Category Archives: Aquinas

The Revolution Will Not Be Sermonized

"Do you find me attractive?"

We were talking about G. K. Chesterton’s mini-classic Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’, joking at us from the depths of Depression Era England. Chesterton claims Aquinas as a revolutionary after a millenium of Neoplatonism, and Augustine looms over Chesterton’s church as the Christian philosopher who forgot about Christ:

“[T]he Thomist was free to be an Aristotelean, instead of being bound to be an Augustinian. But he was even more of a theologian; more of an orthodox theologian; more of a dogmatist, in having recovered through Aristotle the most defiant of all dogmas, the wedding of God with Man and therefore with Matter.”

There you have Chesterton’s big So-What: that in arguing against the Paris schoolmasters for the orthodoxy of Aristotle — in applying the rigorously inductive method of observation, seansation and inference, always starting with the world of matter — Aquinas was, in fact, recovering the meaning of Christianity: that God became Man.

Or: “[A] Christian means a man [or girly-whirly] who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses.”

So matter can be divine (in Christ), and so the scientific method can be a form of divination. In fact, Chesterton claims Aquinas as a kind of proto-scientist who rescued Catholicism from modern Evangelical pinheadedness by recognizing “that the meaning of Scripture is very far from self-evident and that we must often interpret it in the light of other truths.” Our senses can be deceived — but so can our pastors.

In the last few chapters, Chesterton summarizes basic Thomism for us; and since I haven’t seen it done quite like this before, I’ll lay it on you:

  1. “There is an Is” — that is, if we don’t believe that something exists, we don’t believe anything
  2. “[T]here instantly enters with this idea of affirmation the idea of contradiction” — where there is Yes, there is No; where there is True, False
  3. Everything that Is is “in a state of change, from being one thing to being another”
  4. However, this flux implies incompleteness, moving toward a potential that is never quite reached: “Being is often only Becoming; beginning to Be or ceasing to Be; it implies a more constant or complete thing of which it gives in itself no example”
  5. So: “The defect we see, in what is, is simply that it is not all that is. God is more actual even than Man; more actual even than Matter; for God with all His powers at every instant is immortally in action.”

QED: “[T]here is a Great Being, in whom all potentialities already exist as a plan of action.” (Now, I’m not sure how he gets from potentialities to “a plan,” but perhaps you do?)

There you have it: God — The Action Hero!


Father Brown Rides the ‘Dumb Ox’


I was excited to snorkle through
G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’, published in 1933, because it was so highly praised by the famous French Thomist Etienne Gilson (“Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement”), whose The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas has been sitting on my shelf judging me for months. So you can imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be, as usual, more about Chesterton than Aquinas.

G. K. Chesterton was the Christopher Hitchens of his day, holding down an essentially English job that’s all but disappeared: popular ironist. He thrived in the world between the wars and between Oxford and Cambridge, trading wit and wisdom with Shaw and C. S. Lewis, H. G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien, churning out brisk biographies, essays, political tracts, popular detective and spy novels and short stories, and for all I know sonnets and limericks. Eminently quotable, he was also very much a character: short, bespectacled, irascible, unkempt, sarcastic.

Today he’s best-known in America for his unapologetic Catholic apologetics, including OrthodoxyPublishers Weekly recently claimed he was enjoying something of a revival, with new biographies, collections of quotations, and reprints of his ironic spy fiction classics The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill. And there’s a seemingly active Chesterton community in the U.S., complete with newsletter, podcasts and meet-ups.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’ betrays all Chesterton’s usual contradictions: his prose style is elegant but plain; he writes long, tortuous sentences held up by semi-colons and commas like handrails on a spiral staircase; sentences that are, somehow, easy to follow. And he’s witty in the way of Victorians: epigrammatic, paradoxical and utterly ironic.

  • “In that age men disagreed even about war, and peace might break out anywhere”
  • “The Protestant theology of Martin Luther was a thing that no modern Protestant would be seen dead in a field with”
  • “He, being a trained philosopher, is naturally trained to put up with philosophers”

Personally, I find him annoying. Even his spy novels don’t stick to the point. Good writing is supposed to be like conversation, but with Chesterton it’s way too much like conversation. His non-fiction spends yards of prose settling scores with people he doesn’t name, waging long-forgotten turf battles with people we don’t know.

Illustrations are as likely to come from something he read in the Times last week as the Church Fathers. Quotation is rare; the voice he likes most to hear, clearly, is his own. Reading Chesterton can feel like following a guy through an art museum and praying he’s not lost.

And as a provider of information — as opposed to cleverness — he’s very thin soup. There is no biographical data in the whole of Thomas Aquinas that couldn’t be culled from a glance through an encyclopedia. And there’s no exposition of Aquinas’ philosophy that goes much beyond the first Book of the Summa Theologiae.

Yet for all that, it’s a good book. He’s weaving a spell that relies on an accumulation of elements, each in its place, in order to work; and, like hypnosis, you’re not sure when it’s over that anything happened at all.

Tomorrow: I’ll finally get to the book itself, and the One Incredible Thing It Reveals About God! Pray I stick to the point . . .

We Be a Bien Being

Friday was the Memorial Day for Thomas Aquinas although — in the inscrutable wisdom of the Holy See — neither the day he was born nor the day he died (March 7, 1274). We admit to a man-crush on Aquinas, reflected in that category word cloud on your left <– . . . that keeps swirling deeper.

Thomas Aquinas

"Do Be Do Be Do!"

Here’s the thing: Not since “Pascal’s Wager” has a guy been so caricatured by history. For Aquinas to be known only as the idiot who saw something moving and said, “Hey, something had to be the First Mover!” … as though God were in the transportation business, retired … well, it’s what our friend Terry Eagleton would call disrespectful.

Why am I so sure Aquinas’ “Five Ways” are not nearly as simple as they seem? Because I’ve been working my way through the French philosopher Etienne Gilson’s explanation of them in The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, published in 1948, and my head is in flames.

First, I can’t resist this sentence: “To minds tormented by the divine thirst, it is useless to offer the most certain knowledge of the laws of numbers and the arrangement of the universe.” Science is ennobled by its certitude, says Gilson; but it remains mute in “the presence of the incomprehensible.” Metaphysics goes where science cannot, although the journey it takes is uncertain and unscientific.

We can reject any proposition that can not be tested with the scientific method. But that leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. (Like: “Why are we here?” “What started the universe?” “What is consciousness?” “Do I have a purpose?”) We can bracket these questions in the faith they may be answered some day. Or we can apply the tools of rational metaphysics so say something about them.

Gilson says something, at great length (a prolific, best-selling expert in Medieval philosophy at the University of Paris and Harvard, Gilson packs at least a quarter-million words into this particular doorstop). So what does he say, brother Marty?

In the words of Bill Clinton, it all depends on what your definition of the word “is” is. In Latin: esse. Well, the Latin word has two forms — esse (to be) and ens (being), which has no exact English (or French) equivalent in the sense Aquinas used it. Gilson translates “ens” as “act-of-being.” Aquinas wrote in Latin. Gilson says the difference between esse and ens lies at the heart of Aquinas’ metaphysical system, his conception of God.

As I understand it, any thing that exists has both essence and existence. Essence is a conceptual reality and is the way people think about and categorize that thing. Existence is what Aquinas-per-Gilson would call being-in-the-world or act-of-being. No thing can be said to “be” without an act-of-being — that is, no thing is pure essence. Only in God are essence (esse) and act-of-being (ens) identical. In everything else, they are distinct.

More than that, act-of-being precedes essence. “Being has meaning only in relation to actual existence,” says Gilson. He quotes Aquinas: “The act-of-existing is more intimate to anything whatsoever than is what determines it.” In other words, existence is an act — as Gilson says, a “verb” — and not the outward expression of some underlying essence.

Everything we know in the world is of this nature: that its act-of-being is distinct from its essence — as my own actions are different from what makes me a member of the class “human being.” And, says Gilson, “a being whose essence is not its act-of-being has not of itself the wherewithal to exist.” Which gives Aquinas a metaphysical basis to back into God’s existence by examining what we can see in the world, namely, the acts-of-being of contingent creatures.

If what I just said seems difficult, you can only wish it were that easy. And Gilson knows it: “As a concept, being is both the most universal and the most abstract of all.” Then he throws up his metaphysical mittens: “Perhaps a special gift is necessary here, one that approaches religious grace rather than the natural light of a metaphysician.”

Deep thoughts, seekers! We seem to have arrived in a location similar to Anselm, Mulla Sadra and Augustine, dancing on the edge of a screaming cavern of existence, holding in our minds and losing just as quickly an intuition that God is to be found somewhere here, now, in the essence of the esse.

Aquinas vs. Wired Magazine

Too late, it seems, we find out that blogging is dead. How’s that for an opener? Let it never we said we here at The God Project Dot Net are demur.

Two years ago, Wired magazine ran a story called “Kill Your Blog. It’s So 2004.” Wherein said story made the provocative claim that stand-alone bloggers were all but worthless and should terminate their blogs if not, indeed, themselves.

“Thinking about launching your own blog?” asks Wired, like a boxer doing a subtle bob-and-weave right to load up her thundering cross. “Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t.” Whew – we already launched, so maybe we can grandfather in. But wait! “And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.”

Well. We don’t know what to say. We can only ask: WHY? In what I suppose can be called a clever end-cap, the writer (Paul Boutin, a blogger) summarized his terse piece even more tersely:

“@WiredReader: Kill yr blog. 2004 over. Google won’t find you. Too much cruft from HuffPo, NYT. Commenters are tards. C u on Facebook?”

Which brings us to Aquinas – he’s back, in honor of Sunday! Were he the author of The God Project Dot Net, rather than its guiding spirit, he might treat Boutin’s question as follows:

Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theo-Blogica”

Article. Whether this blog should be continued?

Obj. 1. It would seem this blog should be shut down. For Boutin says (W. 10.20.08), “It’s almost impossible to get noticed.”

Obj. 2. Further, this blog is a waste of energy. “The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.” (Bout. op. cit.)

Obj. 3. Further, blogs tend to attract the lowest form of creation, aka, “The insult commenter.”

On the contrary, blogs per se are not a waste of space. Blogs serve a purpose manifestly different from other channels. And only a blogger of weak virtue does it to become well-known.

I answer that, as stated above, the nature of a blog is twofold. First, the blog quite obviously should not be a vehicle for fame on the scale of popular culture. The blogger who seeks riches, adulation, booty calls and an invitation to New Year’s Eve at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Greenwich Village rowhouse is in need of psychiatric medication, stat. Second, the best blogs serve a niche of intelligent readers who are engaged around a particular subject and welcome more than 140 shorthand characters of depth.

Reply to Obj. 1. Good blogs exist for reasons other than blogger fame, such as the exploration of a theme, sharing of ideas, participation in the ageless flow of intriguing thought. Therefore, this blog does not need to be shut down.

Reply to Obj. 2. Videos are videos. Pix are pix. Tweets are, sadly, tweets. To claim they serve the same purpose as “witty blog prose” is to make a category mistake.

Reply to Obj. 3. This objection contradicts itself: It claims nobody notices blogs, and then complains that people notice them in the wrong way. Filters exist to eliminate pathological comments. And some haters may have a point.

Conclusion: The God Project Dot Net will not shut down. You’re welcome.

Designing Women

Divine Archer

Aquinas’ Fifth Way to prove the existence of the supreme you-know-who is both the most alive and the most dead today. And once again, he’s a fiendishly slippery philosopher to try to squeeze into a cat box. Just when you think he’s finally in custody, he smiles at you and disappears.

Way #5: Aristotle observed that things in nature often seem to have some end or direction built into them. Flowers bud and bloom; clouds glower and then rain; birds migrate and come back. All this goal-seeking behavior is accomplished by actors who are obviously too dumb to think it up themselves. They must have had help. Hence: You-know-who exists.

Aquinas paraphrases: “It is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end.” Thus the most common name for this Way: the Argument from Design. (It’s also known as the “teleological argument,” from the Greek telos for goal.) The only example he gives is an arrow shot by an archer, which certainly has a goal but could not have got anywhere near it without Geena Davis and her olympic-caliber apparatus.

Five hundred years later, the English philosopher William Paley was so impressed by Newton’s discovery of the laws of mechanics, he came up with the best-known Argument from Design image of all: God as a watchmaker. Writing in his Natural Theology in 1802, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, he imagines walking along a beach and finding a watch.

He inspects the watch (at great length, actually – the art of elegant summary had been lost since the time of Aquinas), and concludes:

“… the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker – that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer.”

I said “most dead” because we know more about just how much information is packed into organisms than Aquinas and Paley did. They did not know that behaviors can evolve through natural selection and be inherited through genes. Lots of dumb things together, following simple rules, can look sharp.

But as you know, Intelligent Design is still very much alive, and in much the same form as Aquinas and Paley stated it. Its acolytes devote mucho time, effort and dinero to finding “gaps” in the scientific picture, forming impressively-named organizations such as the Center for Science & Culture, blaring headlines such as “BIO-Complexity Paper Shows Many Multi-Mutation Features Unlikely to Evolve in History of the Earth.”

I’m almost afraid to get into this. The God Project Dot Net has been called many things, but never late for dinner. And never yella.

Which Way Is Up?

Welcome to Sunday, the day after the day we are supposed to “keep holy” according to the Third Commandment – and a good day, still, to pause and reflect. What do we think of Aquinas’ first four Ways to prove the existence of you-know-who?

They’re not what I expected. My memory of Aquinas led me to believe he’d be easy to ridicule, and I was wrong. As a body of work, Aquinas’ various “Summas” and “Replies” and opinion pieces are towering, meticulous and clever. He’s also quite easy to read – he had no interest in showing off, just communicating. He dictated to four scribes at once, reciting quotations from memory. On his deathbed he said he was most grateful for the fact that he immediately understood everything he read. In short: a genius.

But did he prove God exists? He presented the best arguments there are that don’t rely on revelation, scripture or subjective experience, that are solely derivable by reason from first premises and observation. Ways #1-3 notice things that happen through time in our world – change, causation and creation – and ask the perfectly reasonable question: What got them started?

Pre-moderns didn’t waste much time “proving” God exists because they had no alternative explanation beyond chaos. We moderns feel that we do. Ask somebody walking down Hennepin Avenue or the Nicolette Mall “How did the universe start?” and, if they’re a good Scandinavian graduate of “The U,” they’ll say, “The Big Bang.”

The God Project Street Team: “What happened before the Big Bang?”

BLOND PERSON: “Whassup?”

TGPST: “Exactly! What happened before that?”

BP: “I don’t know. But I’m sure some physicist at The U knows.”

TGPST: “What if they don’t?”

BP: “Try MIT – the Minnesota Institute of Technology.”

TGPST: “And what if they don’t know?”

BP: (fake smile) “Excuse me, I have to get to my ice fishing class. Have a great day now!”

My point here is not that Minnesotans have a self-satisfied way of referring to their pointedly average state school as “The U,” as though there aren’t any others, but that we make as many assumptions as pre-moderns did, just in a different direction. We assume science has it covered. Pre-moderns assumed God did. We both have faith in something we do not quite understand.

I still don’t know what got change, causation and creation started. I have to admit my ignorance and put my faith in something I can call “God” or I can call “Physicists at the U” (aka “Science”).

The most common logical objection to Aquinas’ Ways #1-4 is that he assumes no series can go on to infinity; there must be something first. Logicians say he doesn’t prove this, just asserts it. Well, okay, but it’s not a very satisfying objection. How can you explain infinity? We simply open up another thing – as Aquinas does in Ways #1-4 – that is beyond human understanding.

A better objection is that it’s a very long highway from this mysterious changer, causer and creator to the Hebrew Bible and the Calvary Pentecostal Ministry. Very true. All Aquinas succeeds in doing – and I think he does succeed – is draw our attention to an obvious fact: There is much about this Universe of ours, and about our own hearts, that’s like a Q&A without the A.

What do you think?

Counting the Ways

As we were saying about Aquinas’ Five Ways to prove the existence of God, before we were so rudely interrupted by the necessity of work, upon which our glamorous Nanook-like Minnesota existence is contingent. And speaking of necessary and contingent existence:

The God Project Dot Net HQ

Way #3: Everything we see is born, falls apart and dies. Even The God Project Dot Net will someday — once we have answered the Ultimate Question — stop. The most ardent cosmologist will tell you the Earth itself will grind to a halt, pick up its toolbox, and go. Turning probability theorist for a moment, Aquinas says: “If everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence.” With nothing, nothing happens.

I couldn’t help but notice Karen Armstrong’s recent “The Case for God” covers all our topics here at TGPDN with greater confidence. (It’s a very good book. Once you’re done here, you have our permission to pounce.) She says, with her usual combo of insight and elegance: “All the five ‘ways’ argue in one way or another that nothing can come from nothing.” (p144)

There are two parts to the Third Way, the first of which is this weird little probability equation which seems to say that, given an infinite amount of time, and a universe in which all things that exist sometimes don’t, you will have a moment when there is nothing. From which no-thing can come. Calling God.

Imagine a cosmic slot machine eventually rocking all zeroes. Even Armstrong ignores this part. It’s odd. The second part, from Avicenna (aka Ibn Sena), builds on the difference between “necessary” and “contingent” beings. All of us are “contingent” – we required another being (or two) to exist. But in our zero-slot universe, there must be some “necessary” being that does not require another being to exist. And even if this “necessary” being is caused by another “necessary” being, says Aquinas, “it is impossible to go on to infinity ….” There must be something whose being comes from itself, aka, God.

Way #4: Take these adjectives – good, true, noble, hot. No, it’s not a description of Angelina Jolie. These are the qualities Aquinas uses as examples of “things” that come in shades. They are more or less present as they are more or less close to the “maximum.” The sliding scale itself implies a maximum, as we call something “hotter” as it gets closer to perfect hotness. This perfect hotness everyone agrees is named Salma Hayek, I mean, God.

Way #5: Is the coolest, hottest Way of all – and the favorite of contemporary Evangelicals. It’s the so-called Argument from Design. Caliente filosofia, amigos!