If you don’t like Scholasticism, don’t study it

The Everyday Thomist tells us of N.T. Wright’s claims about  “traditional Western Theologians”- a group which pretty clearly includes thomists:

N.T. Wright… argues that traditional Western Trinitarian theology bypasses the narrative account of Scripture especially regarding the historical Jesus, and instead presents a fundamental non-narrative Trinitarian theology which “approache[es] the Christological question by assuming this [ontological] view of god and then fitting Jesus into it” (Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God,” 54).

Wright begins his essay with a personal anecdote of talking to students who claim to not believe in god. Wright probes them to explain “which god they don’t believe in” and determines that when students say this, what they mean is that they do not believe in a god who sits on high, looking down and casting out judgment, what Wright calls the “spy-in-the-sky.” To these students, Wright responds that he does not believe in such a god either, but rather, believes in the God that is revealed in the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

So far, so good, but Everyday Thomist’s post goes on to say that Matthew Levering

…wants to save Aquinas from the implicit criticism of people like Wright, namely, that his conception of Jesus is sterile and formulaic, and completely detached from the Jesus as revealed in Scripture.

If you’ve been any  kind of scholastic for more than ten minutes, you’ve met an (implicit) criticism like this more than once. Scholasticism, we are told, ignores history and the concrete, therefore it cannot create a living, vibrant, meaningful theology.

Levering’s attempt to extract Aquinas from Wright’s criticism was clever and revealing, but it doesn’t change Wright’s basic point. One can find historical snippets in Aquinas, to be sure, but Aquinas’s method is certainly not sufficiently historical to give Wright and the atheists he speaks to any theology they can appreciate. But why in the world is this a criticism of Aquinas?  Aren’t we all modern people here? Don’t we all know that the correct answer to “I don’t find ____ rewarding” is “Then don’t do it! Do something else!” If N.T. Wright doesn’t feel anthing when praying to the first mover, and doesn’t get excited by studying Aquinas’s treatise on the Trinity, then he can study Jesus Christ as a historical person to his heart’s content. I’ll still buy all his books (which I think are fantastic, BTW).

Whenever I encounter the “dry thomism” argument of Wright, or the nouvelle theologie, or the communio guys, or disgrunteled priests (and Cardinals… and a pope), the most straightforward answer- which strikes me as irrefutable- is that there’s simply no arguing with taste. Some people read St. Thomas as spiritual reading. Some people find Von Balthasaar irritating, not uplifting. Some people feel closer to God when polishing syllogisms. Some people actually- gasp– like reading both St. Thomas and N.T. Wright. Where’s the problem?

Human beings can’t exhaust anything by one mode of considering it. The world simply does not appear to us as limited to a single mode of consideration. Consider your experience of the following thing:

All men are mortal.

What is the correct mode of considering this thing in your experience? Is this a subject and a predicate (the mode of considering that grammarians have) or a famous premise in a syllogism (the mode of consideration that logicians have) or English (the MoC that a linguist would have) or a sign (semiotics) or a contingent being (metaphysicians) or a statement about the universality of death (existentialists)… Clearly, the initial question is ridiculous. Experience just doesn’t come to us as limited to a particular mode of consideration, still less a “correct” one; and our experience of Jesus is an experience. This is not to say that, in our experience of Christ, any mode of consideration is as fruitful than any other one, but it is to say that we cannot limit our experience to one, all embracing, mode of consideration to the exclusion of others. Furthermore, any critique that some mode of consideration is “dry” or “doesn’t speak to modern needs” is either a matter of taste or a clear appeal to the one true Scotsman (since if St. Thomas does speak to your needs, it is assumed that you are somehow not modern).

A first encounter with substance

On the one hand we sense only particular qualities and quantities, but on the other hand we sense motions and changes (which are included in quantity, since motion has parts). The Greeks noticed that there was a tension between these two, since particular qualities and quantities cannot change. “This particular green” (known to the senses as just “green”) cannot alter to something else: as soon as alteration begins, the particular green in question simply ceases to exist. The same is true of quantities. Every quantity is of some particular amount, and this amount as such cannot change. Two meters can’t be any longer or shorter.

The conclusion is that one cannot account for the contents of sensation- specifically the quantity “motion”- without appealing to something that transcends the sensible order. This transcendent thing first reveals itself as “that which persists through change”; and as that which “stands behind” (or sub-stands) the contents of the sensible world.  And so we are constrained to admit the reality of substance, even though it is not given to the senses as substance. This substance is only known as persisting through change, which is to say that we can distinguish it into an element that changes and an element that perseveres. These diverse elements are not distinguished by spacial location.

Is natural theology necessary, given revelation?

Christian revelation implies a natural theology so far as God chose to reveal himself through terms that already had meanings. The words “Lord” and “God”, for example, were already there, and already signified something which the Revealer chose to apply to himself. Though God is beyond all thought and beyond all names, we must balance this against his own insistence that we speak of him in words that already had meanings before he revealed himself. Natural theology strives only to draw out and cultivate these already present meanings, concepts, and truths.

As a sheer logical possibility, God could have revealed himself in a wordless fashion, or using a specialized language (there are no shortage of sects that allow for, or even insist on, such kinds of revelation- e.g. the Gnostics). But the Revealer choose to refer to himself by terms that already meant something, and concepts which we had already formed. These terms and concepts can be understood to a greater and lesser extent regardless of whether revelation occurred, and after it occurs, the development of these concepts becomes a part of understanding the revelation.

It is in light of this that we need to understand the controversial and highly disputed claims of natural theology. The divine immutability or simplicity or immobility are too often treated as if they rose out of some pet Greek theory, as opposed to being attempts to cultivate a concept that God that we already had, and which would achieve a new dignity by being used by God himself. Before God took on our own flesh, he did something else which was also very  humbling- he took on our concepts, language, and truth.

The birth of philosophy/ science

Both philosophy and science began when Thales decided to give a rational explanation for the universe as opposed to a poetic one. The philosophers/ scientists have had the microphone for 2600 years now, and so for all that time we have been told that myths are lies and that enlightenment must purge the gods and heroes from the world.

Philosopher/ scientist to poets: “If we left the universe to you, we would all labor all day and die before we were forty- worst of all, gods and heroes just don’t exist!”

Poets: “So you want to reason out the universe? It would be easier and more noble to to eat the world- at least you know what this would entail, what you would need to do it, and when you had finished. Here, you can start with this small tree”

We cannot choose whether we will be drawn towards a superabundant and ecstatic operation of life which is so intensely unified to a superabundant good that it can never be separated from it (this operation has a correspondingly intense pleasure).  We can, however, be drawn towards a fantasy as opposed to a truth, as we frequently are.

Truth is a sort of goal or end so far as it is always convertible with goodness. The end of speculative things is to be in the intellect, but the end of practical things is the concrete act being done. For this reason, practical truth consists not in knowing what ought to be done, but in the doing of a concrete act. Knowledge alone does not suffice to do a concrete act, since knowledge of what ought to be done is common to the sinner and the saint. Practical truth, as truth, therefore also requires desire or appetite to action, and without this right appetite, there is an absence of practical truth, that is, an error or falsehood.

Practical truth requires right appetite, that is, virtue. No matter how clever, sophisticated, or shrewd some leader or organizer might be, so far as he lacks virtue his decisions are, properly speaking, incorrect.

If a good leader could make good decisions and yet lack virtue, then correct decisions (truths) would not be good; for if truth and goodness are joined, then leading to practical truth requires an appetite to the good on the side of the one leading.

One common way of denying that prudence is required for leadership is to cast political decisions as essentially easy. Politicians need not be prudent men, we think to ourselves, because any moron can just look at problem X and see what needs to be done. If we simply point out that people are starving, or uninsured, or immoral, or uneducated, or oppressed, or attacked then what we should do (or whether we should do anything at all) is assumed to be immediately obvious. Notice that on this supposition, a bad leader can only be incredibly stupid or evil or both, since this is the only way to to account for why he neglects to do obvious goods.

Do good leaders need to be good human beings?

Most people would agree that it would be preferable to have a prudent leader. St. Thomas agrees, but he also insists that prudence is a moral virtue, i.e. something that makes a man good by possessing. Said another way, only a good man could be prudent. No matter how skilled, clever, and able to “work the system” some persons may be, St. Thomas would still insist that so far as they are not good people, they are also imprudent and therefore unfit leaders. Machiavelli, on the other hand, explicitly denies that a good leader must be a good person, and in doing so he claims that he is advancing a new way of looking at politics. The debate between the two men is a dispute about the nature of prudence: is it a moral virtue or not?   

The Latin prudentia reflects the ambiguity between St. Thomas’s position and Maciavelli’s. Prudentia means not only “prudence” and “wisdom” but also “shrewdness” and “cunning”. Even though English does not have a single auto-antonym that combines wisdom and cunning, there is the ambiguity in our thoughts about what sort of qualities a leaders ought to have. On the one hand, we only celebrate people as great leaders when we recognize them as good men. To the extent that we no longer look at Lincoln or Washington as great men, we have ceased to honor them as great leaders; and in the measure that we have raised up Martin Luther King as a great leader, we have also raised him up as a great man. On the other hand, we have a sense that unscrupulous people are better at getting things done- there is always the sense that if one makes a deal with the Devil, at least he gets results. Our paradoxical response to the scandals of politicians is a perfect example of our conflicted ideas of prudence: on the one hand, we spontaneously believe that the scandal tells us something relevant about whether the man is fit to lead, and on the other hand, people always respond to the scandal with a response like “who cares what he does in his private life, so long as he gets things done?”

-If we can object to Thales saying “all things are water” by pointing out that not all things are wet, then we can object to pre-contemporary accounts of atomic theory by pointing out that not all things are dry. All things are little billiard balls, right? Physicists have insisted for a hundred years now that atoms just aren’t little bodies floating around in nothing, but the false image we form of them is very difficult to shake.

-The physical sciences seem clean, simple, and free from any non-evident premises because we think of them backwards. Since the first time they were taught us, they were given to us as crystal clear conclusions. But the grunt work required to get to those conclusions is immense, difficult, and not without a whole pile of suppositions that can easily be doubted. This is not to say that the findings of chemistry or physics are doubtful, only that the methods of the experimental sciences do not differ from metaphysics in that the former are transparent and self evident and without difficult judgment calls while the latter are. Given the way most people seem to talk about science, it seems that they think that there is a special “science room” somewhere where scientists can simply turn on a light and just look at things as they are- as though they just flipped flip the science switch, drew pictures,  and then [put the pictures in textbooks: “cats are really just carbon atoms, and a carbon atom looks like this: see, four valences poke out of it like little sticks, and they form long chains that look like this, and it has all of its electrons in these little shells here…”

Human Command theory, II

It’s not obvious whether some version of divine command theory is true, but it is obvious that any version of human command theory is false, and we learn a great deal about the nature of things by recognizing this. What is required if our order to certain things is rationally good, but our will is not responsible for the order?

(On the side of existence, we ask “why something as opposed to nothing?” The same question on the side of goodness is “why do wills desire good things as opposed to whatever?”)

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