A connection between Locke and Aquinas regarding the limits of human perception and understanding

Locke states, “There is not so contemptible a plant or animal that does not confound the most enlarged understanding” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk III, VI, 9).  Later he says, “how, vain… it is to expect demonstration and certainty in things not capable of it, and refuse assent to very rational propositions… because they cannot be made out so evident as to surmount every… pretense of doubting” (Essay Bk IV, XI, 10). Locke then establishes belief as a way to “supply our want of knowledge.” The grounds for believing which Locke gives, especially the second being “the testimony of others…” has implications regarding the intellectual defensibility of the Christian faith.

Aquinas wrote something regarding how the limits of our powers of perception and understanding ought to not result in skepticism of anything that cannot be demonstrated, especially in relation to the Christian faith. In the Prologue of his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/Creed.htm) he answers the question “what is faith?” Aquinas says, “But someone will say that it is foolish to believe what is not seen, and that one should not believe in things that he cannot see. I answer by saying that the imperfect nature of our intellect takes away the basis of this difficulty. For if man of himself could in a perfect manner know all things visible and invisible, it would indeed be foolish to believe what he does not see. But our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.” Given our limited experience and understanding we must often “partake” in the knowledge of a knower. This involves a humble recognition of the limits of our experience and knowledge, and a willingness to be in a relationship of trust with our fellow human beings who have experience and knowledge which we have not. Ultimately, according to Aquinas and Locke, it must direct us to trust in God and his revelation.

Aquinas studies – Can there be a conflict between natural and divine law?

On one level, no there can be no conflict between natural and divine law. However, there may be conflict between the two in how they are embodied on an individual or cultural level. There may also be the appearance of conflict if we don’t properly distinguish the principles from the proper conclusions.

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

Human beings, in having a natural inclination to “the fitting act and end”– which is ultimately “eternal reason” — exhibit in our rational and creaturely existence, a participatory relationship between natural law and divine law (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p. 620). The rational recognition and obedience to natural law is the means by which we participate in the divine law (p. 620). Our rational natures, our desire and ability to contemplate about things beyond the merely material, and to concern ourselves with things not merely limited to material well-being, should provide us with a hint that the “fitting act and end” exceeds our material or natural capacities. For this reason, God gives us divine law. Thomas gives four reasons for God revealing to us his divine law. First, as our ultimate end exceeds our natural capacity in being directed towards “eternal happiness” we need divine direction in order to attain our ultimate end. Second, we are not accurately able to judge on “contingent and particular things” and so we require certitude of judgement which can only come from God. Thirdly, as our “fitting act and end” involves our interior intellectual lives, natural law is not adequate to govern or “restrain interior acts.” Fourth, in order for there to be final clarity and justice in the mixture of practical and particular judgements, all things will ultimately be judged according to divine law (p. 623).

In none of these things is there a conflict between natural and divine law. The one serves as a floor upon which we may, by the light of faith, break through the ceiling of our materiality and apprehend and participate in divine law. And as God is simple/holy and infinitely Good, it is not possible for the principles originating in him and sustained by him to be in conflict. “God through his wisdom is the maker of the universe of things… the notion of divine wisdom moving all things to their fitting end takes on the note of law… the eternal law is nothing other than the idea of divine wisdom insofar as it is directive of all acts and movements” (p. 633).

However, in terms of how human beings exhibit this participatory relationship between natural law and divine law, there is conflict. While human affairs are subject ultimately to eternal law, in both our knowledge and our actions we are in varying degrees “imperfect” and “corrupt” (p. 640). Insofar as our knowledge of eternal law and natural knowledge are obscured by “passions and the habit of sin” a holy/perfect participatory relationship between natural law and divine law is “defective” (p. 640-641). The conflict is in proportion to how “bad” one is. On the other hand, “the good are perfectly subject to the eternal law, as always fulfilling it” (p 641). Also, there may be failure in this regard in terms of “rectitude” (there may be an impediment in nature (e.g., are psychopaths born that way?) and knowledge (if one’s reason has been “depraved” by bad customs, or a “bad cast of nature”). This is to say that there may be a general culture which depraves or malforms us in relation to specific moral principles (p. 649). Finally, a conflict may arise as a consequence of prolonged damage to the human heart. This may be a result of “bad persuasion” regarding speculative matters, depraved customs, or corrupt habits. Such things may result in the natural law being “erased from the hearts of men” (p. 652).

Finally, there may be the appearance of conflict if we don’t distinguish between the common principles and the proper conclusions (i.e., secondary precepts or particular applications). Whereas there is “the same truth or rectitude for all “in reference to “common principles of reason” (e.g., “one cannot simultaneously affirm and deny something” p. 644) this does not mean that everyone knows matters pertaining to “proper conclusions” of speculative reason to the same degree (e.g., the outworking of speculative reason resulting in specific of geometrical definitions not known to all). Neither do the common principles work themselves out in a uniformed way, as the “proper conclusions” of practical reason will vary depending upon the specific circumstances (p. 648). Also, relating to the reality of circumstantial and cultural change, whereas the “common principles of reason” are immutable, the natural law may change by way of addition or subtraction in reference to particular contexts or situations (p. 650). This addition or subtraction will, if proper and good, leave the common principles uncorrupted, but effect the proper conclusions in a generally applicable way for a particular culture. For example, the principle of “everyone should act according to reason” results in the proper conclusion regarding terms of borrowing goods and returning them to the rightful owner. However, there may be culturally or regionally unique circumstances that may make the terms of borrowing (and the rectitude of returning them) different (p. 648). For example, in peacetime, a scythe has simpler associations than during a time of war. It may be right not to return such a tool during wartime if it threatens the safety of the owner or others. If we don’t keep the difference between the common principles and the proper conclusions clear, we may think there is a conflict between natural law and divine law, when in fact there is only a difference in the outworking of natural and divine law in a local or individual context.

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).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

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).
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Boethius’ description of Providence, Fate, and Fortune in Bk IV.

Lady Philosophy asks Boethius to “imagine a set of revolving concentric circles” in her effort to explain how Providence and Fate relate to one another. It is extraordinary how Boethius evokes a visual image to try and explain a deep and perennial mystery. The innermost circle is closest to “the simplicity of the centre” which is equated to the “high citadel of oneness” which is Providence or “Divine Reason.” Providence is also equated to the “Primary Intelligence.” Due to it being equated with Divine Reason, Providence does not itself orbit anything. It does not move. It is essentially the Unmoved Mover. The closer an orbit is to the simplicity of the centre, the more that thing which is the circle is freed from Fate (or “above the chain of Fate”). It seems to me this is essentially “rest”.
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Summary and Outline of St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”

To purchase this classic book please follow this link.

To purchase the handbook containing the summary please follow this link.

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

Frederick Copleston on the limits of human language and metaphysics

“Language is primarily designed to refer to the objects of our sense-experience, and is very often found inadequate for the precise expression of metaphysical truths. Thus we speak, and cannot well help speaking, of “God foreseeing,” a phrase that, as it stands, implies that God is in time, whereas we know that God is not in time but is eternal. We cannot, however, speak adequately of the eternity of God, since we have no experience of eternity ourselves, and our language is not designed to express such matters. We are human beings and have to use human language — we can use no other: and this fact should make us cautious in attaching too much weight to the mere language or phrases used by Plato in dealing with abstruse, metaphysical points.”

Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy: Volume 1. Garden City, NY: Image, 1962. 165. Print.

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.

Continue reading “What is Holiness?”