1. The things that surround us are different kinds of things, and yet they all exist. By the light of the intuition of being we can say they are different kinds of existence.
2. But different kinds of existence point to the fullness of Existence.
3. The personal aspects of the things around us, that is, their self-consciousness and ability to love, and to know, which we find in other people, point to the personal nature of Existence, itself.
Metaphysics is the science of existence. In the West it started with the Greeks, and was continued by the Christians and the Moslems, and has come down to our own day. It reached its high point with Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century who saw the primacy of the act of existence, or that things are, over essence, or what things are, but this insight was lost and regained during the ensuing centuries. It was regained, for example, by Domingo Bañez, and later by Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. In the Moslem world Mulla Sadra independently discovered this primacy of existence.
The things that are around us are not really essences because essences don’t really exist. Essences are cross-sections of actually existing things. They are sliced from these things by the mind, but they don’t exist in themselves. What exists are the things themselves which are different kinds, or grades, or colors of existence.
Ultimately metaphysics in itself is not a historical discipline. It is about pondering the very nature of essence and existence, which is something we can do by meditating on the existing things around us, and listening to what they have to say to us.
And if we listen clearly enough, we see that the existing things around us are limited aspects of existence, and point to unlimited Existence to a fullness of Existence that we cannot grasp in itself. Unlimited Existence is infinite, and exceeds the ability of our mind to grasp it. We are drawn by our very natures to the mystery of infinite Existence, but we cannot comprehend it.
Summary: The limited existence of the things around us points to unlimited Existence which is somehow personal.
1. If unlimited existence is personal, we could say that the idea of the Trinity that faith proposes is fitting, for then Existence is a loving community of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
2. The Word of God takes on a human nature, but has no human person because it does not terminate in a human person.
3. The human nature of the Word does receive, however, an entity of union by being united to the Word, and thus is a human nature that is transformed, and takes on divine-like perfection.
4. This transformed human nature becomes the new center of the human race so that at the center of each human being is this transformed human nature which draws it to the life of the Trinity through the Word.
The Intrinsically Trinitarian Nature of Existence
Metaphysical insight allows us to see that the limited existence of the things around us point to Existence, itself.
In a similar manner, the aspects of personality that we encounter in ourselves in terms of self-awareness and love point to Existence, itself, as Personal.
On this philosophical level we can conclude that Existence is supremely Personal, but we cannot enter into those depths and see what that means.
Theological reflection on Christian faith tells us that in God there is one nature and three persons. The Father is identical with the divine nature, as is the Son and the Holy Spirit, but the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit. The distinction among the persons of the Trinity rests not on the divine nature, itself, as if each one had staked out its own territory, but on their relationships to each other. This, however, is hard to understand.
Let’s take a new perspective. If metaphysics tells us that Existence is Personal, why not say that the doctrine of the Trinity affords us a glimpse of what those personal depths in God are like?
The divine Existence should not be imagined as identical to the divine nature to which the three persons are somewhat accidentally added on as if we could relate first to the three persons and then somehow go deeper and encounter the divine nature. Rather, the inner nature of Existence is a communion of three loving persons. It is the relationship between these persons that constitutes the divine nature. Existence is intrinsically a loving communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Creation reflects God as Existence, superabounding in Personality, but there is no reflection of the Trinity in creation. Even our own interior processes of understanding and love do not directly point to the Trinity. Once we know about the Trinity, however, our own processes of understanding and love can become wonderful symbols of the richness of Existence as Personal.
Creation is a free act of God, but it is also an act expressing the nature of God. The persons of God communicate as completely as possible with each other, but they also communicate as completely as possible in regard to creation. Creation is necessarily a reflection of the divine Existence as Personal, but it can also be a deeper expression of the inner nature of God as Trinity. This is best seen in regard to the human nature of Jesus. The creation of that human nature is a reflection of God as Existence and Personal, and as such can be called a work common to the three divine persons. But at the same instant as the human nature of Jesus is being created, it is being united to the Word of God, and through the Word to the Father and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it takes on a Trinitarian character, and thus reflects both God as Existence and Personal, and God as Trinity. It is through the human nature of Jesus that we, too, can participate in the inner life of the Trinity.
From the Humanity of Jesus to our Trinitarian Life
By nature we are creatures, and not divine. We are the result of the creative action of God, a work that theologians describe as a work ad extra common to the three persons of the Trinity. But we cannot stop here without failing to miss the exciting way in which we participate in the divine life, not by nature, but by grace.
It happens like this. The humanity of Jesus, itself, is a creation common to the three persons of the Trinity, and thus a work ad extra, but at the very moment that the humanity of Jesus is being created, it is being drawn to the Word. This drawing to the Word gives it a special character. The Word receives not only a human nature, but gives that human nature an entity of union that elevates it to be precisely the humanity of the Word. The humanity of the Word is this humanity in relationship to the Father and the Spirit. In short, we are now faced with the humanity that has a Trinitarian character.
This humanity also has a special character from the point of view of the human race. The humanity of the Word now becomes the new center of the human race. We are no longer only creatures, but enter into the life of the Trinity, itself.
While the humanity of Jesus can have no personality in the absolute meaning of the term, but its personality is the personality of the Word, it is a transformed humanity due to its union with the Word. This is a humanity that is completely open to the Trinity so its entire thrust is to bring itself into alignment with the Trinity.
The Jesus of the Gospels presents us with a mysterious human being that brings us ever more deeply into the depths of Jesus’ personality. We are called by our hearts to ultimately respond to the very personality of Jesus who is the Word of God. We are incorporated into the body of Christ so as to be drawn into the life of the Trinity. We cannot turn a page of the Gospels without seeing Jesus beckoning to us, calling to us to enter more deeply into His inner mystery. The life of prayer, itself, is a call to enter into the Trinitarian life through the Word made flesh.
It is in this way that we can see the uniqueness of the Christian life. It does not ultimately rest on the fact of creation. It is a Trinitarian relationship of love with the Word of God. There is only one Word, and one Incarnation in which the Word has become flesh. The elevated form of the human race found in Jesus awakens us to our incorporation into the one body of Christ. There is a wonderful transparency in the elevated humanity of Jesus, a dynamic transparency that comes into play no matter where we encounter this elevated humanity of Jesus, whether in the Gospels, the writings of the Fathers or the saints, or the actions of those who serve Jesus in the poor.
When the Word of God takes a human nature, that human nature is transformed. It receives an entity of union. The humanity of the Word as a creature is a work common to the three divine persons. But the humanity of the Word is unterminated. It does not come to a final conclusion at the level of a human form. Its entire being is geared to the Word and completed in the Word. The humanity of the Word finds its ultimate end in the Word.
The humanity of Jesus is a true humanity, and as such it becomes one with the humanity of the human race. Once the humanity of the Word is created, then it unites itself with the human race and opens the human race to the Word, and thus to the life of the Trinity, itself. The humanity of the Word is at once a creation ad extra common to the three persons, yet at the same time a special work ad intra, a drawing of the humanity to the Word. The humanity of the Word is uncompleted at the level of humanity, and is drawn, instead, into the life of the Trinity by the Word. Once the humanity of the Word is awakened, it enters the human race, drawing it to itself, and elevating it. We cannot find our own termination now in the line of our humanity because we, too, now have a humanity that is drawn into the Trinity. The humanity of Jesus, as soon as it is created, is elevated and transformed, for it is drawn to be the humanity of the Word. It becomes a divinized humanity sharing in the life of the Trinity. When the Word draws its humanity to itself, there can be no closure for that humanity. The humanity is open and transparent. The Word, in contrast, is totally itself, a complete and infinite person, in the face of which the humanity cannot be a person, but only an elevated and transformed humanity that brings everything to the Word.
Is there something distinctive about Christianity, or is it just another expression of some basic archetypal theme that is found in many religions? This is an important question, and looking at contemporary Catholic literature on interreligious dialogue can leave us with the impression that Catholicism is but another form of a non-duality found, for example, in Buddhism or Hinduism. In such a view Jesus is often discovered as having a certain relationship with God that is structurally the same as we might have with God when we discover that somehow we possess the divine life within us.
But this kind of view, however widespread it is, runs the risk of misunderstanding Christianity’s fundamental nature. For Catholics Jesus is the very Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, and has received a human nature so that we can say he is both true God and a true human being. This means that Jesus as a person is God, the very Word of God, and the humanity he receives is uplifted and elevated by being the humanity of the Word so that it is at once a rich, intensive way of being, a human being, but at the same time this human nature never terminates itself and becomes a human person. The only person it has is the person of the Word.
This new humanity of the Word is new, not because it is no longer a genuine human nature, but because it reaches out to the Word, bringing the humanity as close to the Word, while it still remains a human nature, and never terminates itself at the level of human nature in the sense of becoming a human person.
When this elevated human nature unites itself with our human nature, our human nature undergoes a deep transformation, and has within itself a deep desire to now be related to the Word of God. Through our union with the human nature of Jesus we take up a Trinitarian relationship to God, and through the Word enter into the life of the Trinity.
Therefore it is clear that in this sense Christian life is unique. Our spiritual life is rooted in the Word, and our human nature is a transformed and elevated human nature geared to life in the Trinity. Christian life is not simply one expression of an archetypal non-duality to be found in many places. At the same time, however, all human beings are called to share in the life of Jesus, and do share it whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Existentially, then, we are called in the depths of being to enter into the Trinitarian life by the very fact that the humanity of Jesus is the new center of the human race. We are all Christians in the sense that the humanity of Jesus has united itself with our humanity even though we are not conscious that that event has taken place. In a world of creation all creation is a gift, but in that world the Incarnation is doubly gratuitous. Even if God wills to create, He need not will the Incarnation. The Incarnation is a special sharing of the inmost nature of God.
The Center of the Soul
Our spiritual souls, which are the forms, or principles, by which we are what we are, have remarkable qualities. First and foremost they are spiritual, that is, they possess a certain intensity of being so that they can reflect upon themselves and know and love. But our human souls are profoundly united with our bodies, and through the bodies the entire universe. They also have an interior dynamism that draws them to be united with all other human souls, for they share the same form.
The deepest center of the soul, however, is the place where it receives its existence moment by moment from God. It is, we might imagine, the point of deepest ontological intensity in which the existence of the soul springs forth from God who is Existence, itself.
In our everyday existence we hardly avert to this center, but simply accept our existence as a fact. When our metaphysical insight matures, however, we see that all the things around us are, in fact, different limited modes of what it means to exist, and so they all point to the fullness of existence. If we could truly see into the depths of things, we could see that they are ablaze with existence, and our breath would be taken away by a glimpse of the very isness of things.
In certain Eastern forms of meditation men and women have been drawn into the depths of the spiritual soul and have encountered in dark and mysterious ways this center of existence of the soul, and have embraced it. The resulting experience, however, did not express itself in metaphysical concepts, but rather in a dark union with the existence of the soul which embraced at the same time the existence of all things and the source of existence. This union gives rise to a paradoxical language.
In death the spiritual soul becomes transparent to itself, and then we will see this center of existence. This seeing could be called a natural beatitude, or vision, of God which ought not to be confused with the union of God that takes place through grace, but a deep sense of God as the author and sustainer of being. In this natural beatitude we see God in and through the existence of the soul, and see the whole universe summed up in the soul, and see our fellow human beings from within.
The Trinitarian Structure of the Soul
The center of existence of the soul is the deepest center that human reason can fathom, but in the midst of that center there is a deeper center still which takes place by a gift of love. The human soul of Jesus makes him a genuine human being, and profoundly united to us. This human nature is a creation of God, and therefore can be seen as a work common to the three persons of the Trinity, but in the very act of creation by which it comes about, the human soul of Jesus becomes the human nature of the Word, and through the Word enters into the life of the Trinity. Therefore, the human soul of Jesus has as its deepest center a Trinitarian imprint. The human nature of Jesus takes on a new intensity because of its union with the Word, and this intensity makes it not only one with all other human beings in virtue of sharing the same form, but it makes the soul of Jesus the very center of the human race. Through the human nature of Jesus we are drawn to the Trinity that dwells in the center of our souls. In life this manifests itself as a call to contemplation which in its highest reaches begins to express our sharing in the Trinitarian life. In death when the spiritual soul becomes transparent to itself, we will see that the life of the Trinity is the very center of our souls. There is no opposition between the center of existence of the soul and the Trinitarian center of the soul because existence, itself, in its innermost depths is Trinitarian.
The Natural Unconscious and the Supernatural Unconscious
There is a natural unconscious which we can divide into upper and lower dimensions. The lower unconscious embraces the world of the psychoanalysts with their dreams, projections and affects. But there is an upper unconscious, as well, which is ignored, for the most part, by the psychologists, but was known to the medieval philosophers who discussed things like the agent intellect, that is, the intellectual life by which we derive intellectual concepts from the imagination. Thus, from a natural point of view, the ego is surrounded by the unconscious, and its nonconceptual way of proceeding.
There is also a world of the supernatural unconscious. It is centered on the Word of God which illuminates and irradiates the human nature of Jesus so that it is transformed by grace. The Word, as we have seen, is the person of the human nature of Jesus. Whatever exists in the human nature of Jesus in the realm of the unconscious is transformed by the Word into the supernatural unconscious. That means that due to our union with the Word, we also enter into the realm of the supernatural unconscious.
Summary: We receive by union a new human nature which makes us have a new center which is the Trinity through the Word. Divine existence is a loving community which we share in by our transformed human nature coming from the Word and leading to the Word.
With the basic philosophical and theological principles firmly in mind, we can look at some specific questions.
Catholics and Non-Duality
There seems to be a growing sense among Catholics interested in the contemplative life that the higher reaches of the contemplative life are characterized by non-duality. This sense, however, is not due, as far as one can tell, to a judicious consideration of the problem, but rather to a spirit of the times that owes much to the general impact of Eastern thought, especially Buddhism, on Catholicism. Let’s look at an example.
Non-duality in the sense of
no self, or emptiness, as found in Buddhism, or unity with ultimate reality,
has come to fascinate the Western Christian contemplative mind which wonders
how it relates to the Christian contemplative tradition. Thomas Keating
answers that question like this: Non-duality is clearly a state beyond what
is called in the Christian contemplative tradition transforming union. (“The
Paradox of Non-Duality,” p. 4 in Radical Grace, April-June 2008) But
this transforming union, instead of being the summit of the Christian life
of prayer, as it was formerly understood, is now seen as a stage lower than
non-duality. It is entirely likely that the ultimate reality of the East is
closer to the metaphysics of the West than we might first imagine.
Unfortunately this semi-conscious supremacy of non-duality brings in its wake all sorts of difficulties. It reduces the Catholic contemplative life to a lower stage of Buddhism, and turns Catholic mysticism into an ontological mysticism instead of a love mysticism. When one compares the Yamada story, which we will see in a moment, with this attraction to non-duality, we see that they are two sides of the same development in which it is thought that Christian mysticism can be rejuvenated by understanding it in Eastern categories. Regrettably this doesn’t work, and only obscures our understanding of the central mysteries of Christianity like the Trinity and the Incarnation.
A Catholic East-West Experiment
The Catholic Church, although hardly conscious of it, carried out a fascinating East-West experiment when a number of Jesuit priests, as well as other priests and religious in Japan, became students of the Zen master Yamada Roshi. Starting under Yamada’s guidance, they underwent Zen training and went on to become Zen teachers. We could say that the experiment could be understood in terms of what would happen if Catholics with Zen training compared their Zen spirituality with their Catholic one. Would they discover that the two paths led to the same goal, or would they come to the conclusion that they were faced with two different spiritualities that could complement each other, but were, in fact, two different things?
While this was the underlying question, it was not as formally addressed as one might imagine. Speaking in general terms, we could say that Yamada’s Catholic students took their Catholicism for granted, and concentrated on their Zen because that was novel to them. The result was they ended up teaching Zen to Catholics and other Westerners, but not Catholicism and its mystical tradition to these same people. Put in another way, they often presented a basically Zen retreat as if it were at the same time a Catholic contemplative one, implicitly answering the fundamental question by leaving the impression that Zen practice was identical with Christian contemplative practice.
When these Catholic Zen masters began to have students who were to become Zen teachers in their own right, it does not appear that it mattered to the original Catholic Zen masters what kind of relationship these students had with Catholic spirituality. If this is true, it is likely that the final effect of this experiment will be the creation of another Zen school without any real link to Catholic spirituality. This experiment, then, turned out not to be much of an experiment at all. Instead of a genuine dialogue between Zen and Catholic spirituality, the assumption was often made that Zen somehow encompassed the Catholic contemplative tradition, and so it was enough to practice Zen. The fascinating quest to answer the relationship between Zen and Catholic contemplation was too often assumed to be already answered.
Computers and the Spiritual Soul
Computer scientists and mathematicians can hardly be said to take a large and conscious interest in formal religion, but perhaps they have found another way to address those realities. Nor can we expect them in addressing those realities to use the language of metaphysics and theology. Rather, they will invent a scientific language. Here is one way to express it: human intelligence, because of its union with the body, and how much it is intimately bound up with the biological brain, is limited and slow to develop. But computers develop much more quickly. Why not, then, join the brain to the computer and thus overcome our biological human limitations, and create an intelligent machine? Then, slipping away from our physical limits, we can augment our best human qualities by the creation of a new kind of intelligence, an artificial intelligence which, slipping its biological moorings, will accelerate in speed and scope.
This scientific quest can be pursued in a variety of ways. We can, for example, imagine joining the search capacity of the worldwide web directly to the human brain, or even finding a way to become part of the worldwide web and find a new identity in that union. If we were to push matters further, we could imagine leaving our human biological identity behind, and sacrificing ourselves in the sense of creating new descendents rooted not in flesh and blood, but in silicon, descendents that could be described as having gone beyond the human to a higher state of intelligent functioning.
Here is how scientists put it:
Hans Moravec in Mind Children envisions a day in which we are superseded by intelligent machines which usher in a “post-biological” or “supernatural” future. (p. 1)
For Ray Kurzweil in The Age of Spiritual Machines by the year 2029 “machines claim to be conscious, and these claims are largely accepted.” Kurzweil believes that “(c)onsciousness is the most important ontological question.” (The Singularity is Near, p. 380) In a world where there is no conscious entity to experience it, “that world may as well not exist.” (p. 380) But for Kurzweil the new computers are capable of being conscious.
Kevin Kelly, writing in Wired, sees the internet as a “gargantuan Machine” that “will evolve into an integral extension not only of our senses and our bodies, but our minds.” (as quoted in The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr, p. 224.)
Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google, pursues much the same thought, “Ultimately you want to have the entire world’s knowledge connected directly to your mind” (The Big Switch, p. 222) by way of the Google search engine, no doubt.
The use of an all-pervasive search engine, writes Kevin Kelly, will be so great that it will become our identity. People who are disconnected from it “won’t feel like themselves.” (p. 226)
As Richard Foreman writes, “I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘the instantly available’.” (p. 227)
For Philip Rosedale, the founder of the online virtual world called Second Life, “the real world... would fade into the background...” and would “become like a museum very soon.” He “envisioned a future, perhaps not far away, in which people could upload their entire minds into a global, networked machine.” (Second Lives, p. 273)
But what does the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas have to say about these kinds of scientific speculations? His philosophy makes a fundamental distinction between the material and the spiritual. They are two different kinds of being. The more intense, or dense, a being is, the more spiritual it is, and the more transparent it is to itself. A spiritual being not only knows, but knows that it can know. In such a being there are no walls or partitions or parts that keep it from grasping itself. In contrast, a material being has parts, and precisely because it has parts, that is, that it exists on a lower plane of existence, it can disintegrate and come apart. A truly spiritual being, on the other hand, once it has been created, stays created, and can never cease to be. Therefore, a machine, no matter how complex it is, is made out of matter and parts, and can never become spiritual, and thus conscious. We cannot expect a computer to cross the threshold to the spiritual.
Computer companies are in the midst of creating enormous warehouses filled with thousands of computers linked together, and then linked to the worldwide web. This phenomenal technological achievement, however, no matter how complex it becomes, will never breach the barrier that leads to genuine consciousness, still less to godlike qualities. There is no way for us to create the soul, consciousness, and another god. They are already present, waiting for us to acknowledge them. The world of computers, no matter how fascinating it is, and no matter how much it can serve humankind, cannot become a substitute for spiritual realities.
But perhaps it is possible to read into this scientific language a hidden quest for spiritual realities and God. This quest would be more unconscious than conscious. We have taken our brains and computers and put them together so that they could grow in leaps and bounds and become more and more all-knowing, and imitate some sort of god-like figure. But this god would be the descendent of humankind even though humankind has left God far behind. But if we pick up our tool of philosophy we soon realize that God is a spiritual being, indeed, God is Existence, itself, and therefore is completely spiritual, and there is no way that our own poor efforts can wring the material out of our brains or our machines, and create a spiritual being, and it is even more impossible that our efforts could create a god-like being. God is at the beginning of creation and the universe, not at the end.
On the Possibility of a Theology of Robots
Edmund Furse of the University of Glamorgan who has a special interest in cognitive science and artificial intelligence gave an interesting talk called “A Theology of Robots.” (http://www.comp.glam.ac.uk/pages/staff/efurse/Theology-of-Robots/Introduction.html) The purpose of this talk was that someday there would be intelligent robots, and these robots would have a religious life. In the course of this talk he examines the arguments for what is called strong artificial intelligence, and refutes the arguments against it. Thus he will take us to see the kind of lives intelligent robots will lead, and the religious life of robots, and finally the moral and social issues that surround intelligent robots like their life of prayer and whether robots can be ordained.
But certainly we are getting ahead of ourselves. The third argument for strong artificial intelligence is particularly interesting, for it views a human brain as a machine: “... Most scientists would be happy to view the brain as a vast but complex machine. As such it should then be possible to purely replicate the brain using artificial neurons.” But is it really possible to view the human brain as a machine? Isn’t it entirely too facile to imagine that we can equate the complexity of a machine with the brain, for the foundation of the brain is consciousness which gives rise to self-knowledge and free will? Such qualities cannot be equated in some numerical fashion with the brain, and the number of neurons it has, and the various connections they have with each other. There is no reason to believe that such complexity could ever give rise to consciousness. It is of the very nature of material beings to have parts, while spiritual beings do not. Any complex being, which includes any machine, has parts, and therefore lacks consciousness. Human beings are incapable of creating intelligent machines, for it is not possible for there to be a genuinely conscious intelligent machine. There is a fundamental difference between brain and complex machine, and spiritual mind, which has consciousness. Here we have arrived at a genuine philosophy which, as one of its basic intuitions, sees the difference between matter and spirit. There is no way we can rapidly proceed to an intelligent machine, or robot, and address the questions of its spiritual life because it simply can’t have a spiritual life because it lacks a spiritual nature. However much it is fun to go on with Furse as he wonders whether robots should be baptized, or whether they can pray and go to church, and whether they can be ordained, we have simply not dealt with the fundamental issue, which is the fact that we are incapable as human beings to create a spiritual being.