Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thomas on God’s Incorporeality: Reason away your Imagination (SCG 20)

For Christians, it is clear from the Bible that God is not a body. John 4:24 (“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”) and 1 Tim. 1:17 (“Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen”) are just two of many Bible verses that clearly state this truth. But the biblical teaching, according to Thomas, is also known through reason. Chapter 20 of the Summa Contra Gentiles gives several arguments for this conclusion (for one, God’s having infinite power is incompatible with his residing in a finite body), but that’s not what interests me for this post. What’s interesting is his concluding remark about what lead so many previous thinkers and (non-Christian) theologians into thinking that God does have a body:

“The occasion of all these errors was that, in thinking of divine things, men were made the victims of their imagination, through which it is not possible to receive anything except the likeness of a body. That is why, in meditating on what is incorporeal, we must stop following the imagination.” (SCG, 1.20)

Our imaginations necessarily deal with the sensory world—try imagining something immaterial!—and are apt to err with respect to God’s being. Yet through reason we can ‘strip away’ various properties of embodied things from our thoughts about God in order to follow the Bible’s (and, if Thomas is right, reason’s) clear teaching that God has no body.

In another sense, however, God does have a body, the body of Jesus of Nazereth. God has freely become Incarnate in Jesus Christ, taking on human nature and becoming flesh, though without suffering any change. This is the great mystery of the Christian faith: our bodiless God elected embodiment for himself through his Son Jesus Christ, for the sake of his children.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Thomas on the way of Remotion (SCG 14)

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, after reviewing and vindicating Aristotle's chief arguments for the existence of God in chapter 13—and adding a few twists of his own—Thomas begins his investigation of the properties of God accessible to reason. Thus far, all he has established, following Aristotle, is that the existence of the universe requires an unmoved mover, a motionless being who is the ultimate cause of the universe. But what else could reason tell us, if in fact this unmoved mover is beyond the universe? If there is such an unmoved mover, is he not so far beyond our intellectual capacity as to render our talk about him wholly inadequate? Do we not need divine revelation to proceed any further? Thomas doesn’t think so, and has this to say about the method he will use:

“Now, in considering the divine substance, we should especially make use of the method of remotion. For, by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus, we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is. Yet we are able to have some knowledge of it by knowing what it is not. Furthermore, we approach nearer to knowledge of God according as through our intellect we are able to remove more and more things from Him. For we know each thing more perfectly the more fully we see its differences from other things; for each thing has within itself its own being, distinct from all other things.”(SCG, 1.14)

It is true that God surpasses our intellects. We cannot apprehend God in the fullness of his being; only God can understand Godself in such a way. Yet this does not mean we cannot know certain things about God, through contrasting God with things that he is not. For example:

“…if we say that God is not an accident, we thereby distinguish Him from all accidents. Then, if we add that He is not a body, we shall further distinguish Him from certain substances. And thus, proceeding in order, by such negations God will be distinguished from all that He is not. Finally, there will be a proper consideration of God’s substance when He will be known as distinct from all things. Yet, this knowledge will not be perfect, since it will not tell us what God is in Himself.” (SCG, 1.14)

This is quite different from crass negative theologies, which simply say that because God exceeds all of our concepts, we cannot know anything about God at all, or say anything true about God. For Thomas, we can know things about God through reason alone, but the method used to acquire such knowledge is fundamentally negative. The aforementioned example is illustrative: reason can establish that God does not have a body (if the previous arguments relating to the impossibility of an infinite regress of time succeed, as well as the necessity that all bodies exist in time); and from such knowledge can assert, positively, that God is immaterial. Knowing exactly what God’s immateriality is, aside from the absence of matter, is impossible. Yet we can know more and more about God’s immateriality the more we negate: Thomas will go on to argue that it also involves the absence of composition, and thus that God’s immateriality is utterly simple. The rest of Book 1 goes on to detail many more things reason can establish about God through the via negativa.

Of course, the arguments can succeed or fail; Thomas may or may not be right about this point or that. What is clear, however, at the very least, is that negative way is a path to knowledge of God, not some overly humble apophaticism that denies the truth of any positive affirmations about God.