over-specialization in scholarship but rather to suggest that over-specialization is not the way of the future. David Brooks’ op-ed in the New York Times this week, entitled “The Young and the Neuro,” addresses the necessarily-interdisciplinary nature of contemporary research being conducted in the humanities, and especially in cognitive neuroscience, which fuses the fields of bioetechnology, psychology, economics, as well as political science and ethics. Scholars involved in this emergent field are actually transversing disciplines, all in the hopes of trying to figure out how and why people interact in the way that they do.

The new interdisciplinary nature of such scholarship is a reaction against the reductionism we saw in the earlier part of the century, especially in the wake of new knowledge about genetics. A funny side note: in yesterday’s NYTimes crossword puzzle, one of the clues (33 across) was “essence of a person, one might say.” Not to spoil it for you, but the answer is DNA.

The research Mr. Brooks discusses challenges this notion that DNA actually is the essence of a person. People like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson wanted to use genetics to explain the essence of all human behavior. Ethics, once considered a branch of philosophy, entered into the natural sciences as scientists hypothesized and rapidly worked to confirm that one’s genetic constitution could explain why you as a person behaved the way you did. This field became known as sociobiology–the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of behavior.

If the sociobiologists would have stuck to ethics, they would not have ruffled very many feathers. But sociobiologists also had to attempt to illustrate how genetics could even explain the great metaphysical questions faced by humankind such as the nature of the soul and the existence of God. What happened in the wake of such books like The God Delusion was a widespread religious reaction against science, especially science that extolled genetics as a causal mechanism or used the dreaded word “evolution.” This religious antithesis to the new work in biology, genetics, and evolution became another form of reductionism. Instead of using science to explain everything, the “theologians” and preachers and ordinary believers wanted to use God to explain everything.

Here is what both sides missed. Different fields explain different phenomena and answer different pressing questions raised by human beings. This was something Aquinas (drawing on the Greek heritage of Aristotle) recognized in distinguishing the practical from the speculative intellect. The practical intellect deals with the natural world, the world that is contingent, subject to decay and change and evolution. The practical intellect deals with sense data derived from sensuous consciousness, that is, with this particular human being, this particular triangle, this particular action.

The speculative intellect is concerned not with the contingent, but with the necessary, the universal, the unchanging. The speculative intellect is concerned with the immaterial. It wants to know not “this particular triangle” but rather, what is the essence of “triangle?” What is the universal form that makes particular triangles come into being? The speculative intellect is not concerned with this particular action, but rather with the question of causation–what are the universal forces that causes anything at all to happen?

The practical intellect deals with what Aristotle called the practical sciences: physics, ethics, politics. The speculative intellect deals with the mother of all science: metaphysics (literally, “above or beyond the physics.”) Aquinas recognized in light of his theological preoccupations that even this neat division was not truly in accordance with reality with the recognition that theology was both speculative (metaphysical) and practical (ethical and political). That is, our study of God is primarily speculative but imminently practical. Theology is speculative because it deals principally with divine things which are immaterial, but secondarily practical because it is concerned with human acts insofar as these acts lead the person to beatitude. So even theology, the premier metaphysical pursuit becomes interdisciplinary in Aquinas’ work. The larger part of the Summa theologiae (“sum of theology”) deals with practical matters, what we would now call ethics.

But Aquinas’ ethics are a theological, and hence, interdisciplinary ethics. His ethics are most certainly theological in the sense that all human acts must be properly considered as part of the life in the spirit. Charity, the most important theological virtue, is the form and mother not just of the theological virtues, but of all the virtues, including the human or moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Thomas’ sum of theology shows how biology, anthropology, politics, ethics, economics, metaphysics, and theology are interwoven, each answering different particular questions in order to draw the really important conclusions concerning why we (humans) are here on this earth, what we are supposed to be doing while we are here, and where we are ultimately meant to end up.

In Aquinas’ day, he could be a theologian, an ethicist, a political scientist, an economist, and an anthropologist, but such “renaissance men” were thought to have been long-extinct in the contemporary period in light of the increasing specialization of each of the disciplines. We assumed that to really know anything in the wake of the proliferation of knowledge that followed the modern scientific, industrial, and technological revolutions, you had to be a specialist.

What Brooks’ article indicates to my Thomistic eyes is that we are beginning to re-recognize the important ways in which the practical and speculative concerns overlap, the dangers of reductionism, and the importance of interdisciplinary pursuits in drawing the right sort of conclusions about the questions we are asking. As Brooks points out, we now know the important influence that genetics has on our behavior. But we are beginning to recognize also how complementary processes of social interactions and culture influences genetics and physiology. He writes,

All of these studies are baby steps in a long conversation, and young academics are properly circumspect about drawing broad conclusions. But eventually their work could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by fuzzy words like ‘culture.’ It could also fill a hole in our understanding of ourselves. Economists, political scientists and policy makers treat humans as ultrarational creatures because they can’t define and systematize the emotions. This work is getting us closer to that. . .

The hard sciences are interpenetrating the social sciences. This isn’t dehumanizing. It shines attention on the things poets have traditionally cared about: the power of human attachments. It may even help policy wonks someday see people as they really are.

The challenge faced by young scholars like myself is no longer how to get my questions and my language specific enough to generate a new idea. Rather, young scholars are faced with the new challenge of how to gain a broad enough base of knowledge to re-ask the really old questions without dabbling too much, or drawing conclusions that are too broad to actually be meaningful.

My own dissertation asks how we can integrate a moral theological discourse into the already-interdisciplinary discourse about eating disorders, that is, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Researchers have already acknowledged that eating disorders are physiological, biomedical, psychological, and sociological disorders; I argue that they are also moral disorders. So if you want to really know why people have eating disorders and what can be done about it, you need more that psychology, biomedicine, and sociology. You also need ethics, metaphysics, and yes, even theology.

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and Thomistic Anthropology

My husband and I are big Joss Whedon fans, probably because his shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and most recently Dollhouse), have such interesting philosophical and theological components. Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse is perhaps his most thoroughly philosophical.

The premise of the show is that the “Dollhouse” is a powerful, cutting edge organization that recruits young, beautiful individuals to be “dolls,” to have their brains wiped and memories erased so that they can be uploaded with different personalities to serve the needs of the Dollhouse clients. The leading scientist, the nerdy Topher, has designed a technology to quickly and practically effortlessly install the dolls’ brains with complete personalities, including memories, skills like rockclimbing and breaking into bank safes, and emotional connections with other people.

The most recent episode, starring, as always, Eliza Dushku as the evolving doll Echo, includes a new twist, as Topher figures out a way to change Echo on a glandular level in order to meet the demands of a distraught Dollhouse client who recently lost his wife in childbirth and can’t bond with his son. The man needs a mother for his son, and the Dollhouse provides. The opening scene shows Echo nuzzling an adorable baby as she breastfeeds him while her “husband” sleeps in the next room.

The client, Nate, quickly comes to recognize that the doll Echo is not his wife, and that hiring the Dollhouse to provide a mother for his son was a mistake. He calls the Dollhouse, demanding they remove her “or he’ll get rid of the baby,” while Echo surreptitiously listens at the door. Echo, fully installed with maternal instincts and lactating breasts, fears that her son is in danger, and desperately tries to escape.

She is almost successful. Echo is a remarkable doll in the show’s ongoing storyline, who is always sharp, smart, and talented, no matter what her personality, and always equipped with the best survival instincts. Her handler, Paul Ballard, ends up having to drag her screaming from a police station, while the father goes to recover his child. Even the standard calming line “Would you like a treatment,” fails to soothe the maternal Echo who fully believes that her child has been stolen from her.

When Topher goes to wipe the personality, returning Echo to the irenic “doll” state in which she walks around in pajamas and talks in naïve monotone, the story gets particularly interested. Echo’s maternal instinct doesn’t get wiped. When Topher asks her how she feels, Echo, half doll and half mother, punches Topher and makes for the exit, showing up at Nate’s house with the baby and a knife in hand, still fighting to keep her child.

When asked what went wrong, Topher responds:

“Maternal instinct is too strong for a normal wipe. I outplayed myself. . . Perhaps triggering lactation was a bridge too far.”

The father is eventually able to talk Echo down, explaining to her that he hired her to be a mother because he could not be a father, but that the real mother is a part of his son. Echo is not. In a poignant realization of what she is, a doll and not a mother, Echo hands over the baby. The next scene shows her in a playground, as Paul Ballard tentatively approaches.

Echo: I had a baby, now I don’t have him anymore. I feel sad. All of these things that happen to me, I feel them.
Paul: I know, Echo. I know you remember everything.
Echo: Not remember. Feel. I was married, I felt love. And pain, fear. It’s not pretend for me. They made me love my little boy, and then they took him away. They make it so real, every time, they make it so real. Why do they do that?. . .

Paul: If you want I can tell Topher what is going on with you and he can wipe you. You won’t have to feel sad anymore.
Echo: Feeling nothing would be worse. That would be like being asleep, like before. I’m awake now. I don’t want to go back to sleep.

What is so interesting about this episode from an EverydayThomist perspective is that Joss Whedon is implicitly endorsing an Aristotelian-Thomistic anthropology. For Aristotle and Aquinas, form subsists in matter. This means that the form of a person, their soul if you will, is not contained or trapped in the body, but is an integral, inseparable part of the body.

In Aristotelian studies, this concept is pitted against a Platonic metaphysic and anthropology that sees the body and soul or the matter and form of a substance as two different opposing realities that are connected, but not necessarily so, in the human person. For Plato, the human person is primarily spirit. The matter, and this includes the entire sensitive appetite including the emotions, is unnecessary, transitory, and disruptive. Aristotle argued against such a dualistic anthropology that body and soul were what made a human being a person. Matter, including the emotions, is not disruptive but necessary. The human form cannot subsist without matter.

In Thomist studies, this concept is referred to as Aquinas’ hylomorphic anthropology, hyle meaning “matter” and morphe meaning “form.” The passions or emotions like love and fear which Dushku mentions in the above quote must be understood in light of this hylomorphism. The subject of the passions is not only the body, nor is it only the soul, but is rather the substance, the unification of the two. The passions are accidents which are predicated of the hylomorphic unity of the person who can only subsist as both body and soul.

Every passion, therefore, involves a psychosomatic change in the person. This means that every passion, properly understood, effects both the immaterial soul of the person and the material body. This is not a question of cause and effect, as it was for the neo-Platonist Descartes who assumed that the immaterial mind/soul of the person was affected by the passions emerging from the body. Rather, the psychosomatic movement of the passions is a unified event for Aquinas. One quippy way of putting this is that every act of love is also an act of knowledge, and every act of knowledge is also an act of love. The intellect and the passions, the soul and body, the form and matter, are always moving as a unified, hylomorphic unity.

A more Cartesian anthropology assumes that the mind is the controlling force of the person. In other words, Descarte’s cogito, ergo sum posits that the person is a subject who thinks, or a mind who happens to have a body. The body, and the emotions, are not essential to anthropology (although there is some debate about whether this is a caricature of Descartes. Another story for another blogpost).

What Joss Whedon gives us in Dollhouse is a challenge to this Cartesian metaphysics and anthropology. Topher assumes that the mind is the operating principle of the person—change the brain, change the person. Moreover, he assumes that the brain controls the body as he illustrates in this episode. With the proper changes to the brain, Echo goes from gun-fighting superwoman to lactating mama.

But the person, as “Instinct” cleverly points out, does not subsist just in the mind or the form of the person, but in the body itself. Echo does not just think as her infused personalities do, she also feels the way they do. And when Topher wipes her brain at the end of each mission, what he fails to recognize is that he cannot fully wipe each personality because each personality is somehow in Echo’s body, and specifically in her sensitive appetite which is still left with the somatic imprint of the psychosomatic emotional changes that each of her personalities experienced.

In contemporary Thomistic studies, this is becoming more of an important point, post-Grisez and Finnis who, along with the other neo-Thomists, assigned too much control to reason, and neglected the dynamism of the sensitive appetite in Aquinas’ philosophical anthropology. This mistake was based on a larger cultural assumption that the “mind over matter” mentality encapsulated what it meant to be a human being. More recently, we are rediscovering the importance of human matter in moral psychology. Joss Whedon’s “Instinct” perhaps unwittingly pointed that out. Another point for the Thomists.

Two Forms of Judgment: Judgment per modum cognitionis and per modum inclinationis

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of knowledge at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae that correspond to two modes of judging. The first is judgment by cognition (per modum cognitionis), the second is judgment by inclination (per modum inclinationis):

Since judgment appertains to wisdom, the twofold manner of judging produces a twofold wisdom. A man may judge in one way by inclination, as whoever has the habit of a virtue judges rightly of what concerns that virtue by his very inclination towards it. Hence it is the virtuous man, as we read, who is the measure and rule of human acts. In another way, by knowledge, just as a man learned in moral science might be able to judge rightly about virtuous acts, though he had not the virtue. The first manner of judging divine things belongs to that wisdom which is set down among the gifts of the Holy Ghost: “The spiritual man judges all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15). And Dionysius says (Div. Nom. ii): “Hierotheus is taught not by mere learning, but by experience of divine things.” The second manner of judging belongs to this doctrine which is acquired by study, though its principles are obtained by revelation (I, Q. 1, art. 6, ad. 3).

According to Aquinas, right judgment can be achieved either through the perfect use of reason or by way of inclination. Judgment per modum cognitionis is notional knowledge attained by rational study. In other places, he refers to this mode of judging as per studium et doctrinam, per modum rationis, and secundum perfectum usum rationis.

Judgement per modum inclinationis is not cognitive, and not a judgment which takes place through the cogitative power, but rather, judgment according to affection or desire, and thus a kind of affective knowledge. Elsewhere Aquinas writes,

Wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learnt the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality (II-II, Q. 45, art. 2).

Aquinas is distinguishing the two different forms of judging, or assigning value to something, using the example of virtue. A person may judge a thing like chastity should or should not be desired because he or she has been taught and understands how such a thing should be considered moral or immoral. On the other hand, a person may judge rightly as to whether something should or should not be desired not through a cognitive decision, but rather on the basis of whether or not he or she actually desires the thing in question. In the case of the former, the intellect is clearly providing the basis of judgment through the cogitative power. In the case of the former, the affective inclination of the person provides the basis for the judgment. In this way, the virtuous person is the rule and measure of human actions. The virtuous person is inclined towards the object of virtue (inquantum ad illa inclinator) or through a certain connaturality with the object of virtue (per quondam connaturalitatem ad ipsa).

We might think of an example in eating. Some individuals need to mentally check themselves to ensure that they do not overeat. How much food this person should desire on any given occasion is a cognitive decision. This individual may desire to eat a second helping of a dish, but decide that this second helping would make him or her too full, and therefore decline. Others, however, just naturally desire the right quantity of food on a given occasion. This individual does not have to decide whether a second helping of a dish is appropriate—the individual simply acts on his or her desires.

We must be careful not to go too far in pitting these two forms of judgment against each other as opposites, but see them rather as corollaries. Affective knowledge and judgment per modum inclinationis is not a judgment made without knowledge, but is rather the synthesis of love and knowledge—a synthesis of cognitive and affective activity. If we understand the two modes of judgment in this way, as a single activity of knowing and loving, we may resolve the apparent tension in Aquinas between the passions and reason. Recall that Aquinas holds that the human person is a hylomorphic unity of body and soul, and that the sensitive appetite stands between these two in a unified activity of putting the whole human person substantially in relation to the world. Knowing and loving are distinct activities, but with the same principle of operation, which is the substantial unity of the human soul.

Moral knowledge, therefore, is not either purely rational knowledge or purely affective knowledge, but is rather a synthesis of both knowledge per modum cognitionis and knowledge per modum inclinationis.

The hylomorphic unity of the human person also explains how one particular power can overcome the other. If the soul’s full energies are employed in the act of cognition, of knowing, such cogitation can impede the affective movement of the soul. Aquinas says that the concentration of the intellect can actually overcome the sensitive appetite so that it no longer experiences certain sensible functions: “In the powers of the soul there is an overflow from the higher to the lower powers: and accordingly, the pleasure of contemplation, which is in the higher part, overflows so as to mitigate even that pain which is in the senses” (I-II, Q. 38, art. 4, ad. 3). More commonly, however, the soul’s activities get concentrated on affection and its accompanying form of judgment. In this way, a person under the influence of anger may judge a thing good that he would not so judge if not under the influence of that passion:

Now it is evident that according to a passion of the sensitive appetite man is changed to a certain disposition. Wherefore according as man is affected by a passion, something seems to him fitting, which does not seem so when he is not so affected: thus that seems good to a man when angered, which does not seem good when he is calm (I-II, Q. 9, art. 2).

What is important to note, however, is that the sensitive appetite seems to present the intellect with an object already laden with value. This challenges the view among some Thomists that the role of the sensitive appetite is only to obey reason.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.