Can you do that?


THIS YEAR for our chapter of the Lay Fraternity of St Dominic, we are reading The One and the Many: a Contemporary Thomist Metaphysics by W. Norris Clarke S.J. (insert OP/SJ jokes here). As is often the case with Amazon it took too long for such a non-popular book to arrive so we had a PDF to read from the publisher (here) to get started. So, look, I’m not that far in: I admit that.

The author defines Metaphysics (in part) as “…drawing on the resources of natural reason alone as applied to our common human experience, without taking either its data or its conclusions from any higher source of wisdom transcending the human, such as divine revelation and its theological explication…”

Right there (page 7) I hit a wall. Again, I’m a n00b and this may be cleared up later. “I’m only an egg. Humility is endless.” – Robert Heinlein. I want to grok the fullness but we’re not there yet. Here’s the problem: Is it possible for a baptized Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit and a living Temple of the Holy Trinity, to engage at the level of “natural reason alone”?

I have three possible answers: a flat no or two very qualified yeses

It is not possible for a human being, now participating in the divine perichoresis (no matter how imperfectly) to engage at the level of Natural Man. The Holy Trinity, dwelling in the human heart, elevates so much by his simple presence that – even if we refuse to engage – once we are baptized it’s impossible to retract to the level of Natural Man. Especially for those who were baptized as a baby, but also for adult converts, the question of sorting one’s “natural thoughts” from the ongoing conversation with the Divine Guest would be like trying to engage the Right Brain only without the Left Brain. Grace is all pervasive. This is even more true for the saintly (like Thomas Aquinas), so engaged in divine congress that the Holy Wisdom pours from their pens and lips and heart: where, in all that, is just-Thomas? He’s not supposed to be there anymore. St Thomas is active, more and more, even in the life of Brother Ox.

It is perhaps possible to mean by Natural Man man restored to his prelapsarian state by Baptism. So, in this answer, his baptized thinking is “natural”. But I don’t at all believe that was the intent: as the Jesuit notes, this should be without any higher source of wisdom. This qualified yes also carries the unfortunate implication that the unbaptized are somehow less than natural or that, rather than being human, they are perhaps a cabbage or something in disguise. I hope my flippancy makes it clear that I do not believe this!

There is also the Super Man option: perhaps Saints can turn off the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to more fully understand the Gospel and how to reach those stuck at the level of Natural. This yes is qualified by wondering why anyone would want to do that. It would be like a priest having the ability to remove the living presence of Christ from the Eucharist (ad hoc) in order to make a point. I don’t understand this premise, but breaking the connection with God would be to experience a mortal sin.

Of these three it is the second answer (that Baptism results in a restoration to our God-intended nature) that makes the most sense. Yet as Baptism bestows on us the gift of the indwelling Trinity, we’re left with the conundrum again: how can we discern what thoughts are available without revelation?

I don’t have an answer, just something to ponder as I read. However I think this is why Thomas’ five proofs for God seem awesome to Catholics and yet not so much to the non-believer. I have read at least once that in later years CS Lewis though his arguments in Mere Christianity were weak, but I’ve not been able to find the original source. What seemed to make perfect sense to a believer makes no sense at all to someone who rejects that belief.

This is not to say that Catholics have no logical arguments for their faith, but only to question if we have the ability to discern where we’re using supranatural knowledge which – for us – is as natural as breathing and as invisible as water is to a fish.

To update (11 hours later): I’m not saying that Catholics cannot do metaphysics or that there’s no use for them doing so. I’m questioning whether or not our metaphysics can be easily communicated to someone who is not, by grace, already participating in the divine revelation .