Archive for the ‘Metaphysics’ Tag

Why I Still Believe in the God of Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thomistic Response to N.T. Wright on Metaphysics, Trinitarian Formulas, and the Historical Jesus

In Chapter 4 of Scripture and Metaphysics, Matthew Levering takes on N.T. Wright who argues that traditional Western Trinitarian theology bypasses the narrative account of Scripture especially regarding the historical Jesus, and instead presents a fundamental non-narrative Trinitarian theology which “approache[es] the Christological question by assuming this [ontological] view of god and then fitting Jesus into it” (Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God,” 54).

Wright begins his essay with a personal anecdote of talking to students who claim to not believe in god. Wright probes them to explain “which god they don’t believe in” and determines that when students say this, what they mean is that they do not believe in a god who sits on high, looking down and casting out judgment, what Wright calls the “spy-in-the-sky.” To these students, Wright responds that he does not believe in such a god either, but rather, believes in the God that is revealed in the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Wright’s point is that we need historical studies of Jesus because it is all too easy to create an idol of Jesus, a heavenly, perfect, sinless, and non-Jewish Jesus “who wanders round with a faraway look, listening to the music of the angels, remembering the time when he was sitting up in heaven with the other members of Trinity, having angels bring him bananas on golden dishes.” Rather than starting off with the Orthodox, post-Nicaean and post-Chalcedonian Jesus as the second person of the Trinity (what Wright calls the kyriarchal portrait of God), Wright argues that we need to start with the historical Jesus who reveals to us not a creedal formula, but rather, the Old Testament God of Israel:

In Jesus himself, I suggest we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Isa 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do, the creator God giving new life the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures, the faithful God dwelling in the midst of his people, the stern and tender God relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation, and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall carry the lambs in his arms; and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11). It is the OT portrait of YHWH, but it fits Jesus like a glove.

In this chapter, Levering wants to save Aquinas from the implicit criticism of people like Wright, namely, that his conception of Jesus is sterile and formulaic, and completely detached from the Jesus as revealed in Scripture. Instead, Levering claims that Aquinas rejects the kyriarchal portrait of God just as strongly as Wright does. He cites the Tertia Pars, QQ. 46, art. 3. where Aquinas asks whether there was a more suitable way of delivering the human race than by Christ’s passion. In the first objection, alluding to St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, Aquinas states that God could have liberated humankind solely by His Divine Will! This could have not only spared the life of the incarnate son of God but would have more suitably revealed God’s superior power.

But Aquinas rejects the mighty display of God’s power as more suitable than the Passion (as does Wright) on the grounds that Christ’s passion teaches us about the God who saves us: “In the first place, man knows thereby how much god loves him, and is thereby stirred to love him in return, and therein lies the perfection of human salvation” (IIIa, Q. 46, art. 3). As Levering writes:

Christ’s Paschal mystery reveals to human kind the extraordinary depth of God’s love. Without Christ’s passion, humankind would not have known the superabundance of God’s love. The Paschal mystery reveals the Trinity (God-in-himself) in terms of a wisdom of wondrous love,, to the point of the Son of God giving his own life for the salvation of sinners, that is, for the salvation of those who by pride had cut themselves off from God” (Levering 134).

Aquinas does not give us the “disembodied theological cipher” which Wright wants to counter with the historical Jesus, but rather, to use Wright’s own words, “the Jesus whose body was killed as the revelation of the love of God and raised to new life.”

Aquinas gives another reason that Christ’s bloody passion was more fitting than a mighty display of God’s power neatly accomplishing the same task. That is, by his passion, Christ “set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (I Peter 2:21): ‘Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps” (IIIa, Q. 46, art. 3). Levering’s point is this, that like Wright, Aquinas appeals to the cross and the scriptural account of Jesus to dispel what Wright calls the “kyriarchal” or aloof, uncaring and philosophically formulaic God. But unlike Wright wants to argue that his scriptural and historical account of Jesus reveals a God of superabundant love, of humility, and of personified wisdom, as opposed to the philosophical accounts of God that his students reject, Aquinas uses philosophy to probe the depths of this mystery further. Namely, Aquinas draws a Trinitarian conclusion.

Jesus, Aquinas argues, was able to endure such suffering (which we have already established is intended to suitably reveal the intimate love of God that God is willing to suffer with and for God’s people) because of intimate knowledge of the Father. In suffering, and suffering without sin, for the sins of others, Jesus had full knowledge of Father, which gave Jesus the ability to suffer the most profound sorrow for sin out of the love which is manifest in the Father. As Levering writes, “the Father inspired Christ’s human will with this perfect charity by infusing Christ’s humanity with the fullness of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s passion, one thus sees manifested the incarnate Son’s obedience to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ reveals God’s wisdom and love in Trinitrarian form” (136).

For Aquinas, the scriptural Jesus, and especially the scriptural account of Jesus’ death reveals the Father as the one who sends the Son as the Father’s Word of love for the world, reveals the incarnate Son who is God’s perfect Word in the world, and reveals the Holy Spirit who enables the incarnate Son to suffer with supernaturally-inspired love. That is, for Aquinas, it is not the study of metaphysics, though metaphysics certainly helps, and not the study of creeds, though creeds are important, but precisely the study of Scripture and especially the Passion which reveals the Trinity.

We see the central and foundational importance of scripture in Aquinas’ Trinitarian formulas elsewhere, specifically in his commentary on John. Commenting on John 5:20, Aquinas writes that “because the Father perfectly loves the Son, this is a sign that the Father has shown him everything and has communicated to him his very own power and nature” (Super Ioan. 5, lect. 3, no. 753). Because the Father gives the Son everything he has, the Son is the perfect image of the Father (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15) or as Aquinas reflects using metaphysical language “since likeness is a cause of love (for every animal loves its like), wherever a perfect likeness of God is found, there also is found a perfect love of God” (Super Ioan 5, lect. 3, no. 753). Just as the Father bets the Son by absolute self-gift, so too the Son, in order to reveal the Father, must give himself completely.” Hence, we get the Passion.

This is not a way of ignoring the God of Israel which Jesus reveals perfectly through his earthly life (as Wright wants to argue); it is, however, a fuller revelation of the God of Israel. Levering writes, “Before Christ’s coming, the people of Israel knew God the father, but they only knew him as father in the sense of Creator, and as the one and only God. Christ’s disciples, on the other hand, are able to know Father by faith (by the grace of the Holy Spirit) as the Father of the only-begotten son” (139). Aquinas cites John 5:36 on this point: “The very works which m Father has given me to perform—those works that I myself perform—they bear witness to me that the Father sent me.” According to Aquinas, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, by revealing himself through his works, also reveals the Father. This is the basis of Trinitarian formulas—the works of Jesus as related by Scripture.

Wright wants to say that if we really study the Jesus as revealed in Scripture, we will not get at a creedal Trinitarian formula. The real Jesus and the Second Person of the Trinity have nothing to do with each other. He writes,

After fifteen years of serious historical Jesus study, I still say the creed ex animo; but I now mean something very different by it, not least by the word “god” itself. The portrait has been redrawn. At its heart we discover a human face, surrounded by a crown of thorns. God’s purpose for Israel has been completed. Salvation is of the Jews, and from the King of the Jews it has come. God’s covenant faithfulness has been revealed in the good news of Jesus, bringing salvation for the whole cosmos.

But for Aquinas, as Levering points out, it is precisely by studying this historical, earthly Jesus that we are taught, as Jesus taught his friends, about the Trinity. Jesus teaches us through his words and actions. On this, Aquinas would agree with Wright. But whereas Wright uses only historical and literary methods to understand this Jesus, Aquinas also integrates metaphysical methods to not only exegete the historical Jesus, but also to be conformed to true knowledge of the living God revealed in scripture. Metaphysical speculation does not, as Wright criticizes, lead to the construction of an aloof kyriarchal idol, but rather, seeks to illuminate the true meaning of scriptural narrative of the transcendent and immanent God revealed to Israel as YHWH. In short, metaphysical speculation, in addition to historical and literary methods of understanding, complement one another by instilling within the believer greater contemplative understanding of the mystery of the Trinity. Or as A.F. Gunten, O.P. remarks,

“The texts of Scripture invited [Aquinas] to undertake a philosophical study that bears its fruits. It then permits him to give a more precise interpretation of Scripture.”

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.

YHWH: God’s Being as Simple Being

Continuing on with our examination of Matthew Levering’s Scripture and Metaphysics, in this post I will give a concrete, hopefully simple, example of how metaphysical speculation can enhance our understanding of Scripture.

In examining Scripture, there are numerous passages that refer to God’s body. In Exodus 33, God speaks to Moses face to face, and allows Moses to gaze upon his back. Psalm 33 anthropomorphically depicts God sitting on his throne in heaven and looking down on the earth to judge the righteous and the wicked. Scripture frequently refers to God’s “right hand” (Psalm 48:10, Acts 7:56). However, Christianity holds that God is not a body, but that God is a spirit. In light of the scriptural passages that say otherwise, how can Christianity hold such a belief?

Aquinas, as Matthew Levering points out, provides one such way of interpreting these seeming conflicting passages, by using metaphysical reflection to illumine the relevant passages of Scripture. He begins with John 4:24: “God is a spirit” as providing the basis of his metaphysical reflection (Ia, Q. 3, art. 1). He then goes on to say, in light of the biblical quotations which describe God in bodily terms, that the Bible “puts before us spiritual and divine things under the comparison of corporeal things” (Ia, Q. 3, art. 1, ad. 1). Aquinas’ point is that human language must rely on sensible images to describe God, though God is immaterial.

But how do we know this is the case? In light of the numerous Scripture passages that say otherwise, would it not make more sense to conclude that God has a body (and a spirit, to take into proper account John 4:24)? Aquinas uses metaphysical arguments to the contrary. First, a body is composed of matter, and it would be impossible for matter to be attributed to God. This is because matter exists in a state of potentiality.

Aquinas takes his understanding of potentiality from Aristotle. Aristotle’s definition of potentiality in the Metaphysics, is the “power that a thing has to produce change” or “the source of change in something else or in itself qua other.” (1046a12). The exercise of potentiality is movement or process (kinesis) or actuality (energeia). So a thing has potentiality in so far as it is capable of changing, and especially in so far as it is capable of taking on a better or more complete state of being.

We can think of potentiality as “potential energy” in physics. A stone sitting at the top of the hill has potential energy, which will be translated to movement (kinesis or kinetic energy) as the stone rolls down the hill and comes to a rest. But metaphysically, potentiality has a wider meaning that refers to states of being. An infant, for example, has potentiality to grow into an adult, thus taking on a more perfect or more complete state of being, because as an adult, the infant will be able to do more things properly ascribed to humans (walking, talking, reasoning, making art) that an infant cannot do.

According to Aristotle, everything in the universe can be described as a combination of form and matter. Matter is the raw material of things, whereas form is the structure of a thing or the “essence of what a thing is.” A woman and a gazelle are both composed of matter, and some of the same types of matter (like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen) but the two substances are distinguished by their form—the woman has the form of a human and the gazelle the form of the gazelle. All matter is in a state of potentiality because it could take on any number of forms. So matter is the “waiting to happen” part of existence; form is the “happening” part of existence. An infant’s matter will change over time, but the form, the essence of what that infant is, will remain constant, which is why the three year-old, 20 year-old, and 90 year-old “former infant” can still be said to be the same person.

Things that have bodies, therefore, are in a state of potentiality. They are changing, they are always in the process of becoming. So if God had a body, God would be in a state of change. But Aquinas, based on both Scripture and metaphysics, does not accept that God changes. He cites James 1:17 that in God “there is no change nor shadow of alteration” and Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change” and Numbers 23:19: “God is not as a man, that He should lie, nor as the son of man that He should be changed” (see Ia, Q. 14, art. 10 and Q. 19, art. 7) Using these passages of Scripture, Aquinas can then return to his metaphysical speculation—things that have bodies composed of matter are in a state of potentiality, and therefore they change. But God does not change. Thus, God must not have a body composed of matter.

Metaphysically, this informs Aquinas of something important. He accepts the Aristotelian dictum that all things are composed of matter and form or potentiality and actuality. But if God does not have matter, then God must be only form, and if God is only form, then God must be only actuality without any potentiality. Another way of saying this is that God is “pure Act” or the perfect fullness of “to be.” Moreover, things that are composed of matter and form are composites, but God is not composed of matter and form and therefore cannot be a composite. Thus, Aquinas concludes, that God is simple.

These are the two metaphysical assumptions which Aquinas bases all subsequent metaphysical reflection when discussing God’s existence: (1) God is pure Being or pure Act and (2) God is simple. Although he uses metaphysical language to make these claims, Aquinas is not doing pure metaphysical speculation. In other words, he is not just recapitulating the “static Aristotelian conception of the deity” as a “mere philosophical problem” (Levering 86) but is rather using Aristotelian metaphysics to illuminate an understanding of the God of Israel and this God’s relation to human history.

For Aquinas, the language of God as “pure Being” is not separable theologically from the revelation of “YHWH”: “The two names complement each other, revealing God’s historical presence as infinite, sheer, eternal Presence. They express the same God, understood metaphysically and historically” (Levering 61).

So why use the metaphysical language at all? Because, as we saw at the beginning of this post, Scripture uses language to refer to God that describes God in human terms, and as such, the language of Scripture can possibly dispose readers to idolatry, to create God according to a human image. According to Aquinas, as Levering points out in his book, the metaphysical language God ascribes to Godself in Exodus 3:14 is intended to wean God’s people from idolatry by revealing God as pure being and nothing more, without any particular mode of being (i.e. as simple) and consequently, and here is the important part, as sheer presence.

Because God does not have any particular mode of being, God is eternally present. As YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God is intimately active without being limited by temporality. There should be no doubt that Aquinas is not trying to create a philosopher’s God who is detached from creation, but is rather trying to use metaphysical language to illuminate the God who is intimately close to creation, who is personal, and eternally present. God as Aquinas describes him in the language of Greek metaphysics as Pure, Simple Being is also the living and creating God of Israel. On this point, Thomas Weinandy finds a unity of metaphysical and historical naming of God in Christian thought:

Within Greek though these attributes [e.g. imperishability, perfection, goodness, power] constitute God as one who is removed from, even if related to, all else that is. They constitute him as transcendent in the sense of not only making him other than the cosmic order, but also as often being incapable of actively relating to the cosmic order. Within the Judeo/Christian tradition these attributes do constitute God as wholly other than all else, but they equally constitute him as Creator and so immediately related to all else that is” (Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, 72)

So here we have one example of how Aquinas uses both Scripture and metaphysical reasoning to illuminate God as revealed in Scripture, namely, as a God who is simple (not composite form and matter but rather pure form without a body) and a God who is Pure Being.

1. Aquinas uses metaphysics to make sense of all those scriptural passages saying that God has a body. How do you make sense of those passages?
2. It is very important for Aquinas’ understanding of God that God does not have a body. In your mind, what difference does it make if God does or does not have a body?
3. Does describing God as “Pure Being” obscure or illuminate God as God is revealed in Scripture, especially in light of the fact that God gives the name YHWH “I am who I am” to Moses as the name by which God should be called.

More on Metaphysics

As I mentioned in my last post, I am doing a series of articles on Matthew Levering’s new book entitled Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, largely in hopes of starting an ecumenical conversation between traditions like the Church of Christ that tend to be sola Scriptura, and traditions like Roman Catholicism that tends to be heavily philosophical. The point of this blog is to probe deeper into the subject of metaphysics, in order to understand why Levering’s project is so important.

In the last post, I said that Protestant theology tends to reject metaphysics in favor of using Scripture to understand God. This claim, however, requires some clarification. There are several different ways of “rejecting metaphysics.” As I mentioned before, metaphysics is simply the study of that which is not physical like God, angels, demons, and the soul. One way which a person could reject metaphysics is by rejecting that any such metaphysical or immaterial realm exists. This is a move frequently made in the modern sciences, and is sometimes called materialism, meaning that only a material realm of reality which is subject to empirical inquiry exists.

One example of a materialist rejection of metaphysics is found in this recent op-ed from the New York Times evaluating the selection of Francis Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health. Collins is a geneticist and former head of the Human Genome Project, and he is also a practicing Catholic and believer in God. Collins actually wrote a book called The Language of God which tries to show how faith and new developments in genetics are not at odds, but are rather mutually reinforcing (a good Thomist position). The author of the op-ed, Sam Harris, is not so much uncomfortable with Collin’s belief in a God but rather with his position that some things “including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.” are beyond scientific scrutiny. Harris writes,

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Collins holds the position that he does because he believes in a metaphysical realm that cannot be the subject of scientific empirical inquiry which by definition can only study material phenomena. Harris, on the other hand, rejects such a metaphysical realm. If there is a reason, according to Harris, that we think that free will, morality, and suffering are mysteries, it is simply because we have not developed sufficiently sophisticated scientific methods to study these phenomena (For a good argument that probes materialist rejection of metaphysics on a deeper intellectual level, check out this from First Things).

Christians, however, who reject metaphysics, do not do so in the same way as Harris. Christians are not materialists, meaning that they do accept a metaphysical realm. Christians who reject metaphysics do so on different grounds, namely, by rejecting the validity of metaphysical speculation or philosophical arguments to talk about God. Christians who reject metaphysics tend to claim that everything we need to know about God has already been revealed to us in Scripture, and so rather than using philosophy to talk about God, we need only to open the Bible.

There are two big reasons why that position is a problem. First, say you have an atheist or agnostic scientist or believer in science like Sam Harris and you want to talk to him about Christianity. Opening up the Bible and reading about all that God has done is going to do little to persuade someone like Harris to accept the Christian claims of faith. But say instead you close the Bible and use a metaphysical argument to engage Sam, perhaps an argument from Aquinas. You might say something like, “Sam, our senses tell us that everything is in motion, and that things are set into motion when they are acted on by something else in motion. But things were not always in motion. For example, the theory of the Big Bang tells us that before time, there was no molecular motion at all, but something must have initially set things into motion. This first mover, we can reasonably say, is God.” (For the record, this is Aquinas’ first way of five for demonstrating reasonably God’s existence).

Now Harris may or may not be convinced by such an argument, but the point is, that such an argument, which is a metaphysical argument, has the benefit of being able to show how the God which Christians take on faith is not beyond reason. Certain things can be known about this God through ordinary human reasoning. Now, faith in the living God of Israel, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, cannot be attained through mere rational speculation, but is rather an effect of God’s grace. But Aquinas believed, and I think rightly, that we can make ourselves more or less amenable to faith. Sam Harris is not going to be made amenable to faith by reading the Bible, but he might be by rational, philosophical, and metaphysical arguments. Get him convinced enough that faith and reason are not in conflict, and he may get to the point where he can actually open the Bible and read it with a certain degree of docility. So metaphysics can be a powerful tool for evangelization.

The second reason that rejecting metaphysical arguments in favor of a sola Scriptura position to understand God is a problem is that God as revealed in Scripture does not always seem to make a lot of sense. For example, a Christian may site Psalm 118, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! for His mercy endures forever” and make a claim along with the Psalmist that God is good. But then somebody could open the Bible and read 2 Samuel 6 where Uzzah, a seemingly good guy and servant of God, reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant to keep it from falling, and God gets angry and strikes him dead. A person reading this passage could claim that such a God is not good. Or a Christian could say that God loves peace and mercy and cite the numerous Biblical passages which support this, like when Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” or in the Old Testament:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21,22)

“Seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14)

But then someone else could open the Bible and look at the following passages and draw a very different conclusion:

Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I am driving out from before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images. For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (Exodus 34: 11-14)

<blockquoteYou will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. For I will look on you favorably and make you fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you. You shall eat the old harvest, and clear out the old because of the new (Leviticus 26: 7-9)

Reading these passages, someone could make a very valid claim (as lots of people do, and they frequently abandon their faith as a result) that God is actually not peaceful and merciful, but is rather capricious and wrathful, going so far as to command genocide, one of the greatest of atrocities.

Levering says that it is all too easy to read these passages and others from the Bible and create an idol out of God. Our idol may be a wrathful God who sends down punishments on the wicked and hates his enemies. Or our idol may be a revolutionary God involved in radical societal reform and social justice. Or our idol may be a God who loves and accepts all his creatures, no matter what they do. Or our God may be a strict authoritarian who has set down rules in Holy Writ and fully expects his creatures to follow them.

All of these understandings of God are present in Scripture and thus all of them have at least some element of truth. But Levering wants to argue that taking any one of these understandings of God on its own, despite its scriptural warrant, is still making an idol out of God.

Levering wants to make the claim in his book that a basic metaphysical assumption about God is that God is reasonable, and thus, we can use our reason to understand and explain these seeming conflicting passages about God. That is, if we put metaphysical speculation about God into dialogue with scriptural exegesis about God, we can come up with an understanding of God that is richer, truer, and less prone to idolatry. We will go into the details of how Levering thinks this should proceed in later posts, but he basically wants to argue that Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysical assumptions allowed him to resolve apparent conflicts regarding God as God is revealed in Scripture. Metaphysical speculation allowed Aquinas to make sense of Scriptural accounts of the seeming capriciousness of God and scriptural accounts of God as unchanging. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the Christian claim that God is good, despite Scriptural evidence to the contrary. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the fact that God is one, despite the fact that Christianity hold that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also God. And Levering thinks that these are exactly the tools that Christians need to today in order to understand God and enter into greater union with that 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.

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.

How Should Christians Make Sense of the Theory of Evolution?

In John Paul II’s message to the Pontifical Academy of Science on Evolution in 1996, he finely summed up the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on evolution, reaffirming the statement made by his predecessor Pius XII in 1950 that “there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation.” The conflict among theologians over evolution according to the pope was not whether Darwinian theories were compatible with Christianity, but rather “the true role of philosophy and, beyond it, of theology.” Some, like Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn in this NYTimes Op-ed, claim that John Paul II’s support for evolutionary theories are overblown. Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2005 inaugural mass that “We are not some causal and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” But this should not be taken as a Catholic hostility to the theory of evolution, per se. For both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, science and religion are ultimately compatible, each with different questions, tools, and spheres of influence, but at certain points, mutually enlightening.

Evolution is a materialist theory, meaning that it is a theory concerned with matter. It explains the reorganization of matter over time. As an empirical theory, it is based on observations and measurements. The job of the natural sciences is to explain such natural phenomenon like the differences between the species or the biological development of organisms over time.

But there are other disciplines that study phenomena that are not natural, not concerned with matter, and not empirically observable. For example, the soul, according to Christian theology is immaterial. Thus, it cannot be explained by a materialistic theory like evolution. Rather, the question of the soul is a metaphysical question. Metaphysics simply means “beyond or above physics.” Whereas physics and the other natural sciences are concerned with nature, that is, observable and measurable phenomena, metaphysics is concerned with that which cannot be observed, with those deep and abiding questions of why. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the soul?

It is concerning the question of human evolution, particularly when it comes to humans having an immortal soul, where evolutionary theories and theology really seem to conflict. It seems directly contrary to the Biblical account of creation to say that human are the process of natural selection. Moreover, it seems repulsive to the idea of human dignity rooted in the belief that human beings are created in the image of God to say that human beings and monkeys descended from a common ape-like ancestor. How can human beings bear the divine image if one accepts that they are descended from an animal?

Thomas Aquinas offers us one such solution. Thomas Aquinas adopted Aristotelian biology to explain the biology of the human being. Aristotle thought that human beings were animals, and Aquinas affirmed him on that. According to both, the organizing structure (or form) of the human being was the soul, which was both immaterial and inseparable from the body (unlike Plato who thought the soul was imprisoned in the body). In the Aristotelian view, the human soul had three levels. The most primitive level was the vegetative level that allowed the human being to do plant-like things like grow through cellular division or use energy. The next level of the soul was the animalic level, which allowed the human being to do animal-like things like hunt down food, attack in self-defense, and mate with other human animals. But where humans were distinct from their fellow animal kingdom members was that they had a third level of their soul—the rational part–which allowed them to do things like think, ponder, form communities, create moral codes, resist animal instincts, and wonder about God. Most importantly, it is the rational part of the soul that allows the person to have free will, that is, the ability to act voluntarily and intentionally. The idea of the soul as having multiple levels allowed Aristotle and Aquinas to conceive of the human person as both an animal and more than an animal.

According to Aquinas, it is in the rational part of the soul that we find the image of God. This is an important point to emphasize: for Aquinas, being in the image of God means being able to act (1) voluntarily and (2) with intention or purpose.

So this gets to why the Roman Catholic Church, which is heavily influenced by the theology and philosophy of Aquinas, can accept evolution. It is because the church sees the realm of philosophy and theology to be concerned primarily with the rational dimension of the soul and with the human being as a free and intentional creature, capable of conceiving a realm of reality that is not material, a realm of reality that is concerned with immaterial, or metaphysical phenomena like the true, the good, and the beautiful.

It is not the job of philosophy and theology to explain functioning of the other parts of the soul that control things like cell division and appetite. This is the job of the natural sciences like biology. Theology, since it is based on revelation, cannot explain the exact observable mechanisms of the way the world works or the way God creates. Saying that God created the earth is one thing; explaining how is quite another. Science, on the other hand, cannot explain the deep and inescapable existential questions that arise in human existence. Why are we here? Where are we heading? How do we lead a good life?

There are reductionist tendencies on both sides of the debate. There are some religious folk who say that everything we need to know is in the Bible. This sort of Biblicism (sometimes called fundamentalism) is ultimately self-defeating. The majority of even the most stringent Biblicists or fundamentalists will go to a doctor when they are sick. The Bible talks about healing, so why not turn to the Bible for answers to an illness? Because the Bible does not give us those answers. The Bible does not tell us how to set a broken bone or how to cure strep throat. To think that the Bible provides all the answers is an example of reductionism.

The reductionist tendencies on the scientific side of the debate try and use science to provide all the answers. We said before that religion can provide answers to the deep-seated metaphysical questions that emerge in each of our lives, but scientific reductionists will say that science provides answers to these questions. To the question, “why are we here?” scientific reductionists will say that we are not here for any reason, but are rather the products of chance. To the question, “what happens when we die?” scientific reductionists will say that nothing happens when we die besides the fact that our biological mechanisms cease to function. To the question, “how do we live a good life,” scientific reductionists will say something like “there is no such thing as a good life, only as much subjective pleasure as possible.” But like the religious reductionist position, this scientific reductionism is also ultimately self-defeating. There is no scientific (i.e. empirical) evidence to prove that there is no God or that chance, not God, is the force behind the evolutionary processes. You cannot use the tools of science to examine metaphysical questions like the meaning of life, the nature of God, or the question of final causality.

This is why Darwin’s theories have never been officially condemned by Vatican. Darwin sought to explain a physical question, whereas the church seeks to explain metaphysical questions. Now, metaphysical explanations are partially dependent on physical phenomena, but metaphysics goes beyond what physical theories like evolution can tell us. Theologically, it would be devastating for the acceptance of evolutionary theories if they embraced a view of human beings as wholly material, and indeed, some evolutionists believe this. But Darwin did not, and strictly speaking, evolutionary theories do not contribute to such a view of mankind.

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.