Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Remember: Don't DO Anything! Nothing!

I'm sure Peter Kreeft would agree that God would make an excellent surfer if He ever wanted to be, the reasons for which are summarized well in this clip. Why? Because God does everything He does without trying, absolutely effortlessly. Even according to His human nature, the Lord Jesus Christ lacks deliberation between alternatives; He simply does what is right in perfect harmony with the divine will. His personal exercise even of His human faculties is marked this effortless lack of trying. That's not to say that He doesn't suffer; the Agony in the Garden is evidence of that. But there's no hesitation. Even when He shrinks in His human will from the suffering, His personal resolution is immediate and "natural," in the sense that He just does it. For those who were perceive the Agony in the Garden as some sort of internal struggle, Scott Carson's summary of the account in the Gospel of John is helpful:

He is not afraid of dying there, indeed in the High Priestly Prayer he makes it very clear that he knows exactly what is going to happen, he knows that it is for the best, and he knows that it is the will of the Father, and he is perfectly jiggy with going through with the whole thing. There is no trace of the sweating of blood in chapter 18 of that Gospel, and if there were, it would ring very hollow, following so closely upon the triumphalism of the High Priestly Prayer.

So why have I knocked the rust off my old blog to raise this issue? Is it just to admit that I am not so far along my path to sanctity and purity because Forgetting Sarah Marshall cracks me up? (Seriously, there are some scenes in that movie that no one should see ... ever. If you're going to watch it, at least have a fast-forward handy.) Although that makes a pretty good contrast from the mode of willing I'm describing, the answer is "no." The point is to emphasize that the entire way of looking at God as *doing* anything as God can't be taken all that literally, and the Western theological account simply points out that God doesn't need to do anything in order to make things happen. That's counterintuitive, so the point is best made by contrast, so I'm going to use something that seems to me to be a well-written summary by Jay Dyer as a foil.

What's particularly interesting about this summary is the following definition of terms:

(1) Persons- or Hypostases (also subjects). answering the question “Who is doing it?”
(2) Energies answering the question What is it that that They are doing?”
(3) Essence or Nature or ousia, answering the question what are the they, that are doing these things.
(4) Nestorius said there were two personal subjects in Jesus incarnate – the Son of God joined to a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. This was condemned at Ephesus and in St. Cyril.
(5) Absolute divine simplicity (ADS or DDS) is the normative western (Catholic & Protestant) view that all relations and attributes and actions in God are irreducibly and isomorphically identified with His simple nature or essence. God is actus purus – pure act, with no potentiality. To will is to be in God, and the Persons are also identified with the simple essence. God supposedly is what He has and does. Simplicity in this sense means no distinctions and no composition – irreducibly one.
(6) Analogia entis – the standard Latin and mediveal west’s way of reasoning from creatures to the divine essence/substance. This characterizes cataphatic, or positive statements about the divine nature as is found in western theology.
(7) Enhypostatized – the mode of a thing, in this case the mode of persons. Thus we say nature is enhypostatized, or exists only in the mode of particular persons or subjects. There is, then, no human nature that is not actually instantiated in some individual human person.

I mentioned this was a well-written summary, but it is a summary of solely the Eastern view, and the dispute will be over parts (5)-(6), which inaccurately follow from treating the West as if it affirms (1)-(3). The West does not, because as I said, God doesn't DO anything, except by analogy.

The confusion comes over the notion of actus purus in the context of Western theology. There isn't a tendency to interpret this term as "fully acting," which applies an essentially anthropomorphic view of God. There's nothing wrong with that as an image, any more than there is anything wrong with the various anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament, where God is described as changing His mind and the like. And it can be a useful image for answering certain metaphysical problems. But where it becomes dicey is how literally it is applied in the metaphysical context, and that's where the criticism of the West goes off the rails, because actus purus doesn't mean "fulfilling every potentiality" or even "fully acting" except in a very limited and qualified sense of acting.

What actus purus means is "purely actual" in the sense of "actually perfect." (5) states that God lacks any potentiality, but what actus purus means is that God lacks any potency, and not just any kind of potency, but passive potency. What "passive potency" means is "an ability to be perfected by the act of another." But God has plenty of active potency, which is the capacity to be act in relation to other things. In fact, God's active potency is literally unlimited; at any point in time relative to any other existing thing, He always could have done otherwise. Of course, the concept "could have done otherwise" is a bit murky in this context, for reasons that I hope to make clear later.

Now we arrive at the following question: what is meant by "perfect" in this context? For that we have to delve into some metaphysics, and while it may not be entirely apparent, there are at least two distinct concepts here: one referring to good and the other to nature. The former refers to the absolute ranking of existence and the latter to the ranking of the thing relative to that thing's end. But what might not be immediately apparent is that the former concept is esse, the act of being itself, and the latter, essentia, the nature. Now remember what we said earlier about potency and particularly passive potency which is the real capacity to be perfected by the act of something else. All finite beings are by nature composites of act and potency, because they can all be perfected by something else.

And what does it mean "by nature?" It means that they are perfectible by the natural operations of the thing. That is what it means for something to be perfected according to its nature. Yet there must surely be some relationship between perfection by nature and perfection in the sense of the good, i.e., in the sense of absolute existence. There is, and that is the important metaphysical concept that St. Thomas introduces.

St. Thomas first takes Aristotle's notion that things innately have a telos, the end of their perfection, by virtue of their nature. Things' operations tend toward that perfection; this is referred to as final causality. But Aristotle simply takes this for granted, while St. Thomas thinks it needs an explanation. And here I'll defer to Edward Feser, whose words below I believe to have spliced so as to accurately preserve his intetion:

The Platonic teleologist, like the teleological intentionalist, affirms teleology but regards it as imposed by a divine intelligence from outside (e.g. by the demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus). The Aristotelian teleologist also affirms teleology but regards it as immanent to the natural order rather than imposed from outside.
Unlike Aristotle, who leaves it at that, Aquinas thinks that the existence of final causes nevertheless requires an explanation, for the reasons sketched in my previous post on teleology; and he also thinks that this explanation must lie – not might lie, not probably lies, but necessarily lies – in the existence of a divine intellect which conserves the order of final causes in being from instant to instant.
the situation here might usefully be compared to the debate over the problem of universals. Nominalism and conceptualism are essentially anti-realist positions, regarding universals as artifacts of language or the workmanship of the human understanding rather than having any objective basis. Platonic realism takes universals to exist entirely independently of either the natural world or of any mind. Aristotelian realism takes universals to exist only in the particular things that instantiate them and in intellects which abstract them from these particulars. Scholastic realism – the position of Augustine and Aquinas – takes what is in effect a middle ground position between Platonic and Aristotelian realism. Like the Aristotelian realist, the Scholastic realist affirms that universals can exist only in either their concrete instantiations or in an intellect. But like Plato, he also affirms that they nevertheless have a kind of existence beyond those instantiations and beyond finite, human intellects. For universals pre-exist both the material world and all finite intellects qua ideas in the infinite, divine intellect, as the patterns according to which God creates the world.

If there were ever a point that something can be screwed up, this is it. This is where many extremely smart Thomist commentators lose it (to say nothing of Augustinian commentators on exemplar causation), and that includes some extremely smart people. W. Norris Clarke. Eleonore Stump. Norman Kretzmann. Actual heavy hitters. So stay with me for a minute, because if you get off the rails here, you'll lose the whole point of the distinction.

Remember what I said about the relationship between good, esse, and perfection? St. Thomas, per the doctrine of divine simplicity, says that God's esse and essentia are the same thing. But if you aren't very, very careful here, you might tend to read the idea of essentia up into God, which would lead to the erroneous conclusion that, just as creatures convert potency into act through operations to achieve perfection, so God is simply a fully actualized essence in the same sense, i.e., a fully operational essence. That is, more or less, the position taken above with respect to saying that God is pure act "with no potentiality," that "He is what He has and does." But this is the opposite of what St. Thomas means.

To understand the problem, it is necessary to take account of the distinction between the senses of "perfect" that I mentioned above. What St. Thomas means in saying that God is actus purus is that He is not perfectible at all in the sense of goodness but is already perfect. Likewise, what St. Thomas means by divine simplicity is exactly that He needs no other parts for perfection, which completely excludes the interpretation of divine simplicity as a fully operational essence, because the operation of essences to God is a reflection of being perfectible, viz., of being composites of act and passive potency. Thus, any sense of God as a fully operational essence directly contradicts what St. Thomas means by divine simplicity. That is what I mean when I say that God doesn't DO anything; He doesn't operate some power of the nature to produce effects.

St. Thomas's meaning here is made clear by his explanation of creation by the doctrine of bonum diffusivum sui, the self-diffusion of the good. I cannot add to the excellent explanation given by Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn on that subject, so I won't even try. I will simply cite his conclusion: God creates natures by final causality. And because this amounts to God willing Himself as end according to particular means, what this means is that God not only has the power to do literally anything that is logically possible (since there are infinitely many ways that possible things could tend toward God) but also has absolute freedom and liberality in the choice of means, since if there are many means to an end, all of them are free possibilities to one who wills the end. How he does this is naturally completely opaque. And by "naturally," I mean the term quite literally; as created beings, our entire natural power extends to doing, so we have literally no idea what it would be like to produce effects without any doing or working.

The closest mundane approximation I can envisage is the black hole; we see it by other things tending to it, but it cannot be observed directly. We see God through the operation of things, and that provides us with a "natural theology" in the literal sense, but all we can really see are the limits of what our intellect can tell us. In other words, we know Him as only the really existing good, the telos toward which all things operate, but we know nothing of His essence. We know that He is in that sense, but not what He is. That is all the analogia entis says: we know God exists, and we know His manner of existence by contradistinction from our limits.

That should suffice to dispense with (5)-(6), but there remains a bit of an explanatory problem. It is apparent from (7) that the Eastern view is clearly NOT the Platonic view described by Prof. Feser above; the Eastern Fathers clearly deny the Platonic belief that natures exist independently of existence. But as I said earlier, it is equally clear from (1)-(3) that it can't possible be the view described as Scholastic either. So just what's going on here?

The answer to that question is that the Eastern view corresponds to yet another middle position that I would call Dionysian realism, after the pseudonymous author identified with the disciple of St. Paul, although Andrew Louth noted in Denys the Areopagite at p. 89 that this is "nothing more than the concepts of the Cappadocians couched in unfamiliar language." This position can be identified in contrast to the Plotinian realism, in that Plotinus would have the One, the nous, and the world-soul all having a kind of necessary existence by virtue of the necessary existence of the ideas themselves. Pseudo-Dionysius rejects that move by placing the operational existence of the divine ideas themselves under the good, while placing the existence of God above every essence or even any concept of the essence. Thus, the energies are placed under the good will of God, while the essence of God is placed above all being, hyperousious ousios. Again, I don't want to reinvent the wheel, so I will simply refer to an article to Bogdan Bucur that nicely summarizes the Dionysian scholarship. But note one crucial failure at p. 13: Prof. Bucur relies on Harry C. Marsh's equivalence of Aquinas's view with the Proclan unparticipated, participcated, and participating triad, and it is clear from Fr. Blankenhorn's work that St. Thomas's view of participation is the Aristotelian notion of final causality.

The ultimate result of the differences here is that St. Thomas and Dionysius have a drastically different metaphysical notion of what good is. Because of that difference, while both refer to the good in terms of God's free distribution to creatures, their metaphysical explanations are entirely disparate. Likewise, the function of the divine ideas could not be more different. For St. Thomas, they are exemplar causes in the manner of final causality; for Dionysius, they are something like formal causes. But another point cannot be understated: neither one of the explanations is remotely Plotinian. Both explanations deny a core tenet of the Platonic metaphysics regarding the necessary, independent existence of the divine ideas.

And in the end, once this difference is perceived, the evidence for the conclusion seems so obvious that one wonders how it could have been missed. It surely cannot be a coincidence that at the very beginning of the Summa, St. Thomas takes issue with St. John Damascene's account of knowledge of the divine (which is directly based on the Cappadocian/Dionysian account) and does so by alluding to the very concept of the good, developed from Boethius, that I have been describing. ST I, q. 2, a. 1. It would indeed be a bizarre coincidence for St. Thomas to deliberately disagree with a Church Father, whom he clearly recognized as an authority, without having in mind a very clear reason for the disagreement, and the fact that he specifically alludes to the section of Boethius that he himself uses in his account of natural theology seems far too fitting to be a coincidence. Although there is ample evidence in numerous other texts for the thesis I have been advocating, that argument is surely a pointed piece of proof of the very same thesis: that St. Thomas appealed to the metaphysical concept of the good through final causality, one that was different from the Dionysian account but also one that clearly excluded any Plotinian idea of a fully operational essence.