The Natural Desire for the Vision of God and the Convergence of the Sciences

Le PenseurAfter reading de Lubac and some of his critics I still think the best interpretation of Thomas’s “natural desire” for the beatific vision comes from Frederick Copleston.  The issue is a confusing one, primarily because we just don’t think in Aristotelian terms anymore.  “Nature” doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern scientist as it did for Thomas, and it doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern Christian as it did for a Medieval Doctor.  Copleston says that Thomas speaks as both a philosopher and a theologian.  De Lubac argued that modern Thomists only saw Thomas as a philosopher and not an Augustinian.  One reason why I respect Copleston so much is that he was a philosopher, yet he argued extensively for the Augustinian heritage of Thomas’s theology.  

Catholics have debated the issue of the “natural desire” for the vision of God, which Thomas says is innate in all men.  The problem with this is that the Aristotelian definition of nature does not allow a desire of anything that is not connatural.  In other words, if man had a natural desire for the supernatural, then either (a) man’s desire is greater than its cause, or (b) the supernatural is not above nature, or (c) both (a) and (b) are the case.  Therefore, as long as we are defining “nature” in Aristotelian terms – he gives four definitions for “nature” with the primary one being quod quid est or the “essence” of a thing – it will be contradictory to speak of a “natural desire” for anything above what is connatural with the thing’s essence.  

De Lubac points out that Christian philosophers have erred in trying to reconcile this apparent contradiction in Thomas.  We should not be surprised that Thomas does not confine himself to the philosophy of Aristotle.  Marie-Dominique Chenu has demonstrated that Thomas is not a strict Aristotelian, an almost obvious observation since Aristotle considered the cosmos to be eternal, he didn’t clarify the transcendence of the Prime Mover, he didn’t ground the forms of things in an eternal Mind, he didn’t speak of an “other worldly” happiness, he didn’t clarify the particularity of the agent intellect, and so on.  Thomas had to go beyond Aristotle in many ways.  Wayne Hankey, Rudi te Velde, and Fran O’Rourke (among others) have demonstrated that Thomas, per his Augustinianism, was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonic thinkers, particularly the Psuedo-Dionysius.  There’s even a book out called Aquinas the Augustinian by CUA press.

One example of modern Philosophers assuming that Thomas’s thought must fit into a pristine Aristotelian mold is P.J. FitzPatrick’s argument that Thomas’s doctrine of transubstantiation commits the Aristotelian fallacy of reification.  How can accidents exist without a substance when the very definition of accident is that it inheres within a substance?  Aristotle must be rolling over in his grave to hear one of his most faithful students commit philosophical blasphemy with such a doctrine.  However, as David Power has demonstrated, Thomas interprets Aristotle through the lens of the Psuedo-Dionysius.  I would clarify this a bit more and say that his Eucharistic theology is more Augustinian than Aristotelian.  Thomas utilized the truth, whether it came from divine revelation or pagan philosophy.  He may have used Aristotelian terminology in his doctrine of the Eucharist but in the end he knew that theology proceeds from more sublime and more certain principles.  Philosophy must be silent in certain realms of theological speculation or, stated more precisely, true philosophy should not contradict divine revelation.

Frederick CoplestonSimilarly, Copleston affirms that Thomas speaks as a theologian when he says that every intellect has a natural desire for the vision of God.  Therefore, the word “nature” may look a bit different to the theologian than to the philosopher.  Thomas did not see himself as a philosopher, that was the term used to describe the pagans.  He was a theologian.  If Holy Scripture gives us a definition of nature that is based on the authority of God, and Aristotle gives us a definition of nature that is reasonable and does not contradict divine authority, then we may utilize the truth as it can be seen in both definitions.  “Nature” for the theologian is the creation of the Triune God, whereas for the philosopher it is the essence or principle of motion in things moved principally by the First Mover.  The former speaks to concrete reality whereas the latter, an abstract one.  These definitions do not contradict each other but demonstrate different perspectives of truth.

Similarly, Thomas says that Adam was created in a supernatural state, using that term in an Aristotelian sense of what is not produced by man’s nature.  But, he also speaks of Adam from the perspective of theology when he refers to man’s first estate as the state of “perfect nature.”  (ST I-II, Q. 109, a.2) He knew from divine revelation that man’s perfection lies in the performance of acts that must come from God.  But, because these divine gifts are given to a creature capable of receiving them we may speak of Adam’s original state as a state of nature. God gave man all of the gifts whereby he may perfect himself.  To speak of a natural perfection, in the Aristotelian sense, is to speak of an imperfect and incomplete perfection – a rather contradictory saying.    

Thomas speaks about nature in a theological sense in other places as well.  Copleston explains his interpretation of Thomas on man’s natural desire for a supernatural blessedness:

In the De Veritate St. Thomas says that man, according to his nature, has a natural appetite for aliqua contemplatio divinorum, such as it is possible for a man to obtain by the power of nature, and that the inclination of his desire towards the supernatural and gratuitous end (the vision of God) is the work of grace.  In this place, then, St. Thomas does not admit a ‘natural desire in the strict sense for the vision of God , and it seems only reasonable to suppose that when in the Summa Theologica and Summa contra Gentiles he speaks of a natural desire for the vision of God, he is not speaking strictly as a philosopher, but as a theologian and philosopher combined, that is , presupposing the supernatural order and interpreting the data of experience in the light of that presupposition. (History of Philosophy, Vol: II, p. 405.)

Copleston interprets Thomas on man’s natural desire for the vision of God as both a theologian and a philosopher.  De Lubac may be accused of only seeing Thomas merely as a theologian, and Cajetan may be critiqued for seeing Thomas primarily as a philosopher. However, Copleston gives a balanced interpretation of this very difficult subject, a subject that touches the very boundary between the queen of the sciences and her handmaiden.  Thomas uses Aristotle as far as he will go but completes the project with truths derived from sacred doctrine.  He speaks of nature as both a philosopher and theologian combined.  The intelligent beings that exist in the concrete world created by God have a natural desire for the Triune God, while those intelligent beings considered within the abstract Aristotelian world have a natural desire for the First Cause. These are not two separate desires, and man does not have two ends.  Rather, this is an example of theology completing and perfecting philosophy.


Zanchi’s Definition of Natural Law

I’ve just now taken notice of these discussions by Stephen Grabill on natural law and Protestant catholicism. These are excellent surveys in which the catholic nature of the Reformation is thoroughly demonstrated. Grabill quotes Zanchi’s complex definition of natural law: 

Natural law is the will of God, and consequently, the divine rule and principle for knowing what to do and what not to do. It is, the knowledge of what is good or bad, fair or unfair, upright or shameful, that was inscribed upon the hearts of all people by God himself also after the fall. For this reason, we are all universally taught what activities should be pursued and what should be avoided; that is, to do one thing and to avoid another, and we know that we are obligated and pushed to act for the glory of God, our own good, and the welfare of our neighbor both in private and in public. In addition, we know that if we do what should be avoided or avoid what we should do, we are condemned; but if we do the opposite, we are defended and absolved. (Girolamo Zanchi, quoted by Stephen Grabill, “Part VI: Recovering and Reviving the Catholicity of Protestant Ethics” at

One interesting thing to note in this definition, as Grabill points out, is the fact that God inscribes the natural law upon the hearts of man again after the fall. Thus, Zanchi does not use the doctrine of a natural law merely for the explanation of the acts of certain noble pagans and civilizations but this “divine principle for knowing what to do” also sparks a passion that pushes men toward God.

Plotinus and C.S. Lewis on “Looking Along”

C.S. Lewis explained the anthropomorphism of the ancients in terms of psychology. How did they think about reality? He concludes that they did not think in terms of “literal” versus “metaphorical” but they thought of things in pictures. “Deep” meant “death,” “spirit” and “life” were synonymous, so “sex” and “love”, etc. Modern man categorizes all things in a bifurcated manner. We seek to either “look at” the object or “look along.” For example, Lewis recounts his experience of seeing a sunbeam through a hole in the roof of a toolshed. If he stood beside the sunbeam and examined it he thought of it in terms of its hugh, brightness, and so on. But if he stepped within the sunbeam he actually began to experience the effects which cannot be perfectly quantified. The problem with many modern scientists, says Lewis, is that they believe that “looking at” the sunbeam is sufficient for gaining a complete knowledge of that subject without actually experiencing or “looking along.”


As I was reading through Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus I found very interesting similarities between Lewis’s thought on beauty, myth, and metaphor and Plotinus’s beliefs concerning the Forms, Nature, and Life.  For Plotinus the Forms of things are like Hieroglyphs, which are little pictures of incarnate knowledge. He explains:

In the case of those things which they, in their wisdom, wanted to designate, the Egyptian sages did not use written characters, literally representing arguments and premises and imitating meaningful sounds and utterances of axioms. Rather, they wrote in pictures, and engraved on their temples one picture corresponding to each reality …. Thus, each picture is a knowledge, wisdom … perceived all at once, and not discursive thought nor deliberation.” (Ennead, V 8, 6, 1-9, as cited in Hadot, p. 40.)

For Plotinus, like many others, these Forms are the life principle behind things which come to be when the Intellect contemplates itself. Man cannot know these forms as a scientist or metaphysician seeks to know the cause of a particular anomaly or thing. Rather, man must put aside the natural desire to know the cause, because there is no separate cause to be found. Contemplation must take the place of reflection.

hieroglyphsThe Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts. For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

The Intellect is beautiful; indeed it is the most beautiful of all things. Situated in pure light and pure radiance, it includes within itself the nature of all beings. This beautiful world of ours is but a shadow and an image of its beauty …. It lives a blessed life, and whoever were to see it, and – as is fitting – submerge himself within it, and become One with it, would be seized by awe. (Enneads, III 8, 11, 26-33, in Hadot, p. 43.)

It is no wonder that Augustine liked Plotinus, who became for him a praeparatio evangelicae. All of this has a bit to do with the relationship between nature and the supernatural. Even nature points beyond herself, being infused with a copy of God’s own beauty that calls us to look beyond to that Beauty that is desired for its own sake. Nature is inherently mythical. When we attempt to “look at” apart from experiences our gaze into the mirror will produce a mere reflection of ourselves.

The Emergence of the Principle Corresponds to the Emergence of Creatures

When Thomas Aquinas wrote his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences he placed God at the center and everything else in relation to Him, emanating out in creation and returning in final glorification.  Jean-Pierre Torrell explains the organizing ratio of this plan:

If we do not remember the biblical affirmation of God as the Alpha and Omega of all that is visible and invisible, this plan may seem only a rather flat assertion.  We do not perceive all its depth until we grasp the organizing ratio that gives it its intelligibility. Thomas sees the ratio in the fact that the creation – the emergence of creatures from God, the principle – finds its explanation in the fact that even in God there is an “emergence of the Principle,” which is the procession of the Word from the Father. The divine efficacy that works in the creation is thus related to the generation of the Word, just as the formal cause of the grace that will permit creatures to return to God is linked to the spiration of the Holy Spirit.  More precisely and fully, we might therefore say that the divine missions ad extra are explained according to the order of the processions of the divine persons ad intra. (Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1:  The Person and His Work, p. 43)    

This view of the Word as the Principium of all creation effects one’s understanding of grace.  Since all created things owe their being and sustenance to the Word it cannot be denied that there is an inherently gracious element in creation.  Also, viewing Thomas’s conception of the relationship between the works of the Trinity ad extra and the works of the Trinity ad intra one can have a broader appreciation for Karl Rahner’s contribution to this most important of issues – while maintaining a critical eye.  God’s creating (and recreating) work is the climax of the relationship of signus to res. “And he was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.” (Matt. 17:2)

The Word of God Is the Very Concept of God

Commenting on Hebrews 11:3 St. Thomas notes:

… it must be known that the Word of God is the very concept of God, by which He understands Himself and other things.  We see this when an artisan, producing something outside himself, makes it unto the likeness of his concept …. Since the whole creation is perfectly disposed, as produced by an artisan, in Whom error cannot occur, nor any other defect, then it most fully corresponds to the divine concept according to its own mode … Therefore, he says, “By faith we understand that the world”, that is, the whole entirety of creation, “was framed”, that is, conveniently corresponding, “to the Word”, that is, to the concept of God, as the thing made is to its art.

Aquinas then briefly discusses the opinion of the ancients, Anaxagorus, Plato, etc: that visible things are copies of the Ideas, and others said the visible is from the Intelligence.  

But we say according to the aforesaid mode that from the invisible rational ideas in the Word of God, through Whom all things were made, the visible things were produced.  These ideas, even if they are the same really, yet from the perspective of the creature differ according to reason by diverse signified respects.  Hence, by one notion man was made, and by another the horse, as Augustine says in the book 83 Questions.  So then, “the world was framed to the Word of God”, such “that from the invisible” rational ideas in the Word of God “the visible things”, that is, every creature, “might be made.”  

It is interesting to see Thomas’s biblical justification for his conception of universal principles.  The ideas for all created things come from the Word who is God’s very conception of himself.  Therefore when God extends his work ad extra in creating he is placing the image of his Word upon those things just as an artist places his art upon whatever he makes.  Even horses and trees have their exemplar cause in the Word of God.  Also, these ideas of “horse” and “man” etc. are all one idea in the Word but are differentiated within creation from man’s perspective.  Therefore, all esse commune (created being) has its universal principle or idea in God’s eternally begotten Son.  According to Catherine Pickstock this level of being plays a significant role in Thomas’s Eucharistic theology.  These invisible things, of which St. Paul writes, are not discerned by natural theology but by faith because “divine authority makes this choice through which the intellect is determined, so that it adheres firmly to those things which are of faith and assents to them most certainly.” (Ibid)

A Freudian Critique of Freud

[*I wrote this a few months back somewhere else]

Freud’s problem is that he did not understand the distinction between idol and icon which is detrimental to the validity of the Christian creed of belief in God.  According to Jean-Luc Marion the idol is an invisible mirror reflecting the visible whereas an icon is a visible mirror reflecting the invisible. On this distinction Marion clarifies, “Whereas the idol results from the gaze that aims at it, the icon summons sight in letting the visible…be saturated little by little with the invisible.” Further, “the gaze can never rest or settle if it looks at an icon; it always must rebound upon the visible, in order to go back in it up the infinite stream of the invisible.” [1] 

Christianity to Freud is the organized practice of wish fulfillment. He admits, “What is characteristic of illusions [belief in God] is that they are derived from human wishes.” [2] He elaborates, “When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father.” [3] Freud has here described Christian belief as idolatry. Marion states:

The idol always marks a true and genuine experience of the divine, but for this very reason announces its limit: as an experience of the divine, starting in this way with the one who aims at it, in view of the reflex in which, through the idolatrous figure, this aim masks and marks its defection with regard to the invisible. The idol always must be read on the basis of the one whose experience of the divine takes shape there.[4] 

Contrary to this is the Christian belief that God is only knowable through creation and through Christ. Calvin explains, “His essence, indeed is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.” [5] Christians also know that knowledge of God comes through the incarnate Son since it is he in whom “all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9)

One word that Freud did not understand is “transcendence”, and the word that was the aim of his idol is “reason.” The icon demands an infinite gaze, since transcendence is not a quality of man. The idol is the projection of an aim.  Freud himself speaks, “There is no appeal to a court above that of reason.” [6]  Marion explains this phenomenon among atheists:

When a philosophical thought expresses a concept of what it then names “God”, this concept functions exactly as an idol. It gives itself to be seen, but thus all the better conceals itself as the mirror where thought, invisibly, has its forward point fixed, so that the invisible finds itself, with an aim suspended by the fixed concept, disqualified and abandoned; thought freezes, and the idolatrous concept of “God” appears, where, more than God, thought judges itself.[7] 

In other words the “God” and the “idol” become one and the same, hence Freud’s misunderstanding. Also, by Freud’s sovereignty of reason his true aim is seen, that of a carved effigy in his own image given the title “reason”.

Based on this, we must be cautious of any principle taking its queue from Freudian thought, which, at the level of presuppositions, undermines the universality of principle itself and erects an idol named “reason” by which the infinite is presumably known. Finally, (alas…the point) if one were to be sly he/she would use a Freudian critique to accuse Freud of projecting his own feelings and view of reality (idolatry) upon Christianity. In viewing the world based on his own rational idolatry (he was a materialist) Freud assumed the same for Christianity, an assumption easily disproven.


[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, p. 18.  [2] Sigmund Freud, The Future Of An Illusion, p. 39.  [3] Freud, p. 30. [4] Marion, pp. 27, 28.  [5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.v.1.  [6] Freud, p. 35.  [7] Marion, p. 16.

The Practical Nature of Truth in Aquinas

For Aquinas, crucially, being is analogically like knowing and knowing like being.  This is what makes Aquinas’s theory of truth – unlike modern theories – an ontological rather than epistemological one.  Indeed, the conformity or proportion which pertains between knowing and the known introduces an aesthetic dimension to knowledge utterly alien to most modern considerations.  And, in addition, truth for Aquinas has a teleological and a practical dimension, as well as a theoretical one – that is to say, the truth of a thing is taken as that thing fulfilling the way it ought to be, being the way it must be in order to be true.  These two dimensions of truth, as the way a thing is and the way it ought to be, come together, because for Aquinas they coincide in the Mind of God.  So whereas for modern correspondence theories … one first has a theory of truth and then might or might not apply it to theology, for Aquinas, truth is theological without remainder. (Catherine Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas, 5, 6.)

John Frame says similar things about the practicality of truth in theology in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. I think my goal in life, for now, is to prove the practicality of Aquinas.  It seems like a daunting task.