Monday, January 1, 2018

Bishop Barron Again

As the Scotus Police, I bring to your attention the latest from Robert Barron, Auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. Some comments, follow, though I have discussed Barron's views elsewhere (see the tags). It is more of the same. It is not really about Scotus at all, but about evangelization. I add it here simply as documentation of the contemporary attitude towards Scotus. His lecture is here on the First Things website.

There is nothing new in the arguments of the New Atheists. They are borrowed from Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and Sartre. And what all the atheists, new and old, have in common is a mistaken notion of God, for to a person they construe God as one being among many, an item within the nexus of conditioned things. The roots of this misconception are deep and tangled, stretching back to antiquity, but I would put a good deal of the blame for the present form of the problem on the transition from an analogical to a univocal conception of being, on display in Duns Scotus and especially William of Occam. On Aquinas’s analogical interpretation, God is not one item, however impressive, in the genus of existing things. Indeed, Thomas insists that God is not an individual and is not to be categorized in any genus, even that most generic of genera, the genus of being. God is not so much ens summum (highest being) as ipsum esse subsistens. But if, as Scotus and Occam would have it, being is a univocal term, then God and creatures can be considered under the same ontological rubric, and they do indeed belong to an identical genus. This means, in consequence, that God, though he might be described as infinite, is one being among many, an individual alongside other individuals. Occam would state the principle with admirable economy of expression: Praeter illas partes absolutas nulla res est (“Outside of these absolute parts, there is nothing real”).
I realize that this might seem the very definition of medieval hairsplitting, but a great deal hinges on this point. On the analogical reading, all of finite reality participates in the fullness of the actus essendi of God, and hence God and creation cannot be construed as rivals, since they don’t compete for space, as it were, on the same ontological grid. But on the univocal reading, God and creation are competitive, and a zero-sum game does obtain. The Reformers were massively shaped by the nominalist view that came up from Occam, and they therefore inherited this competitive understanding of God’s relationship to the world, which is evident in so much of their speculation concerning justification, grace, and providence. If God is to get all of the glory, the world has to be emptied of glory; if grace is to be fully honored, nature has to be denigrated; if salvation is all God’s work, cooperation with grace has to be denied. When this notion of God became widespread in Europe after the Reformation, it provoked a powerful counter-reaction, which one can see in almost all of the major philosophical figures of early modernity. The threatening God must be explained away (as in Spinoza), fundamentally identified with human consciousness (as in Hegel), internalized as the ground of the will (as in Kant), or shunted off to the sidelines (as in most forms of Deism). In time, the God of late medieval nominalism is ushered off the stage by an impatient atheism that sees him (quite correctly) as a menace to human flourishing. Thus, Feuerbach can say, “Das Nein zu Gott ist das Ja zum Menschen,” and every atheist since has followed him. Jean-Paul Sartre, in the twentieth century, captured the exasperation with the competitive God in a syllogism: “If God exists, I cannot be free; but I am free; therefore, God does not exist.” And Christopher Hitchens has restated the Feuerbach view, observing that believing in God is like accepting permanent citizenship in a cosmic version of North Korea.

On further reflection, I was rather struck by the Latin quote from Ockham that Barron references: "praeter illas partes absolutas nulla res est". He says by it Ockham is stating a principle, but Barron does not tell us what the principle is. That God is in a genus? That being is univocal? That being is a genus? That God is one individual alongside other individuals? Does Barron think that, according to Ockham, God and creatures are parts of some whole?

The quote comes from Ockham's Ordinatio I d. 30 (OTh IV, 317). This question is a debate about relations. Scotus had held that relations were really distinct from their terms, and this question of Ockham's consists of quoting Scotus' arguments verbatim and refuting them. So it is odd, to say the least, for Barron to group Scotus with Ockham here. The quote is from some exegesis of Aristotle's Metaphysics XII. Ockham, annoyingly, in this question only talks about what can be known by pure reason, and so he does not talk about God at all, save in this reply to Scotus. So it clear why Barron would want to cite this passage, since even though there are many mentions of Ockham's view int he question, that relations are not really distinct or absolute beings, only substances are, none of them directly concern God. But Barron does misrepresent the context of the quote, I would say.

But this is not a question about univocity. And even the conclusion is not terribly controversial, i.e. that relations are not absolute things or really distinct. It was quite common in medieval thought to argue about this, long before Ockham and Scotus, and I see no connection to the univocity debate. There was some debate about whether quality and quantity were absolute categories like substance, Ockham here is denying that relations are real or absolute.

Barron's comments are then turning a rather mundane medieval position into a consequence of univocity, even though people who deny univocity could hold it and those who hold univocity could deny it. Indeed, Scotus holds univocity but is the target of Ockham's attack in the very passage Barron quotes. But there are no rules in the narrative game.

The ultimate root of Barron's comments here is the neoplatonist strand in academic thomist theologians, combined with continental speculation. The dependence of creation on God entails, for modern thomist theologians, the idea that humans cannot be granted any ontological standing in their own right, even though even on thomist natural philosophy human beings et al. are all substances, are individuals, have causal powers, support accidents, etc. And oddly, God is somehow not an individual, but way way beyond such mundane notions, though they never bother to explain that God isn't just a universal or an abstract object, what one normally would contrast an individual with.

So in the end, Barron is sort of right, at least that Thomism and Scotism are incompatible on many points. For Thomism, God is subsistent being itself, for Scotism God is an infinite This. The Scotist view for Barron entails competition between God and creatures; Barron thinks that this competition is bad and leads to protestantism. But competition would seem to be a datum of the human experience, at least if Barron's other views, are correct, that is, given that he is a Catholic Bishop he believes in human sin, and what is sin other than the assertion of one's own will and choice over the divine law/wish/choice? But there was sin prior to Scotus' theory of the univocity of the concept of being, so I think we can absolve univocity of the competition charge, at least.


Anonymous said...

I never cease to be bewildered by the constant lumping of Scotus and Ockham together under the rubric of nominalism, which is identified with unabated evil, and then both Franciscan masters are dismissed with great solemnity! What is more, if univocity is so horrific--the invention of the Antichrist, as Barth might suggest--then why doesn't Albert the Great figure more prominently in their "narratives" of the decline of the West? Albert, after all, speaks of a "univocatio quae est analogiae" as well as divine univocal causality. And in this he is followed by other Dominicans such as Ulrich of Strasbourg. But, unlike Scotus, Albert isn't restricting himself to a purely semantic discourse, making his account even more challenging. Maybe Albert is just too close to Thomas--who took the dictation of the Super Dion. Dear div. Nom., where the terms are raised--for comfort.

Lee Faber said...

Victor, thanks for an interesting remark. I recall your article on Albert on this topic, and since reading it I have often wondered about his views, and how different they are from Scotus'.

In my darker moments I wonder if all these philosophical and theological differences aren't really just positions adopted as part of a much broader political struggle, that of Franciscan Order vs. Dominican Order. Both were -- and one still is -- a major powerhouse in the church, both were highly jealous of their privileges and anxious to increase their power. It's true the franciscans tended to be more intellectually diverse, but would someone ever join them but retain a passionate love of thomistic analogy? Or was it rather that people met individuals from the orders, were inspired to join, and then adopted the classic order positions as part of the educational process, and then carried on the war for another generation?

Anonymous said...

Well whether or not the differences are adopted merely as a result of some political struggle, I don't think there can be any doubt that those struggles definitely helped shape the terms of the debate. This becomes especially obvious with the De auxiliis controversy, which just adds another religious order (Jesuits) to the mix. It's really fascinating, then, to read through the various cursus of the Jesuits (esp. Suárez) as they really capture the dynamics involved in the debates with the "Thomists," the "Scotists," the "Nominalists," etc. It's like witnessing a major battle royal. No wonder poor Descartes just wanted a basic foundation to stand upon!


Jim Given said...

Emphasizing Thomas' Neo-Platonism to the exclusion of his Aristotelianism is, as I understand matters, what is really at stake here. Te resulting flood of European, especially French mysticism during the twentieth century should be acceptable, both to Barth and to the Ecumenical Catholics. What can we really know, on this account of God by unaided reason? Does God exist? I think for this mentality, the answer must be NO.
God is Being, and thus may not possess Being, right? Perhaps by a great leap of faith beyond reason. Can one not bedevil the Newly Orthodox with this question, of how one can possibly comprehend rationally the statement that "God exists? under their favored constraint against any semblance of univocity? I am re-reading Przywara, who provides powerful resources for this debate-

Lee Faber said...

Hi Jim, you may be onto something. I think Marilyn Adams wrote a piece for an online philosphy of religion journal about how the proof for the existence of God requires univocity. But I"m not sure whether there is much of a distinction between having and being being. Scotus, like every other scholastic subscribes the Augustinian dictum that God is what he has. So we're just back to restatements of Aquinas, such that univocity is incompatible with divine simplicity. And given the modern mysticism you mention, we have abandoned arguments, we simply restate positions.

I came across a somewhat amusing passage just today. I was reading Nicholas Bonetus' Metaphysics, and he accused his (unnamed, but clearly Thomist) opponents of a lack of imagination for assuming that we predicate perfection terms as univocal to God and creatures we predicate them in the limited and accidental fashion we find them in the categories.

I've been interested in Pryzwara for a while, but no time, alas.

Jim Given said...

Thanks so much for your kind help here. I am making a case against a distortion of Scholastic truth that is much bigger than the Newly Orthodox; they are but its latest (and perhaps most focused) realization. The text you cite does not deny existence to God, bu rather denies that he is an existing individual. Thus God can be existence itself (courting various forms of pantheism); or God may be the source of all Being, but in Himself (?) neither a Being nor Non-being (thus invoking an Eastern God beyond Being). But I believe Thomas would characterize God as the unique self-subsistent Being. In particular I think Thomas allows that God is an individual. Aquinas uses analogy to constantly say of God that He has an attribute, e.g. being an person, or having an essence, but in a sense quite different; thus analogous; to that of creatures. But the New Orthodoxy seems to mistrust analogy. God they say must not be an existent entity, or he is somehow on a par with created existent entities. So they use analogy to chase away any positive rational affirmations of God without making any constructive use of it. Yes, a lack (or refusal) of imagination indeed-

I bought Przywara's Analogia Entis and was struck by the power of his larger vision to incorporate both Thomist and Scotist narratives. I insist he explicitly makes these two complementary aspects of his vision at least in a few paragraphs. I must re-read and copy these out. I do not know of any detailed writing of his on the harmony of Scholastic descriptions. But there are powerful resources here for such synthesis. Not since Sylwanowicz' text on Duns have I been so enthusiastic about a text in this specific manner. But Przywara is deep. Later metaphysicians e.g. Fabro seem to have learned from him, but cannot be trusted to convey what is important in him for a unified vision.

Lee Faber said...

I would like to hear more about it. When the translation came out I looked up all the mentions of Scotus and Scotism, but they seemed way off from what such people would say/have said. Not a misrepresentation along the Milbank-Pickstock line, but rather a pious or positive interpretation based on a lack of familiarity with Scotist sources.

Blake said...

I just read Scotus' "Concerning Metaphysics" in the Philosophical Writings published by Hackett. Where do Thomists get the idea that Scotus would place God in a genus with other things. In the selection I read this afternoon it seemed that Scotus explicitly said he didn't think that. "Whatever pertains to "being", then, in so far as it remains indifferent to finite and infinte, or as proper to the Infinite Being, does not belong to it as determined to a genus, but prior to any such determination, and therefore as transcendental and outside any genus." Admittedly this is my first foray into Scotus besides reading a few posts on this blog a couple of years ago, so I could be wrong. Am I misreading Scotus?

Lee Faber said...

No, you are not misreading. Aquinas himself thinks that univocity of being entails placing God in a genus. Thomists assume that 'univocity' is itself a univocal term, i.e. that Aquinas and Scotus are using the same definition of the term, and so generally assume, without reading Scotus, that Scotus puts God in a genus. Once could speculate with more charity and say that they have read some Scotus, such as Ord. I d. 3, where Scotus advocates univocity, but haven't read Ord. I d. 8 q. 3, where Scotus explains why being isn't a genus and why God isn't in a genus, and thus they assume he never addressed that objection. When it comes to Thomists like the Radical Orthodoxy crowd, well, they haven't read Scotus and don't care, because what they are doing is narrative construction, and facts and details are irrelevant at best, or simply counternarratives for reversal at worst.