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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

God as Transcendental Given

Why do we wonder how it can be that consciousness exists?  Why do we try to explain the phenomenon, break it up into its component parts, comprehend the act of consciousness?  

So far from being a mystery, consciousness is the most obvious phenomenon of nature - a phenomenon prior to, and more obvious than, any explanation we could give of it.  Descartes hit upon a deep insight when he put consciousness as the most fundamental datum of phenomenology, although the later phenomenologists were equally correct to insist on the primordiality (we might say co-primordiality) of the contents of consciousness.  

In light of this, the perspective of the objective scientific worldview can be a distraction from the ordinary, usual human way of looking at the world.  It is not marvelous that we should be conscious, but rather that there should exist a material being which is not conscious.  It is only through accustomization that we accept the material world; the only self-evident truths are the spiritual truths.  

Indeed, as Descartes tried rather unconvincingly to prove rigorously, the only self-evident truth is that something should exist which is both a knowing (conscious) being and a necessary one.  I AM is the foundation of all our knowledge; it is only our immersion in the sensible world that has made it mysterious to us.  I repeat, it is natural to think and unnatural to be an object; it is the rock that needs explaining, not the mind.  What is only mysterious about the mind is its contingency.  How is it possible for me not to exist?  How can one imagine what it would be like to not exist, the experience of the world without existing to experience it?  And who can imagine the world apart from our experience of it?  Necessity is the only truly natural state for consciousness.  

All genuine philosophy begins in persona Dei; it is quite wondrous that we have realized our own non-divinity.  I AM is a transcendental given; it lies coprimordially with the contents of consciousness in every thought and every act of the mind, no matter how creative or abstract.  That our minds can even imagine a reality which does not experience the "I AM" - inert matter - is hence the real mystery to be solved.  If one were to speculate on the nature of the angels, one must think that they, in all their intellectual vision, cannot understand matter – or if they can, that to them it seems an unnatural and arbitrary thing compared to the awesome obviousness of Mind.  

I do not suggest that we should understand mind; to understand anything fully is to be able to reproduce it; therefore only God can understand Mind, for only God can create contingent intellects, and only God is His own understanding of Himself (again, philosophy – as all true philosophy does – leads to the Trinity).  We know that the created world exists because we see it; only God’s existence is too obvious to need sight.  

God is a fundamental, simple primary a priori truth; that is to say, it is the a basic thing we know without having to think about it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Transcendental Thomism, Orthodox Apocalyptic Theology, and the Eucharist

In his semi-recent blog post "The American Apocalypse," Fr. Stephen Freeman references the eminent Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in pointing to a basic difference in perspective between the Orthodox and Latin approaches to the sacraments.  The sacraments, Fr. Schmemann said, do not make things to be what they are not; rather, the sacraments reveal things to be what they truly are.

This character of the sacraments is true of the Christian faith in general - that it reveals the truth of things - and is rooted in the fundamentally apocalyptic character of the Christian faith.  Apocalypsis, or the revelation of a reality that once was hidden and now is know, is the core of the Christian faith; it is a necessary condition of theosis, since by the Incarnation Christ revealed the hidden Father, thereby making Him known to us and making us sons of God.  The "apocalypse" is the uncreated energy of God resulting from the Incarnation.  Just as the revelation of the Father through Christ is "energetic", so the descent of the Holy Spirit into the Eucharist is "energetic".  What apocalypse is not, despite the common American Protestant view, is a sensationalistic warning of future things to come into being.  It is rather a revealing, manifesting, and unfolding of the truth that is given to us now.  As Fr. Stephen writes, "the apocalypse is now."

The purpose of this essay is to explore how the theologian should respond when this apocalyptic view of the faith as applied to the sacraments meets the Latin theological structure of hylomorphic sacramentology, declared dogmatic in the Western Church as a way to combat the Protestant errors regarding the sacraments.  In hylomorphic theology, the sacraments are not revelations of a reality already present, but a real and substantial change in the matter under question.  The soul really is given an "indelible mark" that was not present before; the bread and wine really stop being bread and wine and become something they had not been, the Body and Blood of Christ.

The two points of view really do need to be harmonized.  There is little danger in the Orthodox world of falling into a Protestant view of the sacraments, but when Orthodoxy is preached in the Western world to an audience imbued with Western categories of thought, the clarity of simplicity of Latin hylomorphism is useful for telling us, plain and simply, that God is present and should be worshiped, that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ, that baptism really does sanctify a soul and is not simply a social rite of passage.  On the other hand, a return to the Orthodox vision of the cosmos as sacramental, liturgical, apocalyptic, theophanic or hierophanic, and iconographical in nature is absolutely necessary to save the West from the mechanistic and quasi-magical view of the sacraments that comes from the "two-story universe", which comes from a degraded late scholasticism that replaces authentically sacramental Christianity with a particular strain of "moral therapeutic deism" (or "theistic personalism"), and which is unable to hold water in the face of the atheistic critique.

Furthermore, for the Byzantine Church to be affirmed as equally Orthodox and equally Catholic as the Latin, the Byzantine theology must be accepted.  The Church's liturgy follows its theology.  Fr. Stephen quotes the Byzantine Liturgy of St. Basil with words similar to the Eucharistic formula of Cranmer - regarded at the time as suspect by Rome - "We implore You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts now offered, to bless, to hallow, and to show… this bread + to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ…"

The truth of the matter is that the sacramental action happens in eternity, and is made manifest in time.  The sacrament - whether it be the sacrament of the Divine Liturgy, or any other sacrament - is not a "repeat" of the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, but is a mystical participation and making present of it.  The bread and wine do not become something they are not on Sunday morning at 10 p.m.  The bread and wine were divinized with the whole cosmos, made into the Body and Blood of Christ through His becoming flesh, at the Incarnation.  Christ did not assume the nature of one man.  He assumed human nature - that human nature in which all men partake - and which includes the nature of the less specific genera in which it partakes.  By God becoming flesh, all flesh partakes in divinity, and that divinization of the cosmos through man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is revealed to us, made manifest to us, in the apocalyptic action of the Eucharist.

If the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ from all eternity, then what was it before the Eucharistic anaphora?  Clearly the prosphora/host is not treated as being God before it is consecrated - it is not worshiped or consumed - and yet the East does recognize its holiness and sanctity before consecration; the saintly Melkite archbishop of Galilee, Sayyedna Joseph Raya, was known to prostrate himself on the floor during the Great Entrance and insist that the unconsecrated prosphora be carried over his prostrate body.  The Eucharist may be the Body and Blood from all eternity, but we have not partaken in that mystery yet; it is hidden and has not yet been revealed to us until we enter into the eternal action of the Liturgy.

If the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ from all eternity, then how can the Latins say that the "substance" of bread becomes the "substance" of Christ?  The solution to this problem is quite easy, once we adopt the philosophical insights of German idealism.  Idealism and transcendental phenomenology were well known to have influenced 19th-century Roman Catholic and, even more prominently, Russian Orthodox theology, but curiously there are few overt traces of it in Schmemann.  The "substance" of the bread depends on what has been made manifest to us.  In other words, Aristotelian categories must be thought of as phenomenological categories, not metaphysical constituents of reality.  The cosmos really has been assumed into the light of Glory at the Incarnation; at the Liturgy we enter into that Mystery, the being and ultimate end of the Eucharistic elements are revealed to be nothing other than God Himself, transfinalized, transsignified, and transusbtantiated into God for our theosis.  This change in "substance" cannot be separated from our sanctification, since the nature of the bread and wine as it exists apart from our salvation - its "accidents", its chemical and physical properties - remain unchanged.  What remains changed is the final end it has for us (its transfinalization, in Rahner's term) and what it truly signifies for us (its transsignification, in Schillebeeckx's term - recalling that a sacrament makes really and substantially present that which it signifies).  Only God can bridge the infinite gap between creature and Creator, so to really understand what it means to efficaciously and substantially intend and signify God as the final end is to understand that the substance of the bread - that which enacts and signifies its end - is truly shown to be God.  Before the Liturgy, when the Mystery was still hidden, its final end for us was still that of bread and wine, God had not yet energetically shone through the elements of bread and wine to become really present for us, and consequently, it is correctly said that the "substance" of the Eucharistic elements were not God, but rather bread and wine.

In this way, by recognizing the phenomenological nature of Aristotelian categories, the transcendental Aristotelianism of Rahner and Schillebeeckx can be used to reconcile Latin hylomorphism to the Orthodox theology of the Eucharistic presence.

Friday, August 1, 2014

ADS, e/e, and Heidegger's Critique of the Occluding of Being

One of the apparently insurmountable contradictions between Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology is the dispute over St. Thomas Aquinas' teaching of absolute divine simplicity, which appears to contradict St. Gregory Palamas' teaching of the real distinction between God's Essence and His uncreated Energies.  To summarize the conflict, absolute divine simplicity (ADS) recognizes that God is infinite, and as such, cannot have His being partitioned into parts.  To be able to divide God into parts is to turn Him into some finite entity.  The reasoning (Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1 chapter 18) takes two approaches; the first is that metaphysical composition implies act and potency where potency implies imperfection (i.e. God was not composed or cobbled together out of prior existing parts which He could later dissolve into - that leaves us uneasy as we think of God as the primordial reality), and the second acknowledges that any part taken by itself is imperfect compared to the whole, which would require imperfection in God's goodness, love, and all the other "parts" of God.

The essence/energies (e/e) distinction, by contrast, attempts to preserve the full force of the paradox of divine communion, that we know the unknowable God.  To do so, God as He is in Himself apart from participation by creatures (God's Essence) is held as absolutely ineffable, apophatic, and unknowable - to know God by "essence" would be to be God by nature.  And yet God is still known and participated in.  The capacity of an essence or hypostasis to be known or participated in is called an "energy" in Greek (following the definition of Christos Yannaras), so the participation of God is called knowledge of God's Energies.  These Energies are eternal and uncreated; Orthodox theology has no analogue to the Scholastic concept of created grace, and the Energy of God is identified with the Uncreated Light of Mount Tabor during Christ's Transfiguration.

These two positions are widely held as incompatible in ecumenical discussions between Roman Catholics and Orthodox.  The thesis here is that they need not be, if viewed in light of the work of Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger was known for his strong critique of Western philosophy and scholasticism - including that of St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom he makes no exception and whom we follow in not making any exception (following the argument of John Caputo in his extensive study of the question, Heidegger and Aquinas:  An Essay on Overcoming Metaphysics) - for the "occluding of Being", for losing sight of the self-disclosure of Being in favor of beings, of losing the ontological by restricting thought to the ontic, substituting ontology for meontology, and for replacing the fundamental question of existence with metaphysical composition masquerading as an ultimate explanation.  Heidegger believed that Aquinas' philosophy contributed to the decline of Being in the West and advocated returning to the pristine purity of pre-Socratic thought.  Following Caputo, we can take the critique seriously and acknowledge its application to Thomism, but nonetheless see Aquinas' thought as being capable of being salvaged using its own principles.

It is easy to see how Heidegger's critique of Scholasticism shows a roadmap for overcoming the impasse between e/e and ADS.  Thomas' basic insight in the SCG I:8 is the same as Heidegger's - God transcends metaphysical composition, and categories like act/potency (the scope of whose applicability to the created world can be "bracketed" here) cannot apply to the realm of the ontological, but are purely ontic.

In order for the Uncreated Energies to be truly uncreated, truly divine, they must also transcend metaphysical composition and belong to the realm of the ontological.  As such, they are not a metaphysical composition dividing a "thing" into parts.  They are of course existential, not ontic, categories, and therefore apophatic.  They do not describe a part "things" cobbled together from some prior existing parts.