Archive for the ‘aquinas’ Tag

What Are We Doing in Libya?

Twenty two days after Colonel Qaddafi fired on protesters in Libya, we are now in the middle of war. Well, not of war. We don’t use that term anymore. We are now in the middle of “military engagement,” which effectively means that the US-led coalition is launching cruise missiles over Libya. But a war by any other name is still a name.

Peter Nixon over at dotCommonweal is in agreement, in his post “War. Again.” “Make no mistake;” he writes, “This is not a humanitarian intervention. We are taking sides in a civil war.”

President Bush was justly criticized for his rush to war in Iraq and for not having a clear plan for what to do after we defeated Iraq’s armed forces. Bush’s pace, however, looks positively dilatory compared to the speed with which President Obama, with very little consultation with Congress or the American people, has committed the United States to yet another war to establish a government in a foreign country that is more to our liking.

And if the principle that governments cannot slaughter their citizens with impunity is to be the principle underlying our foreign policy, where are we off to next? Yemen, where army snipers killed 46 people yesterday? There is no shortage of tyrannies in the world. How much of our blood and treasure are we willing to expend to remake the world in our own image?

Historically, Christians have debated whether or not the demands of the Sermon on the Mount should lead the church to oppose all war, or whether some wars might be justified. For the majority of Christendom, the latter side has won. The first major theological justification for the morality of war goes back to Augustine who argues in his letter to Boniface that military engagement is an obligation of neighbor love, and in doing so, lays the foundation for just war theory:

Do not think that it is impossible for any one to please God while engaged in active military service. . . Think, then, of this first of all, when you are arming for the battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God. For, when faith is pledged, it is to be kept even with the enemy against whom the war is waged, how much more with the friend for whom the battle is fought! Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9 If, however, peace among men be so sweet as procuring temporal safety, how much sweeter is that peace with God which procures for men the eternal felicity of the angels! Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared (Epistle 189).

Following Augustine, Aquinas too treated just war under love or charity:

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. . .

. . . Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. . .

. . . Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” (II-II, Q. 40, art. 1).

In addition to the criteria Aquinas lays out for going to war (ius ad bellum), namely, right authority, just cause, and just intent, just war theory also includes attention to the way the war is fought (ius in bello). In other words, the war ought to be proportional. It ought to use only enough force to respond to the threat at hand.

So it this “war” in Libya just? It does seem that the United States is at pains to guarantee that the authority initiating this military engagement is rightful. This is not a case of unilateral action or “coalitions of the willing,” as Ross Douthat points out:

In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.

And our cause does indeed seem just. Qadaffi is a pretty wicked guy, especially in recent weeks as he has unleached his troops on those who have risen in protest against his rule, killing many and threatening the country with further disasters. As the Chicago Tribune points out, Libya imports about 90% of its food and other basic necessities, and Qadaffi is likely to use food as a weapon, threatening starvation to those who do not comply.

But what about our intent? In order to determine the justice of our intent, we need to first know what it is, and that is not so easy. President Obama announced at a news conference in Chile this morning that military action in Libya has only a humanitarian intent, namely, stopping the killing of Libyan civilians by Col. Qaddafi’s soldiers. Nevertheless, “it is U.S. policy that Qadafi needs to go.” A recent NYTimes article addresses this point exactly: “Target in Libya is Clear; Intent is Not:”

But there is also the risk that Colonel Qaddafi may not be dislodged by air power alone. That leaves the question of whether the United States and its allies are committing enough resources to win the fight. The delay in starting the onslaught complicated the path toward its end. . . For Mr. Obama, who has explicitly said that Colonel Qaddafi has lost any right to govern, the conundrum is that the United Nations mandate does not authorize his removal. So Mr. Obama now says the goal is limited: to use force to protect the Libyan people and allow humanitarian aid to get through.

An intention is something more than a desire, in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. An intention (proaireton in Greek) is something deliberated upon, something chosen with reason. For Aquinas, intention is an act of the will which “tends toward the end,” but which presupposes an act of reason ordering something to the end (I-II, Q. 12, art. 1). Intention further includes the means to achieving this end: “the will is moved to the means for the sake of the end: and thus the movement of the will to the end and its movement to the means are one and the same thing. For when I say: “I wish to take medicine for the sake of health,” I signify no more than one movement of my will. And this is because the end is the reason for willing the means” (I-II, 12.4).

So in the case of Libya, for the intention to be just, both the means and the end in sight must be just. And there is a lot of question if this is the case in our current engagement. Douthat writes,

Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require. . . Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.

It seems to me that our intention in Libya has not been established. Qadaffi is a bad guy, and nobody wants him around, but our intention is not to remove him from power. Libyans who rose against Qadaffi are in a bad place right now, but our intention is not to protect them, at least not really, since protecting them would presumably mean a regime-change, and that isn’t our intention at the time. It is terrible to watch a guy like Qadaffi start a new reign of terror in North Africa, but just war principles are in place because war is such a tragic event that it need be only utilized as a last resort, and only with an eye toward guaranteeing a more just peace in the future. This “engagement” in Libya is neither a last resort, nor is the end in sight any better than what we have now: a dictator in control of a country.

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).

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.

Aquinas on God’s Knowledge

Jon Levenson writes in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence that three Christian theological errors have distorted the scriptural understanding of Israel’s God:

1. “the residue of the static Aristotelian conception of deity as perfect, unchanging being”
2. “the uncritical tendency to affirm the constancy of divine action;”
3. “the conversion of biblical creation theology into an affirmation of the goodness of whatever is.” (Levenson xxv).

This is the argument that Matthew Levering takes on in Chapter 3 of Scripture and Metaphysics, namely, that in light of Scripture’s numerous accounts of God’s capricious will e.g. Exodus 32, Jeremiah 18), incomplete knowledge (Genesis 18:21), and impotence to stop certain atrocious acts, how can Christian theology still hold that God is unchanging, omniscient, and omnipotent. Levering illustrates how Aquinas solves this problem through a creative interplay of Scriptural exegesis and metaphysical reflection. In this post, we will discuss Levenson’s argument that God is not omniscient as the metaphysicians claim that God is.

Levering first identifies three important aspects of Aquinas’ scriptural exegesis. The first is that Aquinas has a “whole-canon hermeneutic;” that is, he accepts on faith that the whole Bible contains God’s self-revelation. This means that Aquinas thinks that each passage which reveals something about God’s identity must be weighed against other relevant passages in order to understand the full meaning of these passages.

Second, Aquinas thinks that the images of God found in the biblical texts must be analyzed metaphysically in order to fully understand what the text is saying, and in order to avoid anthropomorphizing God. The third point is related to the second. That is, Aquinas believes that human language used to refer to God is analogical, meaning that words used to describe finite creatures like “good” or “wise” or “angry” cannot be fully and properly ascribed to God who is beyond human comprehension and human language. To see more on Aquinas’ use of analogical language to talk about God, check out this earlier post.

In seeking to understand God’s knowledge, Aquinas turns first to the relevant passages of Scripture, and then uses metaphysical speculation to investigate these revealed mysteries by establishing “their ontological, causal, and communicative structures, [thus enabling him as a theologian] to express judgments about the meaning of Scripture’s claims about God and human beings” (Levering 21; see Fides et Ratio no. 66).

Jon Levenson, influenced by process theology, doubts that God fully knows other creatures, arguing that this seems to contradict the image of God in scripture of God coming to know his creatures, whose free actions seem to frequently allude the knowledge of God. In investigating God’s knowledge, Aquinas begins with God’s perfection, citing Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is also perfect.” Aquinas notes that “a thing is perfect in proportion to its state of actuality, because we call that perfect which lacks nothing of the mode of its perfection” (Ia, Q. 4, art. 1). What he means is that we use the word “perfect” analogically to describe the being of something.

A thing is perfect in so far as it exists the way that it is supposed to. A pen, for example, is perfect in so far as it fully exists as a pen is supposed to exist, writing smoothly, etc. Human beings, however, are more complicated than pens. There are lots of different ways that humans can be. Humans can be wise or unwise, they can be good or not good, they can be knowledgeable or lacking knowledge. Human beings are good or perfect (that is, achieve the fullness of their being) to the extent that they do the various things that human beings are supposed to do. One of the things that humans are supposed to do is “know things.” Thus, knowledge is one of the various perfections that we can ascribe to humans.

But humans exist or “have being” in a different way that God does since they are (1) created and (2) embodied. Humans can have more or less existence. For example, somebody who has lived a long time and has done good and virtuous things and has gained a lot of knowledge we might describe as having “a full life.” Such a person has reached a greater state of perfection. I do not a moral state of perfection but an ontological state of perfection. They have reached a greater or fuller state of being. They have lived the way humans are supposed to live.

God, we have already established, is pure Being, because God is pure form. Since God is pure and simple Being, there is only one way for God to exist. In other words, God does not have more or less existence like human beings do. So all the “perfections” that we ascribe to humans to indicate the extent to which they are fulfilling how they are supposed “to be,” perfections like goodness and knowledge, are already in God because God is simple Being. God is not better or worse, or does not exist in a fuller or lesser way. God simply IS. And this means that any perfection that we would derive from existence is simply in God.

Aquinas uses this idea of God’s perfection to shed light on the scriptural passages that refer to different “perfections” of God like God’s knowledge. He looks at Romans 11:33, for example, “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” and Job 12:13 “With God is wisdom and strength, counsel and understanding” and Hebrews 4:13 “All things are naked and open to his eyes.” Aquinas’ explanation is metaphysical. Since God is simple being, God’s knowledge is not a perfection that exists apart from God’s being. As Levering writes, “God is his knowledge, and his knowing is infinite. Knowing is a perfection of His infinite Act” (86). Simple existence that God reveals of his identity in Scripture, from which all created things take their existence demands that God is also perfect and knowing.

But surely Levenson would argue that this is exactly the God that is not revealed in Scripture, but rather the philosophers’ god superimposed on the scriptural account. Levering would point to Scripture accounts of God not knowing, such as in Genesis 3 when he questions the woman. If God knew everything, why the questions?

Aquinas’ response to Levering is that Scripture clearly indicates that God is all-knowing. However, in describing the ways that human beings can relate to God, the authors of scripture sometimes portray God’s knowledge as incomplete, not because God’s knowledge is incomplete, but because human language is insufficient to describe the complex ways that human beings relate to God. Human beings know, to return to our last post, in an analogous fashion to the way God knows.

Human knowledge in Aquinas’ theory is obtained in two operations. The first operation, the sensitive operation, is when the sense perceptions like vision and hearing and touching perceive a particular object. Sense knowledge then is knowledge of particular things like a particular dog. The second operation is the intellective operation. Intellective knowledge is knowledge of universal things, that is, what makes this particular furry and barking thing in front of me a “dog.” So human knowledge proceeds from particular things to the ideas behind those things; that is, human knowledge processes from sensory knowledge to intellective knowledge of the ideas behind the sensory objects.

Another way of explaining this is with the distinction between form and matter (see this and this earlier post for more explanation). In Aquinas’ view, all things are composed of form, or the essence of what they are (the dogginess in the dog) and matter, the particular individuating “stuff” which makes one dog a particular dog and distinguishes it from other dogs. The sensory operation of knowledge perceives the various aspects of the dog like fur, four legs, paws, canine teeth. The intellective knowledge abstracts from the particular matter and judges the “thing” to be a dog. It is the intellect that allows a person to say that both a Chihuahua and a Doberman, despite their differences. That is, it is the intellective operation that allows a human to abstract the form “dog” from the particular substance.

Truth consists in the equality of the intellect with its object. True knowledge of a dog is when the intellect rightly abstracts the form “dog” from the particular substance, rather than abstracting the form “cat” or “bear” despite certain similarities in the particular matter.

God’s knowledge is different. God does not have a body, so obviously, God does not know things through a sensitive power. Nor is God’s knowledge a distinct power in God. As we established above, as simple Being, God is God’s own knowledge. So how does God know? God knows, according to Aquinas, because God is the cause of all things. God knows things because God makes them. God’s knowledge, therefore, (and this is the important part) is not affected by and dependent on what is known, but God’s knowledge is what causes anything to be known.

For humans, something must exist (even as an abstraction like a dinosaur) for it to be known. For God, it is the opposite. God must know anything for it to exist. God’s knowledge is logically and metaphysically prior to existence. God’s causative knowledge raises a huge theological problem, namely the problem of evil, because if God’s knowledge causes all things, then how can we say that God does not thereby cause evil. We will address this problem in another blog post. But for now, it is sufficient to address Jon Levenson’s claim that God has incomplete knowledge with the metaphysical claim that our knowledge is analogical to God’s. So we have to use analogical language to talk about God’s knowledge. God does not know through sensory perception like we do, nor does God know in stages of perceiving, abstracting, and judging like we do. God’s knowledge of a dog, in its essence, is metaphysically necessary (though not sufficient) for the dog to even exist, much less be known according to human knowledge.

What Language Can We Use to Talk About God?

According to Aquinas, there are two incorrect ways to understand language about God, which Aquinas summarizes in Summa Theologiae Ia, Q. 13. Univocal statements about God are statements that mean the same exact thing as the same statement said when referring to human creatures. If we say “God is wise” univocally, we mean that “wise” means the same thing as when we say “Beth is wise.” Aquinas says that we cannot use language to say anything univocally about God. We obviously mean something different when we say that God is wise than when we say that Beth is wise. Human wisdom is different, more limited, more restrictive, than divine wisdom.

The other erroneous way to speak about God that Aquinas identifies is equivocally. Equivocal statements about God mean something completely different than the same statement made in reference to human creatures. So if we use “God is wise” equivocally, what we mean is something completely unrelated to what we mean when we say “Beth is wise.” But Aquinas says that language about God cannot be totally equivocal. That is, there is some similarity, some connection in meaning between the statement “God is wise” and the statement “Beth is wise.” Human wisdom is not completely different than divine wisdom, or else we wouldn’t use the same word for it.

This is where scripture and metaphysics merge for Aquinas. Philosophically (metaphysically) and scripturally, Aquinas believes that we can say something about God. That is, we do not have to assume that our language is completely equivocal. He cites Romans 1:20 that something about God can be known through creation, thus, philosophically we can say something about God. And he believes as a Christian that what the Bible says about God is true, so we can in addition to natural knowledge of God (indicated in Romans 1:20), we can also have revealed knowledge of God.

So if language about God is not univocal or equivocal, what is it? Aquinas says that language about God is analogical. The example he uses is health. Health is a characteristic of a human body. If I say “I have a healthy heart,” what I mean is that my heart pumps blood well. When I say “I have a healthy body,” I do not mean only that my body pumps blood well, although this is certainly part of having a healthy body, but I mean something more expansive. I mean that all the parts of my body are functioning well, I have no illness, etc. So the two statements are not equivocal (meaning exactly the same thing) nor are the equivocal (meaning exactly different things). Rather, I use the phrase “healthy heart” analogically to “healthy body.”

So this is how we speak of God. When we say “Beth is wise,” we mean something analogical to what we mean when we say “God is wise.” Just like my heart has certain characteristics of health that my body does, so too, if I am wise, I have certain characteristics of God who is wise. But when we say “God is wise,” we mean something larger, something more expansive than what we mean when we say “Beth is wise.” According to Aquinas, just as a healthy heart partakes in the fullness of health of a healthy body, so too do creatures, who are created by God, partake in the attributes of God like goodness, justice, and wisdom.

But we should not stop here. In article 6 of question 13, Aquinas asks whether analogical language refers primarily to God or to creatures. He is asking a philosophical question here. Philosophically, if we say that analogical language refers primarily to creatures, what we are saying is that we have words (like “wise” and “good”) to refer to creatures, and we extrapolate from there and say that the fullness of the meaning of these words must belong to God. That is, we start with what we know about creatures and then raise all of that to the nth degree and say the same thing about God. So if “Beth is wise,” God must be the fullness of wisdom, since if God wasn’t, God would not be God. This is the philosophical (and specifically metaphysical way) of knowing something about God.

The philosophical way of knowing God starts with creatures and the words that we use to describe those creatures, and then posits a god that is based on what we already know, and usually like, about creatures. That is why people complain that the philosophers’ god is different from the Christian God as revealed in Scripture. People complain that people want to think that God is all-good and all-powerful, and so they logically construct a good who is such. This is what theists do. They say, “I believe in this type of god which is a god I can rationally conceive.” If God appears to get angry or vengeful or capricious in Scripture, a theist could say, “that is not the god that I believe in. My god is all-good, etc. We will see how Levering treats this in the next post, when he argues against Jon Levenson who claims that the philosophical god of people like Aquinas (all-good, all-knowing) is not the same as the God revealed in Scripture.

What is important to establish first in this post is that Aquinas does not take the philosophical way to knowing something about God. That is, he thinks that analogical language refers actually primarily to God, and secondarily of creatures. This means that if we say “Beth is wise,” what we first mean is that we know what wisdom is because God is the fullness of it. Beth shows certain similarities to that which we see first in God. So Beth is wise in a similar way—in an analogical way—that God is wise.

Aquinas argues this point from Scripture. He cites Ephesians 3:14-15 “I bow my knees to the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named.” His argument is a scriptural one that we only know what fatherhood is because we first know it in God. So when I say “John is a father,” what I mean is that I see something similar in John that I see fully expressed in God. I can name something in John that I only know because it is in God. Same thing about wisdom. I can only say “Beth is wise” because I first see it revealed in God. Where? In Scripture. For Aquinas, the starting point of everything we know is not human reason which we explore philosophically; the starting point of everything we know is Scripture which reveals to us the living God.

And when we say that God is a living God, we are saying something analogical, not univocal or equivocal. What we mean when we say that “God is a living God” is that we only know what “living” means, and can apply it to creatures (Beth is a living blogger) because we first saw it revealed in God.

This will be important for subsequent discussions about God. For Aquinas, we only know that God is good because Scripture reveals that God is good (Exodus 33:19, 1 Chronicles 16:34), and so we can use the language of goodness to apply to creatures. We can say that God is wise only because Scripture reveals that God is wise (Job 12:16, Psalm 104:24), and what we know about human wisdom comes from this revelation.

Aquinas does not take the philosopher’s path to talking about, and knowing about God. That is, he does not assume that we start with human knowledge and extrapolate to God. We start off with knowledge of God revealed in Scripture and apply it to humans. Philosophy serves to illuminate what Scripture reveals. But philosophy is the handmaid, not the equivalent of scripture. When I say that Aquinas uses Scripture and metaphysics together to talk about God, I mean that Aquinas first uses scripture to know something about God, and uses philosophy to expand, in human language, that knowledge about God. And he does so by speaking about creatures and creaturely know in an analogous way to God.

Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology

Metaphysics is that science which studies all that is beyond the natural world, yet still relates to the natural world. Metaphysics studies the nature of being (ontology) and causation and transcendentals (the Beautiful, the Good, the True). Metaphysics (meta ta phusika) itself simply means “beyond the physics” and was the word assigned to the sequel of Aristotle’s book the Physics which examined the natural world. Everything that our senses can perceive is subject to contingency and change and it is these things that are the object of the study of physics. Metaphysics studies those things which are beyond apprehension of our senses. We can perceive a rock or a tree or a piece of cake with our senses, and so these can be the subject of physical inquiry. But we cannot perceive God or the immortal soul or spiritual beings like angels with our senses; these, then, are the subject of metaphysical inquiry.

Aristotle himself did not use this word but called the subject of his book the “First Science,” “Wisdom,” or “Theology.” The subject of his inquiry was specifically the first cause of things or non-material things which do not change. This is sometimes described as “being qua being,” or “being as it is in itself.” Because this was the most fundamental subject, Aquinas thought the study of metaphysics as “wisdom” (sophia), the highest type of knowledge.

Metaphysics has always had a reputation of being about matters which are notoriously difficult. Andronicus of Rhodes probably assigned the title ‘metaphysics’ to Aristotle’s text indicating that the subject matter of the Physics must be fully grasped before one could understand the subject of the sequel. Metaphysicians use phrases like “essence precedes existence” or “substances, while not universals, are subjects of predication that cannot themselves be predicated of things.” Such language is especially prohibitive according to our modern sensibilities which seek to explain all phenomena in positivistic or empirical language. Kant rejected metaphysics because he claimed that the immaterial world was beyond intellectual inquiry. Hume claimed that all we could know was what we could experience, thus precluding metaphysics as a viable mode of inquiry since it was specifically about things which could not be experienced. Modern materialists reject metaphysics because they claim there is no immaterial world–all that exists is what we can apprehend with our senses.

In Christian theology, metaphysical language has been used to talk about and explain various things about God. In the creed, for example, when you say, “begotten not made, one in being with the Father,” you are expressing a metaphysical conclusion which was once a hot debate in the early church. Metaphysics has been especially employed throughout history to discuss the nature of the Incarnation (word becoming flesh) and the Trinity (one being or ousia of three persons or hypostases). Aquinas relied heavily on metaphysical language to explain these mysteries. Aquinas used metaphysical language to talk about God’s simplicity (that he lacks composition), his perfection, his eternity, his immutability, and his power. But he also employs heavily metaphysical language to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, given that God is one and simple, how can we also say that God is three persons?

Much of Protestant theology has assumed an irreconcilable division between Scripture and metaphysics. For many Protestants, the best way to talk about God is not in the metaphysical language of being, but rather in the language that God gives us in Scripture. That is, if we want to understand God, we turn to Scripture which tells us who YHWH is, who Jesus Christ is, and who the Holy Spirit is.

There is good reason for this turn to Scripture, rather than philosophy, in order to understand God. Luther, for example, quite famously said that metaphysics was prohibitive for understanding God, and was a way of getting around the fact that the living God has revealed himself historically in Scripture. Moreover, it is hard to deny that it is much easier to be inspired and captivated by the scriptural tales of the various acts of the God of Israel, and the stories of Jesus, and the Pauline arguments about Jesus’ significance than it is to be inspired and captivated by a discussion like the following from Aquinas’ treatment of the Trinity:

the divine simplicity requires that in God essence is the same as “suppositum,” which in intellectual substances is nothing else than person. But a difficulty seems to arise from the fact that while the divine persons are multiplied, the essence nevertheless retains its unity. And because, as Boethius says (De Trin. i), “relation multiplies the Trinity of persons,” some have thought that in God essence and person differ, forasmuch as they held the relations to be “adjacent”; considering only in the relations the idea of “reference to another,” and not the relations as realities. But as it was shown above (Question 28, Article 2) in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself. Thence it follows that in God essence is not really distinct from person; and yet that the persons are really distinguished from each other. (Ia, Q. 39, art. 1).

However, the assumed antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is in many ways a straw man. First of all, Scripture uses metaphysical language to talk about God. When God tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Prologue of John is heavily metaphysical:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Second of all, many of those who use metaphysics, like Aquinas, do not do so in order to replace Scripture, but rather to shed light on the mysteries narrated by Scripture.

Overcoming the antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is the subject of Matthew Levering’s excellent new book, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, which I will be discussing in subsequent blog posts. Levering argues that metaphysical speculation about God, rather than rendering God distant and meaningless, is necessary to ensure that our worship is oriented towards Israel’s God, rather than culturally relevant idols. Aquinas, he argues, is an invaluable guide for learning how metaphysics enhances our understanding of Scripture and deepens our knowledge and union with God. He writes in the introduction,

We learn from Aquinas how the language of ‘being’ [metaphysical language] preserves Israel’s radical insistence upon the intimate presence in the world of her transcendent god, a presence that is ultimately Messianic, given the evil of the world. Aquinas exposes how the doctrine of divine Personhood attains real knowledge of, without over-narrating, the inner life of God as revealed in Scripture. He finds in the proper names of the Trinity—father, Son, Word, Image, Holy Spirit, Love, Gift—the biblical distinctions of the divine communion-in-unity into which our lives have been salvifically drawn. Against supersessionism, including the unconscious supersessionism that is Trinitarian ontology, he teaches Christians that we must always speak of our triune God under two aspects (4).

Metaphysics, for Aquinas and for Levering who wants to defend Aquinas, belongs to the personal encounter in which human beings use human words and human concepts to truly express divine revelation. Aquinas uses metaphysics to illumine the meaning of Scriptural revelation, to talk in a meaningful way about the God who has made himself known, and ultimately, to help Christians contemplate and enter into greater union with this living God. A Jean Pierre Torrell writes:

When Thomas says that theology is principally speculative, he means that it is in the first instance contemplative; the two words are practically synonymous in Thomas. This is why—we shall not be slow to see this operative in Thomas’ life—research, study, reflection on God can find their source and their completion only in prayer. The Eastern Christians like to say of theology that it is doxology; Thomas would add some further clarifications to that, but he would not reject the intention: the joy of the Friend who is contemplated is completed in song (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1: The Person and His Work, 157).

On a final note, I hope this post and the subsequent posts I write on this book and the topic of scripture and metaphysics will foster ecumenical dialogue. As a Roman Catholic married to a member of the Church of Christ, and as a regular mass attendant and active worshipper in a local church of Christ, I am very interested in finding points of similarity and unity between a tradition that is heavily speculative and metaphysical, and a tradition that is historically rationalistic, positivistic, and solely reliant on Scripture to know God and how to worship him. I think that Aquinas is an invaluable resource for this dialogue, and for future ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and other Christian traditions, and I hope that these posts can help to foster an ongoing conversation between different Christians who seek to climb the steep mountain of the knowledge of God.

Is Anger an Appropriate Response to Suffering?

In the last post, I said that I was going to do a series of posts on some of the thoughts I have been having related to the “theodicy” issue, or the problem of evil and suffering in light of the belief that God is all-good and all-powerful. In this post, I am going to use as my starting point a quote from Harold Kushner, who I mentioned in the last post wrote a very famous book on theodicy called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In his effort to explain God’s involvement in the suffering humans experience on this earth, Kushner writes,

We can recognize our anger at life’s unfairness, our instinctive compassion at seeing people suffer, as coming from God who teaches us to be angry at injustice and to feel compassion for the afflicted. Instead of feeling that we are opposed to God, we can feel that our indignation is God’s anger at unfairness working through us, that when we cry out, we are still on God’s side and God is still on ours (45).

In this post, I am going to expound on Kushner’s provocative idea about anger from a Thomistic framework in order to determine the moral and theological significance of anger, and whether Kushner is right is saying that suffering should prompt anger.

We tend to think of anger as vicious or harmful. Somebody may say, “I didn’t mean to do X, but I was blinded by anger,” or “anger is wrong; I want to be a more peaceful person.” Aquinas is aware that anger connotes sinfulness. There is good reason for this. In Matthew 5:22, for example, Jesus claims that one who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment. In his discussion of anger, Aquinas asks whether all anger is contrary to virtue, to which he answers a resounding no. Anger, which is a passion, can be aroused according to reason, which makes anger in some situations virtuous.

So how do we determine if anger is virtuous (according to the standards of reason) or not? Aquinas looks at the object of anger, or that to which the anger is directed. He identifies two objects to anger: one is the injury that the person suffers, and the other is vindication (vindicatio) that the person seeks. The vindicatio is the justice that one seeks to exact against an perceived injustice. It is the way of making an injustice right. The vindicatio is an evil under the aspect of good. Denying a person his freedom for a number of years in punishment for theft, for example, could be a vindicatio because it is an evil (imprisonment) that seeks to rectify an injustice (the theft), thus rendering the vindicatio itself a good.

If a person seeks a vindicatio against a person who does not deserve it, for example, the anger would be sinful. If a person seeks too great a vindicatio, such as when a person repays an injustice with a much greater injustice (beating a child for spilling milk), such anger would be sinful. So anger is virtuous if a truly unjust offense occurs and the response is proportionate to the injustice.

What about Matthew 5:22 that says that anyone who is angry against their brother is liable to judgment? In light of scripture, how can Aquinas still say that anger can be virtuous? One way which Matthew 5:22 has been explained is using the person/sin distinction. That is, it is wrong to be angry against a person, but okay to be angry against a sin. Because Jesus is referring to the former in his condemnation of anger, it does not contradict the thesis that anger can be virtuous. This is the explanation Augustine used, claiming that one is properly angered at the sin of one’s brother, not one’s brother himself. Thomas disagrees with this, claiming that if a person is unjust, it is fitting and proper to be angry towards that person, granted that one’s anger is proportionate and the vindicatio sought is just.

The reason is that anger is that, according to Aquinas, has a two-fold object—the injustice, and the rectification of that injustice. An injustice is when a person is not given their due. The order of the universe which is in natural things and in the human will reveals that there is justice in God. God orders things and orders that they be in right relationship, and this is what is meant by God’s justice. Kushner is right in identifying that when we recognize that things or people are not in right relationship, we are participating in God’s justice.

Anger, then, because it is concerned with justice, is properly determined by relationships. In order to determine if anger is appropriate, one must be in some relationship of justice, that is, a relationship that is ordered according to God’s standards. This requires a little explanation. I cannot be angry against an inanimate object, for example, because the inanimate object cannot do me an injustice. I may stub my toe on my desk, but my anger cannot rightfully be oriented towards the desk. Nor can I be angry at a hurricane or a virus for the same reason. I may be hurt by these things, but they cannot be the object of my anger because they did not commit an injustice against me. Anger, for Aquinas, is really properly directed at people.

Additionally, if anger is to be justified, the right rectification must be sought. A child who commits a grievous fault–perhaps he hits one of his siblings–has committed an injustice which the parents, due to their relationship of justice with the child, have a responsibility to rectify. Perhaps they will ground the child, or require some sort of positive compensation to the assaulted sibling. However, the sibling who has been harmed is not in a relationship that allows him to seek the necessary vindicatio. It would be inappropriate for the sibling to ground his own sibling or to hit his sibling back. It would also not be appropriate for a stranger to punish the pugilistic sibling. Nor would it be appropriate if a child was the victim of an injustice committed by a parent to seek vindicatio. If a child is hit by a parent, the appropriate response is to appeal to a higher authority, like the police. In short, in order to seek a vindicatio, one has to be in the right position of seeking justice.

This is why we frown on vigilantes, or civilians who go out to seek vindicatios against injustices that are going unpunished. Because such civilians are not in the proper relationship of justice to the people whom they are punishing, they are actually committing an injustice in their actions in seeking a vindicatio that is not theirs to seek. Their anger is not virtuous, because the vindicatio sought is not virtuous.

Reasonable anger (and hence, virtuous anger) according to Aquinas is (1) prompted by an occasion of injustice, (2) directed at the perpetrator of injustice, and (3) seeks a just vindicatio to restore the injustice. If anger meets these three requirements, Aquinas would say it is virtuous.

So how does this play out regarding the theodicy question as Kushner sees it? First of all, the object of anger must be an actual injustice, not just something that makes us unhappy. Aquinas would not say it is virtuous to be angry if you, for example, get diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is not an injustice that should rightfully prompt anger. Moreover, there is no committer of an injustice towards which one can direct their anger. A more proper response would be sorrow at the fact that one is experiencing an evil, but not an injustice. But it would be proper to experience anger at a news story relating how somebody has been raped or murdered, or to be angered when you hear about the violence in the Middle East or Zimbabwe. Here, we do have an injustice, and perpetrator, which can be the object of our anger.

Second, the anger must be directed at the right person. If I read about what is going on in Zimbabwe and get angry at Robert Mugabe, my anger may be justified. If I read about Zimbabwe and get angry at black people, my anger is definitely not. Similarly, if I get angry at God when I hear about Mugabe’s egregious offenses against his people, my anger is not targeted at the right person. Such anger, according to Aquinas would not be justified.

Lastly, the vindicatio sought must in itself be just. If I decide that I am going to go assassinate Mugabe to stop his injustices, the unjust vindicatio thus renders my anger unjust. A more just vindicatio might be writing to the UN or raising awareness in this country by writing letters to the newspaper or marching in DC, or praying to God for the Zimbabweans who are suffering.

Kushner is right that we should feel compassion and sorrow for those who suffer. But I am not quite sure that an appropriate response to suffering is anger. Anger connotes that an injustice is being done that one can do something about. Sickness, death, and natural disasters are indeed evils, but they are not injustices. Such tragedies may be handled in an unjust way. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was not itself an injustice, but the subsequent way it was dealt with in many ways was.

This is not to say that Aquinas thinks we should remain Stoic in the face of suffering. He acknowledges that the passion of sorrow, which is the apprehension of some pain or evil, is a appropriate. When one is faced with a pain or evil, it may be appropriate to weep, to seek to remove or alleviate the harm, or even, as is the case with Job, demand answers from God. But for Aquinas, and I think he is right, it is not an injustice to experience pain, nor does God owe us any answers. The proper response to suffering, I would argue against Kushner, is not anger, but rather sorrow. The situations that concern Kushner, the death of a child for example, do not arouse God’s anger because no injustice is being done. God’s universe is still in order, even if we suffer.

But this is not the final word for Aquinas against Kushner, which will be the subject of another post on the issue. Aquinas, as a Christian, has not only a God that gets angry at injustice, as Kushner does, but also, a God who through the incarnation, is capable of suffering with, or feeling compassion and sorrow with his creation. And through the resurrection, Aquinas has a God who not only suffers with his creation, but has also ultimately defeated suffering in the grand eschatological scheme. Thus, for Aquinas, suffering should prompt not only anger if an injustice is done, or sorrow if no injustice is done, but should also prompt us to reflect on the God who loved us so much, that he suffers with us, and is himself ultimately the remedy to our sorrow.

Aquinas on Job and Divine Providence

A couple of weeks ago, my husband gave a sermon on the end of the Book of Job. Briefly, Job is a righteous man who is rewarded in life with a big family, a fine home, lots of property and animals, and excellent health. When God brags about his servant Job’s righteousness to Satan, Satan challenges God saying that if Job did not have so many blessings, he would surely not be so righteous. Take away his blessings, challenges Satan, and God will discover that Job will curse his name.

So God accepts the challenge. Job eventually loses his wealth and possessions, his children, and even his health. Destitute and covered with boils, Job still does not curse God. He does, however, demand an explanation of God. Confident in his innocence, Job wants to know what reason God could have for sending such misfortune on him.

So God answers Job:

Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said:
Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
And who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb;
When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!
Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place For taking hold of the ends of the earth, till the wicked are shaken from its surface?

God basically answers that He is sovereign, that He created the world, and that Job, as a mutable creature, has no right to question the wisdom of God. So Job repents in dust and ashes.

The book of Job is often used to talk about one of the major problems in modern theology which is the problem of the existence of evil and suffering in a world in light of the belief that God is both all-good and all-powerful. This is sometimes known as “theodicy” or as Harold Kushner posed the question in his very famous book on the subject, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” In light of the conversations that my husband and I have been having since his sermon, I am going to do a series of blog posts on some of the issues raised by the modern theodicy question.

The reason I say that the theodicy question is a major problem for modern theology is that historically in Christian theology, the problem of evil does not really bring into question the goodness or omnipotence of God. Thomas Aquinas is actually not all that concerned with this question. In fact, he wrote an entire commentary on the Book of Job, which would seem like the perfect place to talk about theodicy. But even in discussing Job, the theodicy problem is not a central concern.

What is a central concern for Aquinas in his commentary on Job is the question of providence, which will be the subject of this post. By providence, I mean that God is in control of things, directing worldly events to their rightful conclusion.

The primary view that Aquinas wants to reject in his commentary on Job is that of fatalism or determinism. By fatalism, I mean the idea that God is somehow not personally involved in the lives of people, that people are subject to the vicissitudes of nature in a way that God is somehow indifferent to. This is the deist argument that God has taken a “hands-off” stance after the creation of the world.

In opposition to a fatalistic viewpoint, Aquinas explains that the way God’s providence works is through a hierarchy of causes. God who is the universal cause of all creation, ordained that the universe would be governed by a series of inferior or secondary causes. One simple example of this is that God made a universe in which small objects would be attracted to larger ones, which we call the force of gravity. By allowing such inferior causes to operate, God made a universe in which He does not have to be the direct cause of every stone falling to the ground.

In this way, Aquinas explains how God created a world which is infused with dignity because God has imparted causality, which God is ultimately responsible for, on creation. Thus, even though it is not necessary (that is, God could have ordained a universe in which gravity did not exist), we can know the outcome of certain contingent events like stones falling. We do not have to wonder about God’s will every time a stone falls to the ground, even if it strikes us on the head when it does. God has given us a secondary cause—the force of gravity—that is directly responsible for each stone’s earthly plummet.

So Aquinas strikes a balance between fatalism (or determinism) that says that God is in control of everything, and Divine indifference that says that God is hands off in dealing with the world. More importantly for the question of evil, Aquinas finds a way of maintaining God’s omnipotence (the idea that he is all powerful) without it therefore inevitable that God is responsible for evil.

Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People comes up with a similar conclusion to Aquinas that differs in one major way. Kushner claims that God cannot stop contingent events from happening. He has created a universe in which he is powerless to stop things like hurricanes or natural illnesses, and that this is actually a good thing. If God let himself control every little thing that happened on earth, then He would have an obligation to reach out and save good people from horrible deaths, and innocent people from suffering. Kushner writes:

Would this be a better world if certain people were immune to laws of nature because God favored them while the rest of us had to fend for ourselves? A world in which good people suffer from the same natural dangers that others do causes problems. But a world in which good people were immune to those laws would cause even more problems. (59)

Kushner’s interpretation of God’s hands-off attitude saving seemingly righteous people like Job has its appeal, but I think it is wrong to conclude that God must be powerless to stop contingent events. According to Aquinas, God’s universe in which God ordained not to be the direct cause of contingent events is indeed better, but this in no way detracts from his omnipotence. God could indeed have created a perfect world in which he was in control of everything and there was no secondary causation, no contingency, and hence, no suffering. Aquinas says that it was in God’s wisdom to ordain not to be responsible for all contingent events, and even in God’s wisdom to allow that there be defects in certain secondary causes (e.g. that the movement of the earth’s plates might result in a city being destroyed). God allows defects in secondary causes to exist because this contributes to the greater good of the whole:

Hence, corruption and defects in natural things are said to be contrary to some particular nature; yet they are in keeping with the plan of universal nature; inasmuch as the defect in one thing yields to the good of another, or even to the universal good: for the corruption of one is the generation of another, and through this it is that a species is kept in existence. Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals (I, Q. 22, art. 2).

Human beings, as part of nature, are subject to these contingent events. Human beings get sick, they fall victim to disasters, they get rich and they get poor. Human beings get in the way of all these secondary causes that God has established like the movements of the stars, the change of the tides, and the replication of viruses.

But for Aquinas, this is not the end of the lesson on providence that the book of Job offers. Remember, Job questions God, and what does God do? He answers Job. From this, Aquinas draws two important conclusions about Divine Providence:

(1) God is a personal God
(2) God’s grace is utterly gratuitous

God does not leave Job alone in his time of need. He answers Job’s questions in his time of need. He provides him with grace to endure his trial. He does not make Job immune to the contingent events of nature, but he does help him deal with these contingencies. In the Christian tradition, this Divine Assistance is known as grace.

Furthermore, God’s answer to Job indicates that Job does not deserve this help. Job is in no position to demand anything from God. The chasm between him as a creature and the creator who created him out of nothing is too great. God’s answer to Job is a gift, just as Job’s life and every other good thing that he has is a gift. Job is in no position to demand from God anything; he is only in a position to ask and to accept.

This aligns well with what Kushner concludes regarding God’s involvement in the effect of evil on human beings. We writes, “God stands for justice, for fairness, for compassion. For me, the earthquake is not an “act of God.” The act of God is the courage of people to rebuild their lives after the earthquake, and the rush of others to help them in whatever way they can” (60).

Aquinas would quibble with Kushner slightly. The earthquake is indeed an “act of God,” but it is a contingent act of God, caused not directly by God but by God’s ordained secondary causes that move the earth’s plates. God is not the direct cause of the earthquake; he ordained the universe so that inferior causes (some of which we are aware of, others that we are not) would cause earthquakes. Ultimately, God made a universe in which earthquakes exist, but God did not cause an earthquake at a specific time and a specific place to punish or to reward the human beings that might fall victim to it. The earthquake, in other words, is not necessary.

But Kushner is right that the courage and strength that comes from the response to the earthquake is an act of God, that this is God gratuitously and personally involving His very self in the lives of His creatures. And this, says Aquinas, is the lesson of Job.

The Pope’s Very Political Encyclical

Pope Benedict promulgated his third encyclical last week entitled “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth). It’s a lengthy encyclical but if you choose, you can read the full text here. Or you can just peruse this or this very useful summary.

The encyclical fits into the genre of “Catholic Social Teaching,” and in it, Benedict reemphasizes some prominent themes from that tradition: the protection of life, the protection of workers, the importance of the economy serving human beings and not the other way around, and the principle of subsidiarity for the organization of society.

There are lots of blog posts examining the encyclical, which I am not going to do here. My interest concerns rather a point made by Ross Douthat in the NYTimes op-ed column entitled “The Audacity of the Pope.” He writes:

Inevitably, liberal Catholics spent the past week touting its relevance to the Democratic Party’s policy positions. (A representative blast e-mail: “Pope’s Encyclical on Global Economy Supports the Principles of the Employee Free Choice Act.”) Just as inevitably, conservative Catholics hastened to explain that the encyclical “is not a political document” — to quote a statement co-authored by the House minority leader, John Boehner — and shouldn’t be read as “an endorsement of any political or economic agenda.”

Then, after acknowledging that the pope is neither a Republican or a Democrat, Douthat writes that “Benedict’s encyclical is nothing if not political. Caritas in Veritate promotes a vision of economic solidarity rooted in moral conservatism. It links the dignity of labor to the sanctity of marriage. It praises the redistribution of wealth while emphasizing the importance of decentralized governance. It connects the despoiling of the environment to the mass destruction of human embryos.”

What bothers me about the rest of the column is that Douthat tries to make the encyclical somehow “fit into” American conceptions of politics, recognizing that putting the pope’s recommendations into practice is challenging for Democrats and Republicans alike. “For liberals and conservatives alike, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ is an invitation to think anew about their alliances and litmus tests.”

Douthat is right that people want to take the encyclical as political when they agree with it, but when they don’t, the pope is just weighing in with his opinion. For the vast majority of people looking at the political implications of the encyclical, politics is a matter of debate, division, and voting. Politics is like a debate competition with winners and losers. Basically, politics is about what you do; morality is about what you believe. The pope can believe whatever he wants, but this has nothing to do with politics. Morality is a private issue; politics is public.

I think this understanding of politics stems from the idea that somehow morality is something separate from politics. I’m reminded of Al Gore’s speech at the Academy Awards where he said that climate change was “not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.” Gore’s comment makes it seem like politics is about power, or about making people do something. Morality on the other hand is about right and wrong.

Aristotle and Aquinas give us a very different understanding of politics. Politics is not about coercion and power, or even primarily about making laws and enforcing them. Politics for Aristotle and Aquinas is simply a branch of ethics. For Aristotle, “politics” is simply part two of his ethics. And Aquinas never even wrote a treatise on politics, though he did write about politics in his ethics found in the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica. In honor of Benedict’s very political encyclical, now is a good time to review what Aristotle and Aquinas take “political” to mean.

For Aristotle and Aquinas, human beings are political creatures, naturally inclined to live in society. Political society (civitas) emerges from the needs human nature and is in itself a purely natural and desirable. This is a stark contrast with a thinker like Thomas Hobbes who thought that political society was an artificial imposition established to curb the violence of human nature. For Hobbes, if human beings were virtuous, they would not need a political society; for Aquinas, political society is necessary for the full perfection of human existence. The political society is the social setting in which human beings find their fulfillment and flourishing.

The primary task of the political society, therefore, is to create good and virtuous citizens. Drawing on Aristotle, Aquinas says that a political society comes into being as a necessary component of human life, but it exists for the sake of living well (Commentary on the Politics, Book 1, Lesson 1).

So we see that ethics and politics has a similar end or purpose–the formation of good people. And in both ethics and politics, this process is a gradual process of development and progress over time. While political society might be completely natural, a good political society is not. In the same way that human beings must acquire moral virtue through education and habituation, even though they are naturally inclined to moral virtue in Aquinas’ system, so too must a political society be developed and fostered.

One of the ways this happens is through the natural law. The natural law, most basically, is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. The eternal law is the Divine Governance that is behind creation. For most of creation, the eternal law is pretty determinative. It is by God’s eternal law that the seasons change, the planets move, fire rises upward, and stones fall downward. It is by the eternal law that plants grow, and lions chase gazelles, and whales swim instead of fly. But rational creatures (i.e. humans), as Aquinas writes, are “subject to Divine Providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself, and for others” (ST I-II, Q. 91, art. 2).

Human beings are not determined to specific actions like other parts of creation. Humans do have natural inclinations that come from the eternal law, but human beings have freedom and choice regarding how those inclinations will be directed. Thus, the natural law is about directing natural human inclinations towards the ultimate human good, which is flourishing. These natural inclinations include those inclinations that we share with all created things, namely, to keep ourselves in existence. They also include the inclinations that we share with other animals, namely to reproduce and educate offspring. And those natural inclinations include those distinctively human inclinations to form societies and seek out knowledge of God.

So the formation and regulation of society is a subject of study both for ethics and for politics. Laws are the natural outgrowth of the rational creature discerning how to live in order to flourish. Laws are not primarily about coercion (although they can and do have coercive effects). Laws are the product and outgrowth of the natural law. They are the embodiment of a community’s morality.

Politics, therefore, like ethics, is about discerning right from wrong in order to best live a good and flourishing life. So the pope’s encyclical, in so far as it is about morals, is political. But that does not mean that is primarily concerned with legislation. Determining how such moral values offered in the encyclical are to be enacted in legislation will vary from community to community. Aquinas explains how the process of creating laws is like craftsman who uses the “general form of a house” to build a particular house. Laws, in the same ways, are built on moral values (derived from natural law) but their specific form will vary depending on the needs of a given community.

Thus, different societies will have different ways of enforcing the precepts of natural law like prohibitions against murder or theft or laws regulating the best way to raise a family, protect the environment, or educate citizens. And different societies are going to have different ways of enacting the moral values espoused in Caritas et Veritate. The pope’s encyclical talks about the foundations for this process–the sort of moral values that all people of good will should espouse and all societies should take seriously in working to promote the common good. This is very much a political endeavor, or as the pope writes in his encyclical, it is the fruit of the “political path of charity.” (7)

No matter what you might think of the pope’s ideas, you cannot write off the encyclical as moral, but not political. But it isn’t political because the pope is taking sides or affirming the platform of any given party, or playing a political game. It is not political because the pope is coercing individuals or nations to act in any given way. It is political because the pope is talking about ethics, about the moral values that we act on that either contribute to or detract from the good life. It is political because the pope is inquiring after what human beings need in our changing world to flourish. As we debate the merits of the encyclical, let us not debate about whether it is political or not, and let us definitely not assume that simply because the pope wrote something political, he is out of line. Rather, let us allow the political process the pope started to continue as we examine the encyclical and reflect on what our society needs for its people to live good lives.

What is Morality?

At first glance, the title of this post might seem a little silly. When someone claims to be a moral person, we take her to mean that she’s a decent, law-abiding, good person. When someone calls an act immoral, we take him to mean that the act is wrong in some way. And when someone says they follow their own code of morals . . . well, what should we take them to mean?

Mark Sanford has a moral code, and, according to this Huffington Post blogpost, he had a moral agenda too. But most people aren’t clamoring to defend Mark Sanford as a moral person. Moreover, the parts of Sanford’s moral code that the author Emma Ruby-Sachs has a problem with–opposing gay adoption, for example, is a moral value that a lot of other people espouse. This blogger looks at Sanford’s adultery–something most of us clearly think is immoral–with a “more rational moral code than Christianity” and finds Sanford isn’t all that bad.

Perhaps she is worthy of his love. We do know that she had long been a friend and that this was unlikely to have been a casual love. This may be a very genuine and deserved love and Mark Sanford may love his wife also, for all I know.

People in general like the idea of a “more rational morality” but it still strikes even the most rational person as false that Sanford should get to cheat on his wife simply because some woman is “worthy of his love.”

So maybe this whole business of asking “what is morality” is a more useful inquiry than we thought. Modern moral scholarship has been greatly influenced by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. At the end of the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant remarks that “two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” This conception of morality as consisting in a sacred moral law has been the dominant conception of morality in the modern period. We think of morality as some transcendent realm of obligation into which we wander when we run into dilemmas, a code of rules imposed on us from some mysterious ethereal realm. Bernard Williams called this conception of morality a “peculiar institution” which we are better off without, despite its compelling nature.

We think of morality as that area of study concerned with dilemmas like “is it wrong to have sex with a woman that is not my wife” or
“do I have an obligation to carry my unborn child to term?” But the original use of the word “morality” had a much wider concern than just specific dilemmas or problems. The term “morality” is actually not etymologically related to the word for rules or obligation. It comes from the Latin word mos (plural mores) which is more properly translated “custom” or “practice.” We tend to think of morality as a body of normative precepts or a “code,” as I indicated earlier, that exists as an entity on its own right, but the original use of the word “morality” meant something different. Morality was a way of living life, and particularly, of living life well. Bernard Williams argues that in light of this, we should broaden the scope of morality to answering the question “How should I live?” rather than “which rules should I follow?”

This is how Thomas Aquinas thought of morality. Of course, rules and obligations were part of the picture, but rules and obligations do not give us the full breadth of morality’s essence. Morality for Aquinas is about how to achieve happiness, completion, and well-being.

Some readers will object to this as wishy-washy or bordering on relativism. One might ask, “If Mark Sanford is made happy by cheating on his wife, should he do it?” If morality is about happiness and well-being, by which standards should we hold people accountable?

Aquinas was by no means a relativist, nor did he think that people should get to choose arbitrarily which things make them happy. Morality for Aquinas is about doing what is good. Moreover, Aquinas’ moral theory is grounded in a general metaphysical theory of goodness. This term requires some clarification.

In response to the question “what does it mean to choose the good?” Aquinas asks “what do we even mean by goodness?” This is the metaphysical question, meaning that it is a question about ultimate reality, not just about the physical universe around us. Goodness, according to Aquinas, is a transcendental (this is why his idea of goodness is called a metaphysics of goodness, since transcendentals are by definition not physical). Transcendentals are certain entities which capture the complex ways in which created things exist. Besides goodness, truth, unity, and beauty are transcendentals–they describe some dimension of existence that lots of different things share. What do all “good” things share? According to Aquinas, all good things are in some way desirable. Thus the good, piggy-backing off of Aristotle “is what all things desire.”

This concept requires some explanation. Why do I read? To make myself smarter, because I enjoy reading, because I have to in order to get a doctorate. The good, therefore, is whatever is the object of desire. But we have lots of desires, and some are clearly better than others. Mark Sanford had a desire to have sex with his Argentinian lover, but he also had the desire to fulfill the duties of his gubernatorial office, sans scandal. This morning, I had the desire to exercise, but I also had the desire to sleep in. In so far as all of these various things fulfill mine or Mark Sanford’s desires, they are, in some way, good.

But if goodness is something so general, it loses its meaning. Why bother talking about Mark Sanford choosing to have or resist an affair if both are good in some sense of the word? Aquinas is aware of this objection. He argues that goodness is used most properly to refer to something that is perfected, something that is doing what it is designed to do. A pen is good if it writes well. A table is good if it doesn’t wobble. Goodness for each thing is most properly the perfection of its own proper act of existence.

For human beings, existence is complex. There is not just one thing we need to do to exist well, like a pen just needs to write well in order to achieve the perfection of its existence. Human beings need to have and do lots of different things to fulfill the perfection of their existence. They need health and all the accompanying material goods that go into creating health like food and shelter and clothing; they need a certain amount of intellectual stimulation; they need relationships, and leisure and art. Human beings desire all these things because they are good, they satisfy desire, and they allow human beings to be what it is that they are supposed to be.

But there is a certain ontological and circumstantial hierarchy to these goods. That is, certain goods are better than others. And certain goods are better than others under certain circumstances. Food is a good, but learning is a much better good. Relationships and art are both goods, but if art were to ruin all of a person’s relationships, we might not consider it so good. Love is good, as is serving well in one’s political office, but if love gets in the way of proper service, as it did with Sanford, we no longer consider it so good.

Morality is about figuring out goodness. It is about figuring out what a person needs at any given time to be a full, complete, satisfied person. And this is why morality is not, in Aquinas’ thought, just about rules. Mark Sanford broke a rule, but what is more important for a moral evaluation of his act, at least in the Thomistic sense, is what his actions did to him as a person. Mark Sanford is somehow less of a person. He’s less well-off, less-complete, flourishing less.

So what is morality? Morality is a practical form of knowledge, what Aristotle called a science. It is that complex inquiry into the dynamism of practical action and what it is that human beings need to flourish, to be happy, to succeed in being human. Morality is not its own discipline which has as its specific focus the study of rules and obligation, but is rather the complex study of anthropology and metaphysics and sociology and psychology. Morality is simply what we do as human beings, trying to be good at what we are.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.