Christology, hermeneutics, and cosmology

21685723493_6e62998a9f_bFr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., in his recent book, The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (2015), has given us not only a magisterial tour-de-force but also a beautiful and moving example of the riches of theological reflection and sapiential fruit that are available in the return to Thomistic Christological science. I wish to highlight two aspects of his book from among the many that I found instructive and edifying. Both come from the concluding chapter, “The Promise of Thomism: Why Christology Is Not Primarily a Historical Science,” which, along with the introductory chapter “The Biblical Ontology of Christ” and prolegomenon, “Is a Modern Thomistic Christology Possible?” are on their own worth the price of admission. The first theme has to do with the cosmic implications of the interpretation of texts, and the second has to do with the connection between Christology and cosmology.

~ If you can interpret a text, then you must live in a cosmos

The first passage arrives at the tail end of a lucid defense of certain of the basics of metaphysical realism: the intelligibility of being as the foundation for the meaning of language, the interplay of essence and existence as the permanent ground of truths that permeate the flux history, and the ineradicable presence of teleology. Fr. White presents a corollary based upon all three while arguing against modern strains of thought (present in Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault) that strive to deny the presence of human purpose even in the act of writing.

Here, then, we can invoke an argument from retorsion: the active denial of the claim that narration entails the act of a teleologically motivated subject itself seems to demonstrate the truth of the claim being contested.

From this conclusion we can move to a final idea. If the narrating subject is characterized by a teleological inclination (in his or her very being), then the end being pursued by the narrator can be situated within a greater hierarchy of goods. One can evaluate the efforts of any author or interpreter ethically, then, by reflecting on the metaphysical structure of the good. How does the narrator’s action in view of a particular good take on meaning in relation to a set of more ultimate goods? Which human purpose is most ultimate?

One might argue, for example, that the purposefulness of human narration has to be inscribed within a larger cosmic order in which there is no ostensible, intellectually willed purpose to human existence. Some form of biological materialism characterizes the ultimate horizon of explanation for our very being and all our inclinations. Atheist scientists who believe this may write books for a reason, but they do so while claiming that the human community hovers over a cosmic void. Human sociability and public rational argument are portrayed as true goods, then, but they have to be measured against the more ultimate metaphysical backdrop of an atheistic universe. Be that as it may, such a claim inevitably entails that we are making a very clear affirmation about the structure of reality and the hierarchy of goods. If we exist primarily to promote our political animal life and to survive against the backdrop of an otherwise unplanned, non-living physical cosmos, we still have to plan our narratives and explanations of human actions (with their accompanying moral prerogatives: “study more science”) against the backdrop of that larger or more ultimate truth (“the cosmos has no ultimate purpose”). The point is not that such a claim is true, but rather the point is that every narration—including that of the materialist—makes an implicit appeal not only to human ontology and teleology but also to a deeper or more primal concern with the metaphysics of the real and the hierarchy of goods. (White 2007, 497)

The opening argument, which makes an appeal to the test of self-reference through the argument by retorsion, presents the basic problem facing any attempt to deconstruct the possibility of finding meaning in any text or attempt to communicate a vision of the world to another human being. One cannot purpose to convince his audience of the purposelessness of acts of written-down knowledge claims through the very medium of written-down knowledge claims. The self-defeating character of the attempt may be rhetorically concealed but cannot escape the logical revelation of its own vanity.

Yet one can push the line of reasoning further. If there is a purpose to this act of narration and interpretation which I share with human beings, then is that purpose itself ultimate, or is it caught up in a web or even a hierarchy of purposes? (After all, surely it would be strange that my purpose in writing a single book were the ultimate purpose of my life, to say nothing of others!—A lesson is here for dissertation writers.) One recognizes the opening lines of the Aristotelian argument for the necessity of an ultimate end or good (see Nicomachean Ethics, I.1, and from The Josias’ 37 Theses on the good). If I pursue an action for the sake of some end, then either I pursue that action for the sake of something else or I do not. However, it is clear that there are many actions which I perform for the sake of further ends or goals. In turn, this implies that those things which I aim at more ultimately provide the very reason for the desirability of the subordinate goods at which I aim. Does this chain stretch on to infinity? Is my desire merely part of that general human inclination for one thing after another, “a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death”? The answer must be in the negative, for if one desire is conditioned upon another (it finds its very reason for desirability in the good to which it is ordered), then we cannot chain together desired goods conditioned upon superordinate, desirable goods ad infinitum without evacuating the entire chain of desire.

One can then ask, as Fr. White implicitly does, if this chain of human goods (stemming from the meaning we find in texts) requires a cosmic context. He gives two answers (the second one can be divined from the context). The first is that of atheistic materialism or naturalism. This proposal does not escape the requirements of providing some answer to the question of the ultimately meaningful cosmic foundations of human actions which are in this case manifested to us through the acts of narration and interpretation. The proponent of naturalism is forced by his very acts to answer two questions: (1) Are your human speech-acts meaningful? (2) Are your actions parts of a meaningful whole? On the pain of failing the test of self-reference, the naturalist must answer the first question in the affirmative. However, he then gives a negative answer to the second question. Human science is a meaningful endeavor as part of a meaningless cosmos in which human exist.

This striking conclusion that is the outcome of the cosmic implications of textual interpretation provides us with some insight into three possible answers to that second question (of which the naturalist’s answer is the first). The second question, about the meaningfulness of the activities of a part (the human being) within a larger whole (the cosmos, or universe, or the sum total of physical reality) highlights our natural wonder concerning the relationship of that part to the whole, the order of existence between man and the world. The naturalist adopts a humiliating type of materialism: the human dignity found in meaning is not due to a difference in kind from other beings in the universe, for there are only a difference of degree and this degree makes the meaningfulness of the human act of meaning subjective. This subjectivity attempts to resolve the absurdity apparent in the naturalist’s position that we human beings perform meaningful acts in a meaningless cosmos. Yet a second answer is possible (one not considered in the text, given the scope of Fr. White’s argument), and this answer adopts an alien dualism: the human dignity found in acts of meaning is essentially alien to the universe and arises “from without” the kingdom of nature or the material order. This answer, the Kantian answer, sets up a parallel “kingdom of ends” within which it makes apparent sense to claim that human acts of narrating and interpreting so as to find the truth are indeed meaningful parts of a meaningless whole, the mechanical Newtonian cosmos. Yet it too claims to resolve the tension between part and whole by neatly sundering any connection between the two.

A third answer seeks to avoid the extremes of humiliating materialism and alienating dualism. Yet this can only be done by uniting, at the level of being and action, both the capacity for meaning and the ground and material preconditions of the cosmic existence of a thinking, speaking, and writing being. This is done in Aristotelian-Thomistic hylomorphism. Man as a microcosmos is the being that completes the universe and as such provides the point towards which matter in the universe is ordered. Matter is for the sake of human mind, and for this very reason matter throughout the whole must possess meaning. In such fashion, the Aristotelian answers “Yes!” to both questions.

Perhaps this also provides the modern mind with some insight into how the medieval mind could liken Nature to a text to be read, and how the Galilean shift to mathematical “language” is a large one indeed.

~ Christ, the Lord of the Universe

The second passage that I wish to highlight comes from Fr. White’s defense of the scientific character of Christology. He points to three principles which provide a scientific, or perennial and principled basis, for the subject of his book: “In these three principles, then, we have the basis for a science of Christ: in his hypostatic identity, composition of natures, and teleological orientation of life.” (White 2015, 502) White goes on to argue that Christology has not only a scientific character in virtue of these revealed principles, but it also has a sapiential character—indeed, an ultimately sapiential character. As a thesis in Thomistic theology, this is hardly controversial. The science of Christology provides a unifying order and harmony to all other disciplines, and in this way provides the possibility for theology to serve as the architectonic for university disciplines. In this evangelical appeal to the modern university from the ultimate perspective of Catholic theology, White notes that, “The wisdom of Christ gives that ultimate perspective in ways that are integral and unified but also gentle and magnanimous.” (Ibid., 509) He provides examples of how “Christological reflection that is more overtly metaphysical in kind can also take full and realistic account of the historical characteristics of cosmic, historical, and human reality.” (Ibid., 508) His comments concerning the connection between the science of Christ and cosmology are as follows:

[T]he development of modern positive sciences has led to an explosion of learning regarding the history of the cosmos and the evolution of living forms, from the Big Bang to the diversification of species through the processes of natural selection. This history, to be sure, cannot be interpreted comprehensively uniquely from within the purview of the modern sciences themselves, for these presuppose a deeper metaphysical realism. The discoveries of the structure of natural realities call forth a deeper philosophical reflection on the character of matter, natural form, numbers, time, place, change, movement, and so forth. But even if this is the case, the reflection of a more complete rationality of this type is itself incomplete, considered in relation to Christ. For nothing we say of the cosmos or living beings by way of physics, biology, or even philosophy can procure for us knowledge of the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection. But knowledge of these latter mysteries does give an ultimate explicative value to the former disciplines. The mystery of Christ unveils the inner purpose of the physical cosmos, the world of living things, and the unity of the body and spiritual soul in the human person. The teleological purpose of cosmic history comes into view only in him. (Ibid., 504)

Here we see a striking array of claims. However, one among them—that even cosmology presupposes philosophical claims—has been recognized (for better or worse) by modern cosmologists since the inception of Big Bang theory and has reached a more acute status due to certain intrinsic puzzles of the concordance model and its various additions (e.g., the inflationary hypothesis; see Ellis 2014 and Ellis 2017). At any rate, such pressing concerns among professional cosmologists throughout the entire 90-year history of the discipline give the lie to Hawking and Mlodinow’s claim that “philosophy is dead” in precisely the area where they claim it to be.

The more resoundingly theological claim, however, that Christology gives “an ultimate explicative value to these former disciplines,” might seem impossible. Yet perhaps one should see in this the innate obediential potency which the philosophical and scientific disciplines possess in relation towards the numinous ambit of reveal truths. And in this, as should be unsurprising, Fr. White has outlined a Catholic outlook to modern Big Bang cosmology that hearkens back to the words of his confrère, to whom I shall give the last word:

The gifts of grace are added to those of nature in such a way that they do not destroy the latter, but rather perfect them; wherefore also the light of faith, which is gratuitously infused into our minds, does not destroy the natural light of cognition, which is in us by nature. For although the natural light of the human mind is insufficient to reveal those truths revealed by faith, yet it is impossible that those things which God has manifested to us by faith should be contrary to those which are evident to us by natural knowledge. In this case one would necessarily be false: and since both kinds of truth are from God, God would be the author of error, a thing which is impossible. Rather, since in imperfect things there is found some imitation of the perfect, though the image is deficient, in those things known by natural reason there are certain similitudes of the truths revealed by faith.

Now, as sacred doctrine is founded upon the light of faith, so philosophy depends upon the light of natural reason; wherefore it is impossible that philosophical truths are contrary to those that are of faith; but they are deficient as compared to them. Nevertheless they incorporate some similitudes of those higher truths, and some things that are preparatory for them, just as nature is the preamble to grace. (St. Thomas, Super Boethium De Trinitate, q. 2, a. 3, c.)

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