The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: What Is Theology?
James V. Schall, S.J. - 06/08/09
Byzantine mosaic of Christ
Theology is a Christian specialty. To be sure, several religions developed stores of knowledge, at times of an extremely high degree of technicality and subtlety, concerning the adventures of the gods, regulating the cult due to them, and explaining the commandments, when such has been emitted. But ‘theology’ as a rational exploration of the divine (according to Anselm’s program) exists only in Christianity.
—Rémi Brague, The Legend of the Middle Ages.[1]
The peculiar doctrine of Christianity is, that of an universal sacrifice, and perpetual propitiation. Other prophets only proclaimed the will and the threatenings of God. Christ satisfied his justice.
—Samuel Johnson, June 3, 1781.[2]


In a famous essay, Leo Strauss asked: “What Is Political Philosophy?” Following Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, he advised us to pay particular attention to “what is?” questions. Thus, we have minds to ask: “What is courage?” “What is truth?” “What is man?” “What is beauty?” “What is knowledge?” If we already have the courage of Plato’s brother Glaucon, we can even ask: “What is ‘is’?”—though most good philosophers do not think “is” is a “what.”

When we have endeavored to answer such questions, we find ourselves wondering: “What is the cause or origin of all that is?” “What is the purpose of everything?” “Is the world made in justice, or something more than justice, as Aquinas surmised?” And if we complain about evil, which we cannot avoid noticing, “To whom do we complain?” Some philosophies pretend it does not exist; others, as the early Augustine, think that some evil god causes it. This view has the convenient side-effect of excusing us without changing us.

Some ancient (and modern) philosophers used to claim that no “origin” of things could be found, nor, contrary to Aristotle, was an end or purpose found in them either. Whatever is, always was. It just keeps coming around again and again. That’s why, it is said, we can understand it, anticipate it. But after we think of this “round and round” affair long enough, we still wonder: “Why does it circle in this way and not some other?” “Are not some things also new, things that have never existed before, ourselves, at our conception, for instance?”

Such wonderments bring us to the “God question” as central to the “what is?” questions. With any curiosity at all, like it or not, we must at least wonder about the “God question.” We find it odd, perhaps, in reading Exodus, a book basic to our tradition, to hear Moses ask Yahweh “Who He was?” The answer came back: “I am who am,” a version of the “what is” question. Similarly, Christ kept asking, “Who do men say that I am?” Or, “before Abraham was, I am.” (Incidentally, the spell-check on my computer, when it read the three “am’s” in the previous sentences changed them to “is.” Nothing could prove more clearly that machines do not philosophize about the highest things!)

Even if we just ask Leo Strauss’ question about political philosophy, we find that Aristotle had already asked the same question. After defining science as “knowledge through causes,” Aristotle said that politics was the highest of the “practical” sciences, of the sciences that deal with things that could be “otherwise.” Politics at its highest included a form of knowledge called “prudence,” recta ratio agibilium, the right reason of things to be done. The politically prudent statesman strove to put a final stamp of his intelligence on an act that could be otherwise. That final act, as all human acts, has to be chosen or determined to be what it is. As chosen, it could be good or evil, praised or blamed, noble or despicable. But politics was not the highest science as such.

This latter science would be the knowledge of “being as being,” generally called metaphysics, or first philosophy, or, at its peak, “theology.” Aristotle added, to make his point, that if man were the highest being, politics, not metaphysics, would be the highest science. When politics is thought to be the highest science, that is, a kind of substitute metaphysics, by its practitioners, it claims the power to do everything formerly attributed to God. To understand this eventuality is why we read Machiavelli. Even today, we see that politicians implicitly make this quasi-divine claim for themselves when their laws and decrees are based on nothing other than their wills either individually or collectively.


Thus, if we ask the “political” question, if we are logical, if we want, as philosophy does, to know about the whole, we unavoidably find ourselves before the “God question.” What is the reason why we do not want to ask this “God question?” The answer is this: We fear a response that we might not like, one that might change our lives. Aristotle hinted at this result, actually. We walk away from the truth. The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, becomes our real patron. For this walking away is what he did, even when he, in a famous scene, was the one who first asked the question, “What is truth?”

That fear of knowing the truth about ourselves and our world again brings us back to Glaucon in the Republic, the potential philosopher, to the virtue Socrates applied to him, namely, courage and what it is. Here, however, courage is not a military virtue but a moral, even intellectual, virtue. In this form, it permits us, prompts us to listen to answers to philosophic questions from those who know. This is why Glaucon wanted to talk to Socrates.

But the teacher, as Yves Simon said in a memorable remark, can only bring us to the threshold of the truth of things. We have to go the rest of the way ourselves. Knowledge as such is free. No one owns it; therefore everyone can have it as theirs, but only on its own terms. And truth exists, as the dialogues of Socrates imply, in conversation, in testing, in desiring to know. Augustine was like this too. He was “restless” and knew that there must be a place, a person in whom his heart could rest. In the City of God, he tells us that “There is no other reason for a man to philosophize other than to be happy,” as if to say that an intimate relation exists between our minds and the reality that they know.

So again the questions: “What is justice?” “What is truth?” “What is the good?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?”[3] Potential philosophers, those who have not yet made up their minds about how they want their souls to look, think of these things even when their professors or universities, culture or religion does not ask them. And to think, to philosophize, as Robert Sokolowski said, is primarily to make distinctions, to say this is not that, to contemplate, in their uniqueness, the many things that are.

Plato said the same thing. The truth, he said, is to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. This power of affirmation or negation is why, I often say, that we can have no such thing as a university without the constant and delighted reading of Plato. We have not yet attended a university if this reading was not a central part of what we did there. If that continual reading of Plato is not undertaken behind a university’s walls, then nothing much that does go on there matters much either. The “charm” of Plato, as I call it, is not to be missed.[4]

In this regard, I just came across a book that two students gave me in January 2008. It was Robert Short’s book, The Parables of Peanuts. In the Preface to the 1968 Edition, Short recounted the following incident. He had given a lecture at a “well-known and fashionable New England girls’ college.” After the lecture, a young lady in all candor asked him: “Would you mind going over that ‘sin’ business again? Our teachers here in the Religion Department have never mentioned it.” Short added: “I cried and laughed most of the rest of the evening.”[5] Indeed.

And no doubt, what with evil and all that, the “sin business” still leads to the “God question.” Most people seem to blame God for this “sin business,” not themselves. If they read carefully the introductory chapters of Genesis, however, which are at the origins of such speculations, as Nietzsche implied, they might suspect that sin and evil are not properly located in matter or in God. Rather, they are located in a power of their own being, a power that makes them distinct. It allows them to be otherwise than what they ought to choose to be.

Politics, Aristotle said, does not make man to be man, but, taking him from nature as already man, makes him to be a good man. Our moral power does not consist in making us what we are, but in our making ourselves into what we ought to be. To know what ought to be implies the knowing of what it is not all right to be.

It was Augustine, I believe, recalling Plato, who told us that evil and sin are “lacks” of goods that should be there. These “lacks” that constitute evil are there not because God made us good but because he made us also free. Evil and sin are “allowed,” Augustine said, that greater goods may come about. Such too is the import of the citation from Samuel Johnson that I placed in the beginning. Sin is atoned for by sacrifice. To deal with it any other way would be to make us un-free beings who could not sin and therefore who could not freely choose or love or do what is noble. Without the freedom that flows from our reason, without the possibility of our choosing evil, what it is to be a free human being would simply cease.

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