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Book Review: Faith, Reason and the Existence of God

Vatican I decreed it to be a matter of faith that “God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason.” Denys Turner, in this very rich treatment of the issue of proving the existence of God takes this assertion of Vatican I as the starting-point of his deliberations. He clarifies the parameters of what Vatican I states: it neither maintains that any successful proof for the existence of God on the basis of natural reason has to date been proffered nor that any such proof will be elaborated in the future. The point rather is that such a proof from natural reason is in principle possible – and that possibility is to be accepted as a matter of faith.

This proposition does not meet with overwhelming approval in contemporary theological circles – Catholic circles included. Barthians naturally object but adherents of the nouvelle théologie also reject a more traditional reading of the proofs, in particular those of St. Thomas Aquinas. On their interpretation the existence of God is ascertainable by reason but “only within and as presupposing the context of faith” (p. 14). Turner meets these interpretations head on and develops a highly compelling argument in support of Vatican I’s position.

On the way Turner engages with a myriad of important theologians and philosophers ranging from Dionysius the Areopagite to Jacques Derrida and passing through Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. Throughout his critiques are those of one clearly steeped in the thought of St. Thomas. Turner describes the relationship between Vatican I and Thomas as follows: “Thomas is doing as theologian what the first Vatican Council was doing as magisterium” (p. 47).

Scotus’s univocal metaphysics is often criticized by those who are critical of ‘ontotheology’, an error that consists in collapsing the reality both of the Divine Being and of finite beings into a common logic. Radical Orthodoxy theologians are among those who have led the charge. Turner’s treatment of Scotus is more benign, offering less negative critical appraisal of the Subtle Doctor’s theory of the univocity. His interpretation is supported by solid textual evidence.

Notwithstanding this academic graciousness, Turner argues robustly in favour of Thomas’s analogical understanding of being and shows forth the logical validity of arguing from premises to a conclusion “related to them across the ‘gap’ between creatures and God” (p. 208). Turner’s understanding of Thomas on analogy proves however to be excessively apophatic, grounded as it is in what Thomas Joseph White, O.P., describes as “The decision to make the created dependency of esse virtually the unique determinate for the consideration of divine names” (Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology [Florida: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2009], 264).

The reader of Turner’s supremely fine study would be well-served by studying White’s analysis of Thomas on analogy, an analysis that appeals to “the progressive via inventionis of causal analysis in creatures” (ibid.). In support of this approach is Thomas’s appeal to Dionysius the Areopagite’s threefold via in On the Divine Names: the via causalitatis, the via negationis or remotionis, and the via eminentiae.

In spite of this criticism Turner’s study is a crucially important contribution to discourse concerning the relationship between faith and reason and dismantles the stance of those who deny the capacity of natural reason unaided by grace to demonstrate the existence of God.

Ministers of Mystery

cloud-question-mark-originalThe Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC No. 234) holds the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity to be the central mystery of Christian faith and life. “It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of faith.” Two points of interest, among many in this understanding of the most Holy Trinity, may be considered.

The first point refers to the importance of the concept of mystery. Any religious thought that does not treat God as being above and beyond what is knowable by the light of natural reason, probably does not have much to offer by way of relevance to a lived human reality that is steeped in mystery. This is an extension of the modern tendency of putting everything, including God, in safe, manageable categories. However, it does a dis-service to the oft-times unsafe and unmanageable certainty of realities like life and death, hope and despair. Great system builders like St. Thomas Aquinas were great system builders precisely because they saw their system in the mystery of God and not in spite of it. By constantly pushing the best of our rational human understanding of the world to its limit, we Christians become Ministers of Mystery. Not that God as Trinity could be known in any way other than God’s own revelation to us of course but we become Ministers of Mystery by encouraging our non-believing contemporaries to provide solid grounds for their claims. The inevitable inability to do so within the limited framework of thought underpinning the rationalist ideology, introduces possibilities for a broader discussion into the nature of being.

The second point refers to the pre-eminence of this mystery among the mysteries of faith. It is no coincidence that we believers usually begin our prayers by marking an invisible trace of the cross on our bodies, invoking the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is one of the most simple prayers and yet it so rich. The section of the Catechism mentioned above speaks of this mystery as the source; the most fundamental assertion of faith. However, not only is it the source but it is also the end to which the whole divine economy is ordered (CCC No. 260). Jesus’ prayer to His Father “that they may also be in us” (John 17:21), is our invitation to participate eternally in God’s own life. Thus, we usually end our prayer as we begun; by invoking the Most Holy Trinity.

God’s love for the world is described in today’s Gospel (John 3:16). That God continues to reach out to us is amazing to think about really, given the way the world treats God. The feast of the Most Holy Trinity, that community of pure love, should serve as a reminder to us that we are being caught up in the greatest love story ever told.

Gospel Reflection for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity Year A (John 3:16-18)

 

 

Resurrect Your Faith

amboAt the heart  of today’s Gospel, is the call to be unwavering in our faith. Lazarus was dead and was brought back to life, but he never would have been raised back to life had Mary and Martha not had some amount of faith. They could not have known that Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead, but they knew that he was the Lord, the Son of God, and that he could heal people. When Lazarus is raised to new life, the Gospel tells us that “Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what he did believed” (John 11:45).    What is interesting here is the emphasis on “Many” and not “All”. You would think that having seen a dead man raised to life, every single person in that village would have faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Yet, according to the Gospel, while many did come to believe, some must not have, otherwise we would have been told “all came to faith”. Why were there people still unconvinced- and who were these people?

 

These are the people who, while showing a great interest in Jesus as someone spectacular, nevertheless refuse to follow Him. He was not someone they would call “Lord”, and follow with their whole lives. They had no faith in Jesus when he came into the village, and they had no faith in him when He left the village with Lazarus healed. These individuals are the people who, seeing Jesus show up say “He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death”?  These people are so cynical that it does not matter what miracles are wrought, they still remain without faith. Such people existed in Jesus’ own day, and they continue to exist today. They are the people for whom God and the Church can do nothing right. If you tell them of something good that has happened, they complain it is not enough.

 

At some time or another, every Christian who discusses their faith with others will encounter just such people. They are the ones who remain cynical no matter what is said or done. If Jesus were to come and raise their neighbours from the grave, it would not be enough for them. Rather than rejoice at such a miracle- they’d wonder why everyone else has not been raised from their grave and complain about that too!

 

At the heart of this Gospel then, is Jesus entering the village not to raise Lazarus from the dead – that is the easy part. He enters the village to call everyone to Faith in Him. Those in that village whose hearts were open to the Truth, believed that day and their lives were transformed. Those whose hearts were not open but were hardened remained without faith. There are then in this Gospel as in real life, two kinds of people. One group of people looks towards Jesus and everlasting life, while the other group does not. Which of these two groups would you prefer to be in on the Last Day?   

 

St. Joseph – The wordless teacher of discernment.

 

The most profound knowledge we can learn from another person need not be from their own words. In his book “Adam, God’s Beloved”, written by the widely celebrated spiritual master Fr. Henri Nouwen, this is certainly true. Nouwen admits that despite his years of mingling with the best theological minds and spiritual gurus, he was most enlightened by a seriously handicapped young man, Adam Arnett, who never spoke or wrote a word in his life. Adam by worldly standards would doubtfully be considered ‘great’ or  worthy of being recorded in the annals of history: he was never a politician, nor a movie star nor a lawyer nor even an ‘ordinary man.’ Despite this Adam became the spiritual master and guide to Nouwen. Adam’s strength, perseverance, humility, cheerfulness and love in the face of wordless suffering transformed Nouwen’s life to the extent that Nouwen felt compelled to tell the world how he found Christ in the disfigured and speechless Adam. Therefore through Nouwen, Adam, who never spoke or wrote, has touched and changed thousands of lives.

To an extent, isn’t this similar to our experience with the humble ‘wordless’ Joseph of Nazareth? Admittedly Joseph was not handicapped but like Adam he was by no means a ‘somebody’ in society. In the scriptures he is silent but similar to Adam his life and ‘silent’ witness has the ability to affect ours. Therefore, can we not learn from St. Joseph’s silence? While the wordless records of Joseph may give the impression of his insignificance, Joseph like Adam is a preacher and teacher in his own right. Joseph teaches us through what is written of his actions and decisions of faith and prudent discernment. His actions speak louder than any word he could utter, they reveal the essential dispositions of a true servant of Christ.

In the Gospel of the solemnity of St. Joseph Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are given a significant insight into Joseph’s soul, into the kind of man he was. St. Matthew tells us “he was a just man”(Matt 1: 19 RSV). This comment can easily be overlooked in our eagerness to read about Joseph’s great dream, but this would be a mistake. Because understanding Joseph as “just” is the key to unlocking his hidden life and appreciate the remainder of the Gospel passage. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives points us to the description of a just man in Psalm 1 as a portrait of Joseph. The Pope comments that on reading Psalm 1 we come to know Joseph the man. We get the sense of Joseph as one who whose roots are in the living waters of God’s word, whose life is spent in unceasing dialogue with God and who, therefore, is constantly fruitful.

This insight into Joseph as one who is intimately close to God, pondering His ways, helps us penetrate the deeper meaning of the dream event in the Gospel. No longer is the dream solely a dramatic scene enthralling our imaginations, instead, it preaches to us of the virtues of faith and discernment.  For Joseph the dream is a moment of prudential judgement and a response of faith. He distinguishes the dream as reality and not illusion. Once he discerned this, Joseph responds to the extraordinary demands of the moment with great faith in the Lord. This action speaks to our hearts of a man who is inwardly perceptive to the divine, who can acutely discern God’s will and who as a result is sensitive and responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. The many years of meditating on God, in the law day and night (Psalm 1), has made Joseph the person who God can entrust his household to, who as the Collect of the Mass tell us, can oversee the “unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation.”

St. Joseph therefore is a model for us of one who has a ‘tender conscience’; a conscience that is not lax but is openly attuned to hearing God’s voice affording the soul to make the kind of prudent judgements that God delights in. He is a man of deep faith. Like Adam Arnett his ‘silence’ has much to teach us. Like Adam, his life comes to us through the words of others. Though long gone are the ‘greats’ of society who remain as mere fading memories, even forgotten icons, Joseph and Adam live on in the hearts of many. They live because “ whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”(Matt 23:12) Their wordless existence is a witness to their humility.

St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, Pray for us.

Solemnity of St. Joseph Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary – (Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a)

Transfiguring Eucharistic Adoration

Mount Saint Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, County Tipperary. Picture: Sean Curtin.Anybody who has ever attended benediction of the Blessed Sacrament will most likely have heard the last two verses of a beautiful hymn of praise called the Pange Lingua (better known as the ‘Tantum Ergo’) being sung. Composed by St. Thomas Aquinas, one line in particular speaks of the complete inability of our bodily senses to grasp the mystery of the Eucharist. ‘Sensuum defectui’ we sing, readily acknowledging that our eyes fail to see Christ truly present in what looks like bread. Tasting the Eucharist would yield a similar outcome. We could not know what we taste is anything more than bread merely by our sense of taste. However, St. Thomas believes that faith supplements our sensual shortcomings when he writes, ‘Praestet fides supplementum.’ Faith assures us of a reality our bodies cannot perceive.

How different it was for Peter, James and John as they adored Jesus on the mountain. Their bodily faculties were all too sensitive to the reality of whom it was they were in the company of. The Eucharistic sense of our Lord’s transfiguration is unmistakable. The mountain in a way, resembles a monstrance lifting our Lord on high to be worshipped.  The Apostles were so amazed by what they saw. They were so captivated by what they heard from the cloud, they fell trembling on their faces. They felt Jesus’ touch as He told them not to be afraid. Peter even asked if he could build tents (tabernacula in the Latin text) to shelter our Lord but in a mysterious way, it was the Apostles who found shelter in the divine cloud. It is the same for us. When we consume Holy Communion at Mass, we are the ones consumed by God.

It may be a blessing for us that these sorts of tangible privileges are not granted to everybody. God’s presence is so immense that it is quite simply too much for our frail bodies to endure. Indeed after His resurrection from the dead, Jesus calls those people blessed ‘who have not seen and yet believe’ (John 20:29). How though, given our sensual limitations, can we appreciate more deeply Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist?

Faith is the key. Earlier in the Pange Lingua St. Thomas commented that our faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is founded upon Christ’s own words, ‘This is My Body.’ Not everybody can accept this. We don’t claim to understand how Christ’s words change the very fabric of reality but we believe in His power to do it. Our faith is a confidence in Him, not in ourselves. We confess Him who first confesses to us. When we come to the Church for our holy hour we should try to say like Peter, ‘Lord it is wonderful for us to be here.’ Transfiguring our attitude to the Holy Eucharist will transfigure our lives.

The 2nd Sunday of Lent – (Matthew 17:1-9)