Thursday, July 17, 2014

Men of prayer, ways of prayer: St Francis de Sales & St Josemaria Escriva

Throughout the history of the Church, her saints have led the People of God ever deeper into the mystery of prayer and what it means to be faithful to the Church's teaching on the importance of prayer for deep personal communion with God the Holy Trinity. In addition to their exemplary lives, the saints have left a great heritage of writing, communicating the essentials of their relationship of prayer with the Triune God. The Church has never ceased to encourage the People of God to encounter these teachings of the saints and gain wisdom and insight from the ways in which God chose to communicate himself to them. Indeed, it is an important part of the life of prayer for every Christian to seriously engage the writings of the men and women whom the Church has been given the insight to proclaim saints. In my conversion to the Catholic Faith, I found great solace in the lives of the saints and in their examples of holiness and prayer. Because of my desire to develop, with God's grace, the life of prayer that I had seen in the saints, I began to read as many of the spiritual writings as I could find. Two of the saints whose writings I discovered led me to great growth in the spiritual life. Guided by the experienced hand of my spiritual director, I found two worthy exemplars who have since had a very profound impact on my life. The first is St. Francis de Sales, a French bishop and doctor of the Church who died in 1622. St. Francis was both the Bishop of Geneva and a prolific author on the spiritual life for laypeople and those who were taking the first steps to grow in what he called “the devout life.” It was his work, the Introduction to the Devout Life that had such a great impact on me. The second saint that challenged me in the life of prayer is St. Josemaría Escrivá, a Spanish priest and founder of the personal prelature Opus Dei, who died in 1975. St. Josemaría began as a diocesan priest, but later founded one of the largest lay apostolate programs in the world. Throughout his life he wrote both short pithy sayings on the spiritual life that were collected into topical handbooks, like The Way and The Furrow, and lengthy spiritual growth tools like his The Way of the Cross. Despite these two saints' different backgrounds, nationalities, eras, and emphases, I have found their writings to have great congruence. Both emphasize the importance of personal holiness and conversion premised upon charity. For prayer, both highlight a meditative method of engaging the Lord, with special attention paid to vivid imagery and pious speculation: and thanks to their teachings, my prayer life has shown growth in both reflection and contemplation.

Saint Frances de Sales' work Introduction to the Devout Life is considered to be a classic of the spiritual tradition.1 In Devout Life, St. Francis writes to Philothea, a “soul living in the world” and invites her to follow the “paths of devotion.” 2 His introductory note to Philothea, a pseudonym the saint uses as a stand-in for any God-loving soul, is at the same time moving and an unwitting paen to pastoral charity and zeal:
I have addressed my instructions to Philothea, as adapting what was originally written for an individual to the common good of souls. I have made use of a name suitable to all who seek after the devout life, Philothea meaning one who loves God. Setting then before me a soul, who through the devout life seeks after the love of God, I have arranged this Introduction in five parts … .” 3
From this auspicious beginning, St. Francis goes on to define the different parts of his Introduction. He describes the divisions as follows: first is conversion, with general confession and frequent reception of holy communion.4 Second is the development of what he calls mental prayer, but which modern spiritual writers might call meditative prayer: using images and considerations to prompt meditation on the things of God and engage in discursive interiority.5 Thirdly, St. Francis encourages his reader with respect to acquiring the virtues.6 Next, Philothea is instructed how to avoid the pitfalls and snares of the enemy and his angels, analogous to other writers' purgative stage.7 Finally, St. Francis teaches what might be called the unitive prayer of resting in the Lord.8

It is St. Francis' approach to prayer in the second part of his Introduction that profoundly influenced my own prayer life. In the second part, St. Francis lays out the necessity of prayer in the life of the Christian disciple, and then he begins a series of meditations that are designed to guide the reader through considerations about God.9 Before proceeding into the substance of the meditations, however, St. Francis outlines his method of meditation: three points of preparation that lead to three parts or steps toward meditation.10 He teaches that before beginning a meditation, the Christian must enter into the presence of God.11 He writes that to enter into this Divine Presence is to have “a lively, earnest realization that [God's] Presence is universal; that is to say, that He is everywhere, and in all, and that there is no place, nothing in the world, devoid of His Most Holy Presence.” 12 Next, the Christian should invoke God's Presence by some short memorized Scripture verse; St. Francis gives several examples from the Psalms.13 The final preparatory step is to bring before one's mind's eye the mystery upon which one will be meditating: the so-called “interior picture.”14 Having completed these preparations, the Christian disciple calls to mind certain considerations; these may be prompted by holy images, Scripture verses, or contemplation of divine realities.15 Earlier in the Introduction, St. Francis supplies ten meditations that can be used to help the reader engage his mind and soul in these considerations.16 The second part, the meditation, is designed to be the lengthiest part of St. Francis' method.17 It is here that the God-loving soul should learn to both listen to God and direct itself toward the Presence of its Creator and Savior, which it has already recognize in the preparation to the meditation.18 After suitable time meditating, the soul at prayer turns to St. Francis' final steps: affections, resolutions, and spiritual bouquet.19 In the affections and resolutions, the soul considers all of the good things that the Spirit has inspired the believer to meditate upon; at the same time, the soul must also face the deficiencies that close exposure to God's Presence has uncovered.20 Having uncovered these blemishes, the soul resolves to pursue some course of action or avoid some vice, asking God's help to do so.21 Finally, the soul gathers up one or two particularly striking affections and collects the resolutions God has granted and arranges them in a memorable way.22 In doing this, Philothea is making herself ready to remember the prayer experience and allow herself to be changed by the encounter with the Lord.23

In my own life, I have found St. Francis' method for meditation incredibly helpful. Coming from a Protestant Christian tradition, I was unfamiliar with the practice of Christian meditative prayer. Of course, I had heard of such things in other religions, but it had never occurred to me that Christians engaged in a similar practice as well. In my Southern Baptist prayer life, I often engaged God in conversation vocally: literally speaking out loud to God with petitions and intercessions for people I cared about or situations about which I was worried. This primitive—if sincere—form of prayer did not leave much room for growth, and there was no real conception of listening to God in the sense that Catholic spiritual writers describe. Certainly, evangelical Protestant Christians will describe listening to God in their heart, but many times, this seems in reality to be a sort of asking God's permission in prayer and then seeing whether He allows a situation to go forward after the prayer has been made. With St. Francis' help, I was able to begin meditative prayer for the first time. After a year or so of using his method, I was even able to guide other beginners toward meditative prayer. Though I have moved toward lectio divina as I have matured as a Christian, I still use much of St. Francis' method to help prepare me for that type of silent, mental prayer.

In the same way that St. Francis de Sales urges the God-fearing soul to turn toward God's Presence while holding in place a firmly place mental image of some heavenly consideration, so does St. Josemaría Escrivá use vivid images to help bring the Christian disciple into a thoughtful contemplation of Almighty God. One of St. Josemaría's most famous works is his little collection of spiritual advice, The Way.24 In this book, he takes up various topics on the spiritual life and addresses them with paragraphs containing his insights. While the whole of The Way is inundated with prayer, the third chapter of the handbook is specifically dedicated to Prayer as such.25 To begin, St. Josemaría describes slowness and deliberateness: “Slowly. Consider what you are saying, to whom it is being said and by whom. For that hurried talk, without time for reflection, is just empty noise.”26 The saint re-emphasizes this point with a reflection on St. Mary of Bethany: “'Mary chose the better part', we read in the holy Gospel. There she is, drinking in the words of the Master. Apparently idle, she is praying and loving. Then she accompanies Jesus in his preaching through towns and villages. Without prayer, how difficult it is to accompany him!”27 St. Josemaría also describes the importance of meditative prayer, indicating that he, like St. Francis de Sales, places a high value on this method of spirituality:
“'Et in meditatione mea exardescit ignis. And in my meditation a fire shall flame out.' That is why you go to pray: to become a bonfire, a living flame giving heat and light. So, when you are not able to go on, when you feel that your fire is dying out, if you cannot throw on it sweet— smelling logs, throw on the branches and twigs of short vocal prayers and ejaculations, to keep the bonfire burning. And you will not have wasted your time.” 28
This passage from St. Josemaría also highlights the saint's penchant for graphic mental images, which he uses over and over to help those to whom he writes find their connection to God.

St. Josemaría's commitment to painting a picture in the mind of those he invites to prayer comes through strongly in his The Way of the Cross.29 Like many spiritual masters before him, St. Josemaría wrote meditations on the traditional Stations of the Cross that could be used by the faithful in following along the actual via Crucis within a church; but he also designed them to be used as prompts for meditative prayer with or without the actual journeying of the station walk.30 St. Josemaría's stations are designed in three parts: first, the presentation of the station, with the opportunity to sing the traditional verses of the Stabat Mater.31 Next, he presents the reader with a vivid re-imagining, interspersed with Scriptural allusions and citations, of the historical event that took place during the station in question.32 For example, in the fourth station, St. Josemaría describes what it must have been like for Jesus to have encountered his blessed mother Mary along the sorrowful way to Calvary:
“No sooner has Jesus risen from his first fall than he meets his Blessed Mother, standing by the wayside where He is passing. With immense love Mary looks at Jesus, and Jesus at his Mother. Their eyes meet, and each heart pours into the other its own deep sorrow. Mary 's soul is steeped in bitter grief, the grief of Jesus Christ. O all you that pass by the way, look and see, was there ever a sorrow to compare with my sorrow! (Lam 1:12). But no one notices, no one pays attention; only Jesus. Simeon's prophecy has been fulfilled: thy own soul a sword shall pierce (Luke 2:35). In the dark loneliness of the Passion, Our Lady offers her Son a comforting balm of tenderness, of union, of faithfulness; a 'yes' to the divine will.” 33
These powerful reflections then lead the reader to consider numerous points of meditation that serve to present the Christian disciple with small points of crisis: opportunities to make a resolution to follow Christ in both specific and general ways.34

I first encountered St. Josemaría's writing in a gift to me of the The Way by a supernumerary of Opus Dei. Later, I discovered the saint's depiction of the Way of the Cross, and found it to be an even more important impact on my prayer life. When I pray with St. Josemaría's meditations, I lose myself in the prayer and find myself walking with Jesus and Mary through the scenes as the saint describes them. I regularly feel the great weight and the great consolation of the mediations after the reflections, leading me to challenge the status quo in my life and continue conversion. I found the shortness of the saint's sayings in The Way to be perfect for brief mediation and silent prayer when praying before the Blessed Sacrament, particularly if I do not have a lot of time available. I have found that with St Josemaría's help, even a small amount of time can be enough to enter into God's presence and entertain the mystery of Christ's redemption.

I have been deeply changed for the good by the approaches to prayer taken by Saints Francis de Sales and Josemaría Escrivá. Not only have I sensed conversion in my life due to the prayer that their methods and approaches have taken, but I have also been able to share the fruits of my growth in prayer that I attribute to these two writers with other Christians, helping them, too, to grow. I hope to continue to follow their example of prayer and holiness to advance my own spiritual life as a seminarian in the short term; in the long term, I hope to be able to recommend both of these writers as, please God, a priest of Jesus Christ.


1Pernin, Raphael. “St. Francis de Sales.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1909. 28 Nov. 2012 .
2Id.
3De Sales, St. Francis. Introduction to the Devout Life. Trans. Anon., “Library of Spiritual Works for English Catholics.” London: Rivington Pub., 1878. Published online: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Calvin College Dep't of Computer Science's Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005. 28 Nov. 2012 . Preface .
4Id.
5DeSales, Introduction. Preface.
6Id.
7Id.
8Id.
9DeSales, Introduction. Pt. II, chs. 1 et al.
10Id., Pt. II, chs. 2-7.
11Id., Pt. II, ch. 1.
12Id., Pt. II, ch. 2.
13Id., Pt. II, ch. 3.
14Id., Pt. II, ch. 4.
15Id., Pt. II, ch. 5.
16Cf. DeSales, Introduction. Pt. I, chs. 9-18.
17Id., Pt. II, ch. 5.
18Id., Pt. II, chs. 2, 5.
19Id., Pt. II, chs. 6-7.
20Id., Pt. II, ch. 6.
21Id.
22Id., Pt. II, ch. 7.
23Id.
24Escrivá, St. Josemaría. Camino. Madrid: Rialp, 1939, 1950. Trans. Anon., The Way. London: Scepter, Ltd., 1982. Online ed., “Works of St. Josemaría Escrivá.” The Way. Madrid: Fundación Studium, 2000. 29 Nov. 2012 .
25Escrivá, The Way. Ch. 3. 29 Nov. 2012 .
26The Way, ch. 3, no. 85.
27Id., no. 89.
28Escrivá. The Way, ch. 3, no. 92.
29Esrivá, St. Josemaría. Via Crucis. Madrid: Scriptor, 1950, 1986. Trans. Anon., The Way. London: Scepter, Ltd., 1986. Online ed., “Works of St. Josemaría Escrivá.” Way of the Cross. Madrid: Fundación Studium, 2000. 29 Nov. 2012 .
30Id.
31See, e.g., The Way of the Cross, 1st station.
32Id.
33Way of the Cross, 4th station.
34Id., et al.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Suffering, evil, & St Augustine: the problem of free will

One of the most difficult problems in both philosophy and religion is that of how to deal with evil and suffering in the world while still asserting that God exists, is powerful enough to be creator, and is good.  Both St. Augustine of Hippo, in Book VII of his landmark work The Confessions, and St. Thomas Aquinas, throughout his writings, but particularly in his work On Evil, seek to address this important topic.  Both works provide answers to the difficulty from both reason and revelation, but it is St. Augustine's theory of evil as the privation of the good that is one of the most persuasive offered from the medieval philosophers.

St. Augustine begins his discussion on the topic of evil with an argument against the notion prevalent among the pagan and Manichaen opponents of the Christians whom he was battling.  According to different schools within those two traditions, evil can be accounted as an equal and opposing force to good; it is something to be battled, but never defeated.  Because of this, evil is a necessary contrary to good in the same way that hot and cold, dry and wet, and other such contraries were understood in the Aristotelian and Platonic philosophies of the time.  St. Augustine rejects this understanding and advances the idea that evil is not necessary.  Instead, he argues, evil is not actually a substance or thing, but that it is an absence of good.  St. Augustine posits that being, having been created by God, is inherently good, even despite the corrupting influence of the fall and the subsequent introduction into creation of concupiscence.  Rather than being the opposite of good, evil is, according to St. Augustine, an absence of good—the non-good or privation of the good.  

Since evil is not actually a thing per se, and is rather the absence of the good, St. Augustine argues that God did not cause evil.  When God created the universe, everything was good, because it had being given to it by God in the creatio ex nihilo.  When Satan and his angels rebelled, and then when the progenitors of the human race similarly chose to sin, evil entered into the world in the sense that the free choices of these rational creatures, who share in God's essence for their being because of their radical contingency in God, caused what could be thought of as a “bubble” of non-being to enter into the universe of being.  It need not have been so.  Instead of exercising the free will given to them by the God in whom they have their being, both the angels and men could have chosen to remained in God's will, cooperating with the good.

On the other hand, contra St. Augustine, it could be argued that while God was not directly the cause of evil, since God's creation of the universe out of nothing resulted in being, which St. Augustine defines as good, God's hand in the creation of rational creatures who could choose the not-good, or evil, makes him at least an indirect cause (though not necessarily responsible).  St. Augustine would reject this premise, because he would be loathe to associate God with even the possibility of his being responsible for evil, since in St. Augustine's conception, God is all-good.  But it is difficult to see an acceptable interruption in the chain of causality linking God's necessary instrumentality in the causing (creation) of the universe and the resultant evil which arose due to the God-given free will of the rational creatures that populate the universe.  

If, as St. Augustine asserts, God is not the cause or responsible party for evil, but there exists evil in the world, God would seem to be impotent and not all-powerful, as St. Augustine would posit, evil, or non-being, does exist (which G.K. Chesterton called the one empirically provable aspect of Christian doctrine).  St. Augustine would argue that God does allow evil to exist (or rather, since evil is non-being, God allows pockets or bubbles of non-being to avoid being filled with the fullness of being that is goodness).  As already stated above, God has to allow the possibility of evil in order to grant his creatures true free will: for if a creature could not choose the non-being (which is the non-good, or evil), then they would not have free will.  Thus, the problem of evil can be addressed this way: God created all being, and all being is good. God endowed his rational creatures with essence, existence, and free will.  In order for his creatures to exercise free will, God must allow them to choose to reject the good, which is the non-being of evil.  This is the source of evil in our universe.  God could stop it, but, in his sovereignty, he chooses to allow evil in the short turn to honor the choices of his creatures.  To mitigate this, he promises that even short-term evil will ultimately bring about good, so that in the end, Jesus Christ—God's full, self-revelation—will be all in all.

Essence, existence, & ex nihilo

In comparing the medieval Christian philosophical, human anthropology to the dominant classical philosophers Aristotle and Plato, one of the most important fundamental distinctions between the two schools of thought is their notion of existence or essence.  For St. Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries, divine revelation led him to posit that the universe and all that is, was created by God out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo.  The Christian understanding of this doctrine leads to an important distinction from the pagan philosophers: unlike Aristotle and Plato, St. Thomas and his contemporaries find there to be two acts of God's “To-Be” involved in the creation from nothing.  The Christians posit that God is the sole necessary being: that all other being is contingent.  It follows then that despite man's being immortal, he is existentially dependent upon God.  As a creational being, man is a complete, ontological unity who needs God.  As St. Thomas writes, “[I]n God, there is no potentiality” so that “in [God] essence does not differ from existence” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 3 a. 4).  God's very essence is existence itself.  Thus, man, whose essence is not existence, must be utterly contingent upon God.  Man participates in God's being, and whatever is man is somehow correlated to God who is the only Being that owns his own To-Be.

For man, then, there must also be two acts of To-Be: man's existence, his perfections, and everything else that is encompassed by the term “man” is real, Good, and participating in God's own essence, which is existence itself.  Man is an embodied soul: the pagan Aristotelian materiality is raised up to the intelligibiltiy of St. Thomas' embodiment of the soul.  Man's unique essence is strengthened by a distinction between essence and existence: his essence become actualized and given greater fulfillment as an essence because he recognizes that he can be more than himself.  Man is bound up in God, because only God owns his own To-Be, making Man a participated being.  What looked like materiality cannot affect the soul or essence of man, and so God's second act of To-Be, existence itself, is made manifest: causally rooted in God's own self.

The distinction between existence and essence remains for man, however, because since man is bound up in God's own essence through his participation in God's essential being, God's existence, man cannot bring together, in his own being, the two into one.  Otherwise, man himself would be dissolved into God or become some sort of demigod who possesses both existence and essence.  Of course, this would be impossible, since all being and essence is already God's—God clears the field, as it were, in our creation, making it literally unattainable for one of the beings contingent upon his essence for its existence to then act to combine its essence and existence in the same manner as God's own being.  The distinction is a result of God's choosing to create out of nothing, rather than, as the pagan philosophers Aristotle and Plato suppose, the universe being eternal itself.  The distinction also contradicts the notion that creation occurred as a sort of emanation of God's being: where creation was not a volitional decision of God, but rather a type of necessary overflowing of God's being into a creation separate from, but constituted from, himself.  

According to St. Thomas and his contemporaries, God chose to create out of nothing as an act of pure volition.  There was no requirement for God to create; indeed, God is complete and utterly happy in himself without need for recourse to anything or anyone else.  Nor is God's being so uncontainable that parts of God's being overflow the bounds of his existence to cause creation “by accident.”  As the Christian philosophers of the medieval period argue, God's very nature—one, holy, true, beautiful, and simple—means that God only acts when he wants to and how he wants to.  In the creation of the universe, God chose to create out of nothing because he could and because he wanted creatures who could participate in his essence while not sharing his existence.  At the same time, he wanted creatures who were capable of more than just existence in itself.  Mankind, whom God created ex nihilo with participation in his essence, can also aspire to be more than he is at present.  God's gift to man of that very participation makes it possible for man to hope, by God's grace to be more fully realized.  Man share's God's free will, and as a result, he is eternal but existentially dependent upon God.  Man has the potential for change and growth, leading to his ultimate reunion with God without absorption: the same paradox that marks the Thomist notion that God's creatio ex nihilo leads to man's participation in God's essence while being distinct in his existence.  

Man's ability to share in God's essence without losing his own existence—his participation in the two acts of To-Be by the creator God—means that man is aeviternal: once man is created, because of his sharing in God's essence, he cannot perish.  Because God's essence cannot stop-being, since God is himself Being, man-who-participates in God's essence must needs be everlasting from the point of his creation ex nihilo by God.  This is not to say that because man shares God's essence that man becomes eternal, meaning extant at all times and even outside of time like God is.  Rather, man's aeviternity, a result of God's gift to man of participation in God's essence, means that man has an everlasting existence of one sort or another.  This is radically opposed to the conception of the pagan philosophers.  For Plato, reunion with the forms was not to be seen as a conscious existence, but rather as a return to the source as a glass of water is poured into the sea: the soul would not cease to exist, but it would cease to have individual identity and be freed from the limitations it experienced while embodied (or, in the example here, contained).  The aeviternity of man that is evident from the Thomistic participation in God's two acts of To-Be also contradicts Aristotle's hylomoprhic understanding of the human person which ceases to be when the matter of the body is dead.  While the Christian philosophers were able to grasp the implications of aeviternity from their advantage of divine revelation (through the sacred Scriptures and the magisterial tradition of the apostolic faith), it would not be necessary to hold to divine revelation to come to an understanding of man's aeviternity.  Indeed, if one grasps that God is both essence and existence and that God creates ex nihilo, then aeviternity must, of necessity, follow: those things which are created out of nothingness cannot have being unless they participate in God's being, and to participate in God's essence is to be eternal, forward from the point of creation.  

Theological revelation, as has been stated, gave an advantage to St. Thomas and his contemporaries in understanding the aeviternity of man and in grasping the participation that man enjoys in God's being.  This revelation is God's disclosing of himself and his essence to those he has created to participate in that same essence.  Because God is transcendent as the one, the holy, the true, and the good, he must show himself to his creatures so that they can have understanding of his being as such.  Of course, as St. Paul argues in sacred Scripture, the general revelation of creation itself offers a glimpse into God's reality, but even then, as the name suggests, the uncovering of God through the inanimate creation to his aeviternal creation of rational men still involves God revealing himself in the creation of the environment in which they are attempting to find him.  

The theological revelation of God through his general revelation can be related to human reason and the efforts of men like Plato and Aristotle through the notion that even in their pre-Christian worldview, the only things about which they had to reason were their own lives, experiences, and surroundings.  Since all these were created by God, it could be argued that even though the pagan philosophers were only using their reason, they were nonetheless influenced by God's revelation of himself through that very creation: after all, it was only God's creation—including their own essence and existence—which they could reason about in the first place.  Moreover, the reason which they were using to ascertain truths about the universe is a product of God's gift of his own essence to them as persons.  The person par excellence, as St. Thomas argues, is God in his Trinity.  But even in the aeviternal men which seek after him—either through revelation or reason—there is personhood, which yields to the seekers of truth, both pagan and Christian, those aspects of reality which they were able to find.  This was the essence—that sharing in God's own being—which they, in their individual existences, were able to claim as persons, thus leading them to partake of both reason and theological revelation about their own ontology as contingent beings depending on Being qua Being.  

This grasping of their own contingency, even in their personhood, leads St. Thomas and his contemporaries to understand just how far their existence, even in its ex nihilo creation, is from the nothingness from which they find themselves to be drawn.  For Plato and Aristotle, relying solely on their reason to grope for the truth of their being, such an understanding is not possible.  Positioned as they are with the notion that there is only one To-Be that leads to their actuality—that their essence and existence are the same—their conception of the source of their own being founders from Plato's realm of the forms to Aristotle's hylomorphism.  And though both philosophers come closer to the truth than many, many other thinkers who relied solely on their own human reason and the natural, general revelation available in creation (so much so that St. Thomas is able to rely heavily upon Aristotle, and St. Augustine upon Plato), they still lose the fundamental reality despite their best effort.  As St. Thomas argues, nothingness is infinitely less than somethingness.  In other words, existence is infinity greater than non-existence.  And this existence can only be understood because of its drawing upon God's essence as the pure, necessary Being, in whose essence men partake through participation.  Considering, then, the distance between the infinite superiority of man's existence over against his non-existence, there must also be—and St. Thomas argues that there is—an equally infinite distance between man's own existence as such and God's essence as Being.  

As St. Thomas grasps this reality, he must also come to face the filial fear of the realization that his essence as an actuality is only contingent: that it is God himself who, in effect, holds him and all creation in being.  Upon coming to this truth, though, it is clear that St. Thomas does not shrink from the God whose essence he now understands he shares; instead, St. Thomas—with the whole of the Christian tradition—is drawn toward this self-revelatory, self-existent, self-essential God with a sort of filial fear.  Not fear out of a sense of doom or terror, but, rather, out of a sense of love.  The realization that one's being is contingent upon God's essence, and that one's being is but a share and participation in God's very being, yields a radical reassessment of the whole of creation.  No more is man limited to Plato's or Aristotle's dismal, eternal, and infinitely lonely materialist medium for simple existence.  Now, in light of God's intimate union with his creatures even so far as to hold their bodies, souls, and world in place with the substance of who he is, St. Thomas—again, with all Christendom—cannot but help to bow down in adoration to that Most High God who has made him, in one respect, his brother.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Can there truly be Christian philosophy?

In his book, Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, twentieth century French Christian philosopher Étienne-Henry Gilson argues that in contradiction to the philosophic conventions of his time, the medieval period was not awash solely in religion, but also had its own philosophic tradition.  According to Gilson's argument, particularly in the first and second chapters of his work, the Christian philosophy of the period was not, as has been argued, religious doctrine proffered as philosophy.  Rather, it was a re-imagining of both Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy in light of the Christian worldview that resulted from what the medieval Christians believed was the divine revelation found in the Catholic Scriptures and magisterial Tradition.

Gilson first takes up the question of how any philosophy can be Christian.  He argues that philosophy, as philosophy itself, must of necessity depend on a proper methodology for its use of reason in light of principles that are evident in themselves.  According to Gilson, it follows that if a philosophy seems to be concordant with Christianity, particularly with the Catholic scriptural and magisterial tradition that was prevalent in the medieval period, then it must seem so not out of this Christian milieu,  but rather because of its apparent truth independent of Christian influence.  Gilson also raises the questions first posited by St. Augustine with respect to mingling philosophy, especially that originating from pre-Christian, pagan sources, with the doctrine and dogma of Christianity.  With St. Augustine, the philosopher argues that any philosophy drawn from solely from pagan sources and superficially supplemented with Christian doctrine lacks an intrinsic Christian character.  Its truth must arise from its philosophical content, from its proper use of reason and maxims of that are both logical and universally applicable.  On the other hand, if the so-called Christian philosophy is considered to be veritable simply because it is Christian, then such philosophy would indeed cease being actual philosophy: it would, rather, be more accurately characterized as religion supported by arguments from reason.  

Having taken pains in his first chapter to establish, with St. Augustine's help, what Christian philosophy is not, Gilson then takes up the task of describing what he believes it to be.  While it is clear that Gilson's definition seeks to describe the realm of Christian philosophy during the medieval period, it can also be argued that his own context influences his analysis—he is providing a prescription for what he thinks Christian philosophy should be in his own day as well.  One of the primary critiques against Christianity as a philosophy rather than as a religion is its fundamental provision of the means to an after-life, or in the terms of Christianity itself, salvation.  According to Gilson, his contemporaries  excluded, a priori, such considerations from their own philosophical theories.  Because of this, Christianity, both in its medieval historical position and in Gilson's own time, has been excluded as a possible philosophy because of its metaphysical, salvific orientation.  To answer this objection, Gilson raises the notion  posited by St. Anselm, that philosophy should be fides quarens intellectum, faith seeking understanding.  For both St. Anselm and Gilson, the “faith” component of the formulation is not some suspension of disbelief.  But, rather, a willingness to engage with reason the arguments presented by Christianity.  In this way, the fides that is presented is related to the way the word is used in the Anglo-American legal maxim, bona fides, good faith.  

Using Anselm's philosophical thesis as a paradigm, Gilson sketches out a definition of Christian philosophy where “Christian” is a descriptive adjective rather than a categorical noun: in other words, he seeks to set out what Christian philosophies look like instead of attempting to describe a monolithic Christian Philosophy.  Such a Christian philosophy, in the sense of what would make a philosophy truly Christian, Gilson argues would be one which keeps both the order of philosophy and the order of Christian religion distinct while at the same time utilized Christian revelation as an “indispensable auxiliary” to reason.  Gilson's argument seems reasonable, particularly in light of the fact that he is positing a faith-and-reason approach to Christian philosophies to support his book's broader thesis that medieval European society did have philosophic endeavors, and not just religion dressed up by medieval theologians to appear to be philosophy.  

I believe, We believe: the Creeds & the Faith

Mankind's response to God's revelation of himself and of the way to eternal life should be one of faith.  As the apostle writes in the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, faith is substance of things hoped for and the evidence for things not seen.  It is the essence of a Christian's response to the God of revelation, who uncovers himself for all people in both the Sacred Text of Scripture and in the Holy Tradition handed down for millennia by the apostles and their successors.  Faith is the response of those who have encountered the one, living, and true God who became flesh and dwelt among his people at the Incarnation.  Faith is a theological virtue: it is a habit that is ordered toward God.  Faith is enabled by God's grace, and it is also the fruitful response to God's grace.  Faith is a pre-condition for the normative means of salvation: one must have faith that God exists, that he can reveal himself, that he wants to reveal himself, that he cares enough about human individuals to bring about the means of their salvation, that he has the power to save, and that he will save.  Faith is the bedrock upon which all biblical religion must be founded, in the sense that neither the Triune God nor the Way of Jesus can be known without it.

It is this faith that is encapsulated by the two great summaries of Christian belief known as the Apostles' and Nicene (Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creeds.  These two statements are used throughout the liturgy of the Church to transmit faithfully what it means to stand with the People of God and declare both, “I believe,” and “We believe.”  The Apostles Creed is believed to be the original baptismal symbol of the Roman Church, with origins dating back at least to the Second Century.  Within its structure are discernible earlier, less complex statements of faith, like that which Paul gives in the fifteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians.  There, the apostle states the kerygma in a concise but convincing way, and its affirmative statements and organizational structure can be detected in the Apostles Creed.  Today in the Roman Rite, the Apostles Creed remains the baptismal symbol recited by catechumens and by the parents of infant candidates for baptism.  It is recited by all the faithful at the Easter Vigil in token of the renewal of their baptismal promises.  It is said by the dying as part of the last rites.  It is said before the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet.  It is recited by some who celebrate the Divine Office at the beginning of Lauds and Vespers.  It permeates the Roman Rite in such a way that it could be said that somewhere throughout the world, it may be the case that there is always someone confessing the apostolic faith in the words of the Apostles Creed.

The other great Christian statement of faith, which the Catechism presents as the corporate confession of the whole Church, is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (“Nicene Creed”).  The Nicene Creed is the result of two ecumenical councils, the first two held in the Church.  The first version of the Creed, promulgated by the First Council of Nicea in 325, was much simpler than the second version, and it contained barely any reference to God the Holy Spirit.  In 381, the First Council of Constantinople elaborated the Creed, fleshing out important details about the nature of the Incarnation and the person and role of the Holy Spirit, particularly with respect to the Church.  This resulted in the present form of the Creed, which is confessed by all major branches of liturgical Christianity, including Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Transmitting divine revelation: how did the Bible get to me?

The divine revelation which the Church holds today comes to her from the Lord Jesus Christ, who established the Church and planted within her the seed of the deposit of the faith.  This deposit contains the fullness of all of Jesus' teaching, and it is the full, final, and complete revelation of God to mankind.  Jesus first gave this deposit to his apostles.  They handed it down to those they taught, most especially to those men upon whom they laid their hands, conferring their authority and their power to guard and rightly interpret, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the truths contained in the deposit.  This handing down of apostolic authority is known as apostolic succession, and it is the basis for the claims of the Catholic Church to have the fullness of the revelation that Jesus Christ gave to his Church at her founding.  The apostolic authority of the apostles' successors is also the basis of their authority to interpret and guard Sacred Tradition, which Paul warns the Christian people to hold fast to in second chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians.

The Sacred Scriptures are the definitive fruit of the deposit of the faith.  Containing the texts of the Old and New Testaments, the Scriptures were confirmed by Jesus' on use of the Old Testament and the apostles continued use of them as well.  As the young Church continued to grow and expand throughout the Roman world, it became necessary to encapsulate the preaching and teaching of the apostles so that their Good News could be transmitted to more and more people.  The first occurred in letters, like those from Paul, Peter, and James, to both specific persons and to whole church communities in cities spread across the Mediterranean.  Eventually, the apostles also saw to it that not only their doctrinal and exhortative teaching, but also their very encounters with Jesus and their recollection of Jesus' life story were written down.  

These Scriptural texts are not only human recollections of history and transcriptions of religious teaching.  Because of the supernatural nature of revelation, these texts themselves, despite having a human author, are also God-breathed: they were inspired by the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  Both the Old and New Testaments contain God's revelation of himself to mankind, and so each word contained in them, despite having been freely chosen by the human author who wrote the text and reflecting that human author's perspective and culture, was also guided by the Holy Spirit to reveal God to his people.  That these Scriptures are useful for knowing the truths about God can be found within the texts of the Scriptures themselves.  In Paul's second letter to Timothy, Paul reminds his protégé that Scripture should be used to teach and admonish those under Timothy's authority.  Peter, too, confirms that it is not only the Old Testament that is considered Scriptural, when he cites Paul's letters with authority in the third chapter of his second epistle.  

The inspiration of the Sacred Scripture is one of the reasons that the Church, in the teaching authority of her magisterium, which is the faithful exercise of the apostles' successors' mission to continuously hand down the deposit of the faith, has always recommended to the faithful that Scripture should be read in more than just its literal sense.  Indeed, the magisterium has identified four senses of Sacred Scripture that can only be based upon the inspiration of the original text.  The four senses are the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.  The literal speaks to what is happening in the text, and properly understanding the text as it was written in its historical context.  Sometimes, the historical-critical method can be successfully used when interpreting this sense to gain a fuller understanding of what was meant literally.  The allegorical sense of Scripture helps the exegete understand how the Scripture relates to Christ and our Christian understanding of truth.  The allegorical sense often sees in Old Testament texts prefigurements of later Christian revelation.  The moral sense of Scripture speaks to the text's meaning for living the virtuous Christian life, and how the Scripture is call each person who encounters it to change in response to it.  Finally, the anagogical sense of Scripture speaks to the four last things: heaven, hell, death, and judgment, and how the text is calling the Christian toward his true purpose: eternity with God in heaven.  

Reading the Scriptures cannot be profitable, in any sense, unless it is agreed what texts make up the Scriptures in the first place.  This question is regarding the “canon” of the Scripture, from the Latin word for “rule.”  The rule of Scripture, then, is the answer to the question, “What books are in the Bible?”  
  • For the Catholic Church, the Old Testament is made up of the books in the Greek version of the Old Testament that the Christians used in the First Century, when the Church was founded.  Called the Septuagint, this version of the Old Testament contains forty-five books.  The New Testament, based upon the almost-universally accepted list, contains twenty-seven books.  The Catholic Bible contains more books than the Protestant Bible and less than the Orthodox Bible precisely because it adheres to the rule of the primitive Church in maintaining that the Septuagint is a reliable source for the books of the Old Testament.  
  • The Protestants, on the one hand, reject seven of the books of the Old Testament, and they do not include them in their own Bibles.  
  • The Orthodox include more books based upon the fact that these books were widely accepted during the apostolic period, despite their not having been included in the Septuagint.  Moreover, because the Orthodox were split from the Church before an authoritative church-wide ecumenical council declared what books were in the Bible, they have simply maintained the status quo within their canon.  

Thomistic prudence & faithful citizenship

In American society today, the faithful people of God are faced with the question of how to exercise the franchise to vote which is theirs by right as citizens of the United States.  The Catholic Bishops of this country have on two occasions introduced a document, Faithful Citizenship, outlining with specific policies how Catholics can go about discerning a proper exercise of their duty to vote.  Broadly, this discernment process has been characterized as a question of prudential judgment for how to best advance the common good.  But to properly understand the foundation the teaching the Church proposes about properly forming and exercising one's conscience in the voting booth, one must understand how the Scriptures, the perennial tradition of the Church, and the Church's magisterium have built the framework upon which documents like Faithful rest.

The proper exercise of the right to vote in a liberal, Western democracy in the early twenty-first century by a faithful Catholic springs from the nexus of two of the virtues posited by St. Thomas Aquinas in his most important work, the Summa Theologica.  In the Summa, St. Thomas literally treats on just about every topic imaginable, from a deep theology of the Trinity and the human person to every day, practical questions of morality like lying or stealing.  In the second half of the Second Part of the Summa, the so-called secunda secundae, St. Thomas examines the three theological and four cardinal virtues in great detail.  In his analysis of the cardinal virtue of prudence, he discusses two species of prudence that play an important role in the Catholic understanding of how to act in a political community: political prudence and regnative prudence.  Generally, political prudence is identified as the prudence of subjects of political masters and the subjects' obedience to laws for the common good of the whole society.  Similarly, regnative prudence is the right judgment exercised by the sovereign to promulgate just laws ordered to the common good.

In St. Thomas' day, of course, regnative prudence was exercised by a small class of individuals who often received their authority by virtue of their birth or by military conquest.  The regular “citizen” was conceived of more as an object of the laws of the sovereign rather than as a subject of laws of his own making.  Indeed, the point of political prudence for most persons was a dutiful and well-ordered observance of the justly promulgated laws of the state.  St. Thomas' analysis of these two virtues approaches the whole subject of the governance of states from this notion of monistic or at least oligarchic rule, regardless of the source of the legitimacy of the sovereign's authority.

Despite this seeming anachronistic flaw of St. Thomas' treatment of these issues, it is possible to apply the wisdom which St. Thomas culled from a synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian moral theology in the modern, democratic context.  The key to doing so is the application of the principle of regnative prudence: while it is still the mark of the citizen to observe political prudence, in a participatory, Western-style democracy, the citizen must also—at least in the exercise of his franchise—employ the virtue of regnative prudence as well.  One of the inherent risks of democracy is that in voting, people will cease considering the common good and simply vote for candidates or initiatives that promote their own, individual interests.  By exercising regnative prudence, the Catholic faithful who vote will be pushing the body politic toward the common good.

The Scriptures have numerous examples of regnative prudence and its important in the promotion of the common good.  In the Old Testament, there is the example of blessed Joseph, whom Pharaoh elevated to what was effectively prime minister of Egypt and who exercised very shrewd regnative prudence in preparing his adopted country for the famine which God had revealed to him would come.  Joseph could have used his position to carve out a lucrative living for himself and his retainers.  Instead, he carefully shepherded the resources of Egypt so that the country would be ready when the seven years of leanness plagued the Middle East.  When the difficult times did eventually come, just as God had revealed to Joseph, Egypt was able to survive; not only that, but because of Joseph's regnative prudence and interest in upholding the common good, people from across the famine-stricken Middle East were able to live thanks to Joseph's policy of trading with those who came to Egypt in search of food.

For the faithful living today, blessed Joseph is an exemplar of how to analyze a public policy issue: not from a consideration of one's own interests, but in the best interest of the common good of the whole society.  Indeed, Joseph's example also demonstrates the consideration that one must have for not only one's own country, but also to the whole of mankind.  And while the faithful Catholic in the polling place does not have command of the entire economy of the United States or even his own State, he can and must use the same regnative prudence that Joseph exercised in his rule over Egypt when casting his ballot.  In doing so, the faithful Catholic will have acted in accord with virtue and with the mind of the Church as she proposes an integral, solidary humanism founded on the Trinitarian love revealed by our Lord Jesus Christ to those who believe.


Friday, July 11, 2014

A rabbit caught in a trap: the Ontological Argument & Aquinas' 4th Way

In St. Thomas Aquinas'  work Summa Theologica, the saint-theologian argues, among other things, for the existence of God based upon five ways of using human reason to bring his readers to the threshold of faith in God's existence.  The fourth of these ways is known as the argument from degrees or gradation.  In this way, St. Thomas begins observing that when describing the quality of certain things, they can be characterized by the ways in which they conform, to a greater or lesser degree, to that which is conceived of as the maximum or minimum.  St. Thomas cites the examples of the best, the noblest, and the truest.  He relates these examples to the notion that the extremes of the transcendentals—already cited above—are correspondent to that which is the uttermost being.  This uttermost being causes that which is within its genus: for example, fire as the uttermost being of heat causes all lesser heats.  Since, therefore, one can observe degrees or gradations of truth, goodness, and beauty, there must exist something which is the uttermost being of truth, goodness, and beauty.  This uttermost being is, for St. Thomas, God.

Aquinas' fourth way is reminiscent of St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, though it differs in a significant way.  For St. Anselm, the arguments begins with the conception in the mind of the philosopher of that which is the best, truest, and most beautiful supreme being.  This being, of course, would have to be infinite in order to meet the criteria.  But, as argued above in Question One, St. Anselm's effort to conceive of the supreme being must necessarily fail at the moment that it is conceived because the conception itself is done by a creature which is finite.  In this way, St. Anselm's argument brings the philosopher close to an understanding of what this highest being must be; at the same time, however, one is infinitely distant from perceiving the supreme being because of that being's very infinite nature.  St. Thomas' argument from degree or gradation, on the other hand, helps the philosopher to come closer to an understanding of God and his existence because it does not require the one considering the question to fail in order for the point to be proven; instead, the philosopher can understand by analogy that though he cannot conceive of the uttermost being of truth, he can accept—from observable reality and the use of human reason—that such an uttermost definition of truth necessarily exist.

Despite the strength of St. Thomas' fourth way over against St. Anselm's ontological proof, it still suffers from what arguably is a deficiency not shared by the other ways: it is difficult to describe a standard for what it is to be “true,” “good,” or “beautiful.”  Though a philosopher can describe something as true, good, or beautiful, there is not an empirical standard by which these three categories can be measured.  At the same time, however, this is not to say that this destroys the proof.  On the contrary, the argument can be grounded in the philosophical context of the notion of an un-measured measurer: just as in the first proof, where an infinite reversion of movers is philosophically impossible, so too in the fourth proof, the must be within the context of a gradation against an uttermost standard be one who sets the standard in the first place.  This un-measured measurer, which corresponds to the philosophical concept of the Form of Good advanced by Plato, is a necessary component of the way of gradation.

The weaknesses of St. Thomas' fourth way, even with respect to St. Anselm's ontological argument, are brought to light in the thought experiments posited by the twentieth century philosopher Brand Blanshard.  Blanshard asks his interlocutors to imagine a rabbit caught in a trap and to evaluate the philosophical ethics of the situation.  He argues that one's relief in finding the rabbit to be released from the trap demonstrates that there is such a thing as objective ethics.  This undermines St. Thomas' implications in the fourth way, because it requires that a standard be considered without reference to the uttermost being.  Indeed, for Blanshard, despite his protestations to the contrary, the so-called “objective” feeling that determines for him the non-subjective nature of ethics is based upon the experience of the person who considers the rabbit's fate in the thought experiment.  In a way, then, Blanshard's argument to “objectivity,” is really more an appeal to collective subjectivity that he posits is shared by all.  Blanshard's argument regarding mistake is also based in collective subjectivity.  By arguing that it would not be unethical to not feel relief at the rabbit's escape if the rabbit had never truly been trapped or injured since the rabbit had never actually suffered, Blanshard once again opposes St. Thomas' fourth way in favor of a collective subjectivity: since Blanshard's theoretical “everyman” would feel relief even where none is necessary or warranted, such relief is objectively true and good.  For St. Thomas, on the other hand, the degree of goodness or truthfulness inherent in the situation described in Blanshard's thought experiment is not related to the observation by the one proposing the experiment; rather, it is based solely on a rational assessment of what the situation actually is.

The conflict between St. Thomas' fourth way and the collective subjectivity that has been argued is present in Blanshard and the incongruence of St. Thomas' methodological insights into God's existence found through the fourth way in contradistinction to St. Anselm's ontological argument are further clarified through the parable proposed by the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century British analytic philosopher Antony Flew.  In Flew's Parable of the Gardener, to persons—a believer and a skeptic—discover what appears to be a well-tended garden on a hike in the wilderness.  The question before the two explorers is whether the apparent garden occurred naturally or is tended by a gardener.  In Flew's parable, the gardener serves as a stand-in for God, and the two characters' arguments reflect those made by both theists and skeptics.  The theist is said to bear the burden of proving that a gardener exists, because the empirical evidence present—according to Flew's argument—precludes a gardener.  This is further said to be similar to the problem of the believer in God: that believers must bear the burden of proving that God is real and that despite a “lack” of empirical evidence that it can be shown by reason that God exists.  Flew's position is that in proofs such as St. Anselm's and St. Thomas' fourth way there is an assumption on the part of the philosophers conceiving the proofs—who are, themselves, theists—that God exists.  The proofs take this theistic assumption as granted and use it to their advantage to argue their theories.  Flew states that believers are so thoroughly seeped in their theistic worldview that they can almost not avoid to take this God-drenched paradigm into their considerations.

In a way, then, Flew is arguing that the theists—St. Thomas in his fourth way and St. Anselm in his ontological argument—are being betrayed in their effort to posit a reason-based proof for God's existence by the very collective subjectivity which Blanshard tries to to use as a definition for objectivity.  In the theists' case, the collective subjectivity is presumes that supernatural things, which have never been observed or empirically detected, are real.  Thus the flaw, Flew would argue, is that the burden should rest on the theist to justify, through reason, a worldview which allows for non-materialistic, non-empirically detectable reality.  Neither St. Thomas nor St. Anselm can deliver their proofs for God's existence without relying on some assumption of supernatural possibility.  In this way, neither philosopher can effectively address the question within the boundaries set by Flew.  But is Flew's bar set too high?  Should the philosophers have to prove their points without any recourse to the supernatural at all?

It would seem that even though it cannot be objectively or empirically shown that there are supernatural elements of reality, Blanshard's collective subjectivity—the vast majority of human persons throughout space and time—would support the existence of a supernatural actuality.  If this can be granted, however, then both St. Thomas' fourth way and St. Anselm's ontological argument are effective means of bringing a skeptic to the gateway of belief in God's existence.  As has been argued already, however, no proof can actually prove God's existence absent his empirical impact on the world in a way detectable by scientific instrumentation.  In the end, belief in the Christian God does require what Bl. John Paul II called fides et ratio—faith and reason.  Because while reason can bring a person far enough to accept belief in a generic, general god by a preponderance of the evidence, it is necessary for faith—faith in assumptions about reality and faith in divine revelation—to play a role in the believer's coming to a full acceptance of Christian truth-claims made by men like St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas.



Fides et Ratio: Aquinas, Greek philosophy, & the proofs for God's existence

In his defining work Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas articulates five ways to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that there must be a monotheistic, creator God discernible by the use of human reason alone.  These ways have famously been known as “proofs” for the existence of God, though they are more accurately understood as ways of arguing for God's existence.  The first way is generally known as the way of the “unmoved mover.”

St. Thomas argues it is evident that in the world some things are in motion.  Of course, he makes this argument against thinkers like the ancient pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Zeno, who argued that there is no movement.  Nonetheless, for the purposes of his demonstration, St. Thomas presumes movement.  He then goes on to argue that something cannot put itself into motion; instead, it must be moved by something that is already in motion.  Using the analogy of hot and cold, he argues that something cannot be simultaneously hot and cold.  Instead, he argues, something is either hot or cold.  St. Thomas links this syllogism with the notion of movement and argues that just as something cannot be simultaneously hot and cold, so too, something cannot be both unmoved and in motion.  Having established this, St. Thomas argues that he has demonstrated that something in motion must be put into motion by something already in motion and prior to it.  He then posits that this cannot go on to infinity; instead, there must be a mover at some point in the chain of causality that was not moved by something prior to it.  He states that this unmoved mover is not in motion and yet is the first mover or cause of motion—and that this unmoved mover is God.

St. Thomas' argument from motion differs from St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God because of the approach that the two use to begin their analysis.  For St. Anselm, the question about God's existence begins with a theoretical conception: his notion of imagining the most perfect being possible in an interior way and then using reason to arrive at the understanding that there must exist an even more perfect being since a finite being cannot truly conceive an infinite one.  St. Thomas, on the other hand, begins his argument from empirical data: one can discern and measure that material objects are moving (pace Parmenides and Zeno).  It is also important to note that while St. Anselm's way of understanding who and what God is speaks to God's essence—who God is in his very being and substance, St. Thomas' way is designed to lead the skeptic through human reason to the threshold of revelation.  In other words, while St. Anselm presumes that one can imagine a metaphysical reality that cannot be discerned or measured in this world, i.e., infinity, St. Thomas begins with that which is provable by empirical observation.

While St. Thomas' way of the unmoved mover, along with the other four ways, is based upon an observably discernible empirical fact, his proof is not designed to establish beyond all doubt whatsoever that God exists.  Indeed, because St. Thomas argues from human reason, even he would admit that these ways are limited.  After all, St. Thomas—as a Catholic priest and theologian—certainly believes in the primacy of divine revelation, particularly in light of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  This so-called certainty, though, is only a foundation of reason upon which to build a faith-filled response to the truths about God contained in that same divine revelation.

Ultimately, neither St. Thomas nor St. Anselm can prove the existence of God through their ways in any empirical sense.  Precisely because God is a supernatural being—that is, “above nature”—he cannot be measured or properly understood using natural reason.  Indeed, as the Scriptures say, “For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9 (Douay-Rheims)).  This is also clear in Bl. John Paul II's work Fides et Ratio, where he writes, “Since access to the truth enables access to God, it must be denied to none. There are many paths which lead to truth, but since Christian truth has a salvific value, any one of these paths may be taken, as long as it leads to the final goal, that is to the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Fides et Ratio, n. 38 ¶ 2).  Though the Revelation of Jesus Christ—both the written Scriptures and the Word himself—are the goal of Christian teaching and philosophy, this revelation does not abandon reason as a tool through which to understand more about who God is.  As a Christian, St. Thomas Aquinas believed that there was only one Truth: “...the Way, the Truth, and the Life...,” Jesus Christ (John 14:6).  It is within this encounter between truths—philosophical and theological—that St. Thomas used his ways to reconcile faith and reason for the Truth who was, who is, and who is to come.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Aristotle, happiness, & priestly vocation

One of the most profound treatments of the idea of happiness from ancient philosophy is found in the Greek philosopher Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. In the first book of this work, Aristotle examines what the good is, defining it as happiness. He characterizes this happiness as εὐδαιμονία, the true supernatural being. In analyzing the etymology of this term, insight can be gained into exactly what it is that Aristotle believes true happiness to be. The first part of the word, εὐ-, reflects his notion that the man who is happy must necessarily be good and true. Happiness cannot be found outside of that which is either good or true, and indeed, though Aristotle rejects Plato's notion of the Form of Good, he does embrace a hierarchy of goods that lead to happiness in human persons. The second part of the word is trickier to analyze with respect to its etymological implications. The word -δαιμονία seems to implicate the spiritual nature of human persons. Aristotle identifies three parts to the human soul: the nutritive or growth part, corresponding to that soul found within plants; the sensate or perceptive soul, which corresponds to the souls of animals; and, finally and most importantly, the rational or intellective soul. 

This point is key to understanding Aristotle's notion of happiness, because of the role that the intellect plays within his understanding of human existence. Since happiness leads to the ultimate good for human beings, Aristotle sees it as necessary for the achievement of happiness that one must know that end which is the final good for human beings. Aristotle's identification of human rationality as its unique characteristic leads him to posit that same intellective principle and its development as the culmination of human goodness: to have a fully developed, fully exercised intellect and reason is the highest good for humans and leads to their greatest happiness.

This idea of being a true, good supernatural being: of being the rational soul enfleshed as a composite and maximizing in one's life the fullness of the capacity which this composite union is capable of bearing has great resonance for practical living, both in Aristotle's time and in the present day. In reading Aristotle on this topic, one cannot help but get a sense that he is trying to say that a notion of living as a human well will bring about human flourishing and success: happiness. In my own experience, I have found that this notion of εὐδαιμονία is intuitively grasped by individuals. To be fully alive, fully human—and therefore happy—is to give my life over to the full exercise of its capacities, capabilities, and the full exercise of its reason. When my soul and body are fully engaged together in the transcendental aesthetics, the true, the good, and the beautiful, I sense that I am more than the sum of my parts. This happiness of which Aristotle speaks is no mere emotional or appetitive sense-pleasure. It is a deep, soul-stirring realization that I am fulfilling my purpose, that my life and work has meaning, and that this meaning goes beyond myself to transcend the reality which I can perceive in my own self. 

Most profoundly, I have detected this notion of εὐδαιμονία in my time at the seminary. For the first time in my life, I have found myself engaged at all levels in the work that I am doing. I have found that my life has τέλοϛ, purpose beyond simply acquiring ever greater knowledge, degrees, or wealth. There is more than sex, food, and drink. There is a life to which I have been called: first, by virtue of my baptismal dignity, to the common priesthood, prophethood, and kingship of all those incorporated into the People of God by the sacramental grace poured forth in that great Initiatory Sacrament. Second, there is truly a “hole” which I am being called to fill: just as Aristotle says that a great flutist must necessarily play her flute well to blossom, so too, I have found that vocational ministry in the Holy Church—a radical out-pouring and giving-over of myself for the love of God and his faithful people—is the route to my own flourishing. Aristotle's εὐδαιμονία resonates so greatly with me because I have, in my own life, discovered that his definition of happiness is true. And not just true in a cold, philosophical sense, but really and truly present in my life in the way that God is forming and shaping me to become one day, by his sovereign grace, a priest of Jesus Christ.  

Zeno & quarks: the Parable of the Racecourse

Zeno of Elea was a Greek philosopher and metaphysician who studied under Parmenides in the Fifth Century before Christ. Zeno postulated arguments that attempted to defend Parmenides’ theory that all Being is One, an idea known as “monism.” One of the attributes of the monists’ theory is that since all Being is One, there can be no motion within that which exists. Among his most famous arguments to prove this concept is the parable of the racecourse. In this parable, Zeno asks his listener to consider a runner in a racecourse. In order to finish the race, the runner must travel the distance, D, from the starting line to the finish line. Zeno states that in order to traverse D, however, the runner must traverse half the full distance, A (where A = D/2). The distance to this midpoint A also has a midpoint, B, which must be traversed before A can be reached. This second midpoint B has a further midpoint, C, and so on in an infinite halving of the distance that must be traversed. Zeno argues that the distance from the starting point to the finish line is described by an infinitely multiplying set of midpoints. Thus, the distance from the starting line to the finish line is an infinite distance. Since the runner must traverse the distance from the starting point to the finish line in a finite amount of time, it is impossible for the runner to actually traverse the distance; the runner is, therefore, immobile and unmoving. According to Zeno, this proves that motion is impossible, because every distance can be described with the racecourse as an infinite distance.

The logic behind Zeno’s parable of the racecourse appears to be sound, in that it contains no fallacies or syllogisms. The logic does contain assumptions that are critical to its being able to prove the hypothesis for which Zeno posits the parable in the first place. The key assumptions are (1) that it is impossible for the runner to cover an infinite amount of distance in a finite amount of time and (2) that the distance the runner must cover is an infinite distance. The argument also seems to rely upon the assumption that an infinite regression of midpoints actually multiplies the distance over which the runner must conduct his course in order to meet the finishing line. For all the impressiveness of Zeno’s logic, it appears that even granting his premise that the midpoints do infinitely regress, the distance the runner must travel does not actually increase. Instead, what is multiplying in an infinite manner is the measurement of what point in space the midpoint exists.

In order for the runner to not reach the finish line, he must be committed to reaching the midpoint as Zeno describes it. Zeno’s logic does not address, however, whether the whole of the distance itself is a half-distance. What if D is really the midpoint of some other distance, Y, where D = Y/2? It could also be that D is a further division of the midpoint of an even greater distance, Z, where D = Z/16. Of course, the theory of infinite regression that Zeno relies upon to make the distance an infinite distance would insist upon determining upon a midpoint, D/2, which would then lead into the problem posited by the original parable. This difficulty could be overcome, however, if one could conceive that there existed a fundamental unit of measuring distance or some fundamental building block of matter of which there could be no further division. As an example, suppose that a quark, which is the particle that makes up protons, neutrons, and electrons, truly is, as contemporary physics suggests, the smallest particle in matter and existence. As such, it could not be halved and maintain its state as matter; it would dissipate into energy and cease to exist if halving were attempted. If this is true, it could be argued that the length of a quark is the fundamental distance of the universe, and that in order to traverse any distance, one must cover the distance as measured by quark-lengths. In other words, contrary to Zeno’s theory, the distance from the starting line to the finish line would not be an infinite value as determined by a regression of halving, but rather some finite distance described by quark-lengths from the starting line to the finish line.

If the distance from the starting line to the finish line can be described in finite measurement, as has just been suggested, then one of the fundamental assumptions behind Zeno’s parable—that an infinite regression of halves defines the distance—is defeated, and the logic underlying the parable collapses. Instead of the runner being unable to cover the so-called infinite distance in the finite amount of time available, there is rather a finite distance that can be covered in a finite period of time. This solution to the question of how the runner can complete the racecourse has the added virtue of also describing the observable fact that if Zeno had gone to a racecourse in Elea, he would have seen many runners completing the racecourse instead of standing immobile in the Oneness of Being. While the theoretical logic behind Zeno’s parable is both alluring and simple, its very simplicity suggests its weakness: it is too simple to describe demonstrated reality.   


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Parables & prayer: 1st homily video

As part of our Introduction to Homiletics class at seminary, our final-exam homily is recorded for purposes of critique.  If you watch it, please say an Our Father and a Hail Mary for my vocation.




Mercy, Jesus, & the lost sheep

Pope Francis is all about mercy.
If I could summarize Pope Francis' pontificate so far in one word, I think it would be mercy.  This is not, of course, a great insight on my part; indeed, many commentators have pointed out that the Holy Father is trying to demonstrate a compassion that might otherwise go unnoticed by a media and culture that is fixated on so-called hot-button issues.

Of course, the mercy that the Vicar of Jesus has been trying to show us is not the sort of "live-and-let-live" attitude that many assume.  Instead, it is the mercy of the Good Shepherd who sees the lost sheep, as today's Gospel (Mt. 10:1-7) points out, and goes out to pursue them.

And he doesn't do it alone!  Jesus calls out twelve men to enter formation for a new thing in Israel. He sets his apostles at the task of evangelizing: first to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and later, as we who have ready the rest of the story know, to the whole world.

We would do well to heed Jesus' call to "go and make this proclamation, 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand'" (Mt. 10:7).  Why? Because it is only through this ministry of mercy — most clearly found in the Sacrament of Penance & Reconciliation — that people can find peace.

This is the mercy that Pope Francis is talking about, and it is the mercy that we, too, need to share.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Evangelizing the digital continent

St John Paul II taught us to set out into the deep

One of the four pillars of priestly formation which Pope St John Paul II discusses in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis is the so-called "apostolic pillar." This is the aspect of formation that is designed to help seminarians grow in their zeal and skill for proposing Jesus Christ and His Church to their family, friends, neighbors, and the whole world.

Sometimes it can be difficult to do that as a seminarian, particularly when I have had such an amazing opportunity from my Bishop to study at the threshold of the apostles in Holy Rome.

To ensure that I am engaging this aspect of formation, I have decided to begin posting to my blog with more discipline, so that I can be certain I am evangelization what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called "the digital continent" with as much fervor as the seminarians and lay apostles of old evangelized the New World into which I was born.