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Edward Feser’s Sub-Christian Dualism
An open letter ...
I promised in my last email to you that I would reply to your recent review of my book You Are Gods soon. As you see, I have borrowed your title, with alterations. I apologize for not responding with the furious instantaneity that has always characterized our public exchanges in the past; it is not because of any indifference on my part, but only because I am preparing for a conference in Ireland at the month’s end and am behind on everything. I regret, of course, that since we struck a (second or third) rhetorical armistice a couple years ago, I cannot indulge in the sort of—well, let’s call it “light badinage” that used to make this sort of thing more entertaining for me. I used to relish the contrapuntal differences between my style of humor (H.L. Mencken, S.J. Perelman, Charles Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock) and yours (Photoshop, endless variations on the hilarious homophony of “Hart” and “heart,” and so on); but those days, alas, are long gone.
(All right, that was a bit snide.)
I also mentioned in that email some of the issues that I would bring up in my reply, so there should be few surprises. I cannot say you have adequately or accurately represented my positions, but neither did you grossly misrepresent them. Unlike your review of That All Shall Be Saved (which may have been the most surprisingly slapdash performance I have ever seen from you), your honest disagreements with me here are disagreements for the most part with things I do actually say in the book, and even in many instances with what I mean when I say them. I cannot complain of any seemingly willful distortions or non sequiturs, but only of some obvious misunderstandings, a few vital omissions, and an extraordinarily narrow vision on your part of what constitutes historical Christian orthodoxy (including Roman Catholic orthodoxy). That said, the critical part of my book is laid out in the first twenty pages with what I take to be extreme clarity, and so even your honest misunderstandings appear to betray a certain inattention on your part. And, while I do not expect your readers to pick up my book to compare your précis of it with the glorious original, I cannot help but hope some of them do.
Anyway, to make things simple, let me say that I have four large complaints to make against your review:
1) In its first half, your arguments simply do not work, because you have failed to state correctly what the issue of obediential potency is, and have badly misunderstood my argument regarding natural desire for knowledge of God.
2) In the second half of the review, you have torn almost every quotation from my book out of context.
3) Moreover, throughout the review you mistake perfectly standard elements of Greek patristic orthodoxy for exotic departures from all Christian precedent.
4) Your use of the word “pantheism” is not only vague and misleading (as that word always is), but it obscures your failure to recognize the elements of classical Christian Neoplatonism in the book for what they are.
To these I subjoin two smaller complaints:
1) The position you defend against my attacks is not, as you claim, the defined teaching of the Catholic church, despite a certain notorious encyclical.
2) Neither is it in all likelihood the position of Thomas Aquinas himself; rather it is a position imposed upon his work by later commentators for reasons I mention in the book.
In any event, let me proceed in the laziest way I can: by providing excerpts from your review and replying to them seriatim.
You begin by defining my position thus:
[T]he Thomist view [of the relation of the natural to the supernatural in us] entails, not the transformation of human beings by grace, but their replacement. If we are not by nature oriented toward the beatific vision, then in raising us to this end in a supernatural fashion, God would be substituting for us some new, non-human rational creature—just as to change a rabbit into a turnip would not be to add something to the rabbit, but rather to obliterate it and replace it with a turnip.... The traditional Thomist response…is to say that human beings are not, by nature, completely closed off to the beatific vision. They do by nature have what is called an “obediential potency” for it, a built-in capacity to have a supernatural end added to them.
So far, so good. But then things go disastrously awry:
Consider the laptop computer on which you might be reading this. There is an obvious sense in which it is complete all by itself, with its operating system, other software installed in the factory, built-in Wi-Fi capability, and so on. Yet it has the capacity to have added to it all sorts of new software and accessories.… Since software and accessories of the latter sort were not even in view when the computer was designed, they cannot be said to be ends for which the computer was made. All the same, they are ends that might be added to it, because it does at least have the inherent capacity to have such ends added to it.
Ed, Ed, Ed...as I think you probably now know (on further reflection), that is an absolute catastrophe of an analogy. At this point, you are doing my work for me. It also tells me that this is an aspect of later “Thomism” of which your grasp is rather nebulous (that final sentence proves it). No disgrace there, since the theological disputes of the second scholasticism are not your bailiwick. But you are still defending a concept you yourself clearly do not fully understand; and I did, after all, explain it precisely in the book, so that no one would be able (or so I thought) to misconstrue what was at stake.
To begin with, I do not reject the concept of obediential potential; I reject only its abuse. But your computer analogy is eerily irrelevant to both. Before Cajetan, an obediential potential was understood as a wholly natural creaturely potentia for which—for accidental reasons—the facultas is now lacking (in Aristotelian Greek, it is a dynaton now divorced from any corresponding dynamis). Thus, even though natural, it is a potential that has been reduced to a state of mere obediency before God’s miraculous intervention, lacking any intrinsic means of actualization. The classic example is Sara being made pregnant well past her fertile years: childbirth is a natural potential for a woman, but for a post-menopausal woman it is a natural potency rendered dormant by the loss of the corresponding natural faculty. Hence, when God acts miraculously, he does not violate nature; he merely supplies the act for that dormant potential.
Obviously, therefore, a computer is not a sound analogy. For one thing, it is always a mistake to draw an analogy between a machine and a natural being possessed of an intrinsic teleology. But, overlooking that, and for the moment allowing the fiction of a fabricated nature, still we have to say that your metaphor merely proves the very point I was making: your computer possesses both the potentia for a new program or mechanical prosthesis and also the inherent facultas for integrating that program or prosthesis into its functions. It requires no miraculous intervention to make it capable of them. Yours simply cannot serve as a simile of obediential potency; rather, it is a simile of (as both Aristotle and Thomas would say) a potency that can be actualized only “by way of another” or “by way of a friend” (which both Aristotle and Thomas alike define as a potency of “higher dignity”). I discuss this fairly fully in the book, you know. I also note that the human capacity for deification—especially in hoc statu—is a clear case of this latter kind of potential. This is why potentia oboedientialis cannot do what the two-tiered system wants it to do: act, that is, as some sort of bridge-concept between a supernatural end supposedly wholly extrinsically superadded to a rational creature and a creature who has been explicitly defined as naturally possessing neither the faculty nor the potential for the supernatural. The use of obediential potency here is an absurd and vacuous device, introduced ad hoc in order to paper over a logical aporia. If you try to get around this by defining this obediency as nothing more than an essential “non-repugnance” of the supernatural to the natural, you again prove my point for me: all this can mean is that the supernatural turns out to be natural to the creature after all, albeit in the form of a potency that can be realized only “by way of another” or “by way of a friend.”
Actually, let me simply quote myself at length here, even if it involves repeating some of what I have just said (which may be a good thing, because the central point is far more elusive, apparently, than I realized):
You Are Gods, pp. 9-12:
The traditionalist Thomist answer to the conundrum of how, according to its scheme, grace can be said to perfect rather than abolish human nature—how, that is, a rational creature can be transformed beyond its every intrinsic potency and given a final end wholly extrinsic to its own nature without thereby ceasing to be the creature it has hitherto been—is to assert that our nature’s capacity for grace consists in a mere potentia obœdientialis. But this can be true only if such a potency is understood in an especially eccentric way: as, that is, a kind of indeterminate ontological plasticity, open to whatever is not repugnant to the creature’s nature, and yet also somehow open to actualities genuinely extrinsic to that nature. Supposedly, this pure patiency constitutes a structural aptitude in us for grace that is, nevertheless, in no sense an inchoate possession of grace or an intrinsic disposition toward a supernatural end. This is gibberish. Far from explaining how the interval between grace and nature posited by Thomist tradition can be intelligibly closed without violence to either side of the divide, it is merely a desperate resort to the fantastic. Here we need to distinguish with absolute logical precision between, on the one hand, the potencies proper to a creature’s nature and, on the other, whatever powers the creature might individually possess for making those potencies actual. Simply said, whatever is not repugnant to a finite nature is, by definition, an intrinsic possibility of that nature. If divinity is “compatible” with the humanity of a creature made in God’s image, then divinity is itself an inherent possibility of humanity—an inherent property, in fact, even if in only potential form. That this possibility can become an actuality only by way of God’s action toward the creature in no way diminishes or qualifies this truth. Before Cajetan, in fact, obediential potency was understood simply as the creature’s predisposition to miraculous interventions from God, and explicitly as a predisposition that in no way violated that creature’s native potencies; it referred, that is, to the capacity of any creature to be conduced by God’s power to a state that is proper to its own nature but that, in the natural course of things, it could not at that particular juncture achieve on its own. For instance, God could make an old man young again without violation of his nature as a man, as youth is a natural condition for human beings, even if it is not something a man can recover by his own power once it has passed. God could make Sara bear a child well past her fertile years without in any way imposing upon her a state repugnant to her womanhood. God might make a fool wise without violence to that person’s humanity, for wisdom is a natural possible state for a rational being. What the concept of obediential potential most definitely was not, however, was some hazy notion of a mysterious capacity within a creature simultaneously to remain what it is and yet also to become something truly other than itself, or to receive a nature other than its own without thereby losing its own nature. It was not, that is to say, a principle of sorcery or an abrogation of the rule of non-contradiction.
Again, there is an inviolable modal grammar here that must be observed. There are only two kinds of logically conceivable potency: either the finite (formal) possibility of something in particular or the infinite (material) possibility of everything in general. In the former case, a potency is a specific predisposition to and capacity for a particular final end, and so that end necessarily determines that potency’s logical structure, and is already implicit in it as a real rational relation; a natural capacity for the supernatural, if conceived thus, would have to be a virtual indwelling of the supernatural in the natural. In the latter case, the potency in question is just pure possibility as such, materia prima as it were, intrinsically disposed to no particular end, absolved of all determinacy, persisting despite the displacement of one form by another precisely because it lacks the power to retain any formal determination in itself and so is able to relinquish one nature in order to assume another; a natural capacity for the supernatural, if conceived thus, would be impotent to preserve the form or nature it inhabits in receiving an extrinsic determination, just as the material substrate of a tree would be impotent to preserve a tree’s form or nature in being subsumed into a ship. In either case, whatever is extrinsic to the creature’s nature must remain extrinsic forever. And this impasse cannot be resolved by the introduction of some chimerical tertium quid that is neither one kind of possibility nor the other, but rather some obscure amalgamation of the two. To invoke an “obediential potential” here is to play the sorcerer’s apprentice—to recite a spell, that is, in the hope that it will magically perform a task for us that we cannot accomplish for ourselves. Once again, we can become only what we are. And so, if we do possess a natural desire for the supernatural, it cannot be a mere contingency of providence, superadded to our nature; the potential of theosis must always already be the very structure of our nature in any possible order of reality. And, as it happens, we do possess such a desire, and could not fail to do so without entirely ceasing to be rational agents.
But the computer analogy is only your second worst argument. You go on to write:
Hart’s second main objection is that any rational creature would, just by virtue of being rational, desire to know the very essence of the first cause of all things, so that such knowledge would be its natural end. There is a sense in which the premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. …consider that there is an obvious sense in which a human being might desire to know what it is like to be a bat... [T]here is also an obvious sense in which it is simply not part of our nature....
This is confused on two counts. First, you again nearly make my argument for me: if my nature lacks a capacity for a bat’s experiences, then to share them I would have to exchange my nature for another. Second, and more important—how on earth can you possibly think this a good comparison? The issue of the transcendental rational appetite for the divine essence (as conceptually convertible with the transcendentals), understood as the necessary final cause of all rational desire, is not an issue of some isolated curiosity regarding a finite object of cognition. The natural desire for God—the cor inquietum that has no rest but in God—is not an occasional mood regarding some thing in a mind otherwise disposed to other things. It is the essential impulse of all noetic desire. Hence, a rational being in a state of “pure nature” would not seek God only as an “explanatory principle” if that being did not already naturally long for God in himself. You have skipped over the very heart of the matter. The issue—the burning issue of this whole debate—is whether any rational nature could possibly rest contented in a purely natural end. And the only sane answer is an unyielding no. How could it, if the very rational desire for God as explanans naturam requires a prior desire for Truth as such? A kind of desire that Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Nicholas of Cusa, Maurice Blondel, Bernard Lonergan, and Sergii Bulgakov (among others) have persuasively shown remains naturally insatiable by anything short of the direct knowledge of God’s infinity? Rational desire cannot be mere spontaneous (which is to say, irrational) curiosity, which is what it would have to be in a state of “pure nature.” We are talking here about the very ground of any intentionality toward knowledge of any truth, which can be nothing less than a prior transcendental orientation of what Maximus calls the “natural will” toward Truth in its infinity (which is to say, in its convertibility with God himself, who alone is Truth as such). The same is so of our rational appetite for the Good, for the Beautiful, for the One, for Being. If we did not intrinsically desire immediate knowledge of God, we could not rationally desire mediated knowledge about truth in finite things. Again, I shall quote myself at length:
You Are Gods, pp. 13-15:
[T]he very notion that a rational spiritual creature could conceivably inhabit a realm of pure nature, in which it could rest satisfied, and in which its only intellectual concern with God would consist in a speculative aetiological curiosity posteriorly elicited from finite cognitions, is a logical nonsense. Those finite cognitions, to the degree they could be comprehended and then interpreted as implying further logical entailments, would have to be acts of intentionality and rational evaluation undertaken in light of an intelligibility supplied by the mind’s prior preoccupation with wholly transcendental indices of meaning, and so a proleptic intentional awareness of and desire for the supernatural in its essence as an intelligibile. Neither doctrine nor metaphysics need be immediately invoked to see the impossibility of rational agency within a sphere of pure nature; a simple phenomenology of what it is we do when we act intentionally should suffice. The rational will, when freely moved, is always purposive; it acts always toward an end: conceived, perceived, imagined, hoped for, resolved upon. Its every act is already, necessarily, an act of recognition, judgment, evaluation, and decision, and is therefore also a tacit or explicit reference to a larger, more transcendent realm of values, meanings, and rational longings. Desire and knowledge are always, in a single impulse, directed to some purpose present to the mind, even if only vaguely. Any act lacking such purposiveness is by definition not an act of rational freedom. There are, moreover, only two possible ways of pursuing a purpose: either as an end in itself or for the sake of an end beyond itself. But no finite object or purpose can wholly attract the rational will in the former way; no finite thing is desirable simply in itself as an ultimate end. It may, in relative terms, constitute a more compelling end that makes a less compelling end nonetheless instrumentally desirable, but it can never constitute an end in itself. It too requires an end beyond itself to be compelling in any measure; it too can evoke desire only on account of some yet higher, more primordial, more general disposition of reason’s appetites. Even what pleases us most immediately can be intentionally desired only within the context of a rational longing for the Good itself. If not for some always more original orientation toward an always more final end, the will would never act in regard to finite objects at all. Immanent desires are always in a sense deferred toward some more remote, more transcendent purpose. All concretely limited aspirations of the will are sustained within formally limitless aspirations of the will. In the end, then, the only objects of desire that are not reducible to other, more general objects of desire, and that are thus desirable entirely in and of themselves, are those universal, unconditional, and exalted ideals, those transcendentals, that constitute being’s abstract perfections. One may not be, in any given instant, immediately conscious that one’s rational appetites have been excited by these transcendental ends; I am not talking about a psychological state of the empirical ego; but those ends are the constant and pervasive preoccupation of the rational will in the deepest springs of its nature, the source of that “delectable perturbation” that grants us a conceptual grasp of finite things precisely by constantly carrying us restlessly beyond them and thereby denying them even a provisional ultimacy.
In fact, we cannot even possess the barest rational cognizance of the world we inhabit except insofar as we have always already, in our rational intentions, exceeded the world. Intentional recognition is always already interpretation, and interpretation is always already judgment. The intellect is not a passive mirror reflecting a reality that simply composes itself for us within our experience; rather, intellect is itself an agency that converts the storm of sense-intuitions into a comprehensible order through a constant process of interpretation. And it is able to do this by virtue of its always more original, tacit recognition of an object of rational longing—say, Truth itself—that appears nowhere within the natural order, but toward which the mind nevertheless naturally reaches out, as to its only possible place of final rest. All proximate objects are known to us, and so desired or disregarded or rejected, in light of that anticipated finality. Even to seek to know, to organize experience into reflection, is a venture of the reasoning will toward that absolute horizon of intelligibility. And since truly rational desire can never be a purely spontaneous eruption of the will without purpose, it must exhibit its final cause in the transcendental structure of its operation. Rational experience, from the first, is a movement of rapture, of ecstasy toward ends that must be understood as—because they must necessarily be desired as—nothing less than the perfections of being, ultimately convertible with one another in the fullness of reality’s one source and end. Thus the world as something available to our intentionality comes to us in the interval that lies between the mind’s indivisible unity of apprehension and the irreducibly transcendental horizon of its intention—between, that is, the first cause of movement in the mind and the mind’s natural telos, both of which lie outside the composite totality of nature. And so the rational will’s absolute preoccupation with being as a whole discloses the rather astonishing truth that the very structure of all intellection is an essential relation to God’s transcendence as spirit’s only possible natural end. As I say, for spiritual creatures, nature is experienced as nature only by way of a more original apprehension of the supernatural. These transcendental ends are ultimate objects of desire, after all, only in that God’s transcendent goodness shines through them, and reason must love the Good.
This argument is played out through all its possible objections—compactly but not obscurely—in pp. 9-18. You can dispute this point if you like, but you will lose the debate if you do.
Anyway, let me move on to other, more incidental features of your review:
If an orientation toward a certain end really is natural to us, then it makes no sense to describe it as supernatural…. Or, if it really is supernatural, then it makes no sense to describe it as natural…. However, in fairness to Hart, I don’t think he is actually guilty of this particular sort of incoherence. In order to be guilty of it, you have to acknowledge that there really is a distinction in reality between the natural order and the supernatural order.... But Hart does not acknowledge it. He insists on collapsing the distinctions between natural and supernatural, between nature and grace, and between God’s creating us and his orienting us to the beatific vision. And this is where his position becomes truly radical—indeed, as I have said, pantheistic.
You are not exactly misstating my position, at least not until you throw in the accusation of pantheism (which I can neither reject nor accept, since it is meaningless). I will just observe that it would be more precise to say that I deny the sort of division between supernature and nature that Baroque Thomism presumed. That puts me in good company: the Apostle Paul, the author of John’s Gospel, basically all the authors of the Bible really, as well as all the Church Fathers, East and West alike, most if not all the great mediaeval theologians (Thomas, I would argue, among them), every significant Orthodox and Catholic theologian of the modern age, and (of course) God (I’ve asked him). But to deny a division is not to reject every distinction. I can distinguish between higher and lower without positing some precise and inviolable ontological interval between them. So let’s say instead that I reject any discontinuity of nature and supernature. After all, the very language of the “supernatural” appears rather late in Christian history: fleetingly and with a very limited meaning in some scholastic texts, and not with the meaning you want to give it until early modernity.
You also write:
This implies that to attribute to human beings a natural capacity to know God’s very essence would be to identify them with God. And that is exactly what Hart does. ...Lest it be insufficiently obvious that what he is arguing for is a collapse of the distinction between God and human beings, he summarizes his position in the book’s Introduction as follows:
“Only the God who is always already human can become human. Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God. . . . God is all that is. Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God.”
True, those last lines are mine, but my words are thoroughly defensible from Maximus, from the Pseudo-Dionysius, and from other Christian thinkers. But your words, at least in the use of “identify” there and your talk of a collapsed distinction, are incorrect. I do not identify any mere creature with the Trinity. Nowhere do I suggest that Edward Feser is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But, yes, you have me, I am a metaphysical monist. I am right there with Eriugena, Eckhart, and Cusanus, but am also drawing from Gregory and Maximus. You might have quoted me more fully at this point—say, mentioned my adoption of Cusanus’s language of God as the non aliud. But I leave it to your readers to consult my text, if they care to do so.
But the collapse extends beyond human beings to the created world in general. Hart insists that “nothing can exist that is not always already, in eternity, divinized” so that “all that exists has its being as God’s knowledge of himself in his Logos.” He implies that the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity extends beyond Jesus of Nazareth, so that “all created things are contained within the scope of the incarnation, so much so that one must say that creation is the incarnation in the fullness of all its necessary historical and natural dimensions.” “Creation,” he proclaims, is “revealed as being ‘located’ nowhere but within the very life of God as God.” The “eternal Yes” of God to creatures, of creatures to God, of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to one another, “in the end . . . are all one and the same Yes.”
Indeed I do say all of this, though with explanations you omit. All things are created in Christ. “In Christ,” not just in the Logos. In him, all things consist and have their being. He is the exact image of the divine glory through whom the world is created. (There is some fairly abundant scriptural precedent for such language.) Also, if you think about it, I am saying something rather obvious.
I do also claim that, according to Christian thought, creation occurs within the Trinitarian relations, as do the great Church Fathers, since there is nothing outside of God. Again, Maximus...
Oh, and, yes, I do also say that no one says yes to the Father except that the Spirit within his or her spirit says yes. (Again, I think you will find that I am not the inventor of this language.)
Echoing the Stoics, Hart tells us that nature stands in relation to the supernatural as “matter to form,” so that “nature in itself has no real existence and can have none” apart from the divine that informs it.
That, of course, contradicts your claim of “no distinction” between nature and supernature in my language, but I will let it pass. It certainly is not a Stoic claim, obviously, since I do not identify nature or God with matter; I am drawing an analogy to the distinction between potency and act.
Channeling Hegel, he speaks of God’s “‘return’ to himself [in] our integration into him” and says that “nothing in nature or history can be simply extrinsic to this movement of the Father’s ‘achievement’ of his own essence in the divine life.” ….there are also critical remarks about Hegel, but they amount to the complaint that Hegelianism collapses God into history rather than the other way around.
That final statement is totally false. I am not going to explain an exitus-reditus metaphysics to a putative Thomist, except to note that in the Neoplatonic model I presume creatures exist as in each instant proceeding from and returning to God. Neither will I elaborate on the ancient theological maxim that humans are joined to God within and by way of the taxis of the Trinitarian perichoresis, being joined to the Son by the Spirit and united to the Father in the Son (you really need to read Gregory of Nyssa some day). I will, however, rebuke said Thomist for neglecting to mention that I clearly deny that God becomes God in either nature or history. Since I have of late been criticized by a small clique of querulous young Hegelians for that denial (they are not crack philosophers), I would rather you not attribute to me a position that I regard as idiotic and explicitly reject in the text.
Like Spinoza, Hart takes creation to follow of necessity from the divine nature. For in God, he says, the distinction between freedom and necessity collapses, and “creation inevitably follows from who [God] is.”
Spinoza too, now?
Obviously, if I deny the distinction between freedom and necessity in God, then I cannot be arguing for the priority of necessity, can I? My point there is that God, as the infinite actuality of all that is, and therefore reality itself, is not a deliberating agent choosing a future for himself out of a landscape of possibilities outside himself. He is infinitely free in being infinitely who he is and what he does. This is the doctrine of divine simplicity. I admit that I am one of those who says that creation is not a “choice” for God; but, as you should know, “choice” and “freedom” are not one and the same thing. We must choose because we are finite; we sometimes choose the good, for example, sometimes not. God simply is the Good, which is naturally diffusive of itself; there is no choice about it, because nothing can constrain him from being perfectly what he is, and so he is infinitely freely expressive of himself.
…a concern for distinctively Christian orthodoxy isn’t really what drives Hart in the first place. He tells us that among the influences on his book is the Vedantic tradition in Hinduism, from which Christian thinkers “have a great deal to learn.” Indeed, he allows that “Vedantic Christianity” might be an apt label for his position.
And? Would you raise objections to the term “Neoplatonic Christianity?” Would you have resisted the use of Platonism by the early Christians? How about Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism by Thomas? Would Thomas’s reliance on a Muslim philosopher like ibn Sina have horrified you? What is your point? (And please do not say it has something to do with Vedanta; I submit that you do not know enough about any schools of Vedanta, apart from a few popular and very inaccurate generalizations, to make a judgment here.)
…he judges [that] Christianity is “only one limited trajectory within history’s universal narrative of divine incarnation and creaturely deification, superior in some ways to alternative trajectories, vastly inferior in many others” (emphasis added).
Stop clutching your pearls, Ed. Indeed I do say that, in the course of distinguishing between the modern anthropological category of “religions” (according to which, Christianity is a set containing Calvinists, Catholics, Baptists, Orthodox, and so on, and maybe Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on) and the category of “religion” as one finds it, for instance, in Thomas Aquinas, according to which religion is a single virtue that is variously practiced by all persons and peoples, albeit with differing levels of illumination. Hence, for Thomas, ibn Sina is often right on matters central to Christianity that other Christians get wrong.
Arius, whom the council condemned, “was in many respects a profoundly conservative theologian” and “a more faithful representative of many of the most venerable schools of Trinitarian thought than were the champions of the Nicene settlement” (even if, Hart agrees, the latter ultimately had better arguments than Arius).
Yes, of course. That is an objective fact of history. So what? I am not praising Arius for his conservatism; I am praising the Cappadocian Fathers for their synthetic genius. If you care to learn more about the history in question, I treat of it at length in another recent book, Tradition and Apocalypse, pp. 111-131.
Meanwhile, Gnosticism, Hart argues at length, has been unjustly demonized as heretical, and represents an authentic early expression of Christianity. In fact, he tells us, the “two-tier Thomism” Hart deplores “is far more extravagantly heterodox” than Gnosticism! How Hart can be so confident that Thomistic views are heterodox, while writing off all other judgments about orthodoxy and heterodoxy as “ideological constructions,” …he never explains.
No, this is a ridiculous barbarization of what I say.
The “ideological constructions” of which I speak have to do with the false histories that retrospectively sprang up around creedal symbols. Even Newman granted that much. But I admit that what others consider orthodoxy is not my primary concern.
I say nothing about the fairness or unfairness of how the “gnostics” (a category I now invoke only with qualifications, incidentally) have been treated, but only about the inaccuracy of the picture of them bequeathed us by German scholarship of the eighteenth century. Neither do I say anything about their “legitimacy,” either in general or with regard to any particular sect. But yes, I do point out that, by comparison to the cosmology, theology, and soteriology of the New Testament, many of those we call gnostic were often far closer to the language and presuppositions of the Apostolic age than were Calvin or Thomas or many others. This too is an objective fact of history.
Though Hart is too polite to say so explicitly, his argument implies that the charge of heterodoxy can also be leveled against Catholicism in general, at least since Pius XII’s rebuke of de Lubac...
When—when—in God’s name have I ever been too polite to say anything? You have a bad habit—as your book on capital punishment made especially clear—of ignoring the difference between Catholic dogma and papal encyclicals, or for that matter papal obiter dicta. Yes, briefly—very briefly—the two-tier system was dominant and was endorsed by a pope of limited theological gifts (Garrigou-Lagrange wrote the bloody thing, in all likelihood). But there have been at least two popes among the last three who are not on board with the program: John-Paul II (whose Veritatis Splendor displaced “Thomism” from any centrality in Catholic philosophy and explicitly praised figures totally opposed to the two-tierist vision, like Blondel, Rosmini, and Solovyov) and Benedict XVI (a product of the “razing the bastions,” “ressourcements,” “nouvelle théologie” generation through and through, for all his discretion on these matters). Whole schools of Catholic thought, like the Scotists, who are no less orthodox in the eyes of the Catholic church than the Thomists are, explicitly reject the scheme. In fact, the position on supernature and nature that you defend is and has always been a minority position—eccentric, anomalous, and incoherent. I do not even believe it to be faithful to Thomas, at least not the Thomas of the Compendium or Contra Gentiles. I know the manualists try to write off his language about the natural desire for God in those works as referring only to humanity already graced with the superaddition of supernatural desire, but he says nothing of the sort.
This latest book continues the trajectory away from historical Christianity evident in Hart’s recent work.
Trajectory? What trajectory? As Janis Joplin would say, Man, I’m not heading anywhere; I’m there. There is nothing in this book that I would not have affirmed in principle thirty years ago and more. The same is true of the book on universalism. I apologize for any misunderstanding on this point, but I have never been an apologist for “mere Christianity” or ecclesial infallibility. That said, do not arrogate to yourself the right to speak for Christian tradition in general; what you think “historical Christianity” to have been is an impoverished sketch of a far richer, more diverse, and more speculatively adventurous tradition than you know, because (like most strict Thomists) you refuse to venture out of the narrow ravine where you prefer to live. There are more things in Christianity, Ed Feser, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Anyway, that is enough. Having had my say, let me do you this much justice. In many ways you are right, even if you get the details wrong, and even if you spend too much time in your review being scandalized to notice what I flatter myself is a certain richness in this text. I do not care whether what I say fits a particular definition of orthodoxy, in part because such definitions are inconsistent, but mostly (I admit it) because I do not believe in the organs of authority that you believe in. I am also, you are right, a radical metaphysical monist, and a syncretist to the very core of my being. I deny none of it. We really do not believe the same things, Ed. And, if you think that what you believe is both Christian orthodoxy and truth itself, then you are quite right to see me as heterodox in many or most of my convictions. I would never embrace the understanding of Christianity you promote in your writings, under any circumstances; it is utterly repellant to me. And you would not embrace what I think the truth of Christianity to be. For all intents and purposes, we profess different faiths. So, in fairness—at least, once you get my arguments right, as you have not yet done—I have little to arraign you for, and certainly no desire to defend myself against accusations I do not find meaningful, and at which I can take no offense.
God bless you, Ed. Your introductory volume on philosophy of mind needs to be updated to include material on current trends in panpsychism.