Archive for the ‘Thomas Aquinas’ Tag

Was Killing Osama Bin Laden Just?

“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:

How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.

Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:

It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).

Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:

Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”

What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):

“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”

For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,

because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”

Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).

I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.

I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:

If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.

Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:

On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).

It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:

I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .

In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.

Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.

Knowing God Through Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Studying Theology Make Us Certain?

Those who are familiar with Thomas Aquinas know that he begins the Summa Theologica (his magnum opus) with the question as to how one can go about studying theology. In article two of that question, he asks whether theology is a science, and to answer, he makes a critical distinction so that he can answer that theology is, in one way at least, a science, thus making the Summa itself a work of science:

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.

In other words, theology is a science, Aquinas says, if we understand it as a sort of “subalternated” science which derives its first principles from another science. Unlike other subalterated sciences like music or optics, however, theology derives its first principles from a non-demonstrable science. Godfrey of Fontaines explains why this is so:

[I]f theology were truly and properly a science after the model of a subalternated science in relation to a subalternating one, it would be necessary that the principles of theology that are had in this life be certain by the certitude of evidence at least in regard to knowledge that such is the case, and it would be necessary that there would be knowledge of why it is the case in the science the blessed have of these principles . . . So, in order that theology be science and that not only would there be faith regarding the conclusion of theology as there is regarding the principles, then regarding its principles it is necessary that they be not only believed but be known and evident. For, the type of evidence the principles have will determine the parallel type of evidence that the conclusion will have. For although a conclusion may be drawn from principles that are only believed and the consequence or the necessity of the consequence can be scientifically known, still the consequent and its necessity cannot be known scientifically from such principles (Quodlibet, IV, q. 10, 1287).

In other words, we might call music or optics a subalternated science because it derives its first principles from another science (arithmetic or geometry), or is subjected to other more proper sciences. Thus, an optician may proceed to study optics without having proper knowledge of the first principles of his science, which are derived from geometry. However, the optician may study geometry and in doing so, gain a more perfect knowledge of optics. Optics is thus subordinated or subalternated to geometry, but not in such a way that prevents a more perfect knowledge of optics through gaining a more perfect knowledge of its first principles through the study of another science.

Theology, as Godfrey points out, is not like this. Theology is based on first principles which do not come from another human science which may be studied, but rather from the science which exists in the mind of God and is consequently beyond all human understanding. “Science,” Godfrey tells us, is “a sure habit possessing both the certitude of evidence and the certitude of conviction,” which theology can never have because it is based in principles which are not certain but accepted on faith. In contrast to science, faith, Godfrey writes, is “a sure habit having only the certitude of conviction, not the certitude of evidence.” Faith may be stronger than opinion (which lacks both the certitude of evidence and conviction), but for Godfrey, because theology rests on revealed first principles which cannot be proved, it can only be faith and never science.

Is there a difference between Thomas and Godfrey? Maybe, but on the subject of theology as science, perhaps they can be reconciled. Thomas, like Godfrey, knows that the first principles of theology rest on faith. Such principles like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eschaton cannot be proved, only believed. For Thomas, belief comes as a gift not only of intellectual propositions, but the gift of an actual relationship with God. The object of faith, while not convincing to the non-believer, is actually more certain than sensory knowledge because it is a knowledge based not only on the discursive intellect, but also the affections (as elevated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit). However, from those first principles, rational and logical conclusions can be drawn which enhance the knowledge one has of the first principles, and on this, Thomas and Godfrey are not in such disagreement. Godfrey writes:

So, when theology is posited as science, it is necessary that its principles become in some way evident and known or understood. In fact, evidence has to be of a kind that respects the excellence of its subject matter and the weakness of the human knower. Thus, to one instructed in theology, it is much more evident than to the simple layman that Christ, God and man, has risen, and how this is possible and not impossible. . . Therefore, even though such things are not as evident as are the principles of other sciences because of their lack of proportion to our intellect, still they are known by a kind of evidence that is sufficient. . . Concerning he kind of knowledge we have in theology, Augustine, in Book XIV of his De Trinitate, says: “Many of the faithful are not strong in this science, even though they are strong in the faith itself. For it is one thing to know what a man must believe in order to gain the blessed life; it is another thing to know how that which is believed may help the pious and be defended against the impious.”

So, both Aquinas and Godfrey show us that by studying theology, we are not making scientific arguments that will be convincing as science to the non-believer. However, by studying theology scientifically, that is, by logically deducing conclusions from revealed first principles, we do get a sort of science which is important, not because it makes our beliefs more convincing to the non-believer, but because we become more convinced, even in light of the opposition of non-believers. Thus, theology does enhance knowledge if conducted scientifically, even if we still might not be able to call theology a proper science.

This seems to me incredibly important today when so many believers, when faced with a materialist and empiricist scientific worldview, feel the need either to doubt or abandon their faith or to withdraw into a sectarian, anti-scientific stance. For this latter group, recovering the Medieval concept of theology as a science can help Christians engage the scientific community in a spirit of dialogue rather than polemics, and by incorporating the sciences into the study of theology, they may actually become better believers.

Celebrating the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

In order to celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, saint and doctor from whom this blog draws its inspiration, I wanted to dedicate this post to the words Aquinas spoke in his inaugural lecture at the University of Paris in 1256 when he took his post as regent master. You can find the whole speech in the collection of selected writings edited by Simon Tugwell, O.P. Reflecting on Psalm 103:13

Watering the earth from his things above,
the earth will be filled from the fruit of your works.

St. Thomas writes:

The king of the heavens, the Lord, established this law from all eternity, that the gifts of his providence should reach what is lowest by way of things that are in between . . . This is why the Lord uses a metaphor taken from bodily things to express the law, stated in the psalm, which is observed in the communicating of spiritual wisdom: “Watering the mountains . . . ” We see with our bodily senses that rain pours down from the things that are above in the clouds, and watered by the rain the mountains produce rivers, and by having its fill of these the earth becomes fertile. Similarly the minds of teachers, symbolized by the mountains, are watered by the things that are above in the wisdom of God, and by their ministry the light of divine wisdom flows down into the minds of students. . .

Three aspects of the manner in which this teaching is acquired are alluded to in our text:
(1) The manner in which it is communicated, with reference both to the magnitude and to the quality of the gift received. The teachers’ minds do not have the capacity to hold all that is contained in God’s wisdom, and so it does not say, “Pouring things above onto the mountains” but “Watering them from things above. In the same way the teachers do not pour out before their hearers all that they understand. “He heard secret words which it is not lawful to speak to anyone” (2 Cor. 12:4). So it does not say, “Passing on the fruit of the mountains to the earth, but “giving the earth its fill from the fruit.” . . .

(2)The text alludes secondly to the manner in which this teaching is possessed. God possesses wisdom by nature, and this is why the “things above” are said to be his, because they are natural to him. “With him is wisdom” (Job 12:13). But teachers share abundantly in knowledge and so they are said to be “watered from things above.” “I will water the garden of plants” (Ecclus. 24:42). But students have an adequate share in knowledge, and this is symbolized by the earth being filled. “I shall have my fill when your glory appears” (Ps. 16:15).

(3) Thirdly, with reference to the power to communicate, God communicates wisdom by his own power, and so he is said to water the mountains by himself. But teachers can only communicate wisdom in a ministerial role, and so the fruit of the mountains is not ascribed to them, but the the works of God: “From the fruit of your works,” it says. “So what is Paul? . . . The ministers of him whom you have believed” (I Cor. 3:4-5).

But “who is capable of this?” (2 Cor. 2:16). What God requires is ministers who are innocent (“The one who walks a spotless path is the one who has been my minister,” Psalm 100:6), intelligent (“An intelligent minister is pleasing to his king,” Prov. 14:35), fervent (“You make spirits your messengers and your ministers a burning fire,” Psalm 103:4) and obedient (“His ministers who do his will,” Psalm 102:21).

However, although no one is adequate for this ministry by himself and from his own resources, he can hope that God will make him adequate. “Not that we are capable of a single though on our own resources, as if it came from us, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). So the teacher should ask God for it. “If people lack wisdom, they should beg for it from God and it will be given them” (James 1:5). May Christ grant this to us.

St. Thomas reminds us that the vocation of a teacher is a gift, for it is God who is the source of all wisdom, and it is God who makes the minister of His word able to communicate this wisdom to little ones. But he also reminds us how integral teaching and learning are to God’s providence, for it is by teaching and learning that we receive God’s wisdom, which is the source of all our happiness.

Aquinas gave this lecture when he was only 31. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us as we teach and learn.


Aquinas’ ethics begins with and is founded on the end.  He introduces the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica with a treatise on man’s last end which he describes as “last in the order of execution but first in the agent’s intention.”  What he means is that the end of an action is the last thing achieved in acting but the reason for acting is nevertheless the end.  Think of spending several hours baking and decorating cookies, which I recently did for Christmas.  The time mixing the dough, rolling it, cutting it into shapes, baking the cookies, and finally, painstakingly decorating them was all motivated by the last thing “in the order of execution of baking cookies,” which is the eating and enjoying of them.  In the same way, Aquinas says that the ultimate end of all actions, which he will define as beatitude ,is the first in the order of intention for all human action.  In other words, all human action is motivated by the desire to be happy.  The reason I baked the cookies at all is because in some way, I thought that baking cookies, and watching my family enjoy eating them, would make me happy.

Another way of stating this is that the final cause is the first in the chain of causes.  We think of what we want to achieve by acting before we act.

Aquinas says that there are two ways to think of the end.  The first is the thing itself in which the end exists (beatitude) and the second is the use or acquisition of that thing.  A glutton’s end is food, and the use of that end consists in the pleasure that comes from eating.  According to Aquinas, the ultimate end of human existence in the first sense is God “who alone by His infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man’s will.”  In the second sense, the last end for human beings is the enjoyment of this last end which Aquinas calls “beatitude.”

The word beatitude is a difficult word to understand in English.  Sometimes it is translated as “happiness,” but beatitude is a long-lasting happiness, not something that can be easily lost.  “Happiness” does not connote the steadfastness of beatitude.  Sometimes beatitude is translated as “flourishing” which again does not fully convey the full meaning of what Aquinas means by the word (mainly because we don‘t really use the word flourishing in our everyday speech and nobody really knows what it means).  What we can do is identify what beatitude is not.  Aquinas says it is not wealth, honor, fame and glory, power, good of the body, or pleasure.  It is not something external, not something that can be easily lost, not something arbitrary like luck, and not any created good.  Beatitude, according to Aquinas, is not even a good of the soul because if it were, the object of happiness would be human beings, which would mean that human beings could be loved for their own sake, which is contrary to what Christians hold to be true.

Beatitude, is, however, uncreated.  It is not something we have, it is something we do.  Aquinas speaks of beatitudes in two senses–its cause or object and its use.  Beatitude in the first sense (the thing in which beatitude consists) can only be God, and in the second sense, beatitude can only be the enjoyment of God:

“Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”

How does Aquinas back this up?  First, he says that nobody can be perfectly happy as long as there is something left for him to desire.  Nothing on earth leaves us without some other desire to be fulfilled.  It is almost a truism to say that just because a person has everything doesn’t mean that person is happy.

Aquinas’ second observation about happiness is that human beings are constituted to seek out the cause of things.  If we see mold growing on a piece of fruit, we seek out the chain of causes behind this occurrence until we arrive at the ultimate cause.  Our human nature is constituted to seek out the ultimate cause of our happiness.  However, simply knowing that God is behind our happiness is not enough for our intellect; we want to know the essence of God and this is beyond what the human intellect on its own can accomplish.  We need something else, some power outside of ourselves which Aquinas calls grace to elevate our intellect to know God in this way and to open our eyes to see God in this way.

In light of all this, Aquinas thinks that we can never achieve perfect happiness in this life.  We can, however, achieve “imperfect beatitude.”  This imperfect happiness is analogous to perfect happiness.  It is stable and lasting, it doesn’t exist in external goods like money, fame, or power.  Both types of happiness are “operations” or acts, not things.  The major distinction between perfect happiness and imperfect happiness is that perfect happiness consists in contemplating the Divine Essence, which we can’t do on our own, and imperfect happiness consists in the exercise of virtue, which we can do without any external supernatural aid.

Happiness in this life is often unstable and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.  I knew somebody who had found great happiness–this person this person (we will call him Job) had friends, career success, a comfortable and even  luxurious existence.  People commented on how happy Job seemed going into the holiday season.  About two weeks or so before Christmas, Job suffered a great disaster resulting in the loss of his home and possessions.  Even if Job was a virtuous person and had all the right values and gave thanks to God that he still had his life, Job is still less happy in his homeless, possession-less existence.  Aquinas’ treatment of happiness echoes Jesus saying to “store up treasures in heaven” because only in heaven can we ever find true happiness.  In fact, this is the definition of heaven in Aquinas’ book–total happiness.

Some people say that Aquinas has an otherworldly understanding of happiness that does not allow for any sort of happiness in this life.  I do not believe this is the case.  Aquinas thinks that we can flourish in this life in different ways but he wants to keep us from thinking that this life is it.  No matter what we do, no matter how hard we work and how good we become, there will always be something else that we desire in order to be happy.  Augustine expressed this sentiment in his Confessions when he said, “My heart is restless until it rests in you.”  We always hunger for God as the ultimate Giver of all good things, and until we get him, we stay a little bit hungry.

What is Metaphysics and What Use is it for Christians?

The word “metaphysics” has its origins in Aristotle’s corpus, meaning literally “after the physics.” In his treatise On Physics, Aristotle studied the natural world; his concern in On Metaphysics is the world beyond the natural, that is, the immaterial world. Aristotle considered metaphysics the first philosophy (prôtê philosophia) because it had as its object the first causes of things, and he considered it a theological science (theologikê) because it culminated in considerations of God’s existence and nature.

Metaphysics, however, is distinct from theology as a discipline, and the main difference is in their starting points. Theology starts with the authority of God revealed in Scripture and made manifest in the articles of faith. It is a revealed science, meaning that we cannot empirically prove theology’s starting principles such as the incarnation, the resurrection, or the ascension. We take these matters on faith.

Metaphysics takes as its starting point the sensible world, which is the same starting point as physics. The metaphysician studies things which can be empirically validated in the natural world and finds in this intelligible traces of that which is not natural and which cannot be empirically validated—God. It is on the study of God that theology and metaphysics converge while still remaining distinct as disciplines.

One may ask why metaphysics would be necessary at all for those who have faith. The idea behind this objection to the use of metaphysics is that we have the truth concerning God revealed to us in Scripture, and thus we need only study that to know God. This is not a new objection. Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albert dealt with “some who in their complete ignorance want to oppose the use of philosophy. This is especially true among the Dominicans, where no one stands up to contradict them. Like brute animals they blaspheme against things they do not understand.”

Instead, Albert and Thomas shared a robust confidence in the use of reason to illuminate and deepen knowledge and understanding regarding matters of faith. They thought this possible because they saw faith and reason as two different approaches to the truth. So long as both kept the eternal and immutable truth as their subject, faith and reason could never be contradictory. Moreover, Thomas adamantly advanced the position that metaphysics could greatly supplement theology, and that those who “by bringing [philosophical arguments] into the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but rather change water into wine.”

In a Quodlibet written near the end of his life, Aquinas distinguishes between two types of theological disputes. The first uses only revealed authority to make its arguments, a type of disputation that can only take place among those who accept the given source of authority. For example, Catholics and Protestants can debate about issues like the Incarnation and the Resurrection because both accept Scripture as an authority. However, Christians cannot debate on the same terms with atheists, because atheists do not accept Scripture as an authority. Instead, Christians must resort to the second type of disputation which uses rational philosophical arguments to lead the hearer to truth. As Aquinas says in the opening question of the Summa Theologica, “God is constantly at work in the mind, endowing it with its natural light and giving it direction.”

Although the mind is capable of coming to knowledge of the truth without faith, this knowledge is limited and partial. Metaphysics can tell us something about God—for example, that God is one, that God is eternal, or that God sets creation in motion—but it is the supernatural illumination of faith which strengthens and elevates the intellect so that it is capable to contemplate God face to face. As Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica I, Question 3, art. 1, human intellect may fail and be deceived, “but the light of faith, which is, as it were, a faint stamp of the First Truth in our mind, cannot fail, any more than God can be deceived or lie.”

For Christians in dialogue with Christians, metaphysical language provides a means of deepening our understanding of the tenants of our faith such as the relationship between the three Persons of the one God or the relationship between the two natures in the one Jesus Christ. The very first Christian Counsels relied on metaphysics to develop the creed that Roman Catholics and some branches of Protestants recite in church every week. Metaphysical reasoning can also illumine Scripture. When YHWH tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Gospel of John is replete with metaphysics, and without metaphysics, the creation narrative in Genesis is just a myth.

But metaphysics is also indispensable if Christians have any desire at all to converse with their non-believing neighbors. The ability to talk of God as the Unmoved Mover, the first efficient cause, or the only necessary being among contingents (I will explain what these mean in a future blog) will ultimately yield more fruit in bringing the atheist or agnostic to at least acknowledging God as logical conclusion than will citing Scripture. Most importantly, the use of metaphysics will show non-believers and believers alike that theology is not an irrational science.

The Virtue of Humility in Theological Inquiry

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I were in the kitchen talking about theology when the subject of Hell came up. I mentioned that I was bothered by people who stopped going to church or believing in God completely because they found the idea of Hell so repulsive. My boyfriend replied that there were different conceptions of Hell but that he found the idea of eternal torture somewhat difficult to swallow because it does not seem that God’s justice would include eternal punishment for anything we could do on earth. I responded that God’s love makes eternal life with Him possible; why should not His justice include eternal punishment?

The conversation was a long one. My boyfriend and I brought out Scripture, the Church Fathers (and specifically Justin Martyr for this particular conversation), metaphysical speculation, and of course, Thomas Aquinas. We batted around different conceptions of God’s justice and tried to figure out which seemed most true in light of the different resources at our disposal. We never got to the point that we could say definitively that we fully understood how God in his justice could condemn people to a Hell of eternal suffering but we also didn’t conclude that because we could not fully understand, we were going to either (a) give up our faith or (b) dismiss the concept of Hell as false.

I am sure that all of us know people who say that they refuse to worship Yahweh because the Hebrew Scriptures reveal Him to be a wrathful, angry God who is arbitrary in His punishments and guilty of horrible atrocities like genocide. How many people have you talked to who have rejected the New Testament in response to things like Paul saying that women should keep silent, cover their heads, and stay obedient to their husbands? Christopher Hitchens has built his career on arguing that every religion, but especially Christianity, prove in their sacred texts that God is not great, and therefore not something we should worship.

The Christian faith is a complicated one, and it is perfectly reasonable that even the most pious Christian will have questions and doubts. There is, however, a way to pursue these questions within a faith tradition, without rejecting the faith outright. The conversation my boyfriend and I had illustrates how such conversations can proceed, even regarding topics we may have trouble fully consenting to intellectually.

St. Anselm of Canterbury famously defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” But he too ran into people who, failing to reach understanding, gave up faith. In a text called “The Incarnation of the Word,” he describes

the presumption of those who, since they are unable to understand intellectually things the Christian faith professes, and with foolish pride think that there cannot in any way be things that they cannot understand, with unspeakable rashness dare to argue against such things rather than with humble wisdom admit their possibility. Indeed, no Christian ought to argue how things that the Catholic Church sincerely believes and verbally professes are not so, but by always adhering to the same faith without hesitation, by loving it, and by humbly living according to it, a Christian ought to argue how they are, inasmuch as one can look for reasons. If one can understand, one should thank God; if one cannot, one should bow one’s head in veneration rather than sound off trumpets.

Anselm is not saying here that we should refrain from asking difficult questions about our faith or even dare to disagree about how a particular doctrinal issue like Hell should be understood. But he is saying that the failure to come to some sort of understanding gives one license to reject the doctrine in question.

Thomas Aquinas identifies a particular virtue necessary for theological inquiry. The virtue of humility lies between the two extremes of pride and despair (see Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 161). The object of humility is the “difficult good,” such as knowledge that is hard to achieve, and this virtue serves to protect the mind from the pursuit of things which are against right reason. It is the virtue of humility that allows a person to remember her place in reference to God, and to subject herself to God, and to others for the sake of God, when appropriate.

Regarding theological inquiry specifically, Aquinas says that humility restrains a person from confiding in her own powers regarding great things (e.g. knowledge of God’s essence), but encourages her to aim at greater things “through confidence in God’s help . . . especially since the more one subjects oneself to God the more is one exalted in God’s sight. Hence Augustine says: ‘It is one thing to raise oneself to God and another to raise oneself up against God. He that abases himself before Him, him He raiseth up he that raises himself up against Him, him He casteth down” (II-II, Q. 161, art. 2, ad. 2).

Modern sentiments are wont to follow Machiavelli, Hume, and Spinoza, among others, in rejecting humility as a virtue only for the overly-pious or the feint-hearted. Aquinas’ understanding of humility is not one that encourages inactivity or self-deprecation, but rather pushes people to achieve great things and reach great intellectual feats in relation to others, and to God. Aquinas himself was a paradigm of such intellectual humility. He was not afraid to take on difficult points of doctrine, and to disagree with even his most illustrious predecessors like Augustine. But he was also not afraid to admit that some things were a mystery that our human minds could never exhaust. With the aid of humility, one can approach these mysteries as opportunities to grow in faith, rather than abandon it.


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