The Problem(s) of the Supernatural

I should begin with explaining how, following Bernard Lonergan, I distinguish the medieval from the modern ideals of science. There are two elements at work in the controversy over the supernatural, one “medieval” and the other “modern.” The first, predominating element is metaphysical, concerned with ends, natures, powers, and orders. It proceeds according to a medieval ideal of science (albeit rooted in classical antiquity), one that proved sufficiently powerful to fund the medieval synthesis of Christian doctrine and philosophical speculation. This synthesis has an enduring relevance and each generation of Christian theologians in its wake faces the challenge of appropriating its achievements and discerning its respective applications and limitations vis-à-vis contemporary questions. But there has been another element at work in the twenty-first-century debate about the supernatural. This element is recognizably modern in its culture, its methods, and its ideals. Bernard Lonergan characterizes a modern culture in this way:

Modern culture is the culture that knows about itself and other cultures. It is aware that they are man-made. It is aware that the cultural may sustain or destroy or refashion the social. So it is that modern man not only individually is responsible for the life he leads but also collectively is responsible for the world in which he leads it. So modern culture is culture on the move. It is not dedicated to perpetuating the wisdom of ancestors, to handing on the traditions it has inherited. The past is just the springboard to the future. It is the set of good things to be improved and of evils to be eliminated. The future will belong to those who think about it, who grasp real possibilities, who project a coherent sequence of cumulative realizations, who speak to man’s longing for achievement more wisely than the liberal apostles of automatic progress and more humanly than the liquidating Marxists.

Modern scientific methods and ideals, accordingly, are not so concerned to reduce effects to their principal causes as to make sense of this human microcosm on its own terms. If the ancient ideal of science foremost aims at the synchronic structures of nature (with human nature and the nature of society and culture included), this modern element terminates in a diachronic account of historical process in its myriad contexts and a forward-looking eye to its application. Nor is this historical process reduced to ontological causes or an unfolding sequence of “ages,” but is basically contingent on the human spirit and, more specifically, on human action.

Now, classical anthropology was metaphysical, where “one was to know acts by their objects, habits by their acts, potencies by habits, and the essences of souls by their potencies,” and so “in his De anima Aristotle employed one and the same method for the study of plants, animals, and men.” Along cognate lines, modern science aimed to extend its successes in the natural world to the human one. After all (as Lonergan was fond of quoting), Herbert Butterfield had surmised that its advent “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.” “It was inevitable,” Lonergan asserts, “that the success of the new idea of science should profoundly affect the rest of the cultural superstructure.” It can seem natural, then, that human sciences should be “conducted on the same lines as the natural sciences.”

We may commonly (if somewhat imprecisely) speak of the epoch established by the above transition as the Enlightenment. “That movement,” Lonergan points out, “has lasted into our own day and still enjoys a dominant position.” The Enlightenment, he explains, “was carried socially and culturally. Socially by the movement that would sweep away the remnants of feudalism and a lingering absolutism by proclaiming liberty, fraternity, equality. Culturally by the triumph of Newton, who did for mechanics what Euclid had done for geometry and whose success led philosophers to desert rationalism and swell the ranks of empiricists.” But Lonergan also made note of a perhaps complementary, perhaps countervailing, but in any case, distinct social and cultural movement that has emerged from the Enlightenment and has come to live alongside it. On his account, it has for its soil destabilizing developments in mathematics, in physics, in biology, and even economics, whereby “a deductivist world of mechanist determinism was making way for the probability schedules of a world in process.” For its seed, there is a philosophical centering of human autonomy that runs from Kant to Ricoeur through the work of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Newman, Dilthey, Nietzsche, and Blondel. If one saw in this soil and seed only its rejection of certain rationalist tendencies in modern thought, one might merely call it “postmodernism.” But Lonergan saw its intellectual fecundity and adopted Frederick Lawrence’s coinage to label it “the Second Enlightenment.”

The Second Enlightenment’s intellectual fecundity has shown itself, on Lonergan’s view, through what in 1975 he would call the department of “human studies,” but in the previous decade he would usually refer to as “the human sciences.” However, this appellation involved him in an ambiguity, since it could refer to the reductionist, positivist “behavioral sciences” of the anglophone scene or to what, until then anyway, had been a predominantly German approach under Dilthey’s heading: Geisteswissenschaften. Where the former had stressed (over-extended, really) the analogy with the natural sciences, the latter “stresses the basic difference between natural and human science” that lies “in the very data of the two types.” For, in the human sciences, the data are constituted as data at all by human acts of meaning. Thus,

one could send into a law-court as many physicists, chemists, and biologists as one pleased with as much equipment as they desired. They could count, measure, weigh, describe, record, analyse, dissect to their hearts’ content. But it would be only by going beyond what is just given and by attending to the meaning of the proceedings that they could discover they were dealing with a court of law; and it is only in so far as the court of law is recognized as such and the appropriate meanings are attached to the sounds and actions that the data for a human science emerge.

Thus it is with the Second Enlightenment that the modern human sciences, insofar as they accept that meaning is integral to and constitutive of their objects of investigation, set out not to establish what human persons and communities are, universally and necessarily, but to give account for “all the men of every time and place, all their thoughts and words and deeds, the accidental as well as the essential, the contingent as well as the necessary, the particular as well as the universal.” Where the ideal of science against which scholastics, old or new, measured theology would limit itself to the abstract, essential, universal, and necessary, modern science (natural or human) accepts no such limits. The dilation of viewpoint in which this modern ideal consists has consequences both for how modern science proceeds and for the kinds of results it anticipates. “Its object,” Lonergan writes, “is not necessity but verified possibility: bodies fall with a constant acceleration, but they could fall at a different rate; and similarly other natural laws aim at stating, not what cannot possibly be otherwise, but what in fact is so.” And when it comes to the Geisteswissenschaften, this requires asking what in fact their objects mean and to whom. Consequently, the modern scientific ideal, when applied to human persons, communities, societies, and cultures, is inherently hermeneutical.

Medieval and Modern Elements in the Twenty-first-century Controversy

Both of these scientific, methodological ideals, the medieval and the modern, have been at work in the twenty-first-century controversy over the supernatural, but only occasionally have they been adverted to in their distinction from one another. The latter, modern element is, when treated at all, usually considered either as an occasion for asking the medieval metaphysical question or as the arena in which the implications of the medieval element play out. The modern problem of the supernatural guided by this modern ideal, in other words, is not recognized as a formal problem of its own. Furthermore, the reduction of modern questions to their putative causes in medieval metaphysics or other intellectual techniques is a question begging exercise that presupposes the adequacy of medieval scientia (in which effects are, ideally, logically reduced to their causes). Below I will point out how, even when thinkers address the modern element in a serious and sophisticated way, they commonly revert back to basically medieval, metaphysical intellectual habits to answer the questions that arise. I will wait until the chapters in part 4 to explore more precisely why this modern element is formally irreducible to its medieval counterpart, because it involves some quite technical considerations of human freedom and its rationality. For now, I will restrict myself to presenting the evidence that there are, in fact, two problems at play. But even in the longer term, I will have to make do sketching out as best I can the basic elements of the modern problem of the supernatural in its irreducible distinctness from the medieval one.

Early in the contemporary debate, Hans Boersma noted how Henri de Lubac’s theology of grace followed Maurice Blondel in opposing a theological extrinsicism that, by its regional separation of nature and grace, set the stage for a philosophical immanentism. Boersma was not alone in noting how this rather academic point served de Lubac’s opposition to secularization and an ecclesiology of domination. Of course, contemporary secularization takes a slightly different shape than the forms de Lubac faced, and the secularization de Lubac opposed took a different shape even than that opposed by Blondel. Blondel found himself between the anti-clerical liberalism of the French Republic and the positivist Monarchism of the Action Française. De Lubac faced the march (both literal and figurative) of fascism and Marxism in Europe. But in each of these, one finds a question about authority. Whether as an appeal to religion as otherworldly myth in mid-century fascism and its monarchist progenitors or as the material dialectic of class conflict in Marxism, Blondel’s and de Lubac’s centering of the supernatural aimed to undermine justifications of absolute and all-too-worldly power.

The neo-neo-scholastics share this antipathy to encroaching secularization, although—in Steven A. Long’s case especially—it is not clear how they would evaluate the case of Action Française or its place in the genealogy of Continental authoritarianism. Long praises de Lubac for the seriousness with which he takes the problem of atheistic politics, even if he would offer a radically different prescription to treat it. In case one might be tempted to think that this concern for forms of secularization in matters of politics was a quirk of de Lubac’s intellectual biography or an inheritance from Blondel, it also appears in those efforts to retrieve Scheeben on the question. Oakes quotes the following from Scheeben’s Nature and Grace:

The crisis [of secularism] has not yet been completely settled, and it will not be settled until the supernatural order is frankly, adequately, and radically distinguished from the natural order. . . . Whenever these truths are not assigned their own exclusive sphere and are intermingled with truths of the natural order, they are necessarily confused with the latter, and therefore not only lose their organic union with truths of their own kind but suffer a dimming of their own light.

Scheeben here distinguishes nature from the supernatural in order to unite them, rather than uniting them in order to distinguish them à la de Lubac. Whichever direction one travels between the ideas, it seems a theological concern with secularism carries along with it a concern with the nature/grace relation and, perhaps, vice versa.

It is suspicious, however, that often these concerns about secularization, politics, and, ultimately, the process of history are named, only to then be abandoned. Boersma raised de Lubac’s sense that the ontological, ecclesiological, and political questions are integral, but ultimately only treated the first two, at most gesturing toward the political question. David Braine framed the question in terms of original sin and the logical problems relating our two-fold end, but eventually turned to the modern, existential analysis of angst and alienation considered as “empirical phenomena.” However, he responded to this existential, empirical, modern topic entirely in terms of metaphysics. When he gestured to ontology’s implications for questions of political authority, Braine again considered only metaphysical responses and, in the end, punts on them as beyond the scope of his inquiry. Nicholas Healy relegated the entire topic to a footnote. Raymond Moloney noted the connection for de Lubac between his ontological project and his opposition to secularization, Nazism, and Marxism, but never returned to it after his detailed treatment of Lonergan’s approach to the ontological question. Mansini explicitly avoided the political question by reducing it to a theological matter of metaphysical anthropology. I mentioned in the previous chapter the way in which White responded to the challenge posed by Foucaultian historicism with an Aristotelian appeal to intelligible substance. Christopher M. Cullen mentioned that the foremost implication of de Lubac’s thesis is for philosophical ethics and continues to note a number of salient points about the relationship between ontology and the historical import of human autonomy, but he does not return to address the questions for moral philosophy he raised initially.

There are certainly works in the contemporary debate that make no mention of those elements of the problem of the supernatural that call out for a modern, diachronic mode of response. This is unobjectionable, as far as it goes, although one might be concerned that the full breadth of contemporary questions are being held in abeyance. Still, there are also several thinkers who have, in the course of the controversy, faced these questions of existential, historical, and political concern directly. I have already made note of many of them. Milbank devoted an entire chapter to the ontology of natural and supernatural in Theology and Social Theory with an eye to discerning the theological conditions of possibility for a political theology that was not simply subordinated to secular social theory. He returned to this question in The Suspended Middle, making a sustained attack on the idea that philosophy could maintain autonomy over the political or that (political) theology could simply be a naïve reading of grace at work in the world. But Milbank’s answer at every turn, to every difficulty, is to insist again and again on the delicate maintenance of the “(non-)ontology” he attributes to de Lubac’s Surnaturel. This (non-)ontology holds the key, he thinks, to the historical and political reiteration of a Christian culture. Thus, as in Theology and Social Theory, one finds that for all of his wide-ranging engagement with postmodern thought, the argument of The Suspended Middle boils down to an apologia for how his politics are controlled by his ontology. An answer to the medieval question always provides the answer to modern (and postmodern) concerns.

One may detect an identical strategy in Steven A. Long’s sustained discursus on the ontology of natura pura and the theocratic Catholic politics it undergirds. One of the weaknesses of Long’s argument in the first chapter of Natura Pura is a tendency, despite his appeals to Thomas’s scientia, to take Thomas’s locutions at face value, controlling very little for context or Aquinas’s theoretical controls of meaning. Much of the argument boils down to, “Thomas says . . .” However, the strategy in chapter 4 proves more compelling because Long fits the “required hypothesis” of natura pura into a thick and well-wrought scheme for Catholic moral and political philosophy. Indeed, so systematic is this vision that sans some speculative account of natura pura (even if not precisely under that heading), a morally or politically sound social order is portrayed as fundamentally impossible. But notice here too the basic methodical assumption of the whole debate: the synchronic structure of ontology determines the shape of moral, social, and political philosophy and theology. Answers to the medieval, metaphysical question about how to relate the natural and supernatural orders more or less automatically answer diachronic modern questions by logical implication and extension.

Sean Larsen’s 2013 Modern Theology article on Milbank and Hütter comes perhaps the closest to both distinguishing the medieval and modern elements in the debate over the supernatural and addressing them as irreducible to one another. Larsen diagnoses in Milbank’s approach a Renaissance romanticism whereby the medieval ontology of the natural and the supernatural is “expressed” in the ongoing repetition of aesthetically discerned Christian practices. Rather than making logical criticisms of Milbank’s (non-) ontology, Larsen aims to bring the genealogical hammer of Walter Mignolo’s postcolonial analysis down on what he characterizes as Milbank’s nostalgia. He directly accuses Milbank of identifying the Church and the European Renaissance. Larsen shows how, via Mignolo, this identification has historically fit within a wider conflation of the Church and civilization per se. Thus, Larsen indicates how Milbank’s postliberal resistance to totalizing secular reason can be deconstructed as also and at the same time a paradigmatically colonial—and so modern—project of erasing Christianity’s “others.” As Lonergan pointed out, “Modern culture is the culture that knows about itself and other cultures. It is aware that they are man-made,” and so there arises suspicions that the people making culture may not be doing so in good faith. In this way, Larsen brings modern methods of analysis to bear on Milbank’s properly modern concerns and resists the pervasive habit of reducing them to more “fundamental” medieval, metaphysical structures.

Unfortunately, when Larsen turns to treat of Hütter’s neo-neo-scholastic account of the intellect’s ordering to God, he frames his positive appraisal of its implied openness to alterity exclusively in metaphysical, structural terms. From this vantage, it cannot be so decisively settled whether, relative to Long’s thickly theocratic political philosophy, Hütter’s implied openness is a matter of substantive differences or merely Hütter’s reticence to spell out what his speculative account implies. Finally, I made mention in the previous chapter of the allusive suggestion with which Larsen concludes, that de Lubac’s purpose was postmetaphysical in the first place. Consequently, the sole approach to the controversy that distinguishes its medieval and modern elements and approaches them with distinct and corresponding methods still only does so halfway and, in the end, without being sustained.

Elements of the Medieval Problem

The astute reader may have noticed that, insofar as it focuses on medieval problems, ideals, and methods, the contemporary anglophone controversy orbits around twin conceptual suns: gratuity and integrity. This can be seen most clearly in a pair of complementary questions that may serve as “ideal types” in our analysis:

1) If grace is gratuitous, does it make a necessary difference?

2) If grace makes a necessary difference, is it gratuitous?

The neo-neo-scholastics respond that grace adds something of eternal importance and is necessary for the attainment of that eternal something, but it does not make a fundamental and necessary difference in our nature. If it did, then grace—so far from perfecting nature—would destroy its integrity. The neo–de Lubacians, by contrast, respond that grace makes a necessary difference. Theologies that deny this to preserve the integrity of human nature overlook the gratuity of being-a-creature itself and so, despite their protests to the contrary, violate the integrity of the unitary graced-creation that is God’s unmerited gift. Now, it must be said that the neo-neo-scholastic answer implies that grace is not entirely necessary, even if that for which it is necessary is of great consequence. Grace, in other words, is not really necessary, but only “necessary for. . .” The neo–de Lubacian answer, however, seems to beg the question. Why, if gratuity is made the sole defining characteristic of grace, are creation and grace different? “After all,” Lonergan asks, “what is there that is not a free gift of God?” And certainly there are those who would exclaim, “exactly!” But both answers imply the same underlying question, albeit in different ways: “How does God’s grace make a difference?” The neo-neo-scholastic answer implies it insofar as one might wonder how grace can be necessary for something like eternal life without being fundamentally necessary for our being. The neo–de Lubacian answer implies it insofar as one might wonder how grace is differentiated within creation at all. After all, if grace is simply identical with the gift of being anything at all, then it is, à la creatio ex nihilo, a difference only from nothing. But to be different from nothing is no difference at all.

Still, one can ask a more general form of the question: “How does God’s grace make a difference in Creation as a whole?” This more general form of the question is important and interesting, but it is not very much asked (if at all) in the contemporary anglophone debate over the supernatural. Consequently, I am going to set it aside except to note that its existence reveals that the form of the problem of the supernatural with which the debate has been concerned is a specific form of what I have been calling the medieval problem of the supernatural. If God, by granting us grace, acts in a way that makes a difference both in human beings and in creation as a whole, then there arises the question of God’s action in general. But we know dogmatically that God acts in at least one other way, to create creatures, and so it becomes clear that the medieval problem of grace (as pertains to both the specific case of human beings and creation in general) is itself a specific instance of a more general problem. Thus, in addition to the specific medieval problem of the supernatural that pertains to grace, there is a generic medieval problem of the supernatural that pertains to God’s ad extra agency in general.

This generic medieval problem of the supernatural can further be expressed by a general and a specific question. The generic form of the generic medieval problem of the supernatural asks, “How does God’s action make a difference in creation?” The specific form of the generic medieval problem of the supernatural asks, “How does God’s action make a difference in human beings?” The answers to this generic medieval problem of the supernatural are not at all irrelevant for the specific medieval problem of the supernatural that pertains to grace. Insofar as grace is an element of God’s ad extra agency, the determinations of God’s ad extra agency will pertain to it. Nor does this reduce God’s grace to God’s general ad extra agency, for the determinations that pertain to the latter will not preclude, nor be adequate to reveal, that by which grace is specifically differentiated within God’s ad extra agency as a whole.

Allow me to schematically recall the distinctions made thus far:

The Medieval Problem of the Supernatural

1) Specific Medieval Problem: “How does God’s grace make a difference . . . ?”

A) Generic Form: “. . . in Creation?”

B) Specific Form: “. . . in Human Beings?”

2) Generic Medieval Problem: “How does God’s action make a difference . . . ?”

A) Generic Form: “. . . in Creation?”

B) Specific Form: “. . . in Human Beings?”

Now, the existence of a question implies the possibility of an answer and the existence of a problem implies the possibility of a solution. Extant specific forms of the solution to the specific medieval problem (1.B.) will be the concern of chapter 3. In brief, I am persuaded that such a solution can be found in Thomas’s Summa theologiae, 1–2, q. 109, a. 2. As the generic form of the specific problem (1.A.) is not much at play for parties in the contemporary anglophone controversy, I will not bother addressing it here. Bernard Lonergan’s Grace and Freedom has convinced me as well that there exist in Thomas’s corpus generic and specific forms of a solution to the generic medieval problem of the supernatural. In brief, the answer to the generic form of the generic medieval problem (2.A) is Thomas’s theory of universal causal cooperation with God. The answer, in turn, to the specific form of the generic medieval problem (2.B.) is Thomas’s theory of free cooperation with God. Lonergan shows why both are integral to Thomas’s position on the specific form of the specific medieval problem (1.B.), and I am arguing that all of these together constitute a medieval solution to the medieval problem overall, at least as it is raised in the contemporary debate. The elements of this wider solution, however, are rather diffuse in Thomas’s corpus. In chapters 4 and 5, of my The Ambiguity of Being, we will see how Lonergan gathered them together. I will present the position first by an analysis of its development and then synthetically.

Anticipating the Modern Problem

We do not yet possess the conceptuality we need to articulate the modern problem and why it is irreducible to its medieval counterpart. Nonetheless, it may suffice to note that the modern problem pertains to human freedom and its products. Moreover, it is a problem that fully emerges only once one has a solution to the medieval problem, because cognizance of the basic stakes of the modern problem presupposes a grip on the medieval solution. In other words, once one knows how God makes a difference in creation generally and in human beings specifically, it follows one can ask exactly what that difference is. But in part 2 we will see that in part the difference God makes is to make creatures to be in general and human beings to be free specifically. From this affirmation emerges the possibility of what I will call the medieval ambiguities. One might characterize these ambiguities in a preliminary way by noting that, if God causes beings to be and human beings to be free, this effect need not necessarily be read as a “difference.” Or, more precisely, we might say that the “difference” God makes by making creatures to be and human beings to be free is different from nothing. The whole argument cannot be made yet, but affirming that this “difference” in fact makes a difference is a prephilosophical decision rather than conclusion of an ontological line of reasoning. But if one makes this affirmation, one also affirms that the universe of being has a sufficient reason and that human freedom has a fundamental meaning and purpose. That God makes human freedom to be means also that God makes the products of human freedom to be. Moreover, God renders both intelligible. Within the horizon established by this affirmation, it is sensible to ask what concretely God is making human freedom and its products to be. But, as we shall see in part 4, this is a hermeneutical question: what do human freedom and its products mean?

Again, a sketch of the basic elements of the modern problem of the supernatural will have to suffice for now. First, as I intimated at the beginning of this chapter, the modern problem of the supernatural is not a speculative problem, but a hermeneutical one. Moreover, it is robustly hermeneutical in that ontological sense brought to light by what Frederick Lawrence called “the Second Enlightenment.” Consequently, the modern problem does not ask “how?” but “what?” The modern problem is not a synchronic metaphysical problem (for it presupposes the existence of a metaphysical solution) but a diachronic historical problem. In other words, instead of asking, “What difference does God make?” it asks, “What difference is God making?” The modern problem is concerned both with human freedom and the products that depend upon its exercise. Thus, the modern problem asks not only, “What difference is God making in human freedom?” but also “What difference is God making in the products of human freedom?” Since a cause and its effects are necessarily distinct, these questions pose distinct problems. The former problem I might call the “existential modern problem of the supernatural.” The latter I might call the “artificial modern problem of the supernatural.” The existential modern problem is “existential” in the same sense that existential philosophy is, that is, concerned with the way in which human freedom determines itself. The artificial modern problem is not artificial in the sense of being “false” or somehow fraudulent. Rather, the artificial modern problem is artificial insofar as it is concerned with the artifacts of free human making.

I can schematically summarize these anticipatory determinations of the modern problem of the supernatural as follows:

The Modern Problem of the Supernatural

Modern Problem: “What difference is God making . . .?”

Existential Form: “. . . in human freedom?”

Artificial Form: “. . . in the products of human freedom?”

A Problem of Cooperation

Thus, there are two problems, not just one. It is undeniable that something irreducibly medieval is at work in the controversy. It is, as shown above, the more evident and more developed part. When I have called this part medieval, I do not at all mean to be pejorative, but intend to name an excellence, a perfection accomplished in the Catholic intellectual tradition through the metaphysical subtlety of St. Thomas Aquinas, his predecessors, his contemporaries, and his followers. But there is also something irreducibly modern about these questions that has been suppressed in the various ways discussed above and that I have tried to make evident nonetheless. The irreducibility of this modern part demonstrates the limits of the medieval element and so of the solutions on offer. It indicates, at a minimum, the heuristic place into which an adequate theology of the supernatural would realize a modern achievement. But to settle for this merely heuristic placeholder would be too stingy an assessment of modern intellectual achievements. There are genuine modern virtues—those ideals, methods, and techniques that have facilitated the great intellectual fecundity of the Second Enlightenment—virtues that theology in general and a speculative theology of the supernatural specifically would mutilate itself by excluding.

All of this is to say that there is needed some cooperation between the medieval and modern philosophical and theological sciences if the medieval and modern problems of the supernatural will be addressed both in their distinct irreducibility and their intimate, indeed inseparable connection. This cooperation is not reducible to rendering medieval and modern approaches to the supernatural coherent. It is not enough to show that they are compatibly parallel descriptions of the same data, answering the same question from different perspectives, for there are two irreducible problems and not just one. Questions that really differ require really different answers. Nor is this cooperation reducible to arguing for the continuity of medieval and modern answers to the problem of the supernatural, for such continuity would, whether it was a formal or a merely material continuity, always only be grounded in the identity of a single question to which the Catholic intellectual tradition has labored cumulatively and progressively to answer. Such continuity may well exist, but to make it the central issue would occlude rather than solve the distinct problems of the supernatural.

Cooperation is required because there are two problems of the supernatural and not only one. Moreover, the irreducibility of these problems to one another owes to the asymmetrical bond that holds them together. Without the medieval problem and its adequate solution (in part, a theory of trans-natural cooperation between God and creatures), there can be no adequate recognition of the modern problem in its full theological scope. Still, as I will discuss in chapters 9 and 10, the integrality of the medieval problem and solution with the modern problem owes precisely to the former’s inadequacy to the modern problem it reveals. Theologians and philosophers could spend lifetimes refining the medieval solution in light of intervening developments and still never adequately address the modern problem. The inadequacy of any medieval solution owes, fittingly enough, to the disproportion of the modern problem to medieval speculative techniques. In brief, the modern problem is relatively supernatural to the medieval solution, though in a sense very much to be determined. Much as our natural powers are elevated by cooperation with God’s grace to habits and acts that merit what we could not without God’s help, so the medieval solution finds an enlarged and enriched horizon in cooperation with the intellectual and methodological developments constitutive of the distinctly modern problem. Indeed, the horizon of the modern problem will be so much enriched and enlarged that theologians may feel it is beyond their power to address. But here too the theorem of the supernatural will be at work, reminding us that it is not just in the first-order work of our living, but also in the second-order vocation to scholarly reflection that we need God’s grace to heal us from the confinement of sin, to elevate us beyond the circumscriptions of finitude, and to stitch us into the supernatural community through which God is at work in the world.

I will show that, as there is a specific obediential potency in human beings for receiving the help of grace, also there is a kind of specific obediential potency in Thomas’s solution to the medieval problem. Thomas’s account of rational process indicates the place that the mediation of meaning has in our knowledge of the real. When this epistemic account finds its proper place in Thomas’s faculty psychology of deliberate action, one can appreciate the place that the mediation of meaning has in Thomas’s account of human agency and therefore the place it has in his account of human cooperation with God. What I will call a “modern philosophical mentality” in chapter 6 offers a chance to recognize that not only does meaning mediate the fully human world of thought and action it also constitutes that world. The constitutive function of meaning rests both at the heart of the Second Enlightenment in general and the modern problem of the supernatural specifically, for it places human freedom beyond itself, not just in the agency by which human beings act but also in the objects about which it deliberates. Where the medieval problem asked in a metaphysical register where and how God’s ad extra agency can be discerned in human freedom, the modern problem asks where and how God’s agency can be discerned in the various nexuses of human action’s products that we call, in general, “culture.” The metaphysics of divine concursus can produce a theology telling us “that” and “how” God is at work in our cultures, but some other approach is needed to theologize in an adequately scientific (or, if you prefer, scholarly) way “what” God is up to therein. Nonetheless, a solution to the modern problem must stand on the synchronic metaphysical structure of the medieval solution in order to attempt some general heuristic for the hermeneutics of God at work in history or what I will call a “theological hermeneutics of culture.” The medieval and modern theological cooperation I have in mind will consist in answering both the “that”/ “how” question and the “what” question in a critical and methodical way.

The relatively supernatural character of the modern problem of the supernatural with regard to its medieval counterpart should not, however, be read as an uncritical baptism of modern culture, science, scholarship, philosophy, or theology as a whole (if one could even synthesize such an aggregate in the first place). It is, instead, to engage in a bit of positive dialectic, selecting that which is authentic in two developments of the Catholic intellectual tradition and advancing them through critical, methodical inquiry and constructive cooperation. Of course, one could engage in the negative dialectics that seek to diagnose what has been inauthentic—which is to say, oblivious, obtuse, irrational, or irresponsible—in the unfolding of the Catholic speculative tradition, whether in its medieval or modern modalities. One would no doubt find much to reverse. However, because facing up to the modern problem requires cooperation with the medieval synthesis, I think I am better served to discern what has been genuine and successful in both ideals and promote them for the sake of traction on this fundamental issue. Where counter-positions stand in the way, one should not shy from venturing his or her best judgment, but I will not be on the hunt for a sweeping diagnosis of all that ails either the modern or the medieval mind on this question or others.

Philosophies, Theologies, and Ambiguities

A final methodological note: my argument in The Ambiguity of Being pivots frequently between philosophy and theology. Moreover, it will shift between medieval and modern ideals of philosophy and theology. These transitions are significant, for a thinker’s methodical frame stands to their ideas as questions stand to answers, insofar as they create a context of validating conditions and an implied criterion of relevance. Moreover, changes in the relationship between methodical frames modify their relative significance in a project of inquiry. I will argue that the separation of philosophy from its subordination to speculative theology transformed philosophy’s self-understanding radically, such that whole new frames of investigation became possible. If that were not complicated enough, developments in theology can occasion new questions and new answers in philosophy, just as developments in philosophy can set the stage for new advances in theology. In chapters 3 and 4 I will discuss how questions and answers in the theology of grace transformed St. Thomas’s philosophy of divine transcendence and ad extra agency. This rebounded to allow his theology of grace to be reconfigured as a systematic account of habitual and actual grace. In some cases, these developments are sufficiently momentous that they transform not just the content of one discipline or the other but also their respective self-understandings. I will show in chapter 6 that the theorem of divine transcendence that emerged from this dialogue between medieval theology and philosophy sowed seeds of an ambiguity that at once helped to justify an autonomous and separated modern philosophy and also undermines the possibility that its autonomy can be anything more than relative.

In a similar way, the development of a modern scientific ideal for philosophy—that it should endeavor to explain the diachronic processes of history, morality, society, and politics in their concreteness—has tendered to theology a new set of questions and techniques that it still struggles to integrate within its methodical self-understanding. I will discuss how these questions and techniques apply to a new way of asking about divine ad extra agency in general and God’s grace specifically that cannot be adequately addressed only according to medieval metaphysical techniques. Indeed, in chapter 8 I will have applied these very metaphysical techniques to the question to show that they do not dissolve the problem’s force. This irreducibly modern problem of the supernatural demands a novel set of questions and techniques. But this set cannot be a mere aggregate and still aim at the unity intended in every intellectual enterprise. Thus, in chapter 11 I will suggest a heuristic that at once unifies these modern questions and thereby also sets their coordination as a criterion for the adequacy of any theology that, on the matter of the supernatural, aspires to do for the twenty-first (or twenty-second) century what Thomas Aquinas did for the thirteenth.

Still, I cannot overlook the way in which this cooperation that runs from modern philosophy to modern theology also rebounds back upon modern philosophy. In the face of the ambiguities medieval philosophy revealed, the pre-philosophical decision to pursue complete explanation by way of a modern philosophy cannot itself be completely explained within an autonomous human method of inquiry. It will always beg its own originating question. Nor can theology undo this basically undecidable decision at philosophy’s beginning. Instead, theology makes explicit its heteronomy by beginning in the “yes” of faith to the created communication of God’s transcendent nature. In this way, theology avows what modern philosophy must always hold in brackets, and so speaks a prophetic word to those modern philosophies that would make of their relative autonomy an absolute tyranny over both subject and object, over being itself. Modern theology can, at the same time, model for modern philosophy the practical humility required to realize the dizzying scope of its orienting aspiration to complete explanation. Finally, I would note that this vulnerable posture of intellectual risk before the ambiguity of being should, if nothing else, disabuse philosophies and theologies of the illusion that their own modernity consists in a triumph over their medieval forebears. They have carried us and we have the responsibility to, cooperatively, take our turn carrying them.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt from The Ambiguity of Being. Reprinted with the kind permission of The Catholic University of America Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Hilfa af Klint, Swans #1, 1915; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Jonathan Heaps

Jonathan Heaps just completed a year as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St Edward’s University.

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