Thursday, January 1, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #5

What better way to celebrate the passage of time, than a celebration of the Timeless One? So, glory to God and a Happy New Year to you all!

First, a story. On the first day of classes, at my first quarter at SPU, I was asked point-blank by my professor: "Are you an Aristotelian or a Platonist?" Not knowing what the heck this meant, I blathered. It took me another quarter, but by the middle of winter quarter I finally understood the difference. Now, I can answer with confidence: "Both."

The foundational discovery of philosophy has to be the formulation of common nouns. The whole contribution of Plato and Aristotle may be circumscribed by this single phrase. Common nouns are not objects; they do not operate on experience or sensation. Common nouns are categories, and operate in the sphere of abstract reason. Common nouns enable us to move from discrete experiences to common descriptions; it moves us from external to internal; it enables language, communication, action. It is between experience and common nouns that our skills of inductive and deductive reasoning operate.

Plato taught that all reality is a corruption from the Ideal, a derivation from the Form. These are common nouns. Have you ever sat in 'a chair'? No, you've sat in a variety of physical objects that resemble the Form of a chair.

Aristotle disagreed. He asserted that the Forms were not the highest level of reality but were intrinsic to reality, built in to the very nature of things. Physical properties of motion were caused by natural sympathies within the objects themselves--the desire for perfection led to circular motion in the heavens, the desire for rest led to downward motion on earth. Every object was defined by four 'causes,' which encompassed all of its being. These causes are material, formal, efficient, and final. It is the final cause--the purpose or end for which an object was made--that concerns us here.

Ancient polytheistic system had gods for nearly everything: each region had a god, each labor had a god, each occasion had a god, and heaven help you if you didn't do the proper sacrifices. In classical polytheism (after Plato), there was a distinct trend towards order and harmony. The gods were not so arbitrary and ubiquitous; they represented ideals, virtues... in a word, final causes.

My first inspiration for this note is admirably obscure: have you ever considered C.S. Lewis's unusual usage of capitalization? I was reading "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold" at the time when I first discovered this.

I noticed that C.S. Lewis mostly used capital letters as he ought, for beginnings of sentences and for proper nouns. However, he also used them for certain words throughout the book: "Joy," "Beauty," "Truth," etc. C.S. Lewis was a consummate English professor, but his use of capital letters merely for emphasis seemed incorrect.

Then it struck me, what if Lewis's writing were following correct English usage? What if he capitalized these ideals because he thought they were proper nouns, because they were not merely the words for a category, but the name of an identity and personality?

In Aristotle, common nouns encompass every aspect of being; they provide a comprehensive hermeneutic of the universe; they are foundational to how we think and live. But this is the truth grasped by classical polytheism: categories are not enough.

Behind every common noun, there is a proper noun; behind every ideal, there is an identity; behind every category, a personality. And each of these personalities reflect a characteristic of God.

Philosophically, this is a staggering claim. I believe that the final cause of every objects reflects a quality of God. In other words, every object, every person, every thing we know and experience was created for, and is directed towards, the Person of God. This is straight from Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands."

This whole series of ideas came to me on a car trip to Port Townsend. Once we arrived, I walked by myself to the pier and looked around--at the water, at the sky, at the cliffs on the other side of Puget Sound. Every time I looked, a word came into my head; every time I considered the common noun, I realized the personality that lay behind it. There is a phrase that C.S. Lewis used in "That Hideous Strength" that is particular apropos: he writes of entering the very furnace of language, where words are created in the fire of His Presence.

That was my experience. I had entered the furnace where words were born. I encountered them in an almost physical way; I met words, just as I would have met another person. The difference was, these personalities were nonphysical, and they were merely prisms of the True Person, the One Who Is, the Great "I Am."

For the first time in my life, I experienced nature not as merely beautiful but as sublime ("Sublime" = "sub-" "-limis" = "beneath the threshold," as close to the house of God as we may come without entering it bodily). This was the experience that led me to my second note, the "Aesthetics of Reason." The rational and the experiential are not distinct. They overlap, they intersect, they are unified in God.

It is for this reason, more than any other, that I call myself a medievalist, for it is in the medieval model of the universe (the medieval cosmology) that Christianity fully integrated the rational and experiential elements, that it incorporated the insights of Greek philosophy and polytheism. But I leave that for my next note.
May the God of lights give you the joy of His Word,
may the God of love reveal the beauty of His sacrifice,
may the God of strength manifest the power of His name,
may the God of glory instill the majesty and peace of His crown,
may the God of humility teach you the victory of His suffering,
that the God of Gods might dwell with His Creation.

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