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Monday, 14 August 2017

Participation and Incarnation

The Empyrean Heaven, in Dante's Paradiso

In my earlier post on the importance of studying Plato in the philosophy curriculum, I wrote the following paragraph: 
In short, I think that the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, developed in the doctrine of St. Thomas, yields an important and profound insight into the nature and direction of the world, principally its incarnational character: divine forms making themselves present and known in sensible, material beings. The trajectory of philosophy is towards the divine, and this is only completed and fulfilled finally by something supernatural: the self-revelation of God. But God reveals Himself in the flesh, that is, in Jesus Christ. For Christians especially, it is important therefore to maintain a visionary disposition that is ever looking for God, but looking at things in the world; and it is precisely such a disposition that I think emerges from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle together. The disposition of soul that such a philosophy fosters is precisely what is needed for the true reception and welcoming of the Word of God, who became flesh.

This is, in a way, why the whole discussion of the metaphysics of form and participation is so important. That discussion pointed out to us a strange conflict in the structure of beings between their very being (esse), or their actuality, and their tendency to non-being and contingency. On the one hand, everything that has existence and form - actuality - is given to us as a gift for knowledge; for the intellect is in proportion precisely to actuality, and thus, to the degree that things participate in actuality they draw the intellect on towards the full possession of knowledge. On the other hand, the things of human experience are mixed with a certain degree of potency, and thus their actuality is only ever incomplete. Hence, the desire for knowledge - the grasping of what is actual - is never really satisfied by things, though by their very actuality they seem to lead the intellect on towards what is fully actual. While it is important to maintain against certain Platonists the distinction between potency and privation, it is also important to remember that potency itself introduces into the composition of things a relative non-being, which is the source of all distinction and individuation, and is moreover a sign of the imperfection of things qua being or actuality. 

Furthermore, the human intellect itself, though in some way desirous of perfect actuality, is nonetheless conditioned and limited in its very mode of knowing, because it is human and thus composite: man does not, and cannot, have knowledge except by beginning with his senses. In other words, both the world in which man finds himself, and his very own nature, seem to limit his faculty of knowledge to the things of immediate sense experience. The evidence of this tension between being and (relative) non-being is twofold: objective and subjective. It is a tension that belongs to both the external world and the interior world of the human person himself. All things, and man himself in his very subjectivity, participate in actuality and seem to "desire" pure actuality; but they are all pulled by a contrary tendency, a principle of indeterminacy and contingency, a kind of nothingness. Consequently, the intellect finds itself in something of a pickle: its innermost desire is for the fullness of actuality, the infinity of being, but his nature and his situation place a strict limit upon his capacity for that very fullness of actuality. In other words, man is ordered towards the purity of Logos, but he is also stuck in the seeming messiness of the flesh.

"And the Logos became flesh!" 

From this point of view, the supernatural fact of the Incarnation is the most fitting remedy for the conflicted situation of man and the cosmos. In the Incarnation, the limited composition of natural substances and of human nature itself, and the desire of all beings and of intellect for the fullness of Being, are both perfectly respected. Jesus Christ, a man, retains a composite human being, but His human nature is united in a single hypostasis to the Pure Actuality of the Divine Nature. There, in one subject, I behold Pure Actuality itself, in a mere finite creature; and by faith, my intellect discovers, though in a hidden and imperfect way, the fullness of being that alone can satisfy its desire for knowledge, though its composite mode of knowing through sense experience is not compromised, but fully respected. 

In my Bachelor's thesis, I made this point in terms of the reality of symbolism. The basis of symbolism, as I expressed it in that thesis, is the participatory structure of created being: a being is symbolic to the extent that it participates in the likeness of God, i.e. to the extent that actuality is present in its composition. Since a symbol, loosely defined, is any entity which points the mind to something other than itself, it pertains precisely to the faculty of knowledge. Thus, it seems to me that the notion of symbolism, in the ancient sense, pertains especially to the metaphysical account of beings, in reference to the degree of their actuality. Consequently, every being, as a symbol, is in some way a revelation of God by its actuality, by which it participates in the nature of Perfect Actuality in some way, whether through its form or its esse.

From this it follows that the symbol par excellence is none other than Jesus Christ Himself, the Incarnate Logos - indeed, in a sense Christ is super-symbolic, inasmuch as the individuality of His being does not merely participate in actuality but is identified with it in some way: I may look at Christ the man and declare truly and unequivocally that He is God. In Christ, the utter infinite transcendence of actuality is fully immanentized. (This is not, of course, by entering into the composition of the man, or else the finitude of the human nature would be compromised; and in fact this would compromise the very mystery and paradox of the Incarnation, in which both divine and human natures exist intact in a single subject.) Every human desire - indeed, every natural desire, human or otherwise - finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. The desire of all things for their own perfection, for actuality, is realized in fact; likewise, the desire for some object of knowledge which simultaneously offers the intellect a taste of full actuality and does not tear man away from sense experience. 

It is at precisely this point that philosophy gives way to theology. Philosophy, at the highest summits of its capacity, begins to ask questions which can only be answered by the supernatural self-revelation of God. This self-revelation happens at the moment of the Incarnation. Christ is the answer to all questions. From that moment on, all human inquiry - all human desire - is totally transformed; it is given a new beginning, a new principle: faith. Faith also provides the first principles of the science of theology, and really the first principles of the whole Christian way of life, which is lived theology. By faith in the Incarnate Wordhuman life is impelled towards the definitive end that is the beatific vision: full and perfect communication with Being Itself. Through Christ, all things, and man himself, return finally and definitively to their first principle, the Actuality in which they all participate and which they all desire. 

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