Archive for the ‘religion’ Tag

Religion as a Virtue

“There’s probably  no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  So says the advertisement placed on over 800 buses in England as part of the atheist bus campaign, featured in this New York Times article.  The ad campaign was initiated to respond to advertisements sponsored by this website, quoting John 3:16 and listing the website.  The website, I think, is what is often called a Roman Road website, which my esteemed fiancé addresses in this blog post.

My intention is not to talk about atheism or the problems with the Roman Road mentality (which my fiance does a very fine job addressing), but rather to talk more generally about what religion is, which I hope may clear up some misconceptions between atheists and Christians.

Aquinas says that religion is a virtue which is characterized by giving due honor to God.  Because religion is about “giving what is due,” Aquinas includes it as a virtue of justice, which is defined as the habit “whereby a man renders to others what is due to them by a constant and perpetual will.”  When I repay a loan, I am giving what is due to a person, which is an act of justice.  When I punish a misbehaving a child, I am giving what is due, which is an act of justice.  When I give God gratitude and worship, I am giving God what is due, which  is an act of justice.

Habits are differentiated according to their objects.  The theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) have God as their object while the moral virtues have a natural or human good as their object.  The object of temperance, for example, is pleasures of touch.  The object of fortitude is the arduous good.  The object of religion is “reverence to one God under one aspect, namely as the first principle of the creation and government of things” (II-II, Q. 81, art. 3).

The moral virtues are about the moral good according to human, not divine standards.  The acts conducive to the development of the moral virtues are in accordance with the dictates of natural human reason.  So Aquinas, by listing religion as a moral virtue, is saying that religion is a natural, human virtue, not something supernatural.  He says, “the good to which religion is directed is to give due honor to God.  Honor is due to someone under the aspect of excellence: and to God a singular excellence is competent, since He infinitely surpasses all things and exceeds them in every way.  Wherefore to Him is special honor due: even as in human affairs we see that different honor is due to different personal excellences, one kind of honor to a father, another to the king.” (I-II, Q. 81, art. 4).

What Aquinas is saying here is really quite remarkable–religion is something everybody should practice, not just select people who believe in God.  Moreover, religion is not about our human state of mind, but about giving God what is due to him as God.  Good, or virtuous religious practice does not give God worship in order to avoid Hell, as this Roman Road website suggests, and atheists often assume.  Virtuous religious practice recognizes God as the giver of all good things and believes he should be given gratitude and honor as a result.

So what about the Atheist Bus Campaign’s claim that all those religious people should “stop worrying and enjoy life?”  Or what about the Australian atheists who wanted to advertise for their point of view with the appeal “Atheism: Sleep in on Sunday mornings.”  You get the impression that atheists are the happy, carefree ones and religious people are uptight, paranoid, and miserable.  Aquinas would disagree.  “the direct and principal effect of devotion is the spiritual joy of the mind . . . Caused by a twofold consideration: chiefly by the consideration of God’s goodness, because this consideration belongs to the term, as it  were, of the movement of the  will in surrendering itself to God, and direct result of this consideration is joy. . . Secondarily, devotion is caused by the consideration of one’s own failings; for this consideration regards the term from which man withdraws by the movement of his devout will, in that he trusts not in himself, but subjects himself to God” (II-II, Q. 82, art. 4).

Good and virtuous religion, whereby God is praised and adore as the supreme principle of all being, and the giver or all good things is not a burdensome act, according to Aquinas, but one which humans are meant to enjoy.  This is consistent with his idea that virtue is not just when we do good acts against our inclinations, but when our inclinations align with good acts: “we must allow that sorrow for things pertaining to virtue is incompatible with virtue: since virtue rejoices in its own. On the other hand, virtue sorrows moderately for all that thwarts virtue, no matter how” (I-II, Q. 59, art. 4).

Most of us, however, do not have the virtue of religion.  It is hard for us to wake up on Sunday mornings, we do get bored in church, and we almost always have other things to do besides pray.  Almost all virtues are difficult to develop at first.  It is hard for an alcoholic to be temperate towards alcohol, there is always an excuse to not justly give money and time to different charitable activities as an act of justice, and judging by the divorce rates in this country, lots of oaths are being broken.  Yet it takes virtuous acts like keeping promises and giving money to the poor to develop the virtue of justice.  It takes virtuous acts of moderation towards food, drink, and sex to develop the virtue of temperance.

My point is that most of us are not virtuous people and so we find it difficult to do virtuous things.  But Aquinas’ psychology says that the more we grow in virtue, the easier it is for us to continue to act virtuously.  So also is the case with religion.  We start off practicing religion because it is our duty, but as we revere and honor him, “our mind is subjected to Him; wherein its perfection consists, since a thing is perfected by being subject to its superior” (II-II Q. 81, art. 7).  As we become more religious, we become sanctified, or made holy,  whereby we give God not only what He is due in worship, but also as we refer to God “the works of the other virtues.”  In like manner, “man by certain good works disposes himself to the worship of God” (II-II, Q. 81, art. 8).

So religion and other good acts are related in Aquinas’ systems because religion itself is a virtue.   And virtues dispose their owner towards more and more good acts.  So don’t sleep in on Sunday mornings, but look at going to church and worshipping God as just another part of enjoying life, and more importantly, as part of becoming a better person.  And above all, remember that in the end, the worship you give isn’t about you and what you are getting out of it, but about what you owe God.

Why Religion Might Make You Better Behaved and Happier

University of Miami researchers David McCullough and Brian Willoughby have issued a report claiming that religion promotes self-control, described in this recent New York Times article.  The article, written by a non-religious person, evaluates the claim backed up by other research that religion makes people better-behaved and overall happier that non-religious folk.  The most fascinating part to me was that McCullough and Willoughby do not conclude that the success religious people enjoy is attributed to  obedience to external rules imposed by a religious belief system, but rather to an internal strength that religious people have: “Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” McCullough said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”  I think an alternate explanation may be what Aquinas calls “infused moral virtues.”

In Thomas Aquinas’ system, a moral virtue is a good habit by which a person is disposed to act well as if it were second nature.  A virtue is formed by acting well over and over again.  He thinks that the development of  virtue is something that both believers and non-believers can do.  In other words, there is nothing specifically religious or theological about the moral virtues.  Anybody can theoretically discipline their passions to be virtuous, though in practice, the development of virtue is difficult and frequently unsuccessful.

However, there is another category of virtue which Aquinas calls “infused moral virtues.”  The infused moral virtues are not caused by acting well over and over again.  Thomas says that the moral virtues must ordinarily be “acquired” through the arduous process of habituating ourselves to the good.   Rather, the infused moral virtues are implanted  in us by God through grace.

Infused moral virtues are similar to their acquired counterparts.  We can still speak of infused and acquired temperance, for example, and both are habits that perfect the concupiscible appetite which is the appetite for things like food, drink, and sex.  However, there are two major differences between acquired and infused virtues, besides how they are caused.  The first difference is the matter with which the virtues are concerned, what Aquinas calls the object (materia circa quam):

the object of temperance is a good in respect of the pleasures connected with the concupiscence of touch. . . it is evident that the mean that is appointed in such like concupiscences according to the rule of human reason, is seen under a different aspect from the mean which is fixed according to Divine rule. For instance, in the consumption of food, the mean fixed by human reason, is that food should not harm the health of the body, nor hinder the use of reason: whereas, according to the Divine rule, it behooves man to “chastise his body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27), by abstinence in food, drink and the like” (I-II, Q. 63, art. 3).

So the object of acquired moral virtues is some earthly good like health according to what human reason dictates, whereas the object of the infused moral virtues is obedience to the command of God.  The second difference is that the infused and acquired virtues are directed towards different things.  The acquired virtues are directed towards are directed towards earthly goods that make people good “citizens of earth,” whereas the infused moral virtues are directed toward spiritual goods that make one a good “citizen of heaven.”

We need the infused moral virtues because human beings are given a supernatural end of eternal happiness (beatitude), which we cannot reach by our own effort, as well as a natural end of happiness in this life, which we can achieve based  on our own effort and cultivation of virtue.  Just as the acquired moral virtues habituate us to behave virtuously  and flourish in this life, the infused moral virtues habituate us to flourish in the next life as well.

We receive the infused moral virtues through grace.  We receive grace by going to church and worshiping collectively, by receiving the sacraments, and by praying.  Their source is religious in nature–Thomas does not think that pagans can receive the infused moral virtues.

The infused moral virtues could explain why religious people tend to be better at self-control as well more successful and happier than their non-religious counterparts.  Virtue is very difficult to acquire and most people are unsuccessful.  If a person through grace is infused with temperance, this will still manifest itself as self-control towards food and drink, even if on their own, they  were unsuccessful at developing temperance through acquisition.

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.