On the Unknown Limits

I’ve been reading Thomas Aquinas for the last few days, and I continue to be impressed.  I read his Compendium for comps, and now, the first leg of the Summa completed, I still think that his philosophy is without match in the history of the practice.

That said, I have been musing on the intersections between reason and revelation and the ways that Aquinas in particular articulates them.  In particular I wonder whether Aquinas and other Christian thinkers neglect the content and the form of revelation in respect to questions of the beginning and end of things.

Aquinas’s famous “unmoved mover” teaching, derived from Aristotle and from Boethius, holds that, since every motion has as an antecedent another motion that sets in motion, and since proceeding from effect to cause would result in an ad infinitum regression, there must be some unmoved being that sets in motion by virtue of its goodness rather than its movement.  In other words, the unmoved mover, for Aquinas, pulls by attraction to its perfection; it does not push by virtue of its superior power.

That’s motion; with regards to time, following Boethius and Augustine, Aquinas argues that time, or the sequence of one thing followed by another, must by the same logic be put into play by a timeless original.

Because Christian revelation begins with the divine fiat in Genesis, these thinkers held that the moment when tohu wa bohu becomes heavens and earth must also be the moment when sequence becomes reality, that there is no “before” that initial creation.  Likewise, since the last bits of Christian revelation are the apocalyptic collection of the living and dead saints and the establishment of a heavenly Jerusalem on earth, that sequence must end at that point, that there is no “after” that consummation.

Strictly logically, such a construction is not much of a problem.  I wonder, though, whether the indeterminacy of those beginning and ending moments in the Bible should inform Christians’ philosophical accounts of them.  After all, authorship questions aside, Genesis 1 places the creation of crawling animals before the creation of humanity, whereas Genesis 2 places humanity before the crawling critters.  Many harmonizers have done interpretive acrobatics to make those sequences match up, but the simple conjunctions that join episodes in Hebrew narrative make these cases rather difficult to believe.  Instead, I would argue, what God has given God’s people is a document wherein creation as such is asserted unapologetically but the details of that creation remain indeterminate.  Likewise, in the end of things, the accounts of 1 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, Mark 13, 1 Corinthians 15, and Revelation 22, though they share a common conviction that divine action ultimately defines the end (in the telos and the terminus senses) of human history, differ wildly in their details.

My hunch– and it remains a hunch (although I’ve related it when I’ve taught these books)– is that an account of the beginnings and ends of things ought, in Christian thought, to remain a bit fuzzier than those theologians allow them to be.  Such is not to say that human knowledge as such is impossible; it’s simply to say that as one approaches these limits, which remain and ought to remain parts of Christian confession, one ought to approach them in a spirit of caution, perhaps not negating reality as we know it simply because those limits represent the unknown.  (If you detected some ambiguity in the last sentence’s syntax, you’ve done well.)

I’ve not undertaken to write a systematic theology, and since I’m on my way to becoming a college English professor, I’m not likely to.  But I would offer, humbly and hardly as the last word, a suggestion to theologians, namely that the indeterminate and multifaceted character of biblical revelation reflect in the way that Christian theology treats of the beginning- and the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it.  To say that we do not know is not the same as a strong assertion that what we know will not be.


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Filed under Bible, Reflections

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