My Sympathies with Postmodernism

I sympathize with Postmodern thought because at its best it describes how I think as a modern man. Neither I or anyone else I know believes in the power of a universal system of the kind that were tried between the 1920’s to 1970’s. All those systems failed disastrously into a vast abyss of incoherence, wasted money and spilt blood. Truths are better kept within localized spheres of relevance, relative to various groups- attempts at universal systems always end up pleasing nobody and usually are nothing other than power grabs, done more or less blindly, and which are therefore to be deconstructed by an analysis of the structure of the system and the beliefs it uses to justify itself. Any interaction with the system risks conceding too much to the system one deconstructs, and so we must deal with the various terms the system uses with the utmost care, for fear of conceding the truth of a single term which will by implication justify the whole system.  

Yet in the face of all this, the Christian is called to be a Light to the Nations. Paul boasted that he had become all things to all men- and yet in the face of this he spoke a single message. I don’t say this as a critique of Postmodernism. There just two things that I want to consider side by side for the moment.


-Assimilating the truths of your opponent is the severest refutation. 

Knowledge as separation from matter, part I

Why does St. Thomas say that all knowledge abstracts from matter? One immediate objection is that if we abstract from matter, then why is it hat we can have a whole science dedicated to understanding matter, like Chemistry? If one responds that St. Thomas is using matter in a different sense than we use it in Chemistry, this immediately gives rise to the idea that St. Thomas’s idea of matter was simply inadequate, or limited by the erroneous science of his time. How do we understand “abstraction from matter” in terms of matter as we understand it?

This separation from matter belongs to knowledge for two reasons: generally, it belongs because knowledge is an immanent action; more particularly, knowledge has its own ways of separating from matter. This post concerns just the general way.


Matter is the first thing that underlies changes. His is true of oxygen as much as quarks as much as earth, air, fire and water. This is why we seek out elements by breaking thing up, or at least by figuring out what things would break up into. The basic knowledge that we are working from is that if some part of a thing couldn’t survive a change, then we wouldn’t call it matter. It follows from this that matter is essentially a mobile, for it involves being able to go from this to that.


But to go from this to that requires being neither this nor that. We can’t go upstairs if we already are upstairs; we can’t go insane if we’re already crazy. Motion, in other words, requires that the act we are speaking of be incomplete. Without this essential incompletion motion becomes unthinkable and impossible.


Consider, however, an act of sensation. It is undeniably an action, an in this sense it has a certain likeness to motion. Notice, however, that it is radically and essentially different from motion, for the act of sensation is, and must be, complete from the beginning. So long as I am looking at the rose, this action of looking at this rose is complete. Without this completion of the act, the act of knowledge becomes unthinkable and impossible.


But if all knowledge, whether by sense or by intellect, is essentially removed or separate from motion, then it is by this same token removed and separated from our foundational understanding of matter, upon which all other understandings of matter rest. This argument rests on the sort o operation that knowledge is- and it is not the only operation of its kind (life is another). Immanent activity is by its nature a transcendence of matter and motion, although not always in the same degree.  



SELF: How could God be the first mover in every motion?

REASON: What do you mean?

S: I’ll take this shoe in front of me now and wave it around. Why do I need to invoke God in order to explain this? I have moved it. I can experience moving the whole thing by myself.

R: So you can explain why the shoe is moving.

S: Right

R: But in order to move it, you had to be in motion too.

S: Right.

R: So if I want to account or why the shoe was in motion, I can say it was because you moved it, but this can’t explain why you were in motion.  

S: Well, that’s obvious. I moved myself.

R: So you are a mover and a mobile?

S: Yes

R: at the same time?

S: It would have to be at the same time, because I move and am moved at the same time.

R: And in the same respect?

S: No, this would be a contradiction.

R: So in one respect you are a mobile, and in another respect you are a mover?

S: Yes

R: Then how is your self any different from your arm or your hand? These things are mobiles and movers as well.

S: I think I am starting to get it.

R: Does this seem right? Every mover can explain why some mobile that is subordinate to it is in motion. The difficulty is when the mover is moving along with the thing it is moving. Then we have another mobile that it unaccounted for. If A pushes B, we don’t need to ask why B is in motion, but we can’t account for why A is, if it is.

S: But I can’t imagine anything that causes something to move that isn’t in motion.

R: That’s exactly the point. The most reasonable thing to conclude from this is that there is some mover existing beyond the realm of things you can imagine or sense.

S: This doesn’t seem right- if some mover is moving all things, then aren’t all my motions just as determined as a marionette?

R: How does this follow at all? The whole way we got to this first mover in this particular argument is because we took for granted that you moved yourself. Your own self motion was a principle of this whole proof, and we need to firmly assert it in order for our proof to follow.

S: But it seems that we’re saying that I can only move myself because I am being moved by another.

R: Whether this is strange or not depends on ones habits: but this doctrine of being able to operate only insofar as one is operating by another is a bedrock doctrine of perennial philosophy: the doctrine of participation. We only live and move and have our being, which we truly have of by ourselves, by participation in unlimited life, perfect operation and completely perfect being.

Who Will Be Saved?

The end of the Sermon on the mount (Mt. 7:7-29) is speaks to the question of whom will be saved. Christ begins with the famous discourse on the divine benevolence:  

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

 Christ then gives a proof for this, so as to give us even more confidence: 

What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? 10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

 Verse 11, however, serves as a kind of transition, for Christ’s argument presupposes evil in man “if ye then, being evil” this note of human evil is developed almost immediately in verse 13:  

13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.


In the question of who will be saved, we need to balance the reality of God’s superabundant benevolence with the reality that few will find the way to heaven. The balancing of these two leaves us saying that all who seek heaven find it, but few bother to seek it. Some of the more noticeable of those who don’t seek heaven are those Christ calls “the rich”. Note that the rich are not characterized by malice or evil- the rich men Christ speaks about in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man or in the Parable of the Rich Man who built a vast storehouse are not particularly wicked men, and in fact they might have even been seen as decent, hard-working folks, but their folly was that their concern for earthly things kept them from ordering themselves toward the next life. They could have gone to heaven if they had only asked, of this we can be sure, but they simply never got around to asking. Each day brought its own particular concern, drama, and list of things to do, but the “rich man” simply never gets around to asking to be saved.


But even if we do get around to asking to saved, it’s clear that we have to do so more than once, for some hear the Gospel, and accept it at first, and yet:


And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, 19 And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. 20 

These seem to be the ones of which Christ says:


Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity 

I remember reading once that one of the greatest sorrows of the damned (presumably both the damned with the pain of sense and those without it) will be their awareness of just how easy it would have been to be saved. This will presumably be true for both those many who explicitly reject full communion with the Church, and those who, though never aware of the Church, reject that silent and private evangelization that was made within their own hearts. Regardless of how the Gospel comes to us, most of us simply don’t have the time for it. We’re too busy and too occupied with other things. It strikes me that this is a primary motive for evangelization and preaching of the Gospel. Who can look at the sight of the many being damned simply for stupidly being ho-hum about the next life, and not want to yell “WAKE UP!” or better yet:  

The time is now; the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.

Person, reason, will

The human person is neither reason, nor will, nor simply reason and will as though put next to each other, but the source and cause of reason and will, containing all that either will or reason has within itself.


Human reason is neither the person, nor the will, but it is defined by its containing all things. We know that something is or is not- what else is there? Nothing- and we know that too. The extent of reason even includes person and will, for mind is aware of both of these.


The human will is neither reason, nor the person, but it is defined by its relation to all things. The will can love anything so far as it is good, and all that exists has the good of something or other. Will also stands over both reason and person in different ways, and in some sense contains them: will commands reason to act, and will is the measure of whether a man is good- in things which have will, to be good is to have a good will.


And so in man there is a triple distinction that allows for a triple transcendence. By this we mean that each of these three things is both distinct from the others, and contains all the others in one way or another. By this containment, each contains all things in various ways, including itself.



Theology and Spirituality

Somewhere along the way, theology became independent of spirituality. By theology I mean the study of God, by spirituality I mean those practical exercises which are ordered to growth in charity. Though it is clear that these things are distinct, it is not clear that theology should be viewed as independent from spirituality, and in fact it is quite possible that to believe that the former needs the latter by its very nature.

The Old Testament, for example, tends to view “wisdom” which is clearly some perfection of intellect, as inseparable from love and fidelity towards God, or at least some sort of order to divine things. Examples of this pour copiously from many Old Testament books.

St. Thomas also views his theology as necessarily spiritual as well, as is clear from the prologue to the Contra Gentiles, where St. Thomas is stating the purpose or doing theology:

 Of all human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is the more perfect, the more sublime, the more useful, and the more sweet. The more perfect, because in so far as a man gives himself up to the pursuit of wisdom, to that extent he enjoys already some portion of true happiness. Blessed is the man that shall dwell in wisdom (Ecclus xiv, 22). The more sublime, because thereby man comes closest to the likeness of God, who hath made all things in wisdom (Ps. ciii, 24). The more useful, because by this same wisdom we arrive at the realm of immortality. The desire of wisdom shall lead to an everlasting kingdom (Wisd. vi, 21). The more sweet, because her conversation hath no bitterness, nor her company any weariness, but gladness and joy (Wisd. viii, 16).

St. Thomas is also clear that growth in grace gives one a more perfect knowledge of God than they can have without grace, and so a certain growth of theology can only take place by a growth in spirituality:

We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason. Which is proved thus. The knowledge which we have by natural reason contains two things: images derived from the sensible objects; and the natural intelligible light, enabling us to abstract from them intelligible conceptions. Now in both of these, human knowledge is assisted by the revelation of grace. For the intellect’s natural light is strengthened by the infusion of the light of grace; and sometimes also the images in the human imagination are divinely formed, so as to express divine things better than those do which we receive from sensible objects, as appears in prophetic visions.

The proper cause or why St. Thomas’s theology is simultaneously a spirituality is because he sees theology as being simultaneously speculative and practical: 

 Sacred doctrine, being one, extends to things which belong to different philosophical sciences because it considers in each the same formal aspect, namely, so far as they can be known through divine revelation. Hence, although among the philosophical sciences one is speculative and another practical, nevertheless sacred doctrine includes both; as God, by one and the same science, knows both Himself and His works.

The Thomists that came after St. Thomas very quickly severed his theology from spirituality: we have clear indications that this had happened by the time of John of Sterngassen, who was a contemporary of St. Thomas. This, I think, is a terrible idea, and we would do well to return to the Wisdom of the Scriptures and the Thomism of St. Thomas, which both saw theology as inseparable from growth in grace, perfection, and likeness to God.

Three meanings of causality

Causality is not directly observable. This is simply given. So what does “cause” mean for us?

The initial response was that our failure to directly observe causality was because causality was not in things. A further claim was made that causality was a certain habit of expecting things to happen. This habit arose from our experience seeing various things constantly joined together. We can distinguish two aspects to this account of causality: on the one hand, causes require human observers as sine qua non of their existence, and in this sense causality is what modern people call “subjective”. On the other hand, our experience is not simply random or unique to us, and so nothing prohibits the formation of a community of people who all share in the common experience of something being a cause. Insofar as our awareness of causes arises spontaneously, and is shared in common, we might say that causality is “objective”.

On this account of cause, there is necessarily a dialectical tension between the objective and subjective aspect of causality.  In its objective aspect, we will seek causes by cataloging experiences in search of the most universal occurring regular conjunctions of things: which is to say we will identify causes with laws. These laws, because they are identified with causes, will share in the dialectical character of causes: as “objective” we will tend to see these laws as natural, but as “subjective” we will tend to see these laws as descriptive and limited by the necessary limitation of human experience.

This account of cause is certainly a valid meaning of the word. This account of cause even can claim to be the sole or only meaning of cause, for it seems to follow necessaily from our noticing that causes are not directly observable, and there is no sense of cause in which causes are directly observable to us, right?

This is true except for the obvious case of our own interior experience of causing our own actions. The most obvious way to take this causality of our own actions is as the ground of a moral or ethical system, taken in the broad sense, but there will always be some tension involved here, for this way of taking moral “in a broad sense” will tend to be so broad as to precind from the question of whether an action is good or evil (good an evil are too much seen as belonging to that objective order of causality, although there is some play here). There will always be a constant desire to reduce this interior experience to the sort of causality that we mentioned above, even though it first reveals itself as opposed to the sort of causality we spoke of above.

There is another kind of causality that is distinguished from the other two: the causality of the mobile. A mobile, as such, is able to move, and so in order to explain why it is in motion, we must appeal to something other than the mobile as such, from which the motion is derived. This other on which the mobile depends is the cause. From this first kind o cause, the mind is led to posit other kinds of cause that exist in reference to this first. Notice that this account of causality is also not directly observable, because we come to it through things we experience by sensation.

Critiques of causality, and the need to remember motion.

All sides agree that we can experience causality in ourselves; but there is disagreement about our ability to experience it in other things. We see one billiard ball strike another: do we see the causality of the one on the other? Certainly not in a very distinct way, if at all- and if we consider our usual way of discovering causes, we would lean towards saying not at all. We can’t simply look at things move and presume we see the cause that obtains between them, and for that matter when we only see something once it’s quite possible that the thing is happening by chance and so has no cause as such. Why did the earthquake happen when I stepped in the bathtub? There simply is no reason, or at least no one we could know, or would care to know.


At the same time, we cannot miss that even a critique of causality, invokes moving things- billiard balls, earthquakes, eclipses. We might note that the motions of things are even more self evident than the billiard balls or the eclipsing moon- for the same critique that dissolves causality will usually get around to dissolving substantial things into mere qualia (and the qualia to nothing). The motion, however, can’t be dissolved.


(This isn’t of course completely true. Parmenides denied the reality of motion, and provided Aristotle with a chance to invoke Plato’s distinction between the per se and the per accidens.)


Motion is more fundamental than causality, and presupposed to an understanding of it. All of our first ideas of causality are tied up with motion and presuppose it in one way or another. We can’t simply jump to causality in things, for this is seen only by along with intellect. We need to start with sense and interior experience and move to seeing the need of causality in beings outside of ourselves.     

On the divine eternity; or transcendence of temporal existence.

For Thomists, arguments against the divine eternity are some of the most frustrating to read, because one is so acutely aware of his inability to simply jump into the conversation. For example, one of the most common denials of divine eternity is the claim that God is a temporal being, and it is impossible for a thomist to say anything positive in such a dispute without giving St. Thomas’s account of time- but this account of time is nor immediately evident and presupposes an understanding of very difficult things.

St. Thomas never wavered from his claim that time is the number of motion according to before and after. The objections against the definition arise almost immediately on quoting it: who thinks time is a number? If time is of motion then why is it that a resting thing is still a temporal being? Again, why is it that I can imagine time without imagining motion? These questions are made more acute by the fact that when one turns to Aristotle to explain this definition he formed, there are moments when he wishes the master had said a bit more.

Augustine remarked “What is time? So long as no one asks me, I know” the quotation is usually taken a mere irony or frustration (which is why the remark might strikes some as a bit worn), but it is a profoundly wise account of time and other things that are familiar and yet difficult to define. Augustine claims to know time so long as it is not an object of speculation or reflection, which is to say that Augustine knows it in practical terms; i.e. so far as it is concretized in its particulars. This is exactly right: everyone knows that a year is a time, and an hour is a time, and a minute is a time, which is to say we understand time pretty clearly in terms of its units. We can also say that the age of Augustus was a time, and that a prison term is a time, but since we can reduce these times to unit measurements, but not vice versa, time as a unit has primacy in our understanding.

We might note first that this primacy of time as a unit argues that the time is a kind of number- for it is simply the continual minting of various units of time, one after another.

What exactly are these continual units? Aristotle claims, in a way that seems impossible to argue with, that they either are the same as a motion, or at least inseparable from it. What is a day? One complete rotation of the earth. What is a year? One complete orbit of the earth. The motion of each of these, since it is cyclical, is the continual repetition of one cycle, and so it seems unobjectionable to say that a time is a number of a motion. This is certainly not to say that it is the only thing we can say about time, nor is it even to confirm or deny any more specific account of time.

I only argue this much of the definition, because it suffices to account for most of the objections against the divine eternity. There is more to be said, to be sure, but this account of time needs to come first. Next we have to consider the various arguments that allow us to prove that God exists at all- the first of which is his absolute immobility.

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