“Felt needs” and the desire for grace

St Thomas Aquinas

Denys Turner, in his book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (see previous post), has an interesting discussion on the extent to which it is possible for human beings to desire God’s grace of their own accord: for reconciliation with God to be, as it were, a “felt need” for us.

In short, Thomas’s answer to this question is: “not in the slightest.” As Turner writes:

It could not be the case that grace answers to known natural need, because what is by nature required must itself be of the natural order that requires it, and therefore not grace. For grace is the free gift of divine friendship that exceeds not only any actual human power to achieve; it exceeds any power of human imagination to conceive, attainable or unattainable. In short, grace cannot answer to natural need as naturally known; for if it did it would not be grace. (p.170)

A further problem is that, in our fallen state, we are “self-deceived” and “self-ignorant”: we do not know our need, and are therefore content to remain in it undisturbed (however discontent we may be with our earthly circumstances).

Therefore, for Thomas it takes grace to know that we are in need of grace; and it takes grace for us to know that there is a possible condition to which nature is restored, a condition far beyond the powers of nature even as they were before the Fall. (p.171)

This is what Thomas means when he says that nature is “perfected” by grace:

not as if, knowing what we want, human beings are by grace given the gift of it, but rather, not knowing what we want, the gift of grace reveals to us the depth and nature of our need, a need that, as heretofore we were, was unknown to us. (p.171)

But things go further than this for Thomas, because grace is not merely rectifying a problem, repairing a defect, that we didn’t know we had:

Grace, therefore, does not exactly answer to our desire, as if we knew what our desire is. Grace answers to desires that only it can arouse in us, showing us what it is that we really want: grace is pure gift, the gift we could not have known that we wanted until we were given it. For grace does not merely solve the problem of the gap opened up by the Fall, restoring us to where we were before Adam’s sin. It goes far beyond and above that, calling us into a friendship which is surplus by an infinite degree to the solution required. (p.171)

In short:

By grace, then, we are not only given what we want. By grace we come to want the grace that we are given.

Or, as John Newton was to put it, 500 years later:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

Thomas Piketty’s challenge to “the 0.1%”

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas PikettySo, a couple of days ago I finished reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’m reliably informed that this means I’m now allowed to have an opinion on the book.

That said, there are still plenty of more learned opinions on Piketty’s book out there, so there is a limit to what I can usefully add here. It probably won’t come as a shock to hear that I enjoyed it and found it persuasive: I was firmly #TeamPiketty before I’d even read the first page, so to some extent the book was just confirming my prejudices.

What did surprise me was how well written and readable it is: helped by an excellent translation, but principally down to Piketty’s own clarity of argument and use of illuminating literary illustrations (principally Balzac and Austen, but with James Cameron’s Titanic occasionally thrown in for light relief).

Some of Piketty’s more enthusiastic supporters initially hailed his book as providing the final, devastating, data-driven, evidence-based proof that social democracy is RIGHT and neoliberal economics is WRONG. Piketty himself disclaims any such ambition, making it clear that arguments over socially sustainable (or morally appropriate) levels of inequality will always remain a matter of politics rather than science, and that:

It is not the purpose of social science research to produce mathematical certainties that can substitute for open, democratic debate in which all shades of opinion are represented. (p.571)

He also acknowledges that his proposals for combating the growth of inequality in the coming decades – such as a global, progressive tax on capital, and a return to confiscatory levels of income tax for the highest earners – are politically unfeasible, an “ideal” against which to measure any proposals that can be made into a reality. (Though he also observes that the idea of a progressive income tax once seemed similarly far-fetched and idealistic.)

However, what Piketty does is to clarify the terms of that debate, and the challenge he places before those who disagree with him – particularly on his recommendations for policies to combat inequality – is for them to be honest about the consequences of their position. Probably the fundamental claim he makes in Capital is that:

it is an illusion to think that something about the nature of modern growth or the laws of the market economy ensures that inequality of wealth will decrease and harmonious stability will be achieved. (p.376)

Yes, you may be “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (or at least, see no cure for this that isn’t worse than the disease). Yes, you may regard it as counterproductive, even immoral, to return to the era of 80%+ top income tax rates (pioneered, counterintuitively, by the USA and Britain). Yes, you may be similarly opposed to a global tax on capital, especially one based on the automatic sharing of financial information between governments.

But in that case, Piketty says, be honest about what the consequences are, especially the consequences of continuing on the current path of a “race to the bottom” in taxation: a return to a world in which concentrations of wealth and income start to approach those of the “Old Europe” whose “suicide” between 1914 and 1945 created the illusion (which still lingers with us) that inequality had been conquered during the years of postwar growth.

Why would such a world be a problem? Partly because of the power that it would give the wealthiest to influence and control the lives of everyone else, subverting democracy. But Piketty is clearly aware that making a moral case against such levels of inequality is not enough. On a number of occasions through the book, he rather drily observes what the long term practical consequences are likely to be of allowing such inequality to flourish:

If, for example, the top decile appropriates 90 percent of each year’s output (and the top centile took 50 percent just for itself, as in the case of wealth), a revolution will likely occur, unless some peculiarly effective repressive apparatus exists to keep it from happening. When it comes to the ownership of capital, such a high degree of concentration is already a source of powerful political tensions, which are often difficult to reconcile with universal suffrage. […] [I]f the same level of inequality applies to the totality of national income, it is hard to imagine that those at the bottom will accept the situation permanently. (p.263)

And not just those at the bottom:

Even if the top thousandth’s capital returned only 4 percent a year, their share would still practically double in thirty years to nearly 40 percent. Once again, the force for divergence at the top of the wealth hierarchy would win out over the global forces of catch-up and convergence, so that the shares of the top decile and centile would increase significantly, with a large upward redistribution from the middle and upper-middle classes to the very rich. Such an impoverishment of the middle class would very likely trigger a violent political reaction. (p.439)

So, in the end, the question that Piketty poses to the “1%” (and, even more, to the “0.1%” of the hyper-wealthy top thousandth), as they calmly contemplate a century that promises to deliver them an ever greater share of global wealth and income, is: do you feel lucky, punk? 

Well, do you?

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)