Aquinas studies: if we cannot know the essence of God, how can there be a science of divine things?

The notion that there can be a science of divine things does not negate Thomas’ statements regarding how we are unable to know the essence of God. A science of divine things is possible so long as we are clear regarding what we actually can and cannot know, and how the science of divine things proceeds.

First of all, only God can know his own essence. In fact, he knows himself “through his essence” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998. p. 116). In other words, only God can truly know himself, as it is his essence to do so. The science of divine things must proceed from this basic understanding, namely, we cannot essentially know God. This does not mean, however, that we cannot in any way come to know God (as we will see).

Secondly, in terms of human reason, according to Thomas we can approach knowledge of God referring to the fact of his existence (and not of what he is). This can be done in three ways: 1) observing his effects in creation; 2) understanding his causality of “more noble effects” which grants a “better display of his eminence”, and; 3) in a negative sense we understand more clearly how he transcends all things and defies definition (Thomas quotes Dionysius, “he is known as the cause, the excess and negation of all things” – (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 117).
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Thomas à Kempis – “desire to be unknown”

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”].

[Contra ‘social media’, contra various (I suspect) vain and (without question) brand-building church personalities – making much of exploits in order to sell books and speak at conferences etc. Cf the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 – he easily boasts and catalogues various disasters and hardships, but only reluctantly shares the vision and leaves uncatalogued entirely the various “signs of a true Apostle”].

4. That is the highest and most profitable lesson, when a man truly knoweth and judgeth lowly of himself. To account nothing of one’s self, and to think always kindly and highly of others, this is great and perfect wisdom. Even shouldest thou see thy neighbor sin openly and grievously, yet thou oughtest not to reckon thyself better than he, for thou knowest not how long thou shalt keep thine integrity. All of us are weak and frail; hold thou no man more frail than thyself.

H/T The Literature Project http://literatureproject.com/imitation-christ/immitation-christ_chapter_ii_-_of.htm

Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Efficacy of Prayer (particularly monastic prayer)

“After the first postulate of belief, without which the life of a monk would be farcical and intolerable, the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer; and it is only by attempting to grasp the importance of this principle–a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought–to the monks who practice it, that one can hope to understand the basis of monasticism. This is especially true of the contemplative orders, like the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, Cistercians, Camaldulese, and Sylvestrines; for the others–like the Franciscans, Dominicans or the Jesuits–are brotherhoods organized for action. They travel, teach, preach, convert, organise, plan, heal and nurse; and the material results they achieve make them, if not automatically admirable, at least comprehensible to the Time-Spirit. They get results; they deliver the goods. But what (the Time-Spirit asks) what good do the rest do, immured in monasteries far from all contact with the world? The answer is–if the truth of the Christian religion and the efficacy of prayer are both dismissed as baseless–no more than any other human beings who lead a good life, make (for they support themselves) no economic demands on the community, harm no one and respect their neighbours. But, should the two principles be admitted–particularly, for the purposes of this particular theme, the latter–their power for good is incalculable.”

Fermor, Patrick Leigh. A Time to Keep Silence. New York: New York Review Books, 2007. p 26-27

Summary and Outline of St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”

Summary of St. Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’

“His treatise on the Incarnation of the Word of God, though written quite early in his life, and before the rise of Arianism, is the best example of his theology, and is of special interest in modern times from its breadth of view and thoroughly philosophical standpoint. It is well worthy of his Alexandrian training and traditions. The Incarnation, he teaches, culminating in the death on the Cross, was not primarily a propitiation or the averting of a penalty. What is known as the “forensic” theory Athanasius avoided. It was rather a restoration from death to life. Human nature through sin was in corruption, and must be healed, restored, recreated. A true theory of Creation is given, in opposition to the views of the Epicureans, the Platonists and the Gnostics. Men were created above all the rest, in God’s image, with even a portion of His own Word, so that having a sort of reflexion of the Word, and being in fact made rational (λογιχοι), they might be able to abide ever in blessedness (c. 3). But if they did not obey His laws, they were to fall into and remain in death and corruption—a negative state; for what is good is, what is evil is not; evil is the negation of good, death of life, etc. Man turning to the evil partook of negative things, evil, corruption, death, and remained in them: he lost the image, and lost the life in correspondence with God (c.5). The handiwork of God was in process of dissolution (6). God could not justly prevent this, seeing that He made the law, nor could He leave man to the current of corruption, and watch His work being spoilt. Even repentance by itself was useless (7), for it did not alter the nature, or stay the corruption. Only He could restore or Continue reading

What is Holiness?

“You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” Leviticus 20.26

 [I genuinely wish that great minds from the past were alive now to consider these things. I believe the Church needs an Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Augustine or even a CS Lewis or Chesterton, to think and write about all of this… In the meantime, I want to try and get my mind around some things, so far as I am able, for my own benefit, and for those to whom and with whom I minister…]

Holiness is a vast and well-explored topic, yet often it seems to be misunderstood. What ought to be a glorious and beautiful reality is often mired in preconceived notions of mere religious observance and legalism. To be holy is often confused with ‘living in accordance with Christian values’, or merely ‘doing good things’. A basic definition of holiness is needed for the purpose of this site. It will also put into clearer focus as to why I’m bothering to consider holiness in relation to New Media.

Holiness, simply understood, is the setting aside or devoting of things and actions for some purpose (whether that purpose is oriented towards some deity, or is of local cultural or community importance). For the human being this has involved many forms of worship in all sorts of different religions, and non-theistic worldviews, down through the millennia.[i]

For the Christian, however, holiness is understood primarily in terms of ‘being’. Ontology is the technical word for it, and it is something that Christian theology, philosophy, and any proper understanding of holiness needs to regard as a starting point.

We are commanded to ‘be holy’ because God ‘isholy’. There is a Greek philosopher named Christos Yannaras who has written much about this from an eastern Christian perspective. If we think ‘holiness’ is about conduct that favourably measures up to certain ideals established within a particular religion, this may actually be an evasion of the truth of who we are and how we are to be in the world.[ii] First of all, we need to consider who God is, and then what sort of being we are, as created in his image. Once we have some idea regarding the first two considerations we can think about conduct. However, the initial considerations open up upon vistas of their own. In asking what sort of being a human is, we must ask why we exist at all? What sort of dignity was bestowed upon us in the first place? Is this dignity a gift unrevoked? Is the dignity an ultimate expectation? How did we bring ruin upon ourselves? How does that ruin affect us individually and as a species? What did the Lord do for us in order to restore to us our dignity? These questions about our own being lead us inevitably to questions about ultimate reality, and the source of being. From whom is this gift and mystery of being derived? How does creation relate to God? Who is this God to whom the whole of creation is oriented, ourselves included? What is the final purpose of humanity and creation? An understanding of what holiness is must include these questions.

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Evelyn Underhill on the Creed

“”Lord,” said St. Thomas Aquinas, “set my life in order; making me to know what I ought to do and do it in the way that I should.” The civilized world seems now to have reached the point at which only this prayer can save it; and the answer is already given us in the Christian creed. We talk much of reconstruction; but no one has yet dared to take the Christian’s profound beliefs about Reality as the basis of a reconditioned world. We treat them as dwellers in the plain treat the mountains. We lift up our eyes to their solemn beauty with respect; but refuse to acknowledge that plain and mountain are part of the same world. Yet the Creed is no mere academic document, no mere list of “dogmas.” It is an account of that which is; and every word it contains has a meaning at once universal, practical, and spiritual within the particular experience of each soul. It irradiates and harmonizes every level of our life, not one alone. All great spiritual literature does this to some extent; but the Creed, the condensed hand-list of those deep truths from which spiritual literature is built up, does it supremely. Continue reading

The Believer and the Knower

“To believe means: to participate in the knowledge of a knower.  If, therefore, there is no one who sees and knows, then, properly speaking, there can be no one who believes.  A fact everyone knows because it is obvious can no more be the subject of belief than a fact no one knows–and whose existence, therefore, no one can vouch for.  Belief cannot establish its own legitimacy; it can only derive legitimacy from someone who knows the subject matter of his own accord.  By virtue of contact with this someone, belief is transmitted to the believer” (Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, p. 42).