The end of the mind’s tether: St Thomas’s “third way”

Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, by Denys Turner“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

This may not be a question that we ask ourselves every day, but it is still (as Denys Turner puts it in his book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait) a question that “demands to be asked” by the “nature of rationality itself”.

Prof Turner discusses it as part of his spirited defence of the third of St Thomas’s “five ways” of proving the existence of God, the argument from “contingency” (that is, the argument that a universe made up of “contingent causes” must be underpinned by a non-contingent, “necessary” cause: God). As Turner observes, this argument has frequently been criticised, even ridiculed. Critics insist that Thomas is making a basic logical error: that there is no need to require a non-contingent or “necessary” cause for the chain of contingent causes that constitute the observed universe. After all, the universe could be like an infinitely long rope made up of individual threads of finite length: “Just because each of its threads has a beginning and an end it does not follow that the rope does.”

Turner, however, says that this misunderstands Thomas’s argument. Thomas knows full well that the universe could be unlimited in duration, without beginning or end – like the infinitely long rope made up of individual threads. It is only on separate grounds of faith that he believes that in fact the universe happens to have had a beginning. Rather, what Thomas is pointing to is the deeper question with which I opened this post: “How come there is anything at all?”

As Turner puts it:

We can ask that question; indeed, to refuse to do so is irrational. The ability to do so is what the word “rational” names, a power to question that is also an obligation. But there is no answer to be found within the things that exist as to why there is not nothing rather than something, not nothing rather than anything at all. (p.142)

It’s often pointed out today (quite correctly) that the Big Bang theory does not represent a point at which we “must” posit a divine creator to “light the blue touchpaper and retire”. Various mechanisms are proposed by which the “something” of the universe could indeed have come from the “nothing” of what came “before” the Big Bang. Alternatively, it is suggested that the universe is just one part of a “multiverse”. This misses the point, however. Thomas is going deeper than this:

For as Thomas makes clear, the making that is out of nothing is not to be thought of as if there were some soupy kind of undifferentiated lawless stuff called “nothing” out of which what there is was made by some explanatory causal process. The nothing, he explains, governs the “out of,” so as to say: there is a making here, but it is a making with no “out of” at all, no process, no antecedent conditions, no “random fluctuations in a vacuum,” no explanatory law of emergence, and, there being nothing for the “something” to be “out of,” there can be no physics, not yet, for there is nothing yet for physics to get an explanatory grip on. (p.142)

The Big Bang – and, for that matter, a “multiverse” theory – may explain “the natural laws governing the something that exists”, but they can’t explain “how come there is anything for those physical laws to be true of.”

At this point, “the head spins”, because it is impossible for us to comprehend what it could mean for absolutely nothing to exist – for us to understand how “Why anything?” can be a meaningful question:

Here in the apotheosis of reason is its chief instrument, language, finally defeated. [...] At the end of its tether, the human mind, in its characteristically rational modality of interrogating the world, finally falls silent before the mystery of the unknowable Godhead. (p.143)

And it is this Unknowable, which we find “where the mind reaches the end of its tether”, that Thomas describes as:

“what all people refer to when they speak of God.”

Simone Weil and perfectly pure desire

Simone WeilI’ve been intrigued by the French philosopher, anarchist and mystic, Simone Weil (1909-1943), ever since hearing a lecture about her by Rowan Williams (from the same Holy Week series as Dr Williams’ lecture on Etty Hillesum). Earlier this year, I came across a cheap edition of some her essays, and have recently made a start on reading it. A free copy is available here. (I haven’t been able to find an English version, so what you get in this post is my attempt at translation.)

In the title essay, Thoughts without order concerning the love of God, Weil discusses the condition of humanity that she calls “le mal”. This translates as “evil”, but it’s important to note that the English word carries stronger moral overtones than is necessarily the case in French. As we’ll see, Weil sees le mal in wider terms than (moral) evil, though such evil is certainly included within her use of the expression.

Everyone is aware of evil; they fear it and wish to be delivered from it. Evil is neither suffering nor sin: it is one and the other at the same time, something that each has in common. For they are linked: sin leads to suffering, and suffering produces evil, and this indissoluble mixture of suffering and sin is the evil in which we are trapped, to our horror. (p.13)

This description reminds me of Francis Spufford’s redefinition of “sin” as the HPtFtU (“the human propensity to f–k things up”).

Weil goes on to describe how we project this evil onto the things we desire, which leads us to see those things themselves as the source of the evil. We can end up hating our loved ones and the places where we live and work, seeing them as the cause of our woes.

How can we find a remedy for this? Weil continues:

But if, by our attention and our desire, we transfer some of our evil onto something perfectly pure, the pure thing cannot be defiled; it remains pure. It does not return the evil back onto us, and thus we are delivered. (p.13)

What sort of “perfectly pure things” can absorb our sin and suffering, our evil, in this way? Weil gives two examples:

The words of the Our Father are perfectly pure. If we recite the Our Father without any other intention than to give its words as much attention as we are capable, we can be completely certain that we are delivered by it from a part, however small, of the evil that we carry within us. In the same way, if we gaze at the Blessed Sacrament without any thought other than that Christ is there; and so on. (p.14)

This is the part of Weil’s essay that had the biggest impact on me. Why pray the Lord’s Prayer? Following Weil, we can see that one benefit of praying the Lord’s Prayer is that it enables us to give voice to desires – “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, give us today our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses…” – that we can be sure are good and right desires to have. Weil’s “perfectly pure” things – the Lord’s Prayer, the Blessed Sacrament – are thus a foretaste of heaven, where (as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Silver Chair) “you cannot want wrong things any more”.

Thus we have the remedy for our evil. It’s not that we cease to suffer – quite the opposite – but that suffering ceases to be inseparably bound up with sin:

Contact with purity produces a transformation in evil. The indissoluble mixture of suffering and sin is separated by it. Through this contact, little by little suffering ceases to be mixed up with sin; while sin is transformed into mere suffering. This supernatural operation is what we call repentance. The evil that we carry within us is thus illuminated by joy. (p.15)

All this in turn is founded on the work of Christ:

It suffices that a perfectly pure being was found present on earth as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, on whom the greatest possible amount of every type of evil was concentrated in the form of suffering. He has left as a remembrance of him these perfectly pure things, where he is present. If he had not been present, their purity would have been dissipated by their contact with evil. (p.15)

The song of St Athanasius

St AthanasiusIn his discussion of “notional” vs “real” assent to the Trinity (see previous post), Newman gives a particular example of a real, concrete, devotional expression of the doctrine of the Trinity, one that may surprise many of us who recited it in church this morning: the Athanasian Creed.

The Athanasian Creed is often regarded as a turgid succession of baffling notions. As the old joke goes: “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible.” I’ve always loved it, though, and Newman helps me understand why.

Partly it is that (as we saw in my previous post) the Athanasian Creed isn’t as abstract as it appears at first glance. Rather, it is founded on the concrete language of “Person, Father, Son, Spirit, He, One” that Newman sees as the material of “real assent”, rather than the abstract terminology of “notional assent” (“substance, essence, existence, form,” and so on). But Newman goes further, by extolling the emotional and imaginative power of the “Quicunque Vult”:

It must be recollected especially that the Athanasian Creed has sometimes been called the “Psalmus Quicunque.” It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn, first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe, and yet believe not. (p.133)

Newman quotes an 1833 poem on the Athanasian Creed, which describes it as:

The Psalm that gathers in one glorious lay
All chants that e’er from heaven to earth found way;
Creed of the Saints, and Anthem of the Blest,
And calm-breathed warning of the kindliest love
That ever heaved a wakeful mother’s breast.

He continues:

For myself, I have ever felt it as the most simple and sublime, the most devotional formulary to which Christianity has given birth, more so even than the Veni Creator and the Te Deum. Even the antithetical form of its sentences, which is a stumbling-block to so many, as seeming to force, and to exult in forcing a mystery upon recalcitrating minds, has to my apprehension, even notionally considered, a very different drift.

It is intended as a check upon our reasonings, lest they rush on in one direction beyond the limits of the truth, and it turns them back into the opposite direction. Certainly it implies a glorying in the Mystery; but it is not simply a statement of the Mystery for the sake of its mysteriousness.

So perhaps that’s another tip for next year’s Trinity Sunday services. Don’t say the Athanasian Creed. Sing it.

The Holy Trinity as notion and reality

The Visitation of Abraham, by Andrei RublevFor Trinity Sunday, here are some thoughts on the Trinity from Bl. John Henry Newman, in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (see previous post).

One of the distinctions Newman makes in the Grammar of Assent is between “notional” assent and “real” assent. “Notional” assent is when we assent to a proposition as a mere idea, an abstract truth. “Real” assent is when we assent to a proposition as a concrete “thing”, something that can have a real practical expression. Newman gives the example of how Christians had long been able to give notional assent to the abstract proposition that “slavery is wrong”, but British society only took decisive action against slavery when William Wilberforce and his colleagues were able, gradually, to transform this into a real assent to the concrete proposition that “we must end the slave trade and free the slaves”.

Newman argues that, in matters of religion, notional assent is the province of theology, while real assent is the domain of religious belief. Both are good and necessary, but a distinction needs to be made between them. He discusses the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as an example of this. Is this doctrine ultimately a matter of abstract notions (as it can often feel), or “does it admit of being held in the imagination, and of being embraced with a real assent”?

Most of the language used in the Creeds and other classical statements of the Trinity consists of words that have a plain sense in everyday language:

The words, Father, Son, Spirit, He, One, and the rest, are not abstract terms, but concrete, and adapted to excite images. And these words thus simple and clear, are embodied in simple, clear, brief, categorical propositions. There is nothing abstruse either in the terms themselves, or in their setting. (pp.127f.)

Contrast the language of “formal theological treatises” on this subject:

There we find such words as substance, essence, existence, form, subsistence, notion, circumincession; and, though these are far easier to understand than might at first sight be thought, still they are doubtless addressed to the intellect, and can only command a notional assent.

Newman goes on to set out the nine concrete propositions that make up the dogma of the Trinity. All of these, it will be seen, use the concrete language of the first quotation above, rather than the abstract terminology of the second:

  1. There are Three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word or Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  2. From the Father is, and ever has been, the Son.
  3. From the Father and Son is, and ever has been, the Spirit.
  4. The Father is the One Eternal Personal God.
  5. The Son is the One Eternal Personal God.
  6. The Spirit is the One Eternal Personal God.
  7. The Father is not the Son.
  8. The Son is not the Holy Ghost.
  9. The Holy Ghost is not the Father.

Each of these, taken separately, is a concrete proposition in readily intelligible language, something that admits of “real” assent. It is this language that fills the Creeds – even the Athanasian Creed. This demonstrates that:

the dogma may be taught in its fulness for the purposes of popular faith and devotion without directly insisting on that mysteriousness, which is necessarily involved in the combined view of its separate propositions. That systematized whole is the object of notional assent, and its propositions, one by one, are the objects of real.

Or, as Newman puts it a few pages earlier:

Break a ray of light into its constituent colours, each is beautiful, each may be enjoyed; attempt to unite them, and perhaps you produce only a dirty white. The pure and indivisible Light is seen only by the blessed inhabitants of heaven; here we have but such faint reflections of it as its diffraction supplies; but they are sufficient for faith and devotion. Attempt to combine them into one, and you gain nothing but a mystery, which you can describe as a notion, but cannot depict as an imagination. (p.132)

Perhaps all this helps us understand the problem with too many Trinity Sunday sermons. They make a half-hearted and awkward attempt to address the abstract mystery of the Trinity, rather than following the example of the Bible (“which is addressed far more to the imagination and affections than to the intellect”), the Creeds and the Liturgy – not to mention icons such as that which illustrates this post – by focusing on the concrete propositions that are the material for “real assent” and for “popular faith and devotion”.

Why people don’t go to church

A redundant church. Photo by Jeff Buck, copyright and licensing information here.

A redundant church. Photo by Jeff Buck, copyright and licensing information here.

As a postscript to my previous post, here is a quick thought on modern English attitudes towards churchgoing, from Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s wonderful 1991 portrait of the Church of England, The Church Hesitant (now out of print, but highly enjoyable if you happen upon a copy).

Ms Maxtone Graham’s chapter titled “Going to Church and Not Going to Church” opens as follows:

The truth spoken with disarming simplicity appeals to the Anglican taste for aphorism. The Very Revd Ian White-Thompson, who is old and good and used to be the Dean of Canterbury, told the following when I went to see him in Wye. He spoke in a soft, frail voice which was almost a whisper. “You know, a Scottish friend said this to me once, and I’ve never forgotten it. The reason why people don’t go to church is because they don’t want to. The reason why people don’t go to church is because they don’t want to.” The simple and bleak pronouncement had lodged itself in his memory. He thought about it often, and it seemed to have a ring of profound truth about it. (p.123)

Ms Maxtone Graham then drops into a pub in Essex at lunchtime on a Sunday and interviews 22 people, none of whom had been to church that morning. Few of them are outright hostile to the church when asked about it, but her experience leads Ms Maxtone Graham to conclude that:

The pronouncement that is lodged in Dean White-Thompson’s memory does not go far enough. People don’t go to church because it doesn’t even occur to them that they might. It plays no part at all in their weekly life or thoughts. (pp.124f.)

This, I suspect, is most certainly true. As, I expect, is this further conclusion (though perhaps to a diminishing extent):

People expect the church to be there and would be horrified if it suddenly weren’t. They use it at certain important moments in their life, and it doesn’t occur to them to wonder who keeps it going. (p.125)

Post-Christian, or post-”Bible Religion”?

Blessed John Henry Cardinal NewmanIt’s widely accepted that Britain is a “post-Christian” society – which, of course, presupposes that it was once a “Christian” society. Certainly it seems undeniable that Britain had a distinct religious identity for much of the past that it lacks now, but what was the nature of that religious identity?

In his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, written in 1870, Bl. John Henry Newman argues that for “Catholic populations” – he cites medieval Europe, Catholic Spain and Orthodox (“quasi-Catholic”) Russia – “the Supreme Being, our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, Angels and Saints, heaven and hell, are as present as if they were objects of sight”. In contrast, he saw the national religion of England as one of “sentiment”, of assent to mere “notions”:

Objects are barely necessary to it. I do not say so of old Calvinism or Evangelical Religion; I do not call the religion of Leighton, Beveridge, Wesley, Thomas Scott, or Cecil a mere sentiment; nor do I so term the high Anglicanism of the present generation. But these are only denominations, parties, schools, compared with the national religion of England in its length and breadth.

What was this national religion? Newman continues:

“Bible Religion” is both the recognized title and the best description of English religion. It consists, not in rites or creeds, but mainly in having the Bible read in Church, in the family, and in private.

This was far from being entirely a bad thing, even if Newman is somewhat backhanded in the compliments he pays to it:

Now I am far indeed from undervaluing that mere knowledge of Scripture which is imparted to the population thus promiscuously. At least in England, it has to a certain point made up for great and grievous losses in its Christianity.

In short, this “Bible Religion” amounted to little more than “reading the Bible and living a correct life”, while sitting rather loose to the details of the doctrine professed by the Church:

It is not a religion of persons and things, of acts of faith and of direct devotion; but of sacred scenes and pious sentiments. It has been comparatively careless of creed and catechism; and has in consequence shown little sense of the need of consistency in the matter of its teaching.

Not that it was therefore entirely lacking in significant doctrinal content:

What Scripture especially illustrates from its first page to its last, is God’s Providence; and that is nearly the only doctrine held with a real assent by the mass of religious Englishmen. Hence the Bible is so great a solace and refuge to them in trouble. I repeat, I am not speaking of particular schools and parties in England, whether of the High Church or the Low, but of the mass of piously-minded and well-living people in all ranks of the community.

There seems to be no doubt that this “Bible Religion” of “the mass of piously-minded and well-living people in all ranks of the community” has now almost entirely disappeared from English life – though it has some parallels with the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that has been described as the prevailing religious belief system among American young people.

But the demise of “Bible Religion” as our prevailing social ideology may have led people to exaggerate the extent to which a more solidly grounded Christian faith has declined, whether that’s the heirs of “old Calvinism or Evangelical Religion”, the “high Anglicanism” of the 19th century Anglo-Catholic Revival, or the Catholic Church itself. Maybe a faith in “the Supreme Being, our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, Angels and Saints, heaven and hell, […] as if they were objects of sight” has always been a minority pursuit, as it remains today. It’s just more obvious today.

This isn’t to say that something significant and positive hasn’t been lost. As Newman puts it, the benefits of “Bible Religion” were not trivial, and nor is their loss:

The reiteration again and again, in fixed course in the public service, of the words of inspired teachers under both Covenants, and that in grave majestic English, has in matter of fact been to our people a vast benefit. It has attuned their minds to religious thoughts; it has given them a high moral standard; it has served them in associating religion with compositions which, even humanly considered, are among the most sublime and beautiful ever written; especially, it has impressed upon them the series of Divine Providences in behalf of man from his creation to his end, and, above all, the words, deeds, and sacred sufferings of Him in whom all the Providences of God centre.

Dunstan: statesman, prelate, monk, patriot – and saint

St Dunstan kneels at the feet of ChristToday is the feast of St Dunstan (909-988), a figure who perhaps ought to be better known than he is. Today’s Universalis has a good essay on him, in which it describes him as:

one of the three makers of England before the Norman Conquest: the others being King Alfred and King Athelstan.

The image illustrating this post is reputed to feature a self-portrait of Dunstan – namely, the figure in the bottom-right corner, kneeling at the feet of Christ. Clerk of Oxford explains that the text written alongside him says:

Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere
Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas

(I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan;
do not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me).

Dunstan was clearly a remarkable figure. He was highly skilled in the arts of music, manuscript illumination and metalwork, to the extent that he seems have been dismissed from Athelstan’s court at the age of 26 after arousing his peers’ jealousy. He was restored to royal favour under King Edmund, who appointed him abbot of Glastonbury, from where he proceeded to rebuild English Benedictinism, cornerstone of the tradition of “English spirituality”.

In AD 960, Dunstan was appointed archbishop of Canterbury by King Edgar, and devised the coronation service for Edgar, which remains the basis of the British coronation service to this day. He also drew up the Regularis Concordia, which set out a version of the Rule of St Benedict for use by all monasteries in England – as well as, perhaps, having another lasting impact on English Christianity:

Remembering St Dunstan’s skill and delight in bell-making, we might note with gratitude his enduring influence the next time we hear the bells ringing from the parish church in some pretty English village, for, according to Peter Blair, there is “a sentence which recurs in the Regularis Concordia almost as a refrain,” and we might imagine that St Dunstan’s hand wrote it: “‘then all the bells shall peal.’”

When Ethelred (“the Unready”) became king in 978, Dunstan – who had backed Ethelred’s elder brother, Edward, for the throne – spent the next ten years concentrating on the affairs of his diocese, before dying in AD 988. He was immediately acclaimed as a saint, for reasons described by Edmund Bishop in an article quoted as the second reading for today’s Office of Readings:

It was neither the statesman, the prelate, the monk, the patriot – though he was all these – who was thus honoured and venerated, but the man in whom those who had conversed and acted with him, seen and known him, had recognized the features of unworldliness, humbleness of heart, and love of God, which in their minds were associated with the idea of a saint.

As can be seen from just the brief sketch above, St Dunstan led a busy life, one which involved him for many years in the demanding politics of Anglo-Saxon court life. Not ideal circumstances, one might think, to impress people with your sanctity, yet (by the grace of God) Dunstan managed it. What was his secret? Edmund Bishop continues:

Thrown more than any other in the midst of the world and its cares, Dunstan walked in a sense alone; he felt the responsibilities imposed on him both by his position and his commanding character which necessarily made him a leader: others might rely upon him, he could lean on God alone. Recollection in God became thus the constant habit of his mind, so that when seemingly immersed in the tumult of secular affairs he could without break or effort pass on at once and enter face to face into the Divine Presence.

Maybe he should be the patron saint of busy people, or of politicians (to add to his existing patronage of metalworkers). In any case, that last quotation suggests that he provides a model for how Christians today can learn, when “immersed in the tumult of secular affairs”, to pass on “without break or effort … and enter face to face into the Divine Presence.”