Meeting Aquinas along the Via Negativa, Article 1

If I am honest, I will admit that I have had an aversion to Aquinas that was pretty well unfounded on an assumption that he was an ardent rationalist intent on creating a neat systematic theology that excluded any sense of epistemological humility. While his Summa Theologiae is still intimidating to me, I have to say that in reading only a few pages so far of the volume on knowing and naming God, I have once again been proven wrong in my stereotypes.

I was astonished when my prof suggested I read Aquinas for this course on apophatic theology. Seriously? How much would he have to say about the apophatic way? Wasn’t he all kataphatic?

Even though I took a course that spent half a semester on Aquinas (a course which I was not prepared intellectually or spiritually to take made all the more evident in realizing I don’t remember anything from those classes), I had no realization of just how important Aquinas would be on this little study of negative theology.

And so to my amazement, I have met the Angelica Doctor on the via negativa.

One of the more flattering illustrations of Thomas. (Fra Bartolommeo)

Article 1. Can any created mind see the essence of God?

  • “it seems that no created mind can see God in his essence.” (1a, 12, 1, 1)
  • “The unlimited is, as such, unknowable. But we have already shown that God is unlimited, so he must be in himself unknown.” (1a, 12, 1, 2)
  • TA quotes PD The Divine Names, 1: “Sense cannot attain to him, nor imagination, nor opinion, nor reasoning, nor knowledge.”
  • The intellect, because it is created, can only know things that are created because they share existence. God does not exist in the same way that we exist, thus, he cannot be understood by the intellect. “He is beyond what is there.” (1a, 12, 1, 3) “God, however, is not there.” (1a, 12, 1, 3)
  • Proportion: this might be another way that Aquinas speaks about his theory of analogy. The knower knows the thing known because they share a degree of closeness. The known is a “perfection of the knower.”
  • “But there is no proportion whatever between the created mind and God, they are infinitely distant from each other, hence such a mind cannot see the essence of God.” (1a, 12, 1, 4)
  • Aquinas, like other apophatics, ponders how this sort of philosophical reasoning squares with Scripture, like 1 John 3.2 “We shall see him just as he is.”
    • Some would argue, says Aquinas, that because God is pure actuality (there is nothing in him which is potential; God is fully realized), it is possible to know God as God actually is: “he is supremely knowable.”
    • But even though some would be led to the assumption that God is “supremely knowable,” God would still surpass the intellect and be invisible to the knower. The example would be how the sun appears invisible to the bat who is blinded by it. “With this in mind, some have said that no created mind can see the essence of God.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1)
  • But Aquinas has a problem with this line of reasoning.
    • For starters, “The ultimate happiness of man consists in his highest activity, which is the exercise of his mind. If therefore the created mind were never able to see the essence of God, either it would never attain happiness or its happiness would consist in something other than God.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1)
    • In short, it seems as though Aquinas is trying to avoid a radical apophatic theology that places God so far beyond the human intellect that God remains completely, irrevocably, utterly, unknowable. If Aquinas took this position himself, then he might as well stop writing.
    • “The ultimate perfection of the rational creature lies in that which is the source of its being–each thing achieves its perfection by rising as high as its source.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1)
    • Additionally, Thomas believes that the total incomprehensibility of God is philosophically problematic because he is working off of the assumption that humans are naturally inclined to “look for the causes of things.” Thus, if radical apophaticism won out, then “this natural tendency could not be fulfilled.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1)
    • Thomas concludes that “we must grant that the blessed do see the essence of God.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1)
    • Take special note that he is referring to the blessed which I would assume, given his Catholicism, refers to the saints who have received the beatific vision.
  • Thomas also believes that 1 John is not referring to “seeing” in a visible sense, but “comprehending.”
    • He points to PD and Chrysostom: “Thus Dionysius introduces the words quoted by saying, All find it completely impossible to comprehend him, for sense cannot attain to him, etc. and Chrysostom, soon after the passage quoted says, By vision its meant contemplation of the Father and perfect comprehension of him such as the Father has of the Son.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1, Pt 1)
  • “God is not said to be ‘not there’ in the sense that he does not exist at all, but because being his own existence he transcends all that is there.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1, Pt 3)
  • Thomas also makes an interesting conclusion that I don’t think I have seen come up in any of the apophatics I’ve read to this point: that is that God, being unlimited and not confined by matter, “is in itself supremely knowable.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1, Pt 2). But, that this does not mean that we can grasp God’s essence, here and now. Nor does it mean that we cannot know God at all. Instead, “it follows from this not that he cannot be known but that he is beyond all that can be known of him–this is what is meant by saying that he cannot be comprehended.” (1a, 12, 1, Reply to Contra 1, pt. 3)
    • In other words, knowledge of God is possible and we can speak about God (the kataphatic way), but that this language is ultimately limited and thus our knowledge of God is limited because God transcends our knowledge. Knowledge of God is imperfect but still valuable nonetheless.
  • Thomas returns to the question of proportionality in knowledge. Proportion is defined as “any kind of relation that one thing may have to another.”
    • Created beings are “related” to God “as effects to cause and as the partially realized to the absolutely real.” Thus, we are not entirely “disproportionate” to God.
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One thought on “Meeting Aquinas along the Via Negativa, Article 1

  1. Pingback: Meeting Aquinas along the Via Negativa, Article 2 | Until I have passed by.

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