Esse Freely Bestowed

That existing is "undeserved" is a logical (or "grammatical") point, of course, reminding us that there is nothing there to claim or even be given existence. So any talk of "possible worlds" being "actualized" can be nothing more than a fagon deparler, and to my mind a grossly misleading one (Ross 1996). For as Aquinas had to remind Avicenna, the only possibility there can be prior to creation ex nihilo lies not "in the passive potentiality of matter, but [in] the active power of God" to create without presupposing anything at all (ST 1. 46.1.1). What we can feel of that gratuity is the irruption, the utter novelty of something's existing. From the side of the agent, however, the action will have to be thoroughly intentional, both that the creator be a full-blooded agent, and that creation itself be pure gift.

That is the key to understanding the metaphysical challenge to Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinkers: how to conceive the One from whom all-that-is freely emanates. Indeed, emanation remains the best corrective to the master metaphor of artisan in our attempt to capture the sui generis activity of creating (Burrell 1986). Hence Aquinas will not hesitate to characterize creation as the "emanation of all of being from the universal principle of all being" (ST 1.45.1), even after he has taken pains to follow Moses Maimonides' lead in eviscerating any hint of logical necessity associated with emanation. In fact, by following the scriptures to rehabilitate the master metaphor of artisan, he prepared the way for depicting the act of creation as a free act of practical reason, so implicitly upsetting the predilection for speculative reason endemic to Hellenic thought.11 But how can we possible understand the freedom peculiar to the One who creates without having to do so?

Our temptation, of course, will be to model it after a decision, or what is even more banal, a choice among "possible worlds." Decisions are normally more weighty than mere choices; it may even trivialize crucial decisions, like those involving a spouse or a vocation in life, to speak of them as "choices." Can we honestly say that we choose our spouse, out of a field of contenders; or that we reached out to grasp a vocation in life?

Indeed, for the latter as well as the former, Jesus' words in the gospel of John sound far more fitting: "You did not choose me; I chose you" (John 15:16). There is a fittingness to our accepting our spouse or our vocation in life that moves the action closer to a kind of "necessity," to recognizing the truth of the path which opens before us. It is this experience which should lead us to question the current proclivity to identify human freedom with choosing, which "libertarians" simply presume, and then proceed to develop the intellectual apparatus to endorse.12 As Aquinas implied, in his pithy resume of the trinitarian structure inherent in creation properly conceived, the gracious move to creating a universe in the absence of any need whatsoever is best conceived as the One's acquiescing to the One's own inner constitution. What constitutes free creation, then, would be that gratuitous act of acquiescing, much as we consent to what we discern to be the good held out before us—whether it be spouse or vocation—in an act which is the very source of freedom without itself being a choice at all.13

Our freedom, of course, includes the possibility of refusing to acknowledge and to pursue that discerned good, and to that extent answers to a "libertarian" paradigm. But to refuse is to fail, and it should count decisively against a libertarian account of freedom that it would propose a failure as the very paradigm of a free act. Again, what Aquinas' cryptic reference to the creator's inner trinitarian life suggests is that creating is a fully gratuitous act, operating out of a fullness that needs no further completion. But of course, our experience could at best intimate such a state, since we are always in need of being fulfilled, even by what appear to be gracious acts of kindness. Only at our best, it seems, and then only in ecstatic moments, can we even imagine, must less execute, purely gratuitous acts. So an adequate account of God's freedom in creating will escape us in principle; hence Aquinas' prescient reference to a dimension of divinity which we could never reason to ourselves, but could only be revealed to us.

What proves significant here is the way in which this presumption is shared by Jewish and Muslim thinkers as well. Without the benefit of an explicitly trinitarian revelation, both Moses Maimonides and al-Ghazali perceive clearly how the issue of free creation implies and is implied by the unanticipated and undeserved bestowal of the Torah and of the Qur'an, respectively. Indeed, it belongs to the ethos of Islam to insist that humankind needs to be alerted to the traces [ayat] of divine wisdom in the world by pondering the verses [ayat] of the Qur'an. One might indeed reason to the universe's origination, after the fashion of the Muslim falasifa and in the spirit of Plotinus, but to see all that is as the "best possible" effect of divine wisdom requires God's revelatory initiative (Ormsby 1984, 1990). Yet once averred, the word of divine creative wisdom assumes center stage in creation. Here the testimony of revelation, as in the Qur'an's repeated avowal: "God said 'be' and it is" (6.73), confirms the inference from metaphysics that creation involves no change at all (Aquinas, ST 1.45.2). In literary terms shared by both Bible and Qur'an, everything is accomplished by God's merely speaking the creative word, the Word which is made Arabic in the Qur'an and human in Jesus. And that same Word, "by whom the universe is made" (John 1:10), structures the very order of the universe, which discloses traces of divine wisdom to those attuned to it.

Here is where the metaphysical theorem enunciating creation by identifying created esse as a participation in the esse subsistens of God joins the intentional discourse of word and wisdom to remind us just how elusive is the relation of creation to its creator. Kathryn Tanner (1988) has elaborated a set of semantic rules to articulate properly what she calls a "non-contrastive" relation of creatures to their intentional creator. The effort dovetails with Sokolowski's "distinction," as each reminds us that the creator cannot be "other than" creatures in the way in which one creature is other than another. Sara Grant (1991) carries this mode of thought a step further to make a highly suggestive connection with Sankara's advaita, proposing that we read Aquinas' determination that creation consists in a "non-reciprocal relation of dependence" in creatures as a western attempt to articulate what Sankara calls "non-duality." For is that not what the "non-contrastive" relation between creator and creatures comes to, in our terms: not other, yet not the same either? What has long been regarded as sharply differentiating western from eastern thought turns out to be a conceptual illusion on our part: we did think that we could adequately distinguish God from creatures and readily accused Hindu thought of failing to do so. Charges of "monism" used to abound; can they be sustained? We must also revise, as I have suggested, any sharp difference between emanation properly understood (that is, no longer identified with its model of logical inference) and free creation, perhaps coming to regard these two schemes as complementary ways of articulating what defies proper conceptualization. Here a study of Aquinas' dicta would have to be complemented by an examination of Meister Eckhart's assertions regarding these matters, allowing for a signal difference in the genre of their writings as well as the goal of their respective inquiries.14 Aquinas' goal was to show how and in what respect theologia could be a scientia (where both terms become ambiguous for modern readers when translated), while Eckhart, presuming that work had been accomplished, could focus on plumbing the implications of the teaching itself.

Whatever may be the results of such an inquiry, which I shall do little more than sketch here, it would reveal a dimension of Christian philosophical theology in the creative medieval period that is closer in spirit to the mode of inquiry which Pierre Hadot finds in ancient philosophy, one replete with "spiritual exercises," than to the "scholasticism" which emerged from the fourteenth century.15 I have repeatedl y tri ed to s how reading Aquinas in this way can open us to some crucial turns in his thought which a merely prepositional assimilation can easily overlook (Burrell 1974, 1979). Our reflections on the difficulty of articulating the relation of creatures to their creator may help us identify the point here: something must show the inadequacy of discourse, especially when the aim of the writer—in this case, Aquinas—is to articulate the realities of theologia as adequately as is humanly possible by showing how the study of "God and the things of God" can be fashioned into a kind of scientia. 6 Yet like Eckhart, once we have apprenticed ourselves to that inquiry, we are brought to regard the differences between this inquiry and scientia as even more relevant than the ways in which one can be assimilated to the other; or better still, we become aware of the multiple ways in which Aquinas himself stretched and even transformed the shape of scientia as well as many of its key categories, to make his point. It is worth noting how this recognition differs from that of many Thomists in the early twentieth century, who were intent on showing how adequately Aquinas rendered Christian thought as a coherent philosophy, that is, as the modern analogue of scientia. Current reflections on Aquinas as theologian, albeit as philosophical theologian, point in the other direction: towards reason and faith as mutually normative in any profound human inquiry into the origins or goals of existence (Burrell 1999).

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