Aquinas’ view of the possible errors in ‘investigating’ God using natural reason

It is good and right to direct everything in our being towards God and union with him (including our intellects). However, errors are possible.

1) Presumption: in directing our intellect towards God we should not presume that we can comprehend God as we may be able to comprehend other aspects of creation (Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, ed. by Ralph McInerny. Penguin Books: New York, 1998. p. 128).

2) Placing reason before faith in the directing of ourselves to God and to union with him. As God is incomprehensible to our intellects, and yet we are to direct everything towards him, we must “Begin by believing” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 128). Believing is to hold something as real and true on the basis of what a knower tells us, so belief is the way we are able to transcend our intellects by receiving from God his self-revelation. This self-revelation is an outflow of God’s love towards us and thus the extent and form of his self-revelation is suited to our capacity. “Every creature is moved as to be made more and more like God insofar as it can be” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 129). This movement happens through “infused faith” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 131).

3) Exceeding our individual capacity for knowledge of God. We may overextend ourselves in relation to knowledge of God if we do not have the requisite moderate self-assessment and humility (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 128).

Question:  how do we determine individual capacity?

I think about this question in relation to myself. Thomas doesn’t elaborate much, and his quote from Romans indicates that this is an individual judgement linked to humility. I don’t know how many people I’ve met whose view of their own gifts and abilities didn’t match their actual capacities, and they were driven by motives beyond merely learning. I don’t want to be that sort of learner…

Humble and childlike faith has to undergird all learning (natural and supernatural). On the other hand, we don’t have total control over those questions or desires to pursue lines of inquiry which bubble up from inside us. If something intrigues us, we ought to follow it where it leads as best we can, and not envy those with a greater capacity to proceed further than we are able. Vanity is the soul killer in all of this learning, I think. And Christians in academia are especially under threat in this regard.

There is a great quote from Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ (which I have stored somewhere on this blog). When I first read this a year and a half ago I thought of social media, but it ties in here also I think, in terms of our motives for learning.

Chapter II – Of thinking humbly of oneself

“There is naturally in every man a desire to know, but what profiteth knowledge without the fear of God? Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself. He who knoweth himself well is vile in his own sight; neither regardeth he the praises of men. If I knew all the things that are in the world, and were not in charity, what should it help me before God, who is to judge me according to my deeds?

2. Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. Those who have knowledge desire to appear learned, and to be called wise. Many things there are to know which profiteth little or nothing to the soul. And foolish out of measure is he who attendeth upon other things rather than those which serve to his soul’s health. Many words satisfy not the soul, but a good life refresheth the mind, and a pure conscience giveth great confidence towards God.

3. The greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely shalt thou be judged, unless thou hast lived holily. Therefore be not lifted up by any skill or knowledge that thou hast; but rather fear concerning the knowledge which is given to thee. If it seemeth to thee that thou knowest many things, and understandest them well, know also that there are many more things which thou knowest not. Be not high-minded, but rather confess thine ignorance. Why desirest thou to lift thyself above another, when there are found many more learned and more skilled in the Scripture than thou? If thou wilt know and learn anything with profit, love to be thyself unknown and to be counted for nothing. [alternative trans: “If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed”].”

Ironic that Thomas a Kempis’ work is now super famous and translated into who knows how many languages…

4) By fragmenting what we come to know through faith and what we come to know through philosophy. As Truth is ultimately simple, we will be in error if we think that the truth regarding God and Divine things contradict (or are contradicted by) what we come to know regarding the natural and created world.

Fragmentation may result in two further errors: a) we may use our reason or philosophy in a way contrary to the Faith (which is using our reason improperly); or, b) we may measure and accept our knowledge gained by faith by the methods of Philosophy, thus reducing faith to philosophy (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 136). The reduction of faith to philosophy is a slightly different error than placing reason before faith.

5) By confusing our intellectual abstractions with positive statements regarding who God is. We err if we think our abstractions are “akin to immaterial substance.” Our logical affirmative statements in reference to created material and even immaterial things may not be applied to God. Whereas we may define aspects of immaterial creation (e.g., Angels) on the basis of what we abstract and learn from other aspects of creation, God infinitely exceeds any such definition. Natural reason must always be applied to God first of all in negative terms. “God has no connection with material things as regards either natural genus or logical genus” (ST I, q. 88, art. 2).

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