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AQUINAS ON KNOWING GOD AND THE INTERACTION OF FAITH AND REASON


Introduction
            In the Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas asks the following question: “Utrum aliquis intellectus creatus posit Deum videre per essentiam?”[1] In English, “Is it possible for a Created Intellect to see God through or in His essence?” Aquinas’s answer is that a created intellect can see God in His essence, but not naturally. In the Respondeo, the magisterial response of Aquinas to this question, he gives us a dilemma. “Cum enim ultima hominis beatitudo in altissima ejus operatione consistat, quae est operatio intellectus, si nunquam Dei essentiam videre potest intellectus creatus, vel nunquam beatitudinem obtinebit, vel in alio ejus beatitudo consistet quam in Deo.[2] In English this is, “Therefore, seeing as the ultimate beatitude (good) of man consists in his highest operation, that is the operation of the intellect, if no created intellect can see the essence of God, then, either they will never obtain their beatitude [the vision of God], or their beatitude consists in something other than God.” 

            The Dilemma is fairly straightforward and needs no commentary:

            If no created intellect can ever see the essence of God, then,

1.     Either, no human will ever attain the celestial state, or the beatific vision, or heaven.
2.     Or, the celestial state (heaven), or man’s greatest good, consists in something other than God.

The point of this dilemma is that both options are false; therefore the first part of the conditional is false, which means that it is false that no created intellect can ever see the essence of God. Or, in other words, created intellects will see the essence of God. What we see in Aquinas’s respondeo is a classical example of how faith and reason are not only in agreement, but how reason can be used to defend the faith.

Immediately following the dilemma Aquinas states the following, referring to the second option in the dilemma: “Quod est alienum a fide.[3] “But this is contrary to the faith.” He then goes on to show why. Then, referring to the first option in the dilemma, he states, “Similiter etiam est praeter rationem.”[4] “Similarly, is this also unreasonable (or irrational).” As we look at how he responds to each of the options in the dilemma we will note how, even though both of his responses are rational arguments, both faith and reason agree with the conclusion that man will see God in his essence.


Does Man’s Greatest Good Consist in something other than God?

            First of all, we need to see that the second option in the dilemma is indeed contrary to the claims of Christian theology. Christian theology states that man’s beatitude (the celestial state) is to be united with God. The second option is that if man cannot see God in His essence, then man’s beatitude (celestial state) must consist in something other than God. This is the negation of the claims of Christian theology. It is, therefore, contrary to the faith.

Having claimed that the second option is contrary to the faith Aquinas then goes on to demonstrate that the second option is false, and that, either the first option is true, or, if it also is false, then it is false that man cannot see God in His essence. His argument is as follows: “In ipso enim est ultima perfectio rationalis creaturae, quod est ei principium essendi: intantum enim unumquodque perfectum est, inquantum ad suum principium attingit.”[5] In English the argument is as follows: “In fact, the ultimate perfection of rational creatures is in this, that which is the principle (or source) of their essence: that fact of the matter is that each thing is perfect insomuch as it attains its principle.” At first glance this does not look all that much like a proof that the second option is contrary to the faith. However, notice the first part of the response:

            “The ultimate perfection of rational creatures is the principle (or source) of their essence.”

            In this declaration we find the key that will help us to see why the second option in the dilemma is false. Aquinas’s argument might look something like this:

1.     Man’s ultimate beatitude (or good, or perfection) consists in the operation of the intellect, which is his highest operation. (This is stated prior to the dilemma, and assumed for the responses to both of the options in the dilemma.)
2.     The ultimate perfection of rational creatures is the principle of their essence (God), that which is, as Aquinas has just shown, most intelligible by nature.
3.     A thing is perfect to the degree that it obtains its principle.
4.     Therefore, it is false to say that the beatitude of man consists in anything other than God.
5.     Therefore, it is true to say that a rational creature attains its perfection (can only find its beatitude, or ultimate good) to the extent that it obtains (grasps, draws close to, sees) its principle (God). (In other words, a human will only attain its ultimate perfection when it is in the presence of God, or see God as He is in His essence. Or again, a human will only obtain its beatitude, celestial state, when it obtains the vision of God.)

It should be noted, first of all, that he has not yet proved that humans can see God in His essence. He has shown the falsity of one part of the dilemma, which means that, either Man can never attain his ultimate beatitude, or, humans can see God in His essence.

Secondly, note that when defending an object of faith Aquinas uses reason, rational argumentation. He builds an argument based upon philosophical principles in order to show that the claim that is contrary to the faith is false. We have, here, an example of how philosophy is able to help theology by defending the claims of faith. Reason comes to the aid of faith in a logical defense of the claims of theology.


Perhaps Humans cannot Obtain their Ultimate Beatitude

Aquinas, having shown why it is contrary to the faith to claim that humans can find their greatest beatitude, happiness, or good, in anything other than God, then moves on to show why it is contrary to reason to claim that man will not be able to obtain his beatitude (the first option of the dilemma).

The first option of the dilemma was that if a human cannot see God in His essence, then humans could never obtain their beatitude. Aquinas, as we noted above, claims that this is contrary to reason. The argument in the Summa Theologiae is: “Inest enim homini naturale desiderium cognoscendi causam, cum intuetur effectum; et ex hoc admiratio in hominibus consurgit. Si igitur intellectus rationalis creaturae pertingere non posit ad primam causam rerum, remanebit inane desiderium naturae. Unde simpliciter concedendum est quod beati Dei essentiam vident.”[6]

The argument might look something like this:

1.     Seeing as there exists in man the natural desire to know the cause, when he comes into contact with an effect; and from this [finding the cause] is born within man admiration.
2.     If, therefore, creatures endowed with a rational intellect cannot attain the first cause of all things, this natural desire remains futile (vain, pointless).
3.     From this we must, absolutely (simply), concede that the blessed (the saints in heaven) see the essence of God (who is, according to arguments that have already been given,[7] the first cause of all things).

This argument presupposes the Aristotelian principle that no natural desire is without an object, or that nature does nothing in vain,[8] or, in other words, that all natural desires can be fulfilled. It is an argument that shows that the first option is contrary to reason. It is offensive to reason to think that a natural desire might not be able to obtain its good.[9] For every natural desire there is indeed some good thing that fulfills that desire. This does not assume that every individual human being will indeed obtain that which is desired, but it does assume that the object of the desire is indeed obtainable. For example, water is the proper object of thirst, but, this does not mean that every human who thirsts will have their thirst quenched. On the contrary, one can die of thirst if one wanders into the desert and is unable to find water. It would be irrational to assume that just because people occasionally die from thirst that there is no proper object for that desire – thirst. In the same way, it would be irrational to assume that mankind’s natural desire to know the cause of an effect, and, therefore, the first cause of all that exists is unquenchable just because it seems like we cannot see the first cause as we are currently. Rather, it seems rational to assume that if the desire exists to know the first cause, then it is possible to know the first cause. In the same way that a thirsty man, who does not see before him a glass of water, seeks a way to obtain a glass of water; so also, if we have the desire to know the first cause, but we don’t see Him before us, rather than assume that he doesn’t exist, we should seek out the way to come to knowledge of Him.

Conclusion

We saw, first of all, that Aquinas defends the claim that humans are able, in some way, or somehow, to see the essence of God.[10] Aquinas defends this claim from two perspectives. First of all this is a claim that we must defend as it is an article of faith. Christian theology claims that union with God is what the celestial state is. Secondly, from the philosophical point of view, there must, necessarily be a first cause,[11] and man naturally desires, when he sees an effect, to know the cause. Therefore, reason confirms that man is able, in some way or another, to see the first cause, which all men know as God.

We were, secondly, able to see the thomistic view on the interaction of faith and reason in action. Reason, rational inquiry and argumentation, is essential for the defense of the Christian faith. Furthermore, some of the articles of faith that are offered to us for belief in inspired scriptures can be discovered by the natural, unaided, faculty of reason. This, of course, is not the case for all of the articles of faith, as, for example, it seems impossible to prove from philosophical reasoning that God is triune, the incarnation of God, or the virgin birth of Jesus-Christ. These doctrines are properly articles of faith, and though they can be defended by reason, they cannot be proved by reason.


[1]Thomas D’Aquin, “Dieu,” tome 2 in Somme Theologique, 4ieme ed., trad. A. D. Sertillanges (Paris : Desclee & Cie, 1963), 9. All translations from the latin are my own translations.

[2]Ibid., 11.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid., 12.

[5]Ibid., 11-12.

[6]Ibid., 12.

[7]Cf. ST 1, Q. 2, A. 3.

[8]Cf. Aristotle, “Progression of Animals 704b10-15,” in Aristotle: Parts of Animals, Movement of Animals, Progression of Animals, trans. E. S. Forster, ed. James Loeb (1931; repr., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), 487.

[9]C. S. Lewis talks about desires in his autobiography, C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Orlando, FL: Harvest books, 1955), 202, 218-21. He is also well-known for the argument from desire for God. “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing a sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., London: Collins-fontana, 1956), 118.

[10]He will go on to discuss how this is possible in later questions. Cf. ST 1, Q.  12, A. 2-13.

[11]Cf. ST 1, Q. 2, A. 3.

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