Most contemporary debates in Continental philosophy of religion revolve around the debate between positions of transcendence and immanence. Arguments from immanence begin with the axiom that the world is enough to understand the world, while arguments from transcendence begin with the axiom that the world can only be understood by the not-World (i.e. a Creator God, though this is not necessarily the personal God of Christianity or any other religion). Thus the debate between these two positions has to deal with how we are to understand God, ourselves, the rest of nature and, indeed, if we can understand any of these things. Proponents of each position have their own tactics of evangelization, but deciding between the two appears to be more a matter of decision than certainty through reason (whatever its mode or relationship to faith).
Some would argue that philosophers of immanence are the philosophical allies of theologians of pure nature. At the same time, philosophers appealing to transcendence are under fire from the “other camp” for giving too much to religion and trading in obscurity and mysticism. The debate rarely moves past this point and there have been very few attempts to move beyond the two terms. In the interest of dissolving the debate, or at least making the story less simplistic, it may be helpful to look at the work of Aquinas. The story told by those who appeal to transcendence normally goes that the writings of Augustine and Aquinas allowed Christian theology to complete and perfect pagan philosophy. This prefection is then lost with the philosophical theology of Duns Scotus who argues that the being of God and the being of everything is univocally said; leading then to theologies and philosophies of pure nature that radically separated the divine from the non-divine leading to other dichotomies of various kinds. Whether or not this is true is not at issue in this paper. Rather it surveys the writings of Aquinas to show that his own views on nature and grace (or immanence and transcendence) are not so easily aligned with either camp.
Looking to the Aquinas’ Summa Theologia we must note that he affirms the goodness of anything that exists in so far as its being is dependent upon its relation to God. We can take this to mean quite clearly that nature is good, even if corrupted by the fall of humanity. This creates the sense that nature is sufficient for itself apart from the grace of God. The narrative that puts Aquinas at the beginning of a tradition of natural theology that eventually gives itself over to philosophy proper certainly understands this in such a way. Not without reason, according to Fergus Kerr who says that it is tempting to think that the inner coherence of the Summa Theologia lies in the concept of nature and that this is indeed a plausible reading.
Aquinas’ notion of nature does seem to be quite central to his theological works, but it doesn’t appear, even though nature is good, that this good nature is a truly separate domain from grace. One only needs to look to this striking remark for such a view to be put into question:
‘By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist, as was said above of the mystery of the Trinity. The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from “here” and “now”; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always. […] The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself.’
Even knowledge of the world is dependent in some part on grace already given by God, such that even the knowledge that the world came to be, and was not always simply there, has some relation to grace given by faith. This may give some comfort to Barthians who believe that Aquinas gives everything to natural reason at the expense of grace.
Even this is more complicated than it would seem for Aquinas holds that humanity needs the assistance of the Divine to know any truth while at the same time he qualifies this by stating, ‘But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpass his natural knowledge.’ Indeed it is within our natural capabilities to search after God, the supernatural: ‘[…] whatever man desire, he desires under the aspect of good. And if he desire it, not as his perfect good, which is the last end, he must, of necessity, desire it as tending to the perfect good’. It may seem somewhat strange that we can only affirm on faith that the world has a beginning, but yet our natural abilities allow us to search after God.
To make sense of this it may help to think that we may know things without knowing them fully, in that we can sense some strangeness and recognize it as strange (and thus as being real) without having any deeper knowledge of it. This may go some way towards explaining why human societies appear to deal with questions of the Divine before considering questions of cosmology – the strangeness in or surrounding nature (which appears to include experience of the Divine) is known more than the more obscure strangeness of a world being new. This may be what Aquinas is suggesting when he writes:
‘When it is said that nature cannot rise above itself, we must not understand this as if it could not be drawn to any object above itself, for it is clear that our intellect by its natural knowledge can know things above itself, as is shown in our natural knowledge of God. But we are to understand nature cannot rise to an act exceeding the proportion of its strength. Now to love God above all things is not such an act; for it is natural to every creature, as was said above.’
To understand nature in its fullness may be an act exceeding the strength of the human intellect, while it is obviously outside the human ability to know God completely. Rather, Aquinas seems to suggest, both God and nature can only be understand imperfectly, perhaps only obliquely, as something that is strangely there.
This has been a very inadequate tour through a few passages that, it seems to me, complicates any simple understanding of nature and grace, or immanence and transcendence. Many would suggest that transcendence is primary in Aquinas, but a transcendence which is inherent in everything that exists (literally then everything) seems to be higher order immanence. This is not all that different from when Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence appears to be a series of relatively expressed attributes and modes with the ultimate transcendence being the substance which is eternal and uncreated. This would suggest that the debate between immanence and transcendence is predicated on too little difference between the two positions. For instance attempts to fill out transcendence via participation are matched by immanence via expression, two positions which appear formally identical.
Aquinas does not offer a way out of such an impasse due to the fact that his own position is more complicated than the competing narratives present. Allowing his work to appear in all its due complication may at least allow those interested in the debate to admit that one cannot use Aquinas as a trump card. Rather we should follow his example and spirit in giving all due religious attention to problems both ecclesial and secular.