Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Metaphysics of Peace/Nonviolence

As many of you know, philosophy plays an incalculable role in directing the perspectives and worldviews of society. Several hundred years ago St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus developed two contradictory metaphysical outlooks on the relationship between God and the world. The prevalence of the Scotist worldview has led in part to many of the problems we face today in the Western world.

Duns Scotus proposed a univocal conception of being, existence. Accordingly he, and later on William of Occam, a fellow Franciscan, saw God and his infinite existence standing alongside all other beings which exists in finitude as different types, instances, of a broad, common category. Thus, God is merely the greatest of all beings. He is the Supreme Being. But, there is no necessary and ontological connection, relation between God and finite beings.

St. Thomas Aquinas, on the other, proposed a participation metaphysics. He saw God as the ipsum esse subsistens,the sheer act of to-be itself. God is Being; God is Existence. This parallels well the name by which God identifies Himself when speaking to Moses through the burning bush: I AM WHO AM; I am He who is, who always has been, who always will be; I am.

This perception of God as esse, being, has at several important implications. First, rather than defining God as one being (albeit the supreme one) among many, Aquinas’ view sees God as the ground of all finite existence. Thus God must be “in all things, by essence, presence, and power.”

This understanding moves us to our second important implication: “the connectedness of all created realities through God.”[2] Thus God is both radically different from all other beings, ecause He is existence Himself while other receive their existence from in, and intrinsically connected with all finite beings because they share in a limited way in His existence. “As fellow participants in God’s act of to-be, all things are related to one another in the most intimate way possible, for they are all ontological siblings.”[3]

Additionally, this has powerful implications for our we view the act of creation. “If God is ipsum esse subsistens, then whatever else comes to existence must be created ex nihilo, literally from nothing.”[4] The mythic creation stories of pagan religions all saw creation coming about through act of violence among the gods. However, if God is the sheer act of to-be, if God is existence, then from the “beginning” there is nothing else, no matter, no stuff, no other beings which exist with Him. He must create all other beings from nothing,and they can only exist by participation in His existence.

“This implies that the act of creation is thoroughly noninvasive, nonmanipulative. God’s creative act is one of utter generosity (since he needs nothing outside himself) and utterly nonviolent (since he shapes nothing outside of himself)…The implication of the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo is that nonviolence is the deepest truth of things, noncompetitiveness is the ground of being. And thus to live nonviolently is not simply to be ethically upright; it is to be cosmically correct,to go with the grain of creation.”[5]
If I can recognize in our hearts and minds the correctness and truth of this vision of creation, that all created things are most intimately connected by sharing deeply, ontologically, and virginally, in the esse, the to-be, of God, then any antagonism, competition, violence, between me and other nor between me and nature reduces to a nonsensical destruction of that by which I exist.

The being of God, as existence itself, logically requires the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and points toward the connectedness and relatedness of all finite beings as variegated instances of participation in the infinite being of God. Both creatio ex nihilo, as an utterly gratuitous and nonviolent act, and our inner-relatedness to all beings require that our lives bear evangelical witness to the Truth of God with daily lived attitudes of nonviolence, peace, brotherhood, and mutual concern for the other.

Consumerism, Abortion, Torture, Capital Punishment, War, etc. all deny our interrelatedness and reflect lives lived within the current of ways of men, but against the grain of creation and of the ways of God.

Part 2 to follow: Where our society is in direct contradiction, philosophy and metaphysically to God as ipsum esse substens, to creation ex nihilo, and to the nonviolence and peace with is the ground of our very existence.

[2] Robert Barron, Bridging the Great Divide, 201.

[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 202.


Lee Faber said...

since you say that Aquinas and blessed Duns Scotus have two contradictory outlooks, are you implying that torture and violence every other bad thing comes from blessed Scotus? The "Radical orthodox" view of Scotus has been refuted numerous times, even if they do get more press because they use the contemporary pomo idiom. In any case, your paragraph characterizing Scotus is inaccurate. Scotus does not think that existence is univocal to God and creatures. Rather, he thinks that a concept can be formed, derived from creatures, which can be applied univocally to God and creatures. Being, however, is not a genus, nor are God and creatures included in any other kind of genus. Hence claims such as the quasi metaphorical one that God is 'just a being among beings' is not justified. In any case, the same criticism could be directed against aquinas: God is just the most existing thing among other existing things.

I'm not sure what you mean when you criticize Scotus for not having a 'necessary and ontological' connection between God and creatures; do you mean that God depends ontologically on creatures? Or just that creatures depend on God? If the latter case, since scotus thinks God is the first efficient cause, he certainly thinks there is an ontological and necessary connection of creatures in their relation of dependence on God. But sure, he ignores participation; that doesn't mean he has no other way to explain what Aquinas uses participation for.

It's quite unfortunate that fr. Barron has adopted these cliches. I looked through the book, and it's pretty clear he's never actually read Scotus, just 19th century myths. Rather ironic for a book purporting to be post-political and post-conservative to be perpetuating 19th century scholastic propaganda.

I can honestly say, as one holding a scotist worldview, that almost no one else today actually does; no one has, really, since around 1800 when the universities were secularized.

JB said...


Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. TO be quite frank, I was taking Barron as an authority. I had heard several to people whom I perceived to have a certain expertise place Aquinas and Scotus in opposition to each other. I now know that that is not accurate, however I have yet to study Scotus in any sort of depth. So, I assume that your critiques are warrentd. I apologize for any misrepresentation of him and his views.
If you have the time and patience I would appreciate a summary of how Scotus deals with what Aquinas uses participation for. Unfortunately I remain a novice in medieval thought. Any insight you can offer would be great!


Lee Faber said...


I've always found it hard to tell how much Aquinas and Scotus contradict; much of it is exaggerated, stemming from late-medieval disputes between the scotist and thomist schools. Scotus spent most of his career at Oxford, where thomism wasn't especially strong. He was also a franciscan, and the franciscans of scotus' day used Henry of Ghent as their textbook on theology. So most of Scotus' writings contain refutations of henry, but only rarely even mention Aquinas. Univocity is a prime example. Henry's views are given extensive exegesis and criticism, before Scotus gives his own view. Aquinas isn't mentioned at all. Scotus' view is that he accepts 'real' metaphysical analogy but thinks that to avoid a fallacy of equivocation it requires an underlying conceptual univocity. The only place Scotus directly attacks aquinas' arguments is in collatio 23, where he cites the summa contra gentiles. but in this work, scotus also defends aquinas arguments and doesn't resolve the question (this is typical for the genere; collationes were disputes masters held in the evening with their students).

As far as participation is concerned, i've only seen him discuss it once. there he reduces it to exemplar causality, which he then reduces to efficient causality. he probably accepts it, it isn't too clear, but just wasn't interested in it (another problem is that discussions of Esse had become fairly complex and had evolved beyond thomas; scotus for example speaks the language of esse essentie and esse existentie). Other than that, his views on creation are fairly standard for his time: creation is a free act of God, creatures depend on God for their being, and so on. None of the scholastics, however, use the language of 'violence' or 'non-violence' to describe creation; fr. Barron is getting all that from Milbank. Aside from the participation issue, scotus would differ from thomas in that he holds that the will is a nobler faculty than the intellect, and so creation is primarily a determination of divine will.

JB said...


Thanks again for the response. It was both helpful and informative.