Thomas, Eternal World, & Comps

Geek alert: this post is intended only for theology / philosophy nerds!

I have various motives for blogging; any particular blog post might be motivated by any number of things. Sometimes, as in the current case, I am motivated to blog by the urgent need to remember something, especially in its details and with textual evidence. The need to remember it, and the desire to discuss it with others, partly in order to remember it.

I turn my attention to the issue of the eternity (or the infinite temporal duration) of the world, an urgent issue in the medieval context of thought–the very phase of the history of philosophy in which my comps study partner and I are engaged–because of the intersection in this period  between religions (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) on the one hand, and the (re)discovery of Aristotle on the other.

Clearly, as attested in _De Caelo_ II.1, Aristotle believed in the infinite temporal duration of the cosmos (both past and future), in particular of the heavenly bodies and their circular motion.

How do the religious thinkers of the medieval period respond to this philosophical position, presumably held to be based on reason alone? I will focus only on two: Averroes and Aquinas.

Averroes’ position is that, since philosophy trumps other modes of knowledge (namely, religion / “dialectic” and rhetoric / poetry), it is true, based on demonstrative knowledge, that the universe has always existed. (In fact in his _Incoherence of the Incoherence_ he argues that the matter of the celestial bodies is co-eternal with God, and that infinite temporal duration in the past is amenable to reason due to the circular nature of the celestial motion which it measures or with which it is coextensive: for Averroes nothing is pernicious about an infinite regress as long as it is “circular,” as long as it contains elements in the “chain” which precede and follow themselves.)

As Marquette philosopher Richard Taylor explains in this podcast, Averroes does not quite hold to the “double truth” theory that used to be the accusation leveled against 13th century members of the University of Paris Arts Faculty such as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, but, still, he somehow manages to “affirm” both the eternality of the world and the Muslim version of the doctrine of the creation of the world, at “time zero.” He affirms the former as a philosopher and for philosophers, and the latter as a religious / legal scholar for religious folks and the people for whom he legislates.

Although, technically, this might not be a version of “double truth,” thanks be to God that this is not the approach which St. Thomas takes on this perennial issue. Rather, assuming (as he elsewhere argues) that we know some things by faith and other things by reason, he maintains that, although there is, based on reason alone, nothing irrational about Aristotle’s view, nevertheless it is an article of faith (or an object of faith), that the world as created by God has an absolute beginning in time, before which point it (along with everything else, including time) did not exist. (See Summa I.46.2.)

A few additional points about Thomas’ stance in all of this.

  1. Near the end of his “On the Eternality of the World,” Thomas does clarify that “nothing can be co-eternal with God, because nothing can be immutable save God alone,” thus indicating that, apparently on the basis of reason alone, the celestial bodies are not eternal. (Yes, apparent contradictions abound in such thorny issues.)
  2. This is also the context in which he clarifies that ex nihilo–as in, creatio ex nihilo–is simply a negation: “not created out of anything.”
  3. In the Summa Contra Gentiles II.37 he clarifies that “one could conceive of the universe as always existing yet totally dependent upon its creator: if the act of creating is inherently instantaneous, then there is no need that God temporally precede the universe to be its creator.” See David Burrell, “Aquinas and Islamic and Jewish Thinkers,”in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleanor Stump (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1193), 72-3.
  4. In the above context of the Summa Theologiae (I.46.2), Thomas is at pains to make it clear why we Christians must state plainly that the temporal beginning of the world is an “article of faith,” and not an object of reason:

And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate the what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.

An admonition applicable to fundamentalists of all ages!


Cindy Crawford, Anselm, & Comps

Geek alert: this essay will be of no interest to anyone other than philosophy & theology enthusiasts.

A decade ago I was infatuated by “critical theory.” These days, not so much. I’ve become much more straightforwardly orthodox, agreeing with Chesterton on “the romance of orthodoxy” (embodied, for example in his quip that “the act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice”).

Still, I remain convinced that one “critical” theorist necessary for understanding our cultural moment is Jacques Lacan. And though I don’t understand him (yet), I am trying. Which is why I am reading Slavoj Zizek’s How to Read Lacan, and how, in turn, I stumbled upon the following anecdote (which Zizek calls a “low-grade joke”) with which I want to begin this blog post:

 [Once upon a time there was] a poor peasant who, having suffered a shipwreck, finds himself on an island, with, say, Cindy Crawford. After having sex with him, she asks how it was; his answer is, great, but he still has one small request to complete his satisfaction–could she dress herself up as his best friend, put on trousers and paint a moustache on her face? He reassures her that he is not a secret pervert, as she will see once she has granted the request. When she does, he approaches her, gives her a dig in the ribs, and tells her with the leer of male complicity: “You know what happened to me? I just had sex with Cindy Crawford!”

In the joke (the old-fashioned heterosexual promiscuity of which assuages my conscience, thus permitting me to include it in a publicly read blog post), the poor peasant has had an experience which he regards as profound, and which he must share; today I feel the same way.

My experience, however, unlike that of the peasant in the joke, is not a cheap and illicit one. Rather it has to do with the tortuous ardor that is studying for comps. This prerequisite for progressing on to my PhD dissertation often feels a curse, but then at other times (like this morning) it feels an exilerating blessing.

Here’s why. This morning it has finally “clicked” with me, after two and a half decades, what St. Anselm of Canterbury is “up to” in his works the Monologion and the Proslogion. In the closet of my study I have a 3-ring binder containing pages upon pages of class notes which I took in Philadelphia, in seminary, in 1998, on Anselm. (All these years later I realize more than ever that Dr. Claire Davis of Westminster Seminary is a brilliant man.) Yet, when I was in the class, or indeed when I tried to read Louis Mackey’s essay entitled “Grammar and Rhetoric in the Proslogium,” I was groping around in the dark.

I’d like to argue that what Anselm is doing, both in the Monologion and in the Proslogion, is tantamount to what Boethius is doing in his Theological Tractates, his opuscula sacra.[1] As Joseph Pieper suggests,[2] we find a description of this kind of rational thought in Thomas’ introduction to Boethius’ De Trinitate:

… just as our natural knowledge begins with the knowledge of creatures obtained by the senses, so the knowledge imparted from above begins with the cognition of the first Truth bestowed on us by faith. As a result the order of the procedure is different in the two cases. Philosophers, who follow the order of natural knowledge, place the sciences of creatures before the science of God, that is to say, natural philosophy before metaphysics, but theologians follow the opposite path, placing the consideration of the creator before that of creatures.[3]

Of note is the fact that both natural philosophers and theologians have knowledge of God, although this knowledge is delivered in different ways. For the natural philosopher, this knowledge of the divine (or of metaphysics) proceeds on according to Aristotle’s ordering of the sciences, proceeding from “that which is most knowable to us” to “that which is most knowable in itself.”

For the theologian, however, it is as if this heuristic process is short-circuited in a good way. The progressive ladder of scientific spheres is eclipsed, and the knower arrives immediately at the end of the sequence, having received, by the gift of faith, the knowledge of God. (Note that this knowledge of God, bestowed by grace through faith, has particular content, and is received by the intellectus fidei, that faculty which recognizes and grasps the deliverances of faith. In this sense it is structurally similar to the second-to-the-bottom position in Plato’s divided line: pistis. Part of what is in view here is that the content of faith, for premoderns like St. Thomas, does not stand in opposition to knowledge, but rather is a kind of knowledge.)

In contrast to the natural philosopher, then, the theologian begins at the end. He takes God—note that here the God of Scripture and Christian Tradition is taken to be identical to the theos of natural reason—as given, and then proceeds to attend to what follows logically from that point forward.

Anselm performs this method 500 years after Boethius himself had performed it, and it is described aptly in the Augustinian phrases fides quarens intellectum and credo ut intelligam.

In his Scholasticism, Joseph Pieper clearly thinks that Anselm carried his project too far, falling prey to the temptation of rationalism, and I don’t disagree with this diagnosis. Nevertheless, I also agree with Pieper’s final appraisal, namely that Anselm’s method is a kind of historically necessary “experiment” which tries to “test” certain “possibilities:”

On these grounds Anselm’s approach may have been a necessary first step from which ultimately Thomas’ balanced view would later be developed: that necessary reasons cannot demonstrate the tenets held by faith, but can show that they are not contrary to reason; and that such a use of the wisdom of the world is not a mixing of the wine (of theology) with the water (of reason), but should rather be called a changing of water into wine.[4]

[1] Joseph Pieper, Scholasticism, tr. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1984), 36-37. Pieper describes Boethius’ project as “the rational examination of dogma.” Note that the last sentence of Utram Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus de Trinitate substantialiter praedicentur is an admonition to the later Pope John I to “join faith to reason” (“fidem, si poteris, rationemque conjunge”).

[2] Pieper, Scholasticism, 62.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Faith, Reason, and Theology, Questions I – IV of his Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, tr. Armand Maurer (Rome: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1987), 3-4.

[4] Pieper, Scholasticism 62, citing Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate, 2.1 ad. 5 and 2.3 ad 5.


John 1 (in medias res)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:1-3a)

Having soaked my mind & heart in the philosophical contemplation of John 1 this Christmas (both at the four Christmas Eve services in which I preached or presided), what has hit me afresh, or possibly for the first time, is that part of John is saying is that the story of the world begins in medias res. “Among the middle things,” or (more colloquially) “in the middle of things.”

That is, when the world popped into being (so the story goes), what was already there? In one sense, not nothing.

No. That which was already there is the Logos.