Praying for the election, with St Thomas Aquinas

Sign at polling stationThree days till polling day, and for many politically-engaged Christians (or is it just me?) the dilemma presents itself: how should we pray concerning the election? Should we pray for “our side” to win, or should we attempt to be more highminded – praying, as it were, for a “good clean fight”, regardless of outcome – lest we turn our prayers into an attempt to canvass the Almighty (“So can we put you down as an ‘undecided’? And will you be needing a lift to the polling station on Thursday?”)

Thomas Aquinas – via Denys Turner – can help us out here. At one point in his book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, Turner discussed what Thomas has to say concerning voluntas, or the “will”. This is a problematic term for modern readers, Turner suggests:

Bluntly, Thomas’s voluntas is not best translated by the English “will” at all. It is more accurately, if more cumbersomely, translated as one translates Aristotle, as rational or “reasoned desire”, that is, desire rationally deliberated as distinct from instinctive or nonrational forms of desire such as is caused in a hungry person by the smell of food. (pp.174ff.)

Another way of putting it is that my “will” consists in what I “really” want – that is, in what will make me happy. This is not without its own problems, given the human capacity for self-deception, but for Thomas it lies at the heart of what “the moral life” is about: developing prudentia, “skill in seeing the moral point of human situations, what true desires are to be met within them.”

How can we do this? How can we start to strip away our self-deception, pierce the veil of our ignorance, and develop this “prudence” in desiring what will make us truly happy, give us what we “really” want?

For Thomas, the answer is: prayer. And Thomas advises that, when we pray, we should pray for what we want: not for what we think we ought to want. As Turner puts it, prayer is in part about self-discovery, and:

…our only available starting point for that practice of self-discovery is our wants and desires as we actually experience them. Therefore, Thomas says, we ought to pray for what we think we want regardless. For prayer is “in a certain manner a hermeneutic of the human will,” so that by way of placing our desires as we experience them before God we are asking also that those desires be “unfolded,” “explicated,” thereby to release their real significance, the real want that is wrapped up in, “implicated” in all their opacity in their form as experienced.

In other words, it is only by praying for what we think we want that we will discover both the real desire that underlies our “wants”, and thus how our desires need to change in order to conform to God’s will for us. The model is Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane:

Therefore, says Thomas, we ought to pray, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, “in response to our animal desire” (secundum sensualitatem). For when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire – for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is – we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will.

Thus we should be praying for what we want, even if we don’t know that it is God’s will – and, what’s more, even if we know it is not God’s will:

Therefore, Thomas concludes, we ought always to pray for what we think we want; for Jesus prayed as he did in Gethsemane so as to teach us just that lesson, namely that it is “permitted for human beings naturally to desire even what [they know] is not God’s will”; and, as if in reinforcement of what for many is a startling thought, he cites the authority of Augustine to the same effect, commenting on the same prayer of Jesus: “It is as if [Jesus] were saying: ‘See yourself in me: for you [too] can wish something for yourself even though God wishes something else.'” Only thus, in the prayer of honest desire, is there any chance of our discovering what are our true desires, our real will.

So, if you are politically partisan, then the proper thing to do in praying about the outcome of the election, for Thomas, is to pray on politically partisan grounds: to pray for a Labour victory, or a Conservative victory, or a Green/Lib Dem/Plaid Cymru/SNP rainbow coalition, or whatever your desired outcome may be. Only by sincerely praying for what you actually want can you sincerely end your prayers with: “yet, not my will but yours be done.” (And even then, I’ll find it a struggle if the answer to that prayer is five more years of Mr Cameron in No.10.)

From the drafts folder: Terry Eagleton on Thomas Aquinas

Terry Eagleton and Thomas AquinasAs I’ve said before, Terry Eagleton seems to have a better understanding of theology than many Christians. He also has an affinity with Dominicans that is as strong as his aversion to the “New Atheists”. So I was glad to read his review last year (£) of Denys Turner’s book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (a book I’ve since read).

At the time, I copied and pasted a bunch of quotes from Eagleton’s review, intending to turn them into a blog post. I never got round to knocking the post into shape, though, so here are most of the quotes with some quick comments from me to string them together. The result may be a little disjointed, but there’s some really good stuff from Eagleton here.

Eagleton’s main theme (as it is for Turner) was the idea of Thomas as a materialist:

Like Marx, Aquinas got into hot water with the authorities for being a materialist. It was not that he held the boring view that there is nothing but matter. His materialism was not some kind of brutal reductionism, any more than Marx’s was. On the contrary, as Denys Turner points out in this superb study, he understood that ‘there is a lot more to matter itself than meets the eye of today’s average materialist.’ His criticism of the materialists with whom he was acquainted was not that they were bad on the subject of mind or spirit, but that they weren’t very good on the subject of matter.

This then influences Thomas’s understanding of the soul (which, gratifying, ends up sounding not a million miles from this blog post I wrote in 2011):

Aquinas believed in the soul, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins do not; but one reason he did so was because he thought it yielded the richest possible understanding of the lump of matter known as the body. As Wittgenstein once remarked: if you want an image of the soul, look at the body. The soul for Thomas is not some ghostly extra, as it was for the Platonising Christians of his time; it is not to be seen as a spiritual kidney or spectral pancreas.

Always good, too, to be reminded that Thomas’s doctrine of word and sacraments have quite a Lutheran flavour to them – especially in seeing the sacraments as a vehicle for the Word:

Behind this belief lay a theology of the incarnate Word, and of the eucharist in particular, in which that Word is present in the workaday stuff of bread and wine in something like the way that meaning is present in a verbal sign.

Thus the Christian message is “materialist” in that it is concerned with stuff: the body; the incarnate Word; water, bread and wine. As Eagleton puts it:

Christianity concerns the transfiguration of the body, not the immortality of the soul.

Eagleton then turns to Thomas’s understanding of God:

God is not in Aquinas’s view some kind of being, principle, entity or individual who could be reckoned up with other such entities. He is not even some kind of person, in the sense that Piers Morgan is arguably a person. God and the universe do not make two. Whatever other errors believers may commit, not being able to count is not one of them. They do not hold that there is one more object in the world than there actually is. God for Aquinas is not a thing in or outside the world, but the ground of possibility of anything whatsoever. If we were to fall out of his hands we would lapse into nothingness; and faith is the trust that however obnoxious we are to each other, he will not let us slip through his fingers.

Eagleton also has a better handle on the doctrine of creation than do many Christians:

The idea that God sustains everything in being by his love is known as the doctrine of Creation. Whatever the new atheists may imagine, it has nothing to do with how the world got off the ground. In fact, Aquinas himself thought it perfectly reasonable to hold with Aristotle that the world never got started at all, but existed from all eternity. He was not of this opinion himself, since the Book of Genesis seemed to rule it out, but he saw nothing inherently implausible about it. The doctrine of Creation is not bogus science, as old-fashioned 19th-century rationalists like Dawkins assume. As Turner argues, it is really about the extreme fragility of things.

Finally, here is Eagleton on Thomas’s view of “the good life”:

It follows from Aquinas’s view of being that the good life is a flourishing, richly abundant one. The more a thing is itself, the finer it becomes. The saints are those who are supremely successful at the exacting task of being human, the George Bests and Jacqueline du Prés of the moral sphere. Morality is not primarily a question of duty and obligation (Turner points out that the Thomist moral lexicon contains scarcely any such terms), but of happiness or well-being. Why we should want to be happy is in Thomas’s view the very prototype of a silly question.

Reckoning and not reckoning

Icons of Abraham and DavidIt’s worth labouring the point that we saw Steven Paulson making in my previous post: that the cross of Christ saves us through a “communication of attributes” in which Christ takes upon himself the attributes of sinful human beings (sin and death) and communicates to us his attributes of righteousness and eternal life.

Paulson argues that this makes Luther’s doctrine of justification distinct from all others. In particular, for Luther, justification is neither “inherent” or “imparted” nor, more surprisingly, “forensic”:

To people operating in the scheme of the law it always seems that two options are possible when it comes to how God reckons or imputes righteousness to faith. One is to say that sinners must become righteous in themselves – as judged by the law – before God can rightly declare them just. This could either be done straight-way by works, or by a mystical participation in that which is “above” the sinner; that is, in God’s own being. The other is to say that sinners can be declared righteous, forensically as in a court of law – though they are not actually righteous in themselves. A debtor deserves punishment, but if a generous patron paid the debt it may be right for a judge to let a criminal go free. In either case, the key is that the law remains the form of righteousness.

Perhaps Luther, and a handful of others, are the only theologians ever to reject both of these options. (Lutheran Theology, p.124)

For Luther, it’s not simply that Christ has met the standard for righteousness before the law, and that we can then benefit from this “legal” righteousness of Christ according to some abstract scheme:

For the Lutherans, Christ is the only righteousness, and his righteousness is preached by a word of promise that says, “Your sins are forgiven.” How? “On my account (propter Christum).” Hearing this word makes faith, and this faith is reckoned or imputed as righteous, though there is no righteousness there by any measure of law – including the presence of love as caritas. (p.129)

Christ’s declaration that I am forgiven and righteous on his account – despite all appearances to the contrary – is no mere “fiction”, any more than is Christ’s declaration, of a piece of bread, that “this is my body”; again, despite all appearances to the contrary. For Lutherans, St Thomas Aquinas’ words (as translated by Hopkins) not only express perfectly our doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, but our doctrine of justification:

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

This “reckoning” of righteousness has two parts, which St Paul describes in Romans 4:1-8. First is the reckoning that Abraham experienced: the reckoning of righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3). Second is the reckoning that David experienced: the not reckoning of sin (Psalm 32:1-2, Romans 4:7-8):

This reckoning and not reckoning is precisely the application of the communicatio idiomatum of Christ’s two natures, in which Christ takes your sin upon himself, and in its place puts his forgiveness – which is life now and eternal life to come. When Christ takes sin he no longer “imputes” it; indeed, he takes it out of you (exputes it). Then he reckons, or creates faith as righteousness since that faith trusts his promise of forgiveness just as Abraham trusted God’s promise to him of the Seed – and this trust in the promise is reckoned as righteousness by God, period. (p.131)

One small way in which this can be brought down to earth for us in concrete terms. The other day, the appointed psalm for the evening was Psalm 18, which includes the following verses

The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his ordinances were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.
Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

Singing such things can be a challenge for us: “What ‘righteousness’?” we may feel; “What ‘cleanness of my hands’?” But this is to look at things in “the scheme of the law”. Shocking though it may feel to us, the “communication of attributes” between us and Christ means we can make those words our own, just as much as Christ as made our sins his own on the cross.

Whether the incarnation is self-contradictory?

St Thomas AquinasObjection: It seems that the incarnation of Christ is self-contradictory. For, as John Hick says, to say that Jesus was both man and God is like saying the same shape can be both a square and a circle.

On the contrary, The Apostle Thomas says in John 20, “My Lord and my God!”

I answer that, For two propositions to be contradictory, they must occupy the same logical space, so that a comparison is possible between them. It is true that there is a contradiction between saying that the same shape can be both a square and a circle. However, there is no contradiction in saying that a shape can be both a square and yellow; or between “being yellow” and “its being 4.00 pm on Friday 26 October 2011.” As St Thomas Aquinas painstakingly shows in his doctrine of God, “there is not, and there could not be, any such common territory” between Creator and creature; hence “all possibility of exclusion between them is excluded.”

Reply to Objection: “It is precisely because of, not in spite of, the absoluteness of the difference between Creator and creature that the possibility of that immanence which is the incarnation, an indwelling of the divine and the human in the one person of Christ, is conceivable. […] [O]nly on a thoroughly idolatrous notion of God, one that reduces God to the standing of a creature, could it be true that, as Hick maintains, there is a contradiction in saying of one and the same person that he is truly human, truly divine.”

Based on Denys Turner’s argument on pp.224ff. of Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. In jotting down my own brief summary of Turner’s argument, it seemed to fall naturally into this format… 

“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!

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.”

Thinking through dialectic

At the very end of Ellul par lui-même (see previous posts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4), Jacques Ellul “goes meta”, with an illuminating discussion not of what he thinks, but of how he thinks; and, indeed, how modern humanity in general thinks:

To conclude, I return to the subject of dialectic. Dialectic is a way of thinking and of understanding reality that has become habitual and standard in the western world as a result of Marx’s influence and the rediscovery of the importance of Hegel’s thought.

Dialectic, he continues, is a way of thinking that “doesn’t exclude contraries, but includes them”. That isn’t to say it can be reduced to a simplistic formula of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”:

Dialectic is infinitely more versatile and profound than that.

Ellul gives the example of a living organism. Rather than there being a “clear and evident opposition between life and death”, it is now apparent that within any living organism there is an equilibrium between the forces that maintain and renew the organism and those that work to destroy it. The organism develops as these equilibriums between “the forces of life and the forces of death” develop and change.

The same situation is found in our historical situation, which has both “positive” and “negative” features: the one cannot simply eliminate the other, and nor can they be combined into like mixing black and white to make grey. Rather, the synthesis comes in a new historical situation that integrates what had previously been contradictory elements.

That all sounds rather abstract, but we can see how it works in more concrete terms by looking at what Ellul considers to be the origin of modern dialectical thought: not Marx or Hegel, nor the ancient Greeks, but the Bible, in particular the Old Testament and St Paul.

What the Old Testament and the writings of St Paul have in common is:

In these two texts, two contradictory things are always affirmed, which we are told come together to bring about a new situation.

As an example, Ellul alludes to two apparently contradictory statements of Paul: “by grace you have been saved … not as the result of works”, and “work out your salvation by fear and trembling”. “You are saved by grace, therefore save yourself by your works”, as Ellul paraphrases it. He continues:

It is a dialectical thought: from the moment you are saved, you are integrated into a narrative, a process which brings about the salvation which you have been given in advance, but which you have to realise, to accomplish, to take in hand. … This is something contradictory, but it is not contradictory when you live it out. … In the course of your life, it is resolved perfectly.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, the people of Israel are liberated from Egypt, but then immediately put under the direction of God. This is an apparent contradiction: surely it amounts to putting a newly-freed people back into a form of slavery? On the contrary:

The Bible tells us that God, having liberated his people, directs them, while at the same time respecting their initiative and independence. They must constantly reclaim the conditions of their liberation, as the Jewish people have done.

To receive God’s freedom is to accept his direction, something that is “difficult to understand intellectually”, but which we live out concretely. Ellul cites Karl Barth to say:

when it is said that on the one hand there is the liberty of God, and on the other hand the liberty that God gives humanity, it is a question of living our human liberty within the liberty of God.

It seems to me that this same dialectical mode of thought can be seen in the “double causation” – divine and natural – by which I’ve suggested before that Thomas Aquinas can help resolve the supposed conflict between “science” and “religion”. As Ellul puts it:

Logically this is impossible, but dialectically it works.

I found this section of Ellul’s book illuminating and liberating. It seemed to reveal to me more clearly how I tend to think: with a certain willingness to hold apparent contradictions in tension, pending further information or new circumstances. It’s probably also why I find Ellul (among others) so congenial a thinker.

O mystic rose

This magnificent window is the thirteenth-century north rose window at Notre-Dame de Paris. St Thomas Aquinas would have seen this window when it was brand new – a pretty mind-boggling thought.

That observation is made by Fr Robert Barron in his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of Faith (see previous post). Fr Barron continues by describing the window as a demonstration of St Thomas’s description of beauty as “occurring at the intersection of three elements: wholeness, harmony and radiance”.

But as Fr Barron goes on to point out, this window’s beauty is more than skin-deep. It is rich in symbolism intended to give “a foretaste of the beauty of the beatific vision”.

First, there is its numerical symbolism:

Around the central figures of Christ and his mother are eight small circles. Then on the next major row we find sixteen circular images (medaillons in French), and on the next twice sixteen, or thirty-two, images, and then finally another row of thirty-two. If we add thirty-two, thirty-two, sixteen, and eight, we arrive at eighty-eight. In a word, the entire window is an artistic meditation on the number eight.

Eight is “a symbol of eternity, since it stands immediately outside of seven, which evokes the seven days of the week, or the completed cycle of time”.

A second important area of symbolism is the window’s complexity. When Fr Barron first visited Paris as a young man, he returned to Notre-Dame every day to look at this window, “partly because there was so much to take in”. He continues:

The vision of God is like that. Saint Bernard said that heaven will slake our thirst, but the very slaking will, paradoxically, make us thirsty for more. We will know all that we want to know, but that very satisfaction will convince us how much we don’t know. Thomas Aquinas said that what the saints in heaven grasp for the first time is just how incomprehensible God is and therefore just what an adventure the life of heaven will be.

The north rose window at Notre-Dame reflects only one tiny facet of the incomprehensible, inexhaustible God who has revealed himself to us in Christ and whom we encounter in his church. But what a facet!

The Beatitudes and true happiness

Fr Robert Barron has an interesting analysis of the Beatitudes in his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of Faith. Fr Barron begins by observing that “Blessed” is the first word uttered by Jesus in his role as “the new Moses” (as St Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount presents him):

The Greek term in Matthew’s Gospel is makarios, which is probably best rendered with the simple word “happy.” The law that the new Moses offers is a pattern of life that promises, quite simply, to make us happy.

To see how the beatitudes set out “a pattern of life to make us happy”, Fr Barron suggests an analysis which distinguishes between the “positive” and “negative” beatitudes. Working out from the centre, the four “positive” beatitudes are:

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

The four “negative” beatitudes (those which can strike us as “confounding and counterintuitive) are then:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Fr Barron suggests that these four beatitudes address the ways in which “the mysterious curvature of the will that we call original sin” cause us to “deviate from the very actions and attitudes that will make us happy”: in particular, the way we try to satisfy our hunger for God with created things. Following Thomas Aquinas, Barron identifies these as wealth, pleasure, power, and honour, which he describes as four “addictions”.

So “blessed are the poor in spirit” is “neither a romanticizing of economic poverty nor a demonization of wealth”, but rather “a formula for detachment”: for freeing ourselves from our addiction to wealth and material things.

Similarly, “blessed are those who mourn” can be expressed, Fr Barron suggests, as “how blessed you are if you are not addicted to good feelings”. Pleasure is a good thing in itself – and Jesus is not calling us to a puritanical renunciation of all pleasant sensations – but when we treat pleasure as an absolute good, it becomes an addiction that can rule our lives.

“Blessed are the meek” is about breaking our addiction to worldly power. Again, Jesus is not saying that any exercise of political power is always wrong, but about being detached from the drive to power that can be “the strongest, most irresistible temptation of all”.

Finally, “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” addresses our addiction to personal honour, to being well thought-of. “Many people who are not terribly attracted to wealth, pleasure, or power are held captive by their desire for the approval of others,” Fr Barron observes. To be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, by contrast, is to face mockery and dishonour for the sake of the crucified Christ.

And it is this crucified Christ who best exemplifies what he teaches in the beatitudes:

Thomas Aquinas said that if you want to see the perfect exemplification of the beatitudes, you should look to Christ crucified. The saint specified this observation as follows: if you want beatitude (happiness), despise what Jesus despised on the cross and love what he loved on the cross.

On the cross, Jesus despised the four worldly addictions of wealth, pleasure, power and honour, as he was stripped naked; suffered physical, mental and spiritual agony; rendered helpless and powerless; and exposed to the ultimate of dishonour through suffering the death of a common criminal.

What did Jesus love on the cross? “The will of his Father.” And loving the will and mission of his Father to the end, he was able to live out the beatitudes to the full, with what he loved and what he despised on the cross being “in a strange balance”:

Poor in spirit, meek, mourning, and persecuted, he was able to be pure of heart, to seek righteousness utterly, to become the ultimate peacemaker, and to be the perfect conduit of the divine mercy to the world. Though it is supremely paradoxical to say so, the crucified Jesus is the man of beatitude, a truly happy man.

Atheism and the nature of existence

One result of my recent reading of St Thomas Aquinas has been changing my perspective on the atheism vs theism debate.

This debate is usually expressed, by those on both sides, as a debate as to whether God exists. So to move (as I have done in my life) from believing in God to being an atheist to believing in God again is to start by thinking that some entity called “God” exists, then to think that no such entity exists, and then to go back to thinking that an entity called “God” does exist.

However, Thomas argues that we cannot talk about God “existing” in the same way that created things exist. God is existence. Similarly, God is goodness (not just “good”), and he is love, and so on.

In other words, the debate between atheism and theism is not a debate about whether God exists – a debate that can, and does, swirl around fruitlessly for as long as the participants can summon up the will. Rather, it is a debate about the nature of existence.

As the Canadian philosopher George Grant put it:

What is given us in the word ‘God’ is that goodness and purpose are the source and completion of all that is.

In other words, faith in God, as Christians understand him, is a claim that existence is fundamentally personal; that goodness (a word which here encompasses truth, beauty, love and all the rest) and purpose are hardwired into reality at its most fundamental level, in the sense of being both its “source” and “completion”.

Atheism, by contrast, is a claim that, at root, existence is fundamentally impersonal. It’s not that atheists deny the reality of “goodness and purpose” (though some do), but to be an atheist is to deny that goodness and purpose “are the source and completion of all that is”. Rather, they are something that we as human beings create for ourselves, a shaking of the fist at a cold and indifferent universe – an image not without its attractions, but a very different conception of reality from the one that “is given us in the word ‘God’.”

This also suggests that the difference between atheism and belief in God is ultimately a matter of competing aesthetics rather than logic.