The formal and material objects of faith and reason

As a first step in setting out how this argument will proceed, let us note a crucial ambiguity in Kerr's conclusion from the propositions of the 'nouvelle theologie' that the 'God exists' of the philosopher's reason 'means something radically different' from the 'God exists' affirmed by the Christian 'under the conditions of faith'. This is partly, but only partly, true, and to see in what sense it is true and in what sense false, we can ask: why does the Vatican Council, in distinguishing what it calls 'two orders of knowledge', distinguish them not only in respect of their source - the one being the product of reason, the other of divine faith and revelation - but also in respect of their 'object'? The question matters, for long before the 'nouvelle theologie' - at least since Pascal - there has been a quite generalised scepticism abroad whether, even supposing you could demonstrate a 'God of reason', that God of reason could be demonstrated to be the same God as the 'God of faith'.24 The answer to that question lies in the council's implicit reliance upon an ancient scholastic distinction between the 'material' and the 'formal' objects of knowledge: we can be acquainted with the same material object by sight and by touch; but sight acquaints us with it in respect of its colour, touch in respect of its sensitivity to temperature; so what they acquaint us with is the same thing materially -I see what is warm, I feel what is red - but differing formally: it is not as warm that I see it, not as red that I feel it. Hence, the knowledge they yield is in either case determined by its formal object, the material object being the same for both.

24 'Le Dieu des Chrestiens ne consiste pas en un Dieu simplement autheur des veritez geometriques et de l'ordre des elements; c'est la part des Payens et des Epicuriens . . . Mais le Dieu de l'Abraham, le Dieu d'Isaac, le Dieu de Jacob, le Dieu des Chrestiens, est un Dieu d'amour et de consolation.' Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. H. F. Stewart, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950, pp. 6-8.

This is not a wholly implausible way of construing the relationship between the God of the philosophers and the God of faith - the same God can be known under different descriptions, as 'warm' and 'red' are, and within different relations of knowing, as touching and seeing stand in differing relations of immediacy to their objects. And in fact the analogy with the different formal objects of the senses has, within the history of the subject, been employed directly, especially in the late Middle Ages. Giles of Rome, who (rather unconvincingly) thought of himself as a disciple of Thomas Aquinas, explained that the God of the philosophers is known as it were 'by sight', and the God of the theologians by 'touch' and 'taste'; for the philosophers know God 'at a distance' and intellectually across a gap crossed not by means of direct experience but by means of evidence and inference, and so through a medium, as sight sees; whereas, through grace and revelation, the theologian is in an immediate and direct experiential contact with God, as touch and taste are with their objects - touch and taste being analogies for the immediacy of love's knowledge.25 There is something to be said for this way of construing the relationship between the 'God of the philosophers' and the 'God of faith', for to do so is at least to acknowledge that the manner in which an object is perceived - the cognitive relation to it in which one stands - is determined by the descriptions under which it is perceived, while allowing that what is perceived in either case is one and the same object. As the philosophers say, the descriptions under which an object is perceived may be 'intentionally' distinct but 'extensionally' equivalent: the Morning Star is the same star as the Evening Star, though 'Morning Star' does not mean the same as 'Evening Star'. So it is, on Giles's analogy, with the natural and revealed knowledge of God.

Not every theologian, however, could have welcomed Giles's polarisation of philosophical detachment - 'seeing' - in opposition to theological experientialism - 'touching' and 'tasting' - and Thomas Aquinas nowhere does, providing us with a probably more helpful, because less polarised, account of sameness and difference of 'object'. What I see at a distance is a dark patch I can distinguish as a human being moving towards me. When it is close enough to me, I can see that it is Peter. When the object was at a distance what I saw was Peter, but it was not as Peter that I

25 'If we wish to speak of the contemplative life in terms drawn from the senses, we could, in a manner of speaking . . . say that the contemplation of the philosophers gives delight to hearing and sight; whereas the spiritual contemplation of the theologians gives delight to taste, smell and touch.' See my Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995, p. 364. I have translated this passage from Giles's text, misattributed to Thomas Aquinas, in the Venice edition (1745) of Thomas's Opera Omnia I.

saw him. Thus the God of reason in relation to the God of faith.26 The God the philosopher knows is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and of Jesus Christ; but the philosopher cannot, otherwise than by the reports of faith, know her God as the God of faith.27 This is the meaning of that famous, and famously derided, formula which Thomas Aquinas appends at the end of each of his 'five ways': et hoc omnes dicunt Deum.28 As Thomas concedes, the proofs of God prove very little indeed, but just enough: as 'proofs' they fall into that class of'demonstrations' which merely show that something exists by way of explanation (demonstratio quia), from which, no doubt some properties are derivable which must hold true of whatever thus far explains. But they are not explanations of 'effects' by way of what we demonstrate about them from the nature of their cause (demonstratio propter quid)29 because in any case (as we shall see30) we do not and cannot know the nature of God, we do not know what God is. Haldane explains:31 we can know from the fact that the water pressure to my shower is lower than in the rest of the system that there is a blockage in the inflow pipe to my shower-head. But just because I do not thus far know that what is obstructing the water supply is a small piece of masonry, as the plumber later discovers, it does not follow that what I know as 'blockage' is not what the plumber discovers to be a small piece of masonry, even though 'blockage' and 'small piece of masonry' do not mean the same. In parallel it should not be supposed that, having demonstrated the existence of a 'prime mover' or of a 'necessary being', Thomas imagines that 'all people' know God under such descriptions, still less that they worship God under such descriptions, even less still that they could love God under such descriptions. For this reason it is undoubtedly true that, as Kerr says, the 'God exists' of the philosopher does not mean the same as the 'God exists' known under the conditions of faith. And of course, in affirming that the God of his 'five ways' is what all people call by that name, he is by no means affirming that they do mean the same. The Latin et hoc omnes dicunt Deum should be translated not as 'this is how all people speak of God' or even that 'this is what all people mean when they speak of God', for manifestly they do not, and Thomas knows this: it should rather be translated as 'and this is the God all people speak of. The descriptions of the philosopher and of the ordinary believer are, as I have put it, extensionally equivalent; but of course they do not mean the same thing. How, then, do we know that these 'Gods' are extensionally equivalent, are one and the

26 ST la q2 al ad1. 27 ST Ia q2 al ad 1. 28 ST la q2 a3 corp.

31 J. J. C. Smart and John J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, p. 143.

same God? Only by faith: reason alone could not know that - it is the plumber, after all, not I, who knows that the blockage is a small piece of masonry.

Therefore, all the decrees of the first Vatican Council quoted above are statements of, or articulations of statements of, faith alone, for 'human beings are totally dependent on God as their creator and lord, and created reason is completely subject to uncreated truth'. So much by way of initial clarification.

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  • AWET
    What are the formal and material objects of science?
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    What is the material and formal object of philosophy?
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