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A REVIEW OF WISDOM IN THE FACE OF MODERNITY

Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology. Thomas Joseph White. Sapienta Press, 2009. 320 pp. $39.95. ISBN 978-1-932589-55-9.

            Natural Theology has come on hard times ever since it was attacked by Immanuel Kant, and Martin Heidegger, and fell into disrepute among many protestant denominations (especially the reformed movements initiated by Jean Calvin and Martin Luther). Many Christian thinkers have stayed away from this topic for fear of rebuke from their religious denominations or fear of disdain from the philosophical and scientific community. Thomas Joseph White has no such fear, and sets out boldly to confront the main critiques to natural theology coming from both the philosophical and theological communities. In this review I will be primarily providing an overview of the main themes touched on in this book, as well as providing my opinion concerning the relative worth of this book.

            The purpose of this book, according to White, is to present a coherent picture of thomistic natural theology and to demonstrate that it escapes both of the attacks on natural theology that are commonly associated with Kant, and Luther, and Heidegger. In his own words, "This study seeks to look at another equally important set of questions directly related to the philosophical side of the equation [the problem is whether or not Natural Theology is possible]. And in a more specific sense at one particular problem among others: namely, is true natural knowledge of God possible that does not in fact presuppose its object a priori? Is there such a thing as a 'natural theology' that is not 'onto-theological' in the senses given that word by Kant and subsequently by Heidegger? Second, if there is in fact the possibility of such knowledge, does this not wed us inextricably to some of the problems raised by Karl Barth in his criticisms of the analogia entis of Catholic theology?...The thesis of this book is that the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas presents a pathway to true natural knowledge of God that is immune to the core criticisms of Kantian skepticism concerning knowledge of God, but one that simultaneously defends itself successfully against the charge of being an overly rationalist instantiation of natural theology or a form of 'conceptual idolatry'."[1]

             White goes about accomplishing this goal as follows. Following the introduction, the book is divided into 4 main sections. The first main section simply is the first chapter. The purpose of the first section is to provide an overview of the immediate historical, theological and philosophical backdrop out of which the thomist revival of the 20th century grew, and with which any contemporary form of Natural Theology must engage. The second main section is composed of the 2nd and 3rd chapters. In part 2 White will "study the question of knowledge of God in the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas, examining each one separately, yet underlining important points of contact between the two."[2] His goal is, first, "to explain the elements of the historical contexts in which Aristotle and Aquinas developed their understanding of wisdom."[3] Secondly he will "identify the structure of an analogical causal analysis of being that can be identified within and extracted from their historically conditioned works."[4] Chapter 2 concerns Aristotle, and chapter 3 concerns Aquinas. The third section is composed of chapters 4, 5, and 6. In this section White examines “how three modern Thomists, Gilson, Maritain, and Rahner, all sought to respond in various ways to the issues mentioned in the conclusion of the second part [the 5 difficulties for a modern Thomism].”[5] He also seeks to show that each of these thinkers “neglects in some fashion important dimensions of Aquinas’s causal metaphysics.”[6] The fourth section is composed of chapters 7 and 8. The purpose of the fourth section is to present an overview of the Thomistic perspective of Natural Theology. Chapter 7 will present and explain arguments concerning the existence of God. Chapter 8 will present and explain what man can know about God, and how it is known. We will give, in what follows, a brief overview of each chapter.

In the Introduction White begins by giving a brief overview of what Natural Theology has been traditionally understood to be, noting, briefly, some of the attacks on Natural theology that have been typical of reformational and Modern thought. He then defines Natural Theology as "a discipline that inquires into the distinctly natural or intrinsic capacity of the human mind to come to some real knowledge of the existence and nature of God by philosophical means, even though this knowledge is mediate and analogical."[7] In this context he explains what is not meant by 'natural'. He goes on to provide a brief description of 2 principle attacks on Natural Theology, the first from the philosophical positions of Kant and Heidegger, and the second from the theological positions of the reformed theology of Luther and Barth. In light of these two counterarguments he explains what he intends to do in this book and provides an overview of how he intends to accomplish his purpose.

The purpose of the first chapter is, as stated by White, "to determine some of the basic historical conditions that affect modern Thomistic attempts to identify a natural capacity for knowledge of God."[8] White begins by setting the stage for the discussion that will follow in this chapter. He notes that modern theology is primarily influenced by discussions surrounding the reformation, as such one must consider Martin Luther's rejection of Natural Theology in any contemporary elaboration of Natural Theology. He goes on to note some of the philosophical influences that affect the contemporary discussion noting the influence of the Modern rationalistic philosophers such as Descartes and Leibniz, and the difficulties that their views posed for medieval philosophy in general. He then notes the response of the Catholic Church, in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the claims and challenges of modernity (He here discusses how the constitution Dei Filius at the first Vatican council in 1870, and the encyclical letter of Pope Leo, 'Aeterni Patris', in 1879, impacted and jumpstarted the thomistic revival of the 19th century.). From here he moves on to a summary of the challenges that were met by the thomistic revival in light of Kant's critical philosophy. In this section he first explains the views of Kant that have created new difficulties for the elaboration of Natural Theology, the 4 basic elements of Kant's philosophy that he inherited from his enlightenment predecessors, and how he combined these elements in his philosophy. He then discusses the greatest thomistic philosopher to take on Kant’s philosophy in defense of Natural Theology - Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. He provides an outline of Lagrange's response, and explains how Lagrange actually falls prey to Kant in his attempt to escape him. He then considers the challenge brought to Natural Theology by Martin Heidegger's philosophy of Being. In this section he provides an overview of Heidegger's principle views concerning Being, and the development (through three main periods: 1) Lutheran, 2) Atheist, and 3) Post-war) of Heidegger's views concerning Natural Theology. In so doing he notes that Heidegger's primary critique of Natural Theology is that it "attempts to describe God metaphysically in terms of an entity (ens) like others, differing primarily as the causal explanation of the latter, by means of the principle of sufficient reason (whatever is not the cause of itself must be caused by another)."[9] He goes on to provide a brief explanation of why the truly thomistic/Aristotelian natural theology actually escapes Heidegger's critique. He then explains, briefly, how the modern conception of person, as exposed by Kant and Heidegger have posed a problem for Natural Theology, and how Thomism needs to respond. Finally he lists 5 elements that must be present in any valid attempt to elaborate a Natural Theology: 1) a point of departure in Being, 2) A proper analogical understanding of Being, 3) The possibility of demonstrative knowledge of God, 4) A proper analysis of personal goodness in relation to God's goodness, and 5) the necessity of some form of protection against Rationalism (and the accusation of conceptual idolatry), namely, the double truth of the truth and imperfection of the a posteriori demonstrative arguments.

In chapter 2 White considers Aristotle's approach to Natural Theology. This is done in three steps. He begins by analysing the Platonic background of Aristotle's view of wisdom. In so doing he points out three primary difficulties in Plato's development of the notion of Wisdom. He then notes how Aristotle responded to these difficulties with solutions. Finally, through an interesting survey of the use of the term Wisdom in the Metaphysics, White notes how Aristotle argues to the existence of God. The knowledge, albeit partial and imperfect, of the first cause constitutes wisdom for Aristotle. "Thus wisdom is an ascent (by the study of being and its causes) to the knowledge of God as the ultimate cause of all things. It is God, then, who is the ultimate principle of this science, and who is ultimately himself the wisdom in question (983a6-8)."[10] As such the true philosopher (lover of wisdom) is one who seeks God and knowledge (albeit imperfect) of God. He concludes with an examination of how Aristotle's Natural Theology escapes Kant's critique of arguments concerning the existence of God, how it escapes Heidegger's critique of philosophical questions concerning God, how Aristotle's philosophy neither imposes a religious conception of God on philosophy, and, finally, how Aristotle's Natural Theology transcends all of the culture relative claims of the Natural Sciences.

The purpose of the third chapter is to examine Aquinas’s Natural Theology. White seeks to show, first of all, “that Aquinas purposefully appropriated Aristotle’s causal analysis of being, but within a different historical context”,[11] and secondly, “that in appropriating this metaphysical philosophy, he also transformed it.”[12] He accomplishes this dual purpose by, first of all, outlining the philosophical, theological and historical context of Aquinas’s project. He then shows how Aquinas adapts Aristotle’s philosophy into his own theological works. Thirdly, he shows how Aquinas understands the relation of God to the world, and in the process provides the reader with an interesting discussion concerning the esse/essentia distinction, and Aquinas’s development of Aristotle’s notion of the analogy of Being. Finally, he shows how Aquinas establishes the personhood of God. Having accomplished this purpose he shows that Aquinas’s Natural Theology, based as it is on an Aristotle’s metaphysics, does not fall prey either to Kant’s or to Heidegger’s critiques of onto-theology. Finally he outlines five difficulties that one must deal with in attempting to outline a thomistic natural theology in the modern setting that is heavily influenced by Kant and Heidegger. This conclusion prepares us for the third section.

In chapter 4 White set for himself two goals, first he examines “Gilson’s thought concerning natural rational access to the discovery of existence in the beings we experience”,[13] and secondly he critically evaluates “several of the standpoints Gilson takes as given.”[14] In the first part of the chapter he begins by comparing the respective approaches to the history of metaphysics of Gilson and Martin Heidegger, noting similarities and differences. He then points out three ways in which Gilson critiqued what he calls essentialism. We are then given a summary of Gilson’s view of the beginning point for Metaphysical investigation, including discussions concerning the judgment of existence and the order of knowledge. This is followed by a critique of Gilson’s understanding of the judgment of existence and a discussion of how Gilson understands the five ways through the esse/essence distinction. White then notes some difficulties with Gilson’s views of the esse/essence distinction which led Gilson into the trap laid by Heidegger – a Theo-ontology which must begin with revelation. Gilson, in studying Scotus realized that the way in which he sought to philosophically prove the esse/essence distinction didn’t work, and, therefore, he argued that this distinction was given through the word of God, in Ex. 3:14. The consequences of Gilson’s views is that “henceforth it must be admitted that a realistic metaphysical knowledge of being and of God is possible for the human person only in cooperation with revelation. True philosophy must be conducted under the illuminating influence of the Christian faith.”[15] In part 2 of this chapter White considers three important critiques of Gilson’s views. First of all, he considers the judgment of existence and the concept of esse. Secondly he discusses Gilson’s mistaken claim that Aristotelianism is nothing more than an essentialism. Finally he notes the tension that is created between Gilson’s views and Aquinas’s on theology and philosophy, by Gilson’s claim that esse is given in revelation.

In chapter 5 White turns towards Maritain’s view of Natural Theology. He seeks to show how Maritain answered the following question: “How, then, may the human mind arrive in via inventionis at the insight that these notions are rightly predicable of the divine nature, albeit in an utterly transcendent and supereminent way?”[16] His goal is to “analyze how Maritain develops a conceptual, analogical science of being qua being, based upon Gilson’s thomistic understanding of the judgment of existence,”[17] followed by an examination of “how Maritain develops from such a starting point a metaphysical reflection upon the human person, and an interpretation of the five ways of Aquinas.”[18] In this chapter White makes 3 basic claims. First of all, Maritain rightly claims that the mind must intuitively grasp certain basic structures of reality, but, secondly, Maritain errs in identifying this intuition with the resolutio of Aquinas which has two movements, and this error leads, thirdly, to an absolute use of analogy of proper proportionality. In this chapter White gives the reader some interesting discussions concerning abstraction, the starting point for metaphysical thought, the transcendentals, and an interesting discussion of Maritain’s interpretation of Aquinas’s five ways.

In chapter 6 White considers Karl Rahner’s approach, through his metaphysics of the human person, to Natural Theology, an approach that was inspired by Kant, Heidegger, and Maréchal’s interpretation of Aquinas. The chapter begins with a note concerning the relationship between an understanding of the human person and our metaphysical research. White carries out this examination of Rahner’s thought by first of all considering Maréchal’s metaphysical positions, which are foundational for Rahner’s views. He then explains how Rahner sets out to demonstrate the existence of God based upon the active intellect and the metaphysical composition of the human person. He finishes by presenting two important critiques of Rahner’s views. White points out that Rahner’s position, which sought to correct errors in Kant’s and Heidegger’s systems, ends up falling prey to their systems. This is due to the fact that Rahner’s Natural Theology ends up being a form of the ontological argument.

The purpose of the seventh chapter is to present 4 foundational notions for the thomistic arguments concerning the existence of God. White accomplishes this goal in 5 sections. After a summary of what was White has covered thus far, and an overview of what will be seen in the chapter, White begins by discussing the “point of departure for metaphysical science.”[19] The second section deals with the “order of inquiry into the structure of beings”,[20] and how following this order leads the inquirer “to an eventual argumentation for the existence of God.”[21] In this section he gives an overview of the proper use of the different types of analogical knowledge of being. In the third section White gives three causal arguments that philosophically demonstrate the esse/essentia distinction (thus allowing the thomistic view of natural theology to escape the critiques of Heidegger against theo-ontology).  In the fourth section White presents 4 distinct arguments that demonstrate a posteriori (with not a priori conception of God) that God exists. His arguments, though not strictly equivalent to Aquinas’s 5 ways, are developments of Aquinas’s first way (in the Summa Theologiae); his second argument is similar to Aquinas’s argument from contingency in the Summa Contra Gentiles; his third argument is related to the fifth way in the Summa Theologiae; and his fourth and final argument is a development of the argument found in De Ente et Essentia, and applied to Aquinas’s fourth way in the Summa Theologiae. In the fifth section of this chapter White deals with a potential critique of the thomistic view of Natural Theology, namely: “if genuine philosophical knowledge of God depends upon a cultivated practice of metaphysical analysis and reasoning, how is it possible that it could have any importance for the vast majority of human persons, who do not have either the time or energy (and in some cases, the natural gifts) to pursue such reflection?”[22]

In chapter 8, after an overview of the two main objections to Natural Theology (the philosophical objection of Kant, and the originally theological objection found first in Luther, and then Barth and Heidegger) White proceeds to explain how such natural knowledge is possible, how it is attained, what it entails, and its relation to supernaturally revealed knowledge of God. This final chapter is divided into three sections that consider, first of all, how our analogical knowledge of God should not be considered as primarily negative, but as primarily positive, with a “negative moment”. In this section he considers and explains the use of the triplex via. The second section is a consideration of 4 important attributes of God (Divine Simplicity, Divine Perfection, Truth and Love), and how we come to know them philosophically. Each of these attributes are considered in their relation to divine wisdom. The third section examines the human person in light of his natural desire for God. The limitations of man’s natural desire for, and knowledge of, God, and the necessity of divinely revealed revelation from God, and divine grace, for the human attainment of unity with God.

            This is one of the most interesting books on thomistic Natural Theology that one will find. This book is useful for a number of reasons. First of all, it is simply a pleasure to read an author who is structured in his thoughts and lays out for the reader, at each step, where he is going, and where he came from. This is one of the most obvious aspects of the literary side of White’s book. Each chapter begins with an introduction to the subject, and an outline of what White intends to show, how he wants to go about showing it, and the reasons why he is dealing with these subjects. Secondly, White provides an enormous wealth of reference material that fill the numerous footnotes that are found on almost every page. Thirdly, though he restrains his book to a presentation of thomistic natural theology in light of Aristotelian principles, over against the critiques of Kant and Heidegger, White interacts with almost every important modern view on the subject of natural theology. He refers with relative ease to the many different catholic views of natural theology, as well as the Lutheran and Barthian views of natural theology that influenced Heidegger, and thus, the modern presuppositionalist (covenantal) movement. Unfortunately, due to the enormous goal that he set for himself, a number of the subjects that he treats can only be given a superficial treatment; White, however, recognizing this lacuna refers the reader to a number of other resources that provide more detail concerning the subjects in question. This book is a necessary read for anybody who wishes to engage topics related to natural theology in any meaningful way, whether it is in opposition to natural theology (as a Heideggerian, Kantian, Presuppositionalist, or reformed theologian), or in support of natural theology. It is, however, a book that deals with some very deep and difficult philosophical notions, and is probably not to be recommended for those who are not already familiar with this area of study. As a prerequisite to reading this book, and engaging it in any meaningful way, the reader would be well advised to familiarize themselves with the basics of Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy and natural theology, and the work of Gilson, Maritain and Rahner. The author, however, does provide many helpful remarks concerning these authors, as well as the thought of Heidegger and Kant, such that, even a beginner would profit from a cursory reading of this book, so long as they planned on coming back to it after they had followed up the numerous references that are provided by White. When it comes right down to it, this book should be in the library of every serious philosopher and theologian.



[1]Thomas Joseph White, Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2009), xxvii-xxviii. Cf. Ibid., xxix, 28, 201, 202, 252.

[2]Ibid., 34.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid., 99.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid., xxiv.

[8]Ibid., 3.

[9]Ibid., 23.

[10]Ibid., 47.

[11]Ibid., 67.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid., 104.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Ibid., 118.

[16]Ibid., 133.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Ibid., 203.

[20]Ibid.

[21]Ibid.

[22]Ibid., 204.

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