Part IV
The Future of Thomism

Chapter 15
Some Conditions of a Thomistic

Is the time approaching for another look at Thomism? But what are the conditions of such an appraisal and even more of a genuine Thomistic renaissance?

The first condition of any reappraisal or renewal is that we understand the reason why Thomism declined at the time of the Second Vatican Council. The answer, I think, lies not so much in properly philosophical and theological controversies as if structural flaws intrinsic to Thomism were suddenly revealed to the horror of all good philosophers and more promising systems presented themselves. No. Even if these things were true they would not account for the astounding rapidity with which Thomism withered away. The answer lies, rather, in the domain of psychology and pedagogy. Thomism had been imposed form the top as an ideology instead of growing from the bottom like a genuine philosophy. It was a mixture of genuine philosophical inspiration and genius found in men like Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, and a large dose of very bad teaching. Thomism didn’t die at the Vatican Council but in countless classrooms where St. Thomas was invoked to teach a soul deadening neo-scholasticism of the manuals. What kept Thomism in place and teachers teaching it during the years before the Council was external pressure rather than interior vitality, and when this pressure was released the corpse immediately disintegrated. We have been witnesses to the same kind of process as we watched the Soviet empire fall apart.

So the first condition of any genuine Thomistic renewal is the frank admission of what bad shape Thomism was in - again I don’t mean doctrinally but pedagogically. Any resurgence of Thomism will have to reckon with that fact.

The second condition is that Thomism will have to be rediscovered for itself rather than with all the accidental accretions that burdened it in the past and still burden it. Thomism is not by nature allied to conservative theological and political opinions. The initial schemas that greeted the bishops at the beginning of the Council were the result of a very particular kind of Thomism and it would be naive to imagine that this kind of Thomism is dead. Any kind of philosophy can be wielded in an authoritarian way and it can be reduced to formulae after the intuitive fires that gave birth to it have burned down, and Thomism was no exception. Then it becomes the prisoner of a static conceptualism. A renewal of Thomism that became co-opted by an old defensive Thomism would alienate the very people it has to attract if it is to have a future.

The third condition is that any renewed Thomism cannot become the sole preserve of the professor even if it is no longer the professor of the scholastic manuals but the professor of the latest philosophical topics. It was the classroom that destroyed Thomism, and so to make this same classroom the privileged locus of a new Thomism without any new insight into what went wrong before is to run an immense risk that we will soon repeat the errors of the past. But let’s not be too hard on the professors old and new. They have a central role to play, and in the old Thomism they were more victims than victimizers. But Thomism, whether we think of it in terms of metaphysics or theology, is not only an academic enterprise. It is a wisdom, that is, a knowledge that has to be born out of experience and a genuine striving of the whole personality engaged in trying to find answers to live by. Without authentically lived questions on the part of the students, the answers to be found in Thomism, no matter how well presented, will remain simply a matter of words. Thomism has to be alive outside the classroom before it can be alive inside.

Jacques Maritain – from whom I borrowed the title of this little essay from one he wrote 70 years ago – insisted that there could be no genuine Thomistic metaphysics without an intuition of being, that is, a deep and penetrating insight into the mystery of being. And this is not a matter of words or historical erudition but seeing. If our students do not see, what have we accomplished? And can they get excited about this extraordinary mystery of being if we are not? Such seeing happens less in the classroom and more in the midst of the most important struggles of our lives.

The fourth condition, then, of a Thomistic renewal is the cultivation of this kind of insight whether it be the intuition of being for metaphysics or a personal and lively faith which is at the heart of doing theology.

The fifth and final condition is that Thomism must live in vital interaction with contemporary issues.

There is nothing that is harder to appreciate than something we think we have known intimately in the past and which has hurt us. Thus, there are many born Catholics who because of the Church’s human weaknesses and faults have become estranged from its visible sacramental life, and there are many men and women who lived in pre-Conciliar religious orders who are equally alienated. Thomism has its own sins to ask forgiveness for, for it, too, has alienated many people from the philosophy of St. Thomas. But Thomism in itself is rich and vibrant and has given much to the Church and has much left to give. The Thomism of the future must be a suitably chastened Thomism willing to forego privilege and win us over by the service it can render in our search for philosophical and theological wisdom.


The Future of Thomism

Jacques Maritain was firmly rooted in St. Thomas and the works of his major commentators, especially John of St. Thomas. But while this adherence was very rigorous it was never static. He looked to the past in order to look to the future. "Jacques had no taste for the past," wrote his niece Evelyn Gardiner. "It was the future that was important to him."  And Jacques said of himself, "What am I ?", I asked myself then. "A professor? I think not; I taught by necessity. A writer? Perhaps. A philosopher? I hope so. But also a kind of romantic of justice too prompt to imagine himself, at each combat entered into, that justice and truth will have their day among men. And also perhaps a kind of spring-finder who presses his ear to the ground in order to hear the sound of hidden springs, and of invisible germinations."

Even in his great old age he never stopped listening. Antoinette Grunelius has described how he used to come to Kolbsheim. and instead of resting, he was always busy with his philosophical work. He had his eye on the future, not in the sense of finding answers that could be mechanically passed on, but scouting trails and opening up the roads for those who would come after him.

In this paper I would like to present four rather atypical examples of what, if we could hear them, might be the sounds of hidden springs and invisible germinations that point to Thomism’s future. They also illustrate, I believe, how Jacques’ fidelity to the heart of the Thomist tradition helped him open up these new pathways.

1. The dialogue between Christianity and Jungian psychology

The Jungian-Christian dialogue has spread rapidly through the Christian churches as witnessed by a flood of books, tapes and conference. Why? Because Christianity has a tremendous need for an empirical psychology like Jung’s, whether in its pastoral practice or the renewal of the life of prayer. But something keeps this dialogue from flourishing. There is no more poignant symbol of the promises and problems of this dialogue than the relationship between Victor White, the Dominican priest and noted Thomist, and C.G. Jung. Their warm friendship was to end in estrangement, an estrangement brought about by what must be called epistemological and metaphysical problems.

In fact, one of the major reasons why this Jungian-Christian dialogue has failed to flourish is because it lacks access to a genuine philosophy of nature, and without the input of such a philosophy of nature, the precise character of Jung’s natural science of the psyche and the Kantian overlay that he gave to it that closes it off from a genuine dialogue with religion go unrecognized. The Jungians do not have the philosophical tools to distinguish in order to unite - they, of course, have no desire to be philosophers - and from the Christian side, Maritain’s potential contributions go unnoticed. Ironically, Jung’s psychology could serve as a picture-perfect textbook example of Maritain’s empirioschematic type of natural science, and his basic ground rules for a dialogue between such a science and a renewed philosophy of nature are simply waiting to be applied.

2. The renewal of Christian mysticism

We are in the first phase of a practical interest in and enthusiasm for Christian prayer and contemplation, the like of which has not been seen since the 17th century. Christians are seriously asking themselves what they can do to become contemplatives. But for a variety of reasons this renewal of practical interest is being carried out without averting to the history of Christian spirituality since the death of John of the Cross, or even the renewal of mystical theology that took place in the first half of this century. This failure to look at the past could mean a tragic repetition of it. Arguments about the nature of contemplation that played themselves out in the 17th century and in the beginning of this century are beginning to surface again. But once again, it is Maritain who played a role in that revival of mystical theology who could provide us with a way to deal with these difficult problems and open the way to a renewed theology of mysticism that would be deeply indebted to his ideas about the spiritual unconscious.

We tend to associate this idea with his explorations of creative intuition as expressed in art and poetry, and the arts did, indeed, make an important contribution to its genesis. But there is another source, as well. We have only to look at the various drafts of his vitally important but too often neglected essay, "The Immanent Dialectic of the First Act of Freedom," to see the idea of the spiritual unconscious slowly surfacing - surfacing, if you will, from his own spiritual unconscious. And Jacques late in his life began to apply this idea to the spiritual life. The problems that surround contemplation today have to do with its perceptibility and how to understand the transition from meditation to contemplation so vividly described by John of the Cross. And it is Maritain’s idea of the spiritual unconscious that can let us look at these problems in a new way, and perhaps even resolve them. But once again, Maritain’s name hardly ever surfaces In current discussions about contemplative prayer, and we fall to see that his rigorous discussions about John of St. Thomas on connatural knowledge are not the signs of someone locked in the past, but of someone giving us a key that opens the door to the future.

3. The dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions

There has been an explosive growth in the dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. The Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, for example, numbers hundreds of members around the world, and this dialogue has penetrated deeply into the Christian churches, and into the Catholic Church in particular. We now have priests and religious who are officially sanctioned Zen teachers, especially from the lineage of Koun Yamada Roshi. and there is a growing number of deeply committed Christians who have made Eastern meditation practices part of their own spiritual lives. But what does this have to do with Maritain? Very little if we go by outer appearances. His name is virtually never mentioned in these circles, and Thomism as a whole has very little influence. This is extremely regrettable because one of the central problems of this dialogue is the relationship between Buddhist enlightenment and Christian contemplation, and even the Christian students of Koun Yamada cannot agree about how to resolve it. But Maritain has shed a penetrating light on this matter in his essay, "Natural Mysticism and the Void." In fact, it might even be said that he has gone to the metaphysical bedrock of the question by taking his analysis to the very existence of the soul itself. This remarkable work was then taken up by Louis Gardet in regard to Islam, and Olivier Lacombe in regard to Hindu religious experience.

Where did Maritain get this insight? Once again the answer shows how rooted he was in tradition. It came at the time of his writing of The Degrees of Knowledge while he was studying Ambrose Gardeil’s, La structure de l’ame et l’experience mystique, particularly that part of the book that dealt with the traditional Thomist theme of the soul’s knowledge of itself. Jacques actually disagreed with Pére Gardeil on the question of the possibility of a partial auto-intellection of the soul. But in a flash of insight he realized he could apply these ideas to the question of Hindu mystical experience. He went to see Gardeil, brimming over with enthusiasm, I imagine, for this new insight, but Gardeil remained quite mystified that his work would find such an application. It would be interesting if someone were to examine the Gardeil-Maritain correspondence at the Jacques Maritain archive in Kolbsheim, France to see whether this story could be told in more detail.

4. Cultivating the Intuition of Being

A fourth and final example has to do with Thomist metaphysics itself. If we trace the evolution of Maritain’s metaphysical thought up to and including The Degrees of Knowledge we see a vigorous metaphysical intellect at work with a wonderful sense of the primacy of the role of existence, but still within the boundaries of the best of the tradition. The Degrees of Knowledge appeared with a preface dated June 1932, and that fall saw Maritain teaching a course in metaphysics at the Institut Catholique. We can be forgiven for imagining that this course would be a repeat of the fine metaphysical pages of The Degrees, but that is not what happened. Having summed up the tradition in The Degrees, he was about to make two important advances.

In the first, he helped set the stage for the existential Thomism to come by a section in the published version of these lectures, which was none other than his Seven Lessons, or as we know it, his Preface to Metaphysics. Its "Digression on Existence and Philosophy" was to become one of the two sources that Gilson was to quote in his own discussion of existential Thomism ten years or so later. The other source, incidentally, was Joseph de Finance’s work on being and action in St. Thomas for which Gilson was his thesis advisor.

But what interests us here is the second of his accomplishments. He turns from an objective view of metaphysics to a consideration of the subjective requirements for a metaphysical insight, and this is potentially a very significant advance. The history of Thomist metaphysics has been a history of cycles of the discovery and loss of the deep metaphysical insight into the primacy into the act of existing that makes St. Thomas’ metaphysics so revolutionary. By bringing out for the first time the subjective requirements for the intuition of being, Maritain opens the door so we can ask how this insight could be best cultivated and these cycles of rediscovery and decline be broken.

As far-fetched as this possibility may first sound, we have only to see a community of Zen Buddhists silently and powerfully sitting in order to achieve an insight which, while not the intuition of being, certainly has a deeply metaphysical character, in order to glimpse some interesting possibilities for the cultivation of the intuition of being.

Each of these areas could be developed in great detail, and there are others, as well, but what do all of them point to? The future of Thomism very much depends on a going out into the marketplace and becoming vitally engaged in the most pressing questions to be found there. It has wonderful resources that it can bring to bear on these issues, but that is not all. It is only in the very act of struggling with these kinds of questions and with these new partners in dialogue that it will become sufficiently stimulated to grasp its own fundamental principles more deeply, and discover its own future.

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