Topic: Philosophy

Br. Clement Lepak, OP's picture

A Mirror Among the Stars: Science is Ordered by Wisdom

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A reflection on Feast of St. Albert the Great, Patron Saint of Scientists.

Image de la galaxie spirale, NGC 4414, hubblesite.org, NASA (available through Wikimedia Commons)

A white hole is thought to be a source of light and matter that is radiating into our universe from an unknown and unapproachable source. Unlike a black hole, which pulls in unceasingly all that approaches it, a white hole is thought to have such a thrust that nothing can enter into it. This speculative model describes an event which spews out energy, light and matter, but which may be highly unstable, collapsing upon itself and then exploding. Some theorists posit a "cosmic counterpoint" to black holes, so that there would be a cosmic balancing, a supernal yin-yang of light, matter and energy. There is no firm evidence that they actually exist, but the concept of a white hole, an unceasing font of waves, vibration and spectra, makes for a marvelous model of contemplation.

As created beings, we can identify the subsistence of all substances at any moment, and reflect that all created things are unceasingly supported and upheld by Being. Unlike the concept of the white hole for which we have found no positive confirmation, when it comes to the source of being, we do stand on evidence: it’s called reality. You’re touching it now. And yes, it’s really real.

Adding another level of intelligibility to this vital sustaining process, we could speak of the other transcendentals such as the good and the true, as well as the related realities of beauty, communicability and love. The leap that allows one to move from the basic physical speculative model of the white hole to the awareness of the font-of-life as emanating from within us, is grounded in the principle that all creation may serve as the springboard towards contemplation. It is wisdom that allows us to order our experience and reason thus, from effects to their cause. Through creation, God ceaselessly offers endless paths for contemplating Him. Man-made artifacts show their wear and begin to age as soon as they are constructed. The table I am writing at shows its age by the exposure of the composite material underneath the varnished surface, which has been rubbed away by constant use over the years. In the brickwork opposite me, visible through the window, I see white lines of more recent mortar that has been used to fill in cracks caused by tremors, weather, shifting. From these artifacts and all others we can come to the conclusion that ‘stuff’ doesn’t last: it wears away, it deteriorates, and if it is living, it dies.

Even great stellar events, such as white holes, stars, and galaxies are limited and in a state of transition but their vastness and abundance of years gives them a fabled, quasi-infinite authority. Yet beyond them, not in size and age, but in mode of being, in perfection, and in goodness, shines the source of all, who even now is in our presence and closer to us than our very self. It has been said that, “The wise man will dominate the stars.” The truth of that statement does not rest in warp drives, time travel or harnessing the energy potential of stars. It rather lies in this: that we will be lords of the stars to the extent that we are lords of our own hearts ordered to the praise of God. In the wondrous signs of creation, and the speculative thought of the sciences, we are afforded manifold opportunities to contemplate the depths and the riches and the knowledge of God. May devotion and knowledge increase hand-in-hand, as God's holy people walk through the darkness of this world into the light with joy, understanding and song.

O, Font of Life and Wisdom, Holy Trinity, God beyond all praise! Amen.

Br. Pius Youn, O.P.'s picture

Understanding Who We Are Through Thomistic Anthropology

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Truth escorts us to freedom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the Jews who believe in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 32:14-15). Christ strengthens us with his promise in these verses. In our daily lives, however, false notions of truth lead us away from the promises of Christ. For instance, there is the drive for success in the American culture. We often hear success stories that promote "positive thinking" influenced by pop psychology, or a well-packaged six-step program for achieving perfect happiness. Can “Just Do It,” a motto by Nike Corporation, set us free? Jesus, of course, has something to say about truth performing that function. Amidst the smorgasbord of conflicting principles our society proposes for our attention, have any freed us? Truth that is revealed to us through Christ is evident in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

The Catholic Church does not dogmatically ascribe to one specific philosophy, but she holds up Thomistic philosophy as the model to be taught in Catholic seminaries and institutions (see Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris; John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, 43-44; and the Code of Canon Law, 252.3). Thomas's "perennial philosophy" had fallen into widespread disuse by the 1800s in Catholic theological circles. Leo XIII penned Aeterni Patris to revive it. But in spite of this, a dominant stream working from modernity's presuppositions has continued to react against Thomas throughout the 20th century and down to today. One way of putting the animus against the Angelic Doctor is that many feel his scholastic technical language, and immense rational systemization of theology, is too abstract and disconnected from the "real world." 

For a number of years, I also felt that Thomistic philosophy was dull and perhaps irrevocably constrained within scholastic categories which did not apply to today. Since then, and having become a Dominican, I have discovered not only immense riches in Aquinas, but discerned a positive and pressing need for Thomistic philosophy in the world: it leads people to truth and freedom. Freedom, in this context, derives from knowing ourselves in a way not bounded by the "status quo," or by whatever particular job or surrounding environment we find ourselves in at a given time. The fact that someone is a well-read professor, a rich businessman, or a rocking pop artist, does not reveal the essence of one's identity. What we do is always subordinate to who we are, our actions rooted in our being.  Christian freedom, then, blossoms when we are more deeply rooted in the truth that God has placed within us.  

 

There are many disparate, often conflicting, ways to understand man. Thomistic philosophical anthropology proposes that man becomes more himself as he grows in moral virtue, producing a harmony between reason and emotion within his soul. Thomas, following the Aristotelian tradition, states that human beings have higher cognitive faculties than plants and animals. Due to man's cognitive power, his emotional life is likewise more sophisticated. Through the power of imagination and memory, emotions can be unpredictably triggered from a past sequence of events. But Thomas asserts that reason and will are distinct faculties and that we can choose to use reason to influence our emotions.

 

There are two mistakes we can make when it comes to the relation of reason and emotion. One is to let emotions fly loose and our passions govern us—this only leads to unstable behavior and unhappiness, since our lives will not be rooted in the truth. If we simply follow our passions as they lead, we will find ourselves more and more unable to make lasting commitments based in the truth. The other mistake is the opposite: to employ our reason as a tyrant over our emotions, trying to suppress them altogether at any hint of their operation. Aquinas offers a different way.

 

Harmony between reason and will leads to a healthy emotional life, which is essential to knowing who we are as persons. Disorder between them may be the leading cause of why commitments are so often not made in today’s world. The philosophy of "voluntarism" is one way of pinpointing the problem. While a Thomistic approach looks at reason as the supreme faculty that guides will and emotion, voluntaristic philosophy holds up the will as more superior to reason and emotion. Voluntaristic philosophy encourages a person to will the good with self-control and effort, even if a person dislikes doing it. The moral act of willing without the proper use of reason sets one up for irrational decisions. If a person is constantly willing without the guidance of reason, he or she may eventually be bombarded with unstable emotions --- depression, feelings of guilt, obsessive compulsion, etc.  

 

What saddens me is how much voluntaristic philosophy has influenced our society. I sense that actions based on this philosophy lead a person away from living an authentic moral life. The reasons for high divorce rates, low number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and lack of commitments made in our daily lives may derive, in many ways, from this philosophy. 

 

While false notions of truth have influenced our society, St. Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of the Church give us hope. For people who have been living with disharmony of reason, will, and emotion, the Thomistic view of man can powerfully re-order a dysfunctional state of life into a one that is meaningful. Reason that guides the will and emotions, rather than the reverse, frees people from a gloomy life filled with emotional disturbances. Christ himself experienced emotions such as desire and aversion to despair and fear, but he had virtuous responses to these appetites. For Thomas, continual perfection of the virtues results in stronger passions --- through our striving for a virtuous life, we begin to be more Christ-like. The reason for studying the scriptures, philosophy, and theology is that our faith becomes intelligible (fides et ratio, "faith and reason"—both are important), and that our contemplation of the truth guides our will and emotions. 

 

Popular principles and philosophies have misguided us. Many philosophies, especially the voluntaristic philosophy, have influenced our society with unreliable truths and defense mechanisms in dealing with ourselves. But have these given us truth about man? Have these philosophies and the principles given us the “truth” and the “freedom” that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John? The Thomistic understanding of man sets us free, for it teaches the truth of man. If you desire to live a virtuous life that is guided by reason, Thomas’ inspired philosophy will lead you to fulfillment. Let us live by the truth and do all we can to show others this path, which leads to freedom. Showing others this path of truth, reaching out to people facing any number of personal and situation problems, can help salvage their genuine commitments, as reason guides the will and emotion into a genuine human freedom.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Who is Jesus?

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On 13 June 2012, I gave the Dominican Forum presentation at St. Dominic's Parish in Eagle Rock California. The topic of the talk entitled, "Who is Jesus?" was on the nature of Jesus Christ as true God and true man and the importance and centrality of this teaching for the Christian faith. 

Starting from Scripture and moving through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I attempted to illustrate in a straight-forward and easy to digest fashion what the Church understands about the nature of Jesus Christ and how she has articulated that understanding throughout the centuries.

Br. Emmanuel Taylor, O.P.'s picture

Saintly Scientists

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“The heavens proclaim the glory of God.” - Psalm 19:2

St. AlbertSt. Albert the Great blazed a path to God through the natural sciences. Now, --whether a professional scientist, a more casual bird-watcher, or one who simply enjoys watching nature shows--you too can be a saint. Conducting scientific investigation can lead you to God if you follow the example of Albert. If you follow this pedagogy you will be a saintly scientist.<--break->

The first step of a saintly scientist is to see. The Dominican historian Simon Tugwell describes Albert as “an inveterate looker at things” (Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings, 29). St. Albert was a great scientist because he delighted in looking at things. To learn to see things is the first step of a saintly scientist.

St. Albert found time to explore the natural sciences even though he had other jobs. He had official positions in the Church: he was Provincial of the Order of Preachers and he was Bishop in Regensburg, Germany. However, these official duties did not stop him from looking at things. As he would travel on business he would visit mines, “going far out of his way to do so, because of his interest in mineralogy” (Albert & Thomas, 8). He incorporated into his busy life his, the habit to see things.

From seeing things, the next step is to understand. “The natural scientist seeks to understand the cause of all these things,” writes St. Albert in his book On Minerals (III 1.10). This means that it is not enough simply to see things. To be a saintly scientist you must also wonder about their cause.

St. Albert sought understanding across many areas of science. He loved not only geology, but also biology. He studied animals of many varieties in their natural habitats. He also kept some animals, including snakes and even a “puppy with one white eye and one black eye.” (Albert & Thomas, 29)

Finally, to be a saintly scientist requires not only seeing and understanding nature but also seeing and understanding God. In addition to his scientific enquiries, Albert sought to see and understand God. From Scripture he developed his vision of God. This ability to “see” God is called contemplative prayer--it can just as easily be called contemplative vision. It is because St. Albert the Great combined his natural vision with spiritual vision that he proclaims with delight: “The whole world is theology for us, because the heavens proclaim the glory of God” (Comm. Matt. 13.35; trans. Tugwell, Albert & Thomas, 29). Albert shows us that the study of nature can bring us to God. Let us follow his example, and be saintly scientists who proclaim the glory of God.

 

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