Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In a moment, another Auseinandersetzung with the indefatigable Edward Feser; but first a small prolepsis: A reader recently asked me why, in my technical writings, I treat the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas with such respect while, in my more popular work, I delight in casual abuse of Thomists. This is the peril of allowing one’s specialist vocabulary to leak into one’s public voice. In theological circles, the term “Thomism” (or “traditional Thomism” or “manualist Thomism” or “two-tier Thomism”) typically refers not to the writings of Thomas himself, or even to any given scholar—Maritain, Gilson, W. Norris Clarke, etc.—who happens to study Thomas’s thought, but to a particular faction of Baroque neoscholasticism, which began in the sixteenth century, prin­cipally with Domingo Báñez, and which largely died out in the twentieth, principally with Reginald ­Garrigou-Lagrange.

This was the tradition that produced the infamous Thomist “manuals,” and that a succession of Catholic scholars—Kuhn, Blondel, Chenu, de Lubac, Lonergan, and so on—assailed as an impoverished early modern distortion of the medieval synthesis, and that was finally swept away in the last century by the twin torrents of the patristic ressourcement and a new golden age of Catholic systematic and philosophical theology. Simply said, Thomas was a dynamically original thinker, who today would make as avid a use of Darwin and Bohr as he did of the Aristotelian science of his day; Thomism, by contrast, is a school, which too often clings to its categories with the pertinacity of a drowning man clutching a shard of flotsam. So, to avoid confusion, I shall refer to the latter below simply as “The System.”

Of the few things I can say about Edward Feser with any confidence, perhaps the most obvious are that he is an adherent of The System, that he is one of its more uncompromising advocates in popular Christian apologetics, and that he is valiant (if not always subtle) in attacking any deviation from the vision of reality it promotes. To this, I can subjoin the observation that, like many guardians of The System, he exhibits a severely limited ­knowledge of the larger Christian intellectual tradition, and so does not always recognize it when it comes into conflict with certain of The System’s principles. This can lead to some rather peculiar situations. Two columns ago, I invoked biblical eschatology in defending the participation of animal life in the final Kingdom of God; Feser, perceiving an offense against The System, promptly produced a long, belligerent reply on the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, accusing me of a late modern feckless sentimentality toward beasts (you know, of the sort you find in flaccid modern swishes like Isaac of Nineveh and Francis of Assisi).

Actually, that column did not much concern The ­System, apart from an anecdote about a friend of mine who, mercifully, shares my sense of humor; it dealt chiefly with an ethicist who is neither Thomist nor Catholic. But Feser assumed that nothing but The System was at stake. He even accused me of saying that Thomists believe in a mechanistic view of animal life, or in Cartesianism, or in something of the sort (the details have begun to fade), though I certainly had not. On the one hand, this annoys me, since it rouses memories of our previous debates over natural law theory, which largely involved Feser furiously thrashing away at what he imagined I was saying. On the other, however, I have to concede that, in the main, he is right. I cannot deny that the eschatological vision I was describing is irreconcilable with that of The System, and I cannot even deny that my revulsion at the latter, as magis­terially expounded in Garrigou-Lagrange’s Life ­Everlasting (or, as I fondly think of it, Catholics in the Hands of a Psychotic God), is as much emotional as rational. But many fine Catholic scholars of impeccable orthodoxy regard The System’s account of the beatific vision, in light of the whole Christian tradition, as at best incomplete, at worst aberrant. And perhaps I should have explained that I was relying on two sources that, to be fair, adherents of The System rarely encounter: Eastern Orthodoxy and the Bible.

Had Feser been fortunate enough to be catechized into Orthodoxy rather than The System, he would surely have been told that salvation is cosmic in scope and includes all creation; that the promised Kingdom of God will be nothing but this world restored and transfigured by the glory of God, in its every dimension, vegetal, animal, rational, and social; and that a deified humanity will serve therein as a cosmic priesthood, receiving that glory from Christ and mediating it to the natural world. He would also undoubtedly have encountered the now quite standard eschatological motif of the redeemed cosmos as the burning bush: pervaded by the divine glory, but unconsumed—an infinitely realized theophany.

Now, this may be just so much fabulous Oriental flummery but, for what it is worth, it is also quite literally the only eschatology on offer in Scripture—not, moreover, in the occasional fugitive metaphor, or as a collection of vague images, or in disparate hints and fragments, but as a quite explicit theology, reiterated again and again, from the prophets, through the Gospels, right to the end of Revelation (when, rather than the saints ascending to the Empyrean, the New Jerusalem descends to earth). So perhaps one can be forgiven for concluding that the eschatological language of the New Testament is more than a congeries of mythic ciphers: that Christ really is the “savior of the cosmos” and “of all creation”; that the “glory” for which creation in its labor pains expectantly “groans” will be revealed when creation is “liberated from decay”; that the general resurrection will bring about the “glorious freedom” of all creation; that there really will be a “restoration of all things,” “a new heaven and a new earth,” when “everything in heaven and on earth” will be “subordinated to”—“hierarchically arranged below”—the Son, and through him the Father, and God will be “all in all.”

Not that Feser shows any interest in the scriptural issues. His argument against “puppies in paradise” is reducible to two points: that the final vision of God must be entirely an experience of the rational intellect, and that animals entirely lack a rational soul. As to the latter issue, Feser’s position is just doctrinaire Aristotelian boilerplate, uninformed by thousands of fascinating and sobering cognitive studies of animals, largely beside the point, and somewhat morally obtuse. That can be deferred for now, though. A more basic problem is his understanding of the human knowledge of God. The issue is not whether animals can “see God” (in a limited mode, they already do, for all seeing—as Nicholas of Cusa says—is already a partial vision of the divine); rather, it is whether we can see God apart from cosmic nature. In The System, a medievalist of my acquaintance likes to say, “God is a species of discursive knowledge, the ultimate Concept,” while the vision of God is essentially ratiocinative, a kind of eternal Q.E.D. For Feser, certainly, the final human knowledge of God is indissolubly bound to a capacity for abstraction.

As Denys or Maximus would say, however, God in his transcendence is at once both supersensible and in a sense (for us) super-rational, but is also the source and end of all knowledge and desire, sensible, appetitive, or rational, present in all as beyond all, and yet as more original than all. And, of course, even for the deified intellect, God could never be simply an external object of rational cognizance, some external “other thing” delivered over to theoretical contemplation; as Nicholas of Cusa says, creatures “see God” precisely by seeing God’s act of seeing all things, and so by participation in God’s knowledge of himself in his Logos. And this must entail, for embodied finite creatures, seeing everything that lives and dwells and is held together in the Logos in its final glory, the whole fabric of creation transfigured and finally made complete. For Augustine, the redeemed will see God in great part in the glorified bodies of a renewed creation. For us, any “beatific vision” must be at once rational, sensible, social, imaginative, creative, and cosmic. But there is no room here for a treatise on Christian eschatology; and, as I say, Feser gives no evidence of being aware of how rich, complex, varied, and contentious a tradition it is, or of how to judge among its diverse expressions.

Really, though, it does not matter; certain things are not open to debate. From the New Testament and the apostolic age, we have inherited only one vision of the consummation of all things in Christ: that of a cosmic restoration in the age to come, a new heaven and a new earth, paradise regained and perfected (whose biblical depiction insistently includes the mineral, vegetal, and animal realms). Is it true? Who knows? Paul believed it; but he also apparently expected it to come to pass within a few generations at most. All that can be said with certainty is that no other promise has been given, and so any eschatology that cannot truly accommodate that vision cannot be regarded as credibly Christian.