Posted on: July 3rd, 2020 Theology Necessary for Philosophy

In an insightful article on Bonaventure’s Hexaëmeron, Junius Johnson writes:

Bonaventure believes that human understanding in its natural state ought to be able to arrive at the contemplation of God as the first principle. This is Bonaventure’s version of natural theology. Yet philosophy recognizes that to attain this [ultimate] science the virtues are necessary. And so natural reason must be exercised in the exemplary and Cardinal virtues. At this point it looks as if the text is progressing directly to understanding elevated by contemplation, and yet this is the 4th vision, not the second. The problem is that, because of the fall, the virtues are not able to reach their end apart from grace. But the knowledge that the human soul is fallen and the consequent knowledge that the effect must be healed and satisfaction made before the virtues can be truly exercised cannot be reached by reason, but requires faith. Understanding endowed by nature thus naturally arrives at the second vision, understanding elevated by faith.[1]  

This is a clear and succinct argument for how and why philosophy needs theology. If the emergence of something like contemplation (I’m thinking here of Bk. X, ch. 7 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) is native to the very endeavor of philosophy, then theology is required. Why? Because contemplation requires virtue (as even the philosophers admit), which is why this topic appears only at the end of the Ethics. And yet, for someone like Bonaventure, after the fall full virtue (or the virtue required for the purposes of this discussion, at least) is off-limits to the human being, apart from “theological givens/gifts” such as grace, revelation, and faith.

By the way, I see an analogy in St. Thomas with this line of Bonaventurian thinking, in the Angelic Doctor’s treatment of sapientia in the Summa Theologiae. There he treats wisdom twice, in two different contexts: not only is it an intellectual virtue (in line with Ethics VI) that applies science or scientific thinking to the highest causes/realities (I-II, 57.2), but it is also a divine gift (II-II, 45.3). The upshot here is that full sapientia—surely part and parcel with ultimate contemplation—requires grace.

[1] Junius Johnson, ““Unlocking Bonaventure: the Collationes in Hexaëmeron as Interpretive Key,” The Thomist 83 (2019): 277–94, at 286.

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Posted on: October 2nd, 2012 Becoming a Lover of Wisdom

I’ve been encouraged over the last six weeks as I have preached six consecutive sermons rooted in the Letter of St. James, no doubt the most striking example in the New Testament of what is called “wisdom literature.”

As a junior in college at the University of Texas, I purchased a book, on the recommendation of a professor, entitled The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi, and this book has been a invaluable resource over the years. And yet, this morning when I opened it up to the “w” section in search for the entry on “wisdom,” I was saddened to find only a gaping void, no entry for this term in between “_____” and “Wittgenstein.”

Saddened, but not surprised, for we live in a culture which values wisdom about as much as a rock star values humility. The causes of this cultural disdain are manifold, but I’m grateful for Fr. David’s recent emphasis, from the Christ Church pulpit, on the inverse relationship between wisdom and information, the latter of which our contemporary culture has a glut unparalleled in the history of civilization.

What is wisdom? On this perennial question the antique Greek tradition largely agrees with the ancient oracles of the Old Testament. For both traditions wisdom is concerned with how to live well. That is, there is a focus on the here and the now, on bodily, day to day existence, on the things in life which lead to happiness.

Happiness. The classical tradition of moral virtue calls it eudaimonia (a word which combines the senses of “good” and “spiritedness”). Happiness is what Jesus is getting at with his “beatitudes;” in fact, the beatudo is the Latin translation of the Greek eudaimonia. Happy is the man or woman who is humble and pure, happy are those who make peace in a destructive and divisive world (Matthew 5). This, Jesus is saying, is living well. This, James confirms, is true wisdom, true sofia.

Jesus’ perspective here is utterly Jewish: hochma (“wisdom”) is essentially knowing how to do things in the world in a “successful” (or “happy”) way. For example, a wise gardener or farmer understands principles of how the soil works, such as crop rotation. A wise parent knows how to bring about obedience without provoking or abusing. A wise communicator knows how to speak in such a way as to convince without condescending.

I tell my daughters that “God’s ways are the best ways.” They lead to life and health and peace. (Notice that I did not say “a lack of suffering.”) When we listen attentively, and “submit humbly to the Word implanted within us” (James 1:21), “it will go well with [us], and we will live long in the land” (see Eph 6:3).

This is true wisdom. This is living well in the world which, after all, God made. This is why it is so sad that “wisdom” does not even appear in a book which purports to be about philosophia (the love of wisdom).

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Posted on: May 3rd, 2012 “So you wanna be a Doctor?” (PhD FAQ’s)

What follows is an article I wrote for The Crucifer, the bi-weekly newsletter of Christ Church (Episcopal) in Tyler, Texas.

As many of the good people at Christ Church already know, I (Matt) have been admitted to the PhD program in philosophy at the University of Dallas (a Roman Catholic school about 80 miles down the road), to begin formal study this fall. Since many folks have been asking me about this development, I thought it would be a good idea to address some of these issues in this issue of The Crucifer.

Why in the world would you want to enter a PhD program? In Ephesians 4:11, St. Paul looks at the elders in the church at Ephesus and says, “Some of you are called to be prophets and apostles, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Ever since my college years at the University of Texas at Austin, I have had a burning passion for what I can only call “evangelism.” By this, however, I really don’t mean standing on a street corner and preaching (although I have done this!). I don’t mean handing out tracks to strangers. I don’t mean inviting people to come forward in a worship service or a “revival” to “make a decision” for Christ. Rather, what I am referring to is a deep desire to engage the secular mind. This is why I want to do a PhD, and this is why I want to do it in philosophy (as opposed to, say, theology). Where did the secular world come from? How did it come about that most Americans assume that “religion” is a private matter of one’s own inner emotions and preferences? If people in our culture view themselves primarily as autonomous consumers, is this the best way to live? These are the kinds of questions I hope to discuss and to write about, in a more rigorous and public way than I could without this degree program.

Why the University of Dallas? There are two reasons, primarily. First, UD is one of a handful of universities left in the US which emphasizes the “great books” of the western canon of thought. As a doctoral student in the humanities at UD I will take six core courses with grad students from the politics department and the English department in areas such as Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Virgil, and Augustine and Aquinas. Since I firmly believe in the importance of tradition, this opportunity is very appealing to me. Second, in PhD studies it is definitely true that what matters is not only “what you know, but who you know.” What matters more than anything else is who your advisor / mentor is. Enter Professor Philipp Rosemann, who I met “randomly” at a party in Dallas two summers ago. Rosemann is a well-published medievalist in the same post-structuralist vein as I, and for some reason he took an immediate interest in me, inviting me to converse with him in his office, assigning me books to read and discuss, and offering to support me in my doctoral application and research.

What does this mean for your role at Christ Church? One of the most amazing aspects of this opportunity has to do with my work as Assistant to the Rector at Christ Church here in Tyler. The bottom line is that my doctoral work will not affect my role at Christ Church and in the Epiphany Community. Beginning in the fall, I will commute to Dallas for classes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and my studying will (in the main) be limited to those days. It will be a grueling routine, but I feel confident that it will be well worth it. Father David (along with Bishop Doyle) has been very supportive in this decision, and in fact I think that for our ministry here locally it will have no downside. On the contrary, I think I will find it so rejuvenating that it will fuel and inspire my ministry in all sorts of ways.

How long will this program take you to complete? My anticipation is that I will be taking classes for four years, followed by preparing for comprehensive examinations, followed by writing and defending my dissertation. So I predict that I will be finished with my coursework at the end of the spring semester of 2016, at which point I will have much more flexibility.

 

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