Speaking about God’s Nature in Aquinas and Lonergan: A Question about Different Starting Points

by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB
In his The Triune God: Systematics, pp. 193-199, in a seeming contrast with Aquinas, Lonergan speaks about God’s attributes by using the infinity or unrestrictedness of God’s understanding as his first principle.  By working from a notion of infinity and as one applies this indeterminate notion to God, one can speculatively order a number of attributes which can be used to speak about God as he exists (as an unrestricted act of understanding).  However, in Aquinas, God’s attributes are analogically spoken about in a context which seems to work from a different first principle: from God who exists as a pure act (God as a pure act of understanding) from which comes a notion of simplicity that is proper to God and to no other being.
As Aquinas speaks about God as pure act, the complete absence of any potentiality in God’s divine understanding explains why the divine act of understanding is an absolutely simple thing and why, in its infinity, it possesses more understanding than any other act of understanding.  Cf. Compendium theologiae, 1, c. 9; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 14, a. 1; cf. q. 3, a. 1 & ad 2; 3a, q. 10, a. 2, ad 3.  The absence of any kind of potentiality explains why, in an especially eminent way, divine understanding is always immediately present and it is not discursive in any way.  Divine understanding does not have to work from what is known to what is unknown since, by always apprehending one intelligible form or one intelligible nature (sometimes referred to by Aquinas as the “form of being” or the “form of what is”), God (or God as an act of understanding) always understands all things in one single act.  The absence of potentiality explains the pure actuality of God’s being as a complete act of understanding.  From an operation that is always fully actual and complete, one comes to understand what is meant in any discussion which wants to speak about the infinity of God’s understanding.  This understanding is wholly infinite both with respect to its range and with respect to its depth.  It is totally lacking in any measure which one might use from the outside to judge and evaluate it, and so its infinity naturally makes it the measure of all other sorts of understanding (whether one speaks about the working of human understanding or about the understanding of separated substances or angels which exist ontologically as disembodied spirits).  In an analogy which draws from the simplicity of understanding as this can be understood by us when we think about the nature of an intuition, divine understanding is one completely simple act that is always permanently transcendent in the character and manner of its existence.  Its fullness does not depend on any relation which might exist between what it is in itself and the existence of anything which could possess any material and temporal coordinates.
In other words thus, as we compare how Aquinas speaks about God’s attributes with how Lonergan does the same, we find that Lonergan emphasizes a form of analogical proceeding which moves initially from inner experiences that we have about infinity as infinity exists within our cognitive self-awareness.  Even as we realize and know that the range and extent of our human knowing is always strictly limited (what can be properly known is properly proportionate to our acts of sensing, understanding, and judging), at the same time and as an indisputable datum of consciousness, we know about an infinity which exists within our natural desires for understanding and knowledge.  As Aquinas had noted and as Aristotle had noticed, as inquirers and questioners, we naturally want to know about the truth and cause of all things.  Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 50; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 12, a. 1; q. 12, a. 8, ad 4: “the natural desire of the rational creature is to know everything that belongs to the perfection of the mind, namely, the species and genera of things and their types.”  Lonergan quotes Aquinas to speak about a natural restless desire which exists within us for a complete understanding of things which can only be given if one finds oneself in the presence of God.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 3, a. 8; q. 94, a. 2: “man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society….[and also] to shun ignorance [and] to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things…”  From a natural desire to know the causes of all things, one can conclude that man naturally desires to come to a knowledge of God who, as a cause, is the first cause or first principle of all things from which everything else comes.  No other cause is more worth knowing about.  Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 25, 11 & 14; Sententia super Metaphysicam, 1, 1, 4.  As Aquinas elsewhere argues, the human ability to grasp the meaning of a universal and to know a universal implies a natural human ability to come to a knowledge of God who, in himself, is a universal.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, q. 2, a. 3.  However, because God can only be known as he exists in himself by an act of divine understanding and not by a created act of understanding which receives a created species or form from a created effect that is initially sensed, God can only be known by us in a supernatural way: by the reception of a divine essence, species, or form which can only enter our intellects in another life through a divine illumination which communicates a supernatural gift.  Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 47, 3; 3, 48, 12-16; 3, 51-53; William E. Murnion, “Intellectual Honesty in Aquinas and Lonergan,” (paper presented at the Third International Lonergan Workshop, Erbacher Hof, Mainz, Germany, January 2-7, 2007), pp. 8-9.
From an infinity thus that we already know about, we can more easily speak about an infinity which exists with respect to divine understanding.  The experience of unrestrictedness which already exists within our own self-understanding suggests that the complete understanding which exists only in God is characterized by an infinity that is solely proper to it but which does not belong to any acts of understanding as these exist in created, finite beings.  In thinking then about any difference which allegedly exists between Lonergan and Aquinas on how God’s attributes are to be discussed and distinguished from each other, if one’s compares what Lonergan says about the infinity of God’s understanding with what Aquinas has to say about the pure actuality of God’s understanding, one finds a difference which appears to be no more than conceptual.  But then too, as one thinks about it, one is tempted to think too that the difference may be no more than verbal.  If one attends to the attributes which Aquinas identifies and those which Lonergan identifies, one finds no significant differences.  One finds the same set of attributes.  In his discussions, Aquinas certainly speaks about the infinity of God’s understanding.  See Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 14, a. 6; q. 14, a. 11.  However, from the context of a metaphysical analysis which speaks about a total lack of potency in God’s being, a total lack of potentiality in divine understanding, he can conclude to a pure actuality which allows him to speak about the unrestrictedness of divine understanding.  In a sense, Aquinas can more easily move from talk about the pure actuality of God to talk about the infinity of God’s understanding.  However, from a perspective which wants to ground everything in palpable human experience and with how human beings experience themselves as inquiring, knowing beings, Lonergan chooses to produce an ordering of divine attributes in a manner which appears to be more intelligible.  He employs a starting point that can be immediately known by any reader who engages in some form of self-reflection.

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