Natural theology and ontotheology

As a first step in response to what seems to be a widespread and general hostility to 'natural theology' we must next begin a long process of consideration of two particular forms that the criticism takes, sometimes linked, sometimes not, as directed at some key high and late medieval theologians, including, some say, Thomas Aquinas, while others find them in Duns Scotus but not in Thomas. The first accusation is that of the theological error which, since Martin Heidegger, is described as 'onto-theology', an egregious offence committed by those, if indeed there are any who commit it, who suppose that there is some 'common conception of being' - or at least, some excessive degree of 'continuity of being' -of which common conception, duly differentiated by the distinction between infinite and finite being, God and created things are instances, or 'beings'. That, at any rate, is one opinion of what the error consists in, for Philip Blond says that an onto-theologian 'elevate[s] a neutral account of being above the distinction between the Creator and his creatures, allowing both God and finite beings to share in this being in due proportion'.1 But in recent times the accusation seems to have been levelled with little discrimination as to its exact nature, for, on the contrary, Lawrence Hemming in the same collection of essays tells us that 'onto-theology' is the error of asserting that 'God as univocal primum ens is the same as being' and that 'God is not subsumed under being where being is a separate (and so higher) category from God, but that God as highest (infinite) being subsumes all created things as univocally dependent on him'.2 There might be error in either opinion, or in both. But they are not the same error.

1 Philip Blond, 'Perception', in Radical Orthodoxy: Suspending the Material, ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 232-3.

2 Lawrence Paul Hemming, 'Nihilism', in ibid., p. 94.

In view of this uncertainty among theologians concerning what 'onto-theology' is, perhaps the matter is best left in Heidegger's own terms, upon whom Western philosophies have commonly relied for a form of enquiry called 'metaphysics' which confines itself to the study of beings, neglecting that which is 'hidden', as it were, 'behind' beings, namely 'Being'. Heidegger appears to have Aristotle's Metaphysics in mind as a model for this degenerate enquiry, and for Heidegger Aristotle's is a 'metaphysics of substance', that is to say, an account of ultimate reality in terms of what there is, of what things there are, and in terms of what accounts for what there is; or, to put it in other terms, 'metaphysics' is a philosophy of'existents' rather than of'existence'. For Heidegger, moreover, this metaphysical failure of ultimacy is not merely Aristotle's, for it pervades the Western philosophical and theological traditions; though it is easy to show at least that there are exceptions, Meister Eckhart being but one, though Bonaventure will do just as well.

For Bonaventure, the proper study ofbeing is God.3 But though 'being' is properly speaking the name of God, this 'Being' is not an object of our knowledge, which it eludes. For 'Being', God, is not a being; it is beings which are the natural objects of knowledge. However, Being is the light in which we see beings. But the light in which we see beings cannot itself be seen, for if it could be, then it could be represented only as another object to be seen - and God cannot be in that sense an object of thought, since God is not a being. That much, at any rate cannot fairly be construed as an 'onto-theology' in Heidegger's sense. Indeed, Bonaventure's emphatic declaration both that God is 'Being' and that God cannot be known as a being constitutes a neat reversal of Heidegger's description of the 'onto-theological' logic, according to which, he says, 'metaphysics thinks about beings as being . . . Metaphysical representation owes this sight to the light of Being. The light itself, i.e., that which such thinking experiences as light, does not come within the range of metaphysical thinking; for metaphysics always represents beings only as beings,i - which Bonaventure clearly does not do. Nor, as I have shown elsewhere, does Eckhart, his similar declarations that esse est Deus5 notwithstanding. Nor again, as we will see, can Thomas.6 But, driven by the inertia of a historical

3 See Itinerarium Mentis in Deum 5.3, in The Works of St Bonaventure II, ed. Philotheus Boehner OFM, and Sr M. Frances Laughlin SMIC, New York: The Franciscan Institute, 1990.

4 Martin Heidegger, 'The Way back into the Ground of Metaphysics', in Walter Kaufmann, ed., Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre, New York: Meridian Books, 1969, p. 207 (emphasis added).

5 See my The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 142-8.

generalisation, hard to warrant,7 Heidegger insists that what he calls 'metaphysics' can represent to itself only beings; and it follows that any attempt 'metaphysically' to represent Being can result only in the misrepresentation of Being as a being. The onto-theologian, therefore, in making Being into God, makes Being, and so God, into a being, hence into the supreme object of metaphysics, and so, on the 'Aristotelian' conception of metaphysics, into a sort of all-embracing quasi-substance. And this is aptly named 'onto-theology' because it both makes 'Being' into God and, thereby, reduces God to a being. Now one obvious and easy way into this error, it is said, is to set out from the start on to a metaphysics of God, in short upon a 'natural theology'.

This second offence of 'natural theology', briefly stated, would appear to consist in maintaining that it is possible to establish by purely rational means and, at least logically, if not in fact, in advance of anything we might come to know about God by revelation and faith, some account of the divine existence and nature, and of God's creation of the world out of nothing. In short, this second offence is conveniently summarised by the decrees of the first Vatican Council reported above. 'Offence' it may or may not be, but it is, I argue, the view of Thomas. It is also mine.

In recent theological literatures these supposed errors are variously thought to be linked in a number ofhistorical and systematic forms, not all such accounts being consistent with one another. Some so connect logically the (as it is thought) erroneous case for natural theology with the onto-theological error that any defence of the first must, logically, depend on the second. You cannot, some think, be a 'natural theologian' without being an 'onto-theologian', since for the natural theologian the existence of God is demonstrable by reason alone; and a philosophical demonstration of the existence of God would be logically valid only on condition that the predicate '. . . exists' can legitimately be predicated in the same sense, or 'univocally', of God and of creatures, which is, or at least entails, the 'onto-theological' error. Some such, most particularly those belonging to the self-named school of'Radical Orthodoxy', are so convinced of the logical force of this dependence that, believing, rightly in the matter of historical interpretation, that Thomas is no 'onto-theologian', they are constrained to conclude that he could not consistently have maintained any such propositions about the natural knowledge of God as those professed by the Vatican Council. For Thomas decisively rejected the proposition,

7 For an excellent 'deconstruction' of Heidegger's critique of 'onto-theology', see Mary-Jane Rubenstein, 'Unknow Thyself: Apophaticism, Deconstruction and Theology after Ontotheology', in Modern Theology 19.3, July 2003, pp. 387-417.

some decades later advocated by Duns Scotus, that existence is univo-cally predicated of God and creatures. Consequently, Radical Orthodox thinkers, but especially John Milbank, expend much exegetical ingenuity and energy in the persuasion that Thomas did not in fact propose his 'five ways' as formally valid, philosophically independent, proofs of the existence of God. In later chapters I shall test for genuineness the Radical Orthodox reading of Thomas in relation to the thought of Duns Scotus. For the time being I venture some rather more preliminary remarks about another, closely related, position.

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