"Does our conduct correspond with our Faith?"

The Cure D'Ars

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"The Lord has always revealed to mortals the treasures of his wisdom and his spirit, but now that the face of evil bares itself more and more, so does the Lord bare his treasures more."

St John of the Cross, OCD - Doctor of the Church

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"He who wishes to be perfectly obeyed, should give but few orders."

St Philip Neri

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St Bonaventure  (1221 - 1274)

 

THE MIND'S ROAD TO GOD (cont)

 

by St Bonaventure

Introduction (cont)

The full effect of this appears in the first chapter of the "Itinerarium,"
in which we are told that God may be seen in His traces in the physical world. This is the basis of what sometimes is called natural theology; for if we can actually see the traces of God about us in the order of natural law, then we have a start toward knowledge of the divine mind which is sure. It is only a start, Saint Bonaventura maintains, but it is the proper start. It means that one does not have to be a great rationalist, an erudite theologian, a doctor, to know religious truths. One has only to look about one and observe that certain laws obtain; that there is order; that all things are "disposed in weight, number, and measure." This can be seen; and when it is seen, one has a reflection of the divine mind in one's sensory experience. One has only to contrast this with the method of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the "Summa Theologica," in which God's existence is proved by a series of rational arguments--where objections are analyzed, authorities are consulted and weighed, multiple distinctions are made, and the whole emphasis is upon reason rather than observation. Saint Bonaventura seems to have as his purpose a demonstration of God's existence and of His traits which is not irrational but nonrational. That is, he would be far from saying that his conclusions would not stand up under rational criticism, but would insist that his method, to use modern language, is empirical rather than rational. To take a trivial example from another field, we could prove that a person had committed a crime either by circumstantial evidence or by direct testimony. If we can produce two or three persons who actually saw him commit the crime, we do not feel that we must corroborate what they say by a rational demonstration that he could have committed it, that he had a motive for committing it, that he threatened to commit it, that no one else could have committed it, and so on. We like to think that a good case gives us both kinds of evidence, but frequently we have to be satisfied with one type or bits of both types. Saint Bonaventura might be compared to the man who insists on direct testimony; Saint Thomas to him who puts his trust exclusively in circumstantial evidence, though the comparison would be superficial. It would be superficial since both would agree that God's existence could be shown in both ways.

The method of direct observation by which one is made certain of one's beliefs leads step by step to the mystic vision. The mystic, like the strict empiricist, has a kind of knowledge which is indisputable. No one can deny what the mystic sees any more than one can deny what the sensory observer sees. The philosopher who bases all knowledge upon the direct observation of colors, sounds, shapes, and so on, has knowledge which he readily admits is uncommunicable, in spite of the fact that most of us use words for our elementary sensations in the same ways. But whether John Doe, who is looking upon a patch of red, sees precisely what Richard Roe sees, could be doubted and has been doubted. For the psychological equipment, the sensory apparatus of the two men may and probably does contribute something to even the most simple sensory experiences. If Messrs. Doe and Roe are exactly alike in all relevant ways, then one may reasonably conclude that their sensations are exactly alike. But nevertheless Roe would not be having Doe's sensation, for each man is the terminus of causal events which diverge from a given point and which cease to be identical once they have entered the human body Thus a bell may be ringing and therefore giving off air waves. When these air waves enter the body of Roe, they are no longer the same waves which have entered the body of Doe for Roe's auditory nerves, no matter how similar to Doe's, are not existentially identical with them. If we distinguish between existential and qualitative identity, and we all do, then we may say that Doe and Roe have qualitatively
identical but existentially nonidentical sensations. Until Roe can hear with Doe's ears and auditory nerves and auditory brain centers, he will never experience Doe's auditory sensations. Similarly with the mystic vision. If one man has such a vision, he is not made uneasy the fact that another does not have it. The other man has only to follow the discipline which will lead him to it. Saint Bonaventura traces the steps on this road, one by one, until he reaches his goal.

The mysticism of Saint Bonaventura was peculiar in that it was based on a theory of knowledge in which all degrees of knowledge were similarly direct, immediate, and nonrational. One sees God's traces in the sensory world; one sees His image in the mind; one sees His goodness in human goodness; one sees His powers in the operations of our own powers--it is always a question of direct seeing. Thus we have the possibility of real, rather than notional, assent in all fields of knowledge. We are not forced to know about things; we can know them. We have, to use other familiar terms, direct acquaintance with, rather than descriptions of, them. In other words, there is never any real need for rational discourse, for erudition. The simplest man of good will can see God as clearly as the most learned scholar. That made a philosophy such as this a perfect instrument for the Christian, for throughout the Christian tradition ran a current of anti-intellectualism. Christianity was held to be a religion, not merely a body of abstract knowledge. It was an experience as well as a theory. A man of faith could have as certain knowledge of God as the man of learning. This did not discourage the Christian from attempting to build up rational systems which would demonstrate to the world of scholars what the religious man knew by faith. Far from it. But what Kant was to say of the relationship between concepts and precepts, the Christian could have said of that between faith and reason, or religion and philosophy: faith without reason is blind, reason without faith empty.

The difficulty with the extremists who maintained that either one or the other faculty was sufficient was that faith and reason were both supposed to assert something. Whether you believed by faith or by reason, you believed in ideas which presumably made sense, could be stated in words, could be true or false. If you believed in one of these truths by faith, without reason, you were in the position of a man who had no knowledge of what he was believing nor why, nor even whether there was any good reason for believing in it rather than its contradictory. It was all very well for a man like Tertullian to maintain that there was more glory in believing something irrational--inept--than in believing something demonstrably true. Most Christian philosophers were anxious to put a sound rational underpinning beneath their beliefs. Similarly, if you had only rational knowledge, you were like a blind man who might be convinced that there were such things as colors, analogous to sounds and odors, but who had no direct acquaintance with them; or again like a man who had read an eloquent description of a great painting, but who had never seen it. Though all Christians were in the position of maintaining that there were some beliefs, those in the mysteries, which could not be rationally demonstrated, nevertheless they all, including Saint Bonaventura, pushed their rational demonstrations as far as they were able. Thus Saint Bonaventura goes so far as to attempt a dialectical proof of the dogma of the Trinity (Ch. VI), though he realizes that such a proof is not sufficient for religion.

It is worth pointing out that Franciscan philosophy as a whole tended to put more emphasis upon the observation of the natural world than its great rival, Thomism, did. Even in the "Little Flowers" of Saint Francis, only in a remote sense of the word a philosophical work, there is a fondness for what we call Nature which led him at times close to heresy. Later there were Franciscans like Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and their great friend and protector, Robert Grosseteste, whose interest in what we would call science, as distinct from philosophy, was almost their main interest. Indeed, one might without too much exaggeration maintain that the impetus to the study of the natural world through empirical methods came from the Franciscans. This appears in the early chapters of the "Itinerarium," where observational science becomes not simply the satisfaction of idle curiosity, but the fulfillment of a religious obligation. But it goes without saying that a man of science may discover truths which contradict what he has believed on faith and that a man of faith may look to science, not for everything which it is capable of revealing, but only for those things which corroborate his faith. The best illustration of this conflict is found in the use made of arithmetic by allegorists, as early as Philo. Few mathematicians today would play upon the curious properties of numbers--virgin numbers, perfect numbers, superabundant numbers, numbers which are the sums of such numbers as three and four--to prove religious truths. Few men of religion would, I imagine, seek validation of their religious beliefs in the properties of numbers, finding it extraordinary that there are four Gospels, four points of the compass, four winds, four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), four seasons, four humors, four temperaments. But all men will usually feel uneasy in the presence of contradiction and will do their best to bring all their beliefs into harmony with one another. The question reduces to the motivation of knowledge, the question of why exploration is pushed into fields which previously have been terrae incognitae. And when one compares science as it was before the fourteenth century and that which it became after that date, one sees that only a strong emotional propulsion would have produced the change of interest. That propulsion, we are suggesting, came from the Franciscans.

The student who has no acquaintance with the philosophy of Saint Bonaventura can do no better than to begin with the "Itinerarium." It is short and yet complete; it is typical of his manner of thinking; and it
presents only the difficulties which any medieval philosophical text presents. There is no need to hack one's way through a jungle of
authorities, quotations, refutations, distinctions, and textual exegeses. It is not a commentary on another man's book; it is a straightforward
statement of a philosophical point of view. It illustrates the manner in which its author's contemporaries and predecessors utilized Biblical texts, and it also illustrates the knowledge of physics and psychology which was current in the thirteenth century. It is thus one of those representative documents which it behooves all students of intellectual history to know. It should be read with sympathy. One should accept its author's various assumptions, both methodological and doctrinal, and begin from there. There would be no point in trying to translate it in terms of the twentieth century, for the attempt would fail. But similarly one would not attempt to translate Dante's cosmology into modern terms nor justify Chartres Cathedral in terms of functional architecture as that is understood by modern engineers. This book is a kind of prose poem, with a dramatic development of its own as one rises from step to step toward a mystic vision of God. That would seem to be the best approach which the beginner could make to it.


ENDNOTES

1. The student will do well to read Philo's "Allegorical Interpretation"
for examples of his method. The most readily available translation is that of G. H. Whitaker in the Loeb Library. For a thorough study of the whole matter, he should consult H. A. Wolfson s "Philo" (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1949).


GEORGE BOAS
THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
July, 1953

 

Selected Bibliography


St. Bonaventura, "Breviloquium," tr. by Erwin Esser Nemmers, St. Louis an London, 1946.

----, "Opera Omnia," As Claras Aquas (Quaracchi), 10 vols., 1937.

Dady, Sister Mary Rachael, "The Theory of Knowledge of St. Bonaventura," Washington, D. C., 1939.

De Benedictis, Matthew M., "The Social Thought of St. Bonaventura,"
Washington, D. C., 1946.

Gilson, E. H., "La Philosophie de St. Bonaventure," Paris, 1924.

Healy, Sister Emma Therese, "Saint Bonaventura's De reductione artium ad theologiam" (commentary with introduction and translation), St. Bonaventura, N. Y., 1939.

Prentice, Robert P., "The Psychology of Love according to St. Bonaventura," St. Bonaventura, N. Y., 1951.