How can the Son be equal to the Father?

One thing that puzzled me in my early Christian years about God the Father and God the Son, was how the Son could be equal to the Father in every way. It seemed the very fact that he was called “Son” necessarily implied that he was inferior to his Father, in age if nothing else.

But St. Thomas argues:

The Son is necessarily equal to the Father in greatness. For the greatness of God is nothing but the perfection of His nature. Now it belongs to the very nature of paternity and sonship that the Son by generation should attain to the possession of the perfection of the nature which is in the Father, in the same way as it is in the Father Himself. But since in men generation is a certain kind of change of one proceeding from potency to act, it follows that a man is not equal at first to the father who begets him, but attains to equality by due growth, unless owing to a defect in the principle of generation it should happen otherwise. From what precedes (27, 2; 33, 2,3), it is evident that in God there exist proper and true paternity and sonship. Nor can we say that the power of generation in the Father was defective, or that the Son of God arrived at perfection in a successive manner and by change. Therefore we must say that the Son was eternally equal to the Father in greatness. Hence, Hilary says (De Synod. Can. 27): “Remove bodily weakness, remove the beginning of conception, remove pain and all human shortcomings, then every son, by reason of his natural nativity, is the father’s equal, because he has a like nature.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I., Q. 42, A. 4.

Human sons are inferior to their fathers — smaller, weaker, less intelligent (at least until they mature) — because men must proceed “from potency to act”. In other words, we don’t attain to the perfection of our nature all at once, but must acquire various qualities and abilities through growth and training.

It is not so with God, who does not arrive at perfection “in a successive manner and by change”, but was always perfect. In other words he always possessed all the perfections of his nature. He didn’t grow like a human baby from a little bit powerful to more powerful, and then eventually to all-powerful, but was all-powerful from eternity.

Since Jesus is God and possesses the same nature and essence, he too possessed all the perfections of his nature from eternity. Therefore the Son is equal to the Father in greatness.

Conservation of energy

I happen[ed] to be studying astronomy [at the time I wrote the first draft of this post]. From my textbook:

“Our third crucial conservation law for astronomy is the law of conservation of energy. This law tells us that, like momentum and angular momentum, energy cannot appear out of nowhere or disappear into nothingness.”

*   *   *

“According to present understanding, the total energy content of the universe was determined in the Big Bang. It remains the same today and will stay the same in the future.”

Bennett, Jeffrey, The Cosmic Perspective: The Solar System (5th ed.), San Francisco:Pearson Addison-Wesley, 2008, pp. 130, 134.

Quite so. Energy can’t be created “out of nowhere” because it takes an infinite power to create anything out of nothing. And it can’t be destroyed for the same reason.

God created a certain amount of energy/matter at the Big Bang, and “objects can gain or lose energy only by exchanging energy with other objects.” (Id.)

We love the material because of the immaterial

Contributor G. at Junior Ganymede writes, “I am religious, but not spiritual. I hate all that fleshless sanctity. Give me the Spirit that dwells in earthly tabernacles.”

Also, “Earthly wants are wonderful. He incarnated us so we could have them. They are part of the divine nature. To want is earthly. What is earthly is divine. God wants.”

And, “We associate desire with sin. That is wrong. Sinners do not want too much. Sinners want too little.”

Finally, “They say the problem with greed is that you can never have enough. I say that is the only good thing about greed. I want it all. Embrace the gospel like a bandit, grabbing blessings with both hands.”

This is basically a comment to G.’s post, but it’s too lengthy to put in a comment box.

I’m not sure I disagree with G., partly since I’m not sure what his point is. It’s about characters in old books who self-abnegate, and he somehow relates this to fleshless sanctity, since they don’t make their (corporeal?) wants known lest others feel obliged to fulfill them.

Again I don’t necessarily disagree, with the possible exception of his statement, “what is earthly is divine”. If the words “earthly” and “divine” have a scriptural meaning, they seem to stand for a contrast. St. Paul for one says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:15). And St. John: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world-the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions-is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 Jn. 2:15-17.)

I don’t take this to mean that the world and the good things of the world are bad, but that what is good about material things is itself immaterial.

When Christians say that material things are not to be desired, the point is not that they shouldn’t be desired at all, but that they shouldn’t be desired as ends in themselves. C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy describes “joy” as an experience of longing for what is beyond the material. He would feel joy in viewing a beautiful sunset, but would lose it in the act of trying to embrace it. Going back to the same spot on the same day at the same time in the following year, would not ensure you the same experience of joy because the joy is not in the sunset itself, rather the sunset points to something beyond itself.

Traditional (as opposed to Mormon) Christians don’t dispute that you should grab the blessings of the Gospel with both hands. But they would say that the blessings of material things are only good insofar as they point to the immaterial. We love to serve good food and wine at a Christmas feast, but the joy of the feast consists not in the food and wine themselves but in the spirit of the event they commemorate. There’s no sin in enjoying food and wine commemorating nothing in particular, but they bring true joy when we see in them God’s bounty and his kind providence.

A story is told of St. Catherine of Siena who, as a child, ran away from home with her brother, with the intention of going to a Muslim land to suffer martrydom. Why? Because martrydom sends you directly to heaven. This, if misguided, is nonetheless grabbing the blessings of the Gospel with both hands — actually desiring the ultimate physical harm for the sake of the ultimate spiritual blessing.

G. observes, “Sinners do not want too much. Sinners want too little.” Indeed. Wanting the whole world is wanting too little, for “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” But he who loses his life will gain it. (Mt. 16:25-26.) This is the great irony of the Gospel as illustrated in the Crucifixion: Your greatest gain comes from laying down your earthly life. This doesn’t have to mean literal death; you can lay down your life in countless ways on a daily basis. Love itself is a laying down of one’s life — “No greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15:13.) Thus some of the Christian martyrs were said to have gone joyfully to their deaths for faith in the reward that follows.

I love the book A Christmas Carol. I also love a particular copy that I own. I love its design and the way it’s printed. But would I love it so much if it were Nietzsche or Marx, instead of Dickens? I love not only the physical body of the book, but I love it still more for its content. In fact I would love the content no matter what physical form it took (whereas my love for the physical form of a book might be spoiled by bad content). The content then is non-physical; it’s the meaning and message that Dickens intended to convey from his mind to his readers’, when he expressed his thoughts in a physical medium.

Or again I love my wife. But what if someone were physically identical to my wife, but not my wife? Would I love her as much as my wife? Certainly I would find her beautiful, but she would lack the “content,” the immaterial substance, of my wife.

I agree that it’s well and good to love the material together with the immaterial, but I contend that the immaterial is what makes the material lovable. Possibly G. doesn’t disagree.

Confusion or order?

“The universe is either a confusion, an intermingling of atoms, and a scattering; or it is unity and order and providence. If it is the former, why do I wish to tarry amid such a haphazard confusion and disorder? Why do I care about anything but how I may at last become earth? And why do I trouble myself, for my elements will be scattered, whatever I do. But if the other supposition is true, I revere, I stand firm, and I trust in him who governs.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Ch. VI, para. 10, trans. by George Long.

What’s interesting to me is how this illustrates the fact that faith is a choice, an act of will. We don’t know with scientific certainty which of the two options is the true one, therefore we’re free to choose to believe that the universe is aimless, or that it’s ordered. If it’s the former, then why care what happens? In fact, why not leave this life as soon as possible? The fact that we don’t, perhaps betrays us.

More on the place of philosophy in Christianity — heart versus head?

Some argue that philosophy has played too large a part in religion, both historically and in the lives of some Christians today. They argue that Christianity is not a matter of the head, but of the heart. Religion is a relationship, not a set of propositions.

My previous post, “Is philosophy necessary to Christianity?” (consisting almost entirely of excerpts from another author), makes the point that when philosophy is neglected, religion deteriorates, and something else must fill the void. Some resort to spreading religion by violence; some substitute sentimentalism and emotion for reasonable discussion; some submit doctrinal and moral questions to the standards of empirical science.

This post too will consist mostly of quotes from another author (no point in my trying to improve on the way he expresses it), addressing the question of “heart versus head” — is religion primarily a matter of “experiencing” God in one’s “heart”, so that efforts at understanding his nature are superfluous? a fine hobby but entirely dispensable? Are they indeed (heart and head) mutually exclusive? Or is the intellect an equally valid way of “experiencing” God?

In his blog post “Putnam and analytical Thomism, Part II” (posted on the Edward Feser blog, May 22, 2016), Edward Feser considers the views of philosopher Hilary Putnam (a religious Jew) with regard to St. Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence. According to Feser, Putnam argues that “religion is ultimately more a matter of the heart than of the head. The idea seems to be that proofs of God’s existence and philosophical analysis of the divine nature, while salutary and important, are, ultimately, compelling only when viewed from the standpoint of someone already attracted to a religious way of life. How one comes to be attracted to it in the first place is, in [their] view, an ‘experiential’ matter.”

What sorts of experience Putnam has in mind is not entirely clear — perhaps it is ethical experience or aesthetic experience, or perhaps he sees religious experience as something sui generis. … In any event, variations on this “more heart than head” theme are a staple of modern theology….

There is, from a Thomistic point of view, a deep problem in this, and also a deep irony. The problem is this. From the Thomistic point of view, [the] bifurcation of religion and metaphysics, and of the “experiential” and the “intellectual,” is simply false, and certainly question-begging. For according to the doctrine of the transcendentals — a key part of Thomistic metaphysics — being, unity, truth, goodness, and (on at least some versions of the doctrine) beauty, are all convertible, the same thing looked at from different points of view. Hence when the will is drawn toward God as the highest good, or our affective nature delights in God as supremely beautiful, they are not grasping something different from what the Thomist theologian describes as Being Itself, or the Neo-Platonic philosopher characterizes as the supreme unity, or the rationalist philosopher conceives of as the Sufficient Reason for the existence of things. These are all just different avenues to one and the same divine reality.

Hence it simply cannot be the case (contrary to what “more heart than head” types seem to think) that to yearn for God as the highest good or to experience him as supreme beauty is necessarily deeper or more profound or genuine than to know him intellectually as the First Cause, as Being Itself, etc. And while it is true that when we are drawn to God, the will and affective side of our nature do indeed tend to operate no less than the intellect does, that is not because the former alone are doing the “real” work, but rather because since being, truth, goodness, beauty, etc. are convertible, what the intellect grasps as true and real is, unsurprisingly, also going to attract the will under the guise of goodness, and our affective nature under the guise of beauty. To be sure, human beings being as diverse as they are, some people are bound to be drawn to God more under the guise of goodness or beauty than under the more philosophical guises of First Cause, Sufficient Reason, or what have you. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the more metaphysical conceptions are hardly less legitimate, or somehow second-class — nor could they be given that we are essentially rational animals.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the metaphysical conceptions are more fundamental. The transcendentals are transcendental properties of being — truth is being as intelligible, the good is being as desired by the will, and so forth. But being is the characteristic subject matter of metaphysics. Hence to understand how the various guises under which we grasp God — as Being Itself, as the highest good, as supremely beautiful, etc. — all fit together requires metaphysical inquiry. Moreover, to understand why goodness, beauty, etc. are not mere subjective reactions that we project onto the world, but are genuine features of reality itself, also requires understanding their relation to being.

Hence while Putnam is certainly correct to think that a purely philosophical approach to religion would be gravely deficient, it goes too far to suggest that it would be a “metaphysical illusion.” On the contrary, without metaphysics, it is the purely ethical and/or affective approaches to religion which stand in danger of being exposed as illusory. This is by no means to say that most or even very many religious believers ought to be expected to pursue philosophy, or are even capable of doing so. But somebody had better be able and willing to do it. Metaphysics must always be a part of religion even if it is not the whole of it.

Is philosophy necessary to Christianity?

Some may recall that ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, which proved to be an occasion for worldwide controversy. The controversy arose from just a few sentences out of 4,000 words, in which he was accused, among other things, of branding Islam unreasonable, citing Ibn Hazm for the proposition that God is above reason and is “not bound even by his own word.”

But the Pope’s real concern “was less … Islam’s view of God’s nature than … the ways in which Christianity’s treatments of the place of reason has developed — and occasionally deteriorated — at different points of history”, including the present. “Benedict sought to draw our attention to … the waves of what he called ‘dehellenization’ which have surged through Christianity and the West at different points.”

“By dehellenization, Benedict meant any fading of the commitment to coherent philosophical reasoning which Christianity partly absorbed from the Greek world and used to further apprehend the truth which permeates the Scriptures.” “[T]o Benedict’s mind, ‘The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.’ Christian faith needed philosophy. It needed the tools of rational inquiry inscribed into man’s very reason: the same reason which itself is derived from the same God revealed in the Scriptures.” (A point I made here; see also this and this.)

From here on I will just quote from the article “Regensburg Revisited: Ten Years Later, A West Still in Denial” by Dr. Samuel Gregg (Catholic World Report, April 4, 2016) (from which the above quotes are also taken):

“Logos, for the Greeks, was not only a word for Divine Reason. It also meant to reason and explain one’s thoughts. The dismissal of Logos thus implies a choice to (1) decline to think critically, (2) refuse to debate and (3) shut off the capacity to give an account of what one believes in intelligible terms.

“Once such a choice has been made, three options remain. One is that which has been chosen by Islamic jihadists-violence replaces reason, and reason is subordinated to a Divine Will that itself has no interest in reasonableness. The second is mass sentimentalism and appeals to emotivism to terminate perfectly legitimate debates. The third is to reduce reason to its empirical dimension.

“Empirical and scientific reason have, Benedict affirmed at Regensburg, their place. They have been the source of much genuine progress and technological developments for which, he said, ‘we are all grateful.’ The downside is that empirical reason is ill-equipped to address, for instance, issues of good and evil or discern the proper ends of human choice and action. To the extent that they try to do so, such modes of reasoning cannot help but lurch in the direction of utilitarianism: that which tries to determine good and evil by seeking to measure that which cannot be quantitatively measured.

“These are just some examples of how, as Benedict stated at Regensburg, ‘The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality and can only suffer great harm thereby.’ The only way out of this cul-de-sac is to acknowledge that reason has greater breadth and depth which includes but also goes beyond the natural and social sciences. This, however, raises the question from where such reason comes. At that point, many Western minds turn away and decline to consider this matter. Why? Because it points straight to the question of God — an entity that much of the West has for some time been trying to do without, or reduce to the status of a soft-toy, which amounts to much the same thing.

*  *  *

“According to Benedict, [the] God of the Bible is also Divine Reason. To act in defiance of the Truth who is the revealed God is thus to act against reason. That is why the first verse of the Gospel of Saint John matters so much. When its author penned the words ‘In the beginning was the Logos,’ part of the point was to ground Logos in the God who manifests himself in the Book of Genesis, who identifies himself to Moses as ‘I AM’ (and thus as a real being rather than a myth or an idol created by human hands), and who Christianity teaches is definitively revealed in Christ. For, Benedict noted, ‘Logos means both reason and word — a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.’

*  *  *

“Yet for all Christianity’s attention to reason, Christians have not always managed the relationship between faith and reason, Revelation and philosophy, very well. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction against the hyper-scholasticism that — as no less than Catholic saints like Thomas More lamented at the time — characterized much Catholic thinking in the late-fifteenth century and which seemed to marginalize Scripture. This very real problem led, Benedict commented, many Reformers to believe that ‘they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy.’

“At Regensburg, however, Benedict sought to draw our attention to the flip-side of this problem: the waves of what he called ‘dehellenization’ which have surged through Christianity and the West at different points. By dehellenization, Benedict meant any fading of the commitment to coherent philosophical reasoning which Christianity partly absorbed from the Greek world and used to further apprehend the truth which permeates the Scriptures.

“Whenever such distancing from reason has occurred, some Christians have embraced a type of submission to God that avoids or even discourages exploration of the ‘whys’ of such obedience. On the other end of the spectrum, Benedict argued, many theologians from the nineteenth century onwards increasingly fell (like much of the academy) into the trap of equating reason with empirical methods of inquiry. They thus gradually ceased to think about Christ and Revelation from any standpoint other than that which could be verified by scientific research methods.

“Hence, in the words of James V. Schall SJ, ‘In eliminating philosophy from Scripture, we ended up by eliminating the divinity of Christ.’ And that, for all intents and purposes, nullifies the essence of Christianity. In this light, we see that the marginalization of Logos leads straight to the disappearance of natural theology, attempts to replace natural law with consequentialist ethics, a habit of excessive deference to disciplines such as sociology or psychology, and the insistence that people’s experiences trumps the conclusions of sound moral reasoning when we assess the goodness or otherwise of our choices.”

Turtles All the Way Down

Reblogged from The Underground Thomist:

Whenever we say that some being, P, is wise, we can ask the further question “Why should P be considered wise?”  In every such case there are two possible answers.  One is that P is the first principle of wisdom, its very root and unchangeable meaning – that it isn’t wise because of something else, but is the very thing that makes other wise things wise.  You [the blogger’s interlocutor] don’t want to give that answer, because to you, first principles seem to be arbitrary, just because no further reason can be given for them.  You want to say that if P should be considered wise, the reason must lie in the fact that it conforms to some deeper standard – call it P2.

Very well.  But wait:  Now we have to ask “Why should P2 be considered wise?”  Again, there are two possible answers.  Either P2 is the very root and meaning of wisdom, or it isn’t.  Again you worry that this makes it arbitrary, so suppose we say it isn’t.  In that case, P2 must be wise not because it is the very root and meaning of wisdom, but because it conforms to some still deeper standard – call it P3.

As you can see, if you continue to object to a root and meaning of wisdom, then we are going to have an infinite regress of reasons for considering P wise:  P is wise because it conforms to P2, P2 is wise because it conforms to P3, P3 is wise because it conforms to P4, and so on without end.  But an infinite regress of explanations is no an explanation at all.  If you are worried about arbitrariness, the thing to avoid isn’t a necessary first principle, but an infinite regress.

Thus we must believe that at some point the regress has to stop.  We do, finally, arrive at something, call it P Prime, which is the very root and meaning of wisdom.  And if that is what it is, then just because it doesn’t depend on anything else, it cannot be other than it is.  And just because it cannot be other than it is, it isn’t arbitrary.  A mystery, yes, in the sense that it is greater than our minds.  But arbitrary, no.

I am not sure what tempts us to think that something is arbitrary just because it cannot be other than it is.  We don’t say that the arithmetical principle that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other is arbitrary.  We say that it is a standard by which we can tell what other things are arbitrary.  I think we should think that way here.

But P Prime is much more than a principle of arithmetic.  As we continue to reflect, we find P Prime to be not only the very root and meaning of wisdom, but the very root and meaning of being, of goodness, of beauty, and of everything that is worthy of admiration.  In P Prime we find even the very root and meaning of Personhood, so we are right to view P Prime not as It, but as Him.

This necessary being P Prime is what we call God.  We Christians make the further daring claim that He is the very God of our faith and has come among us.