Big Think Interview with Father Thomas Joseph White
Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P. is one of the youngest professors at the Pontifical Academy of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., the seminary for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph and a center of Thomistic learning for both priests and laity. Fr. White is an expert in Thomistic metaphysics, Christology and Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue. Fr. White converted to Catholicism at age 22, while studying at Brown University.
Fr. White is the author of the upcoming Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Modern Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press).
Question: Why is Aquinas’ thought helpful in modern times?
Thomas Joseph White: I think Aquinas’ thought is often helpful today because it helps you bring together a set of disjunctions that are typically unhealthy that we find in a lot of modern thinking. Disjunctions between, say, faith and reason. Disjunctions between science and religion. Disjunctions between spiritual or mystical dimensions of the human person, and practical reason and empiricism; between historical reason concerning the Biblical scriptures and their historical intelligibility as human texts - and the understanding of them as some way unveiling or disclosing the mystery of God. Aquinas tends to show you ways to avoid false oppositions and create a harmonious, respectful synthesis of diverse positions.
Question: How was Aquinas’ age similar to or different than our own?
Thomas Joseph White: Well the comparison of our age with the age of the emergence of the Medieval University is a delicate one because, in that time, you have the aspiration to a kind of comprehensive synthesis of preexistent Christian theological thinking - Biblical scholarship which existed at the time in a certain kind of way with a very ambitious appropriation of philosophical heritage of Aristotle, of Avisena and the Muslim philosophical movement. And you had an attempt to successfully reunite these different schools of thought into a larger vision, and in many ways it worked.
Our own age is much more an age that’s marked by, I think in the university, a hesitation or a fear of totality and the dangers of a premature synthesis and the idea of a plurality of discourses in objects of science and studies and methods that are difficult to reunite, especially given cultural diversity. So I think that we have a lot more hesitation. Of course we have an explosion of scientific information, and a plurality of philosophic schools, and an awareness of a diversity of religions that’s very different from the context of the middle ages.
Question: How is this environment leading to a resurgence in Thomism?
Thomas Joseph White: Well, I think that young people today sense that there’s a certain kind of unmooring of intelligence that’s taking place, and they often feel that and most acutely in their university education. They’ve acquired a certain competency in a particular domain of analysis or thinking. But in terms of an understanding of the larger meaning of the whole, or a philosophical view on life, or - if they’re Christian - how that would relate to the faith they’ve received in their childhood or in their early adulthood, I think there’s a sense of the crisis of foundations or the crisis of unification of thought that’s very prevalent among young people.
I think that Aquinas then appears as a potential candidate to help give you some of the key tools for reconciliation. And I think his philosophy – I would say his philosophy in particular retains a great deal of pertinence and perennial importance. He has tremendously profound insights into the human person, into the nature of being, into the problem of what goodness is, human moral action, freedom, the understanding of the cosmos in relationship to its transcendent causality, God, [and] the problem of religiosity in human persons and how this relates to divine revelation. So I think that young people who get some initial understanding of that can see the potency of that, given the kind of vacuum of orientation that you find in contemporary academic culture.
Question: Is the Summa Theologiae still relevant?
Thomas Joseph White: Well about the Summa Theologiae - that’s Aquinas’ last work, along with some Biblical commentaries - and it’s his grandiose attempt at a synthesis theologically. I’ll say two things about it. First of all, the Summa Theologiae has a very robust and intense of cooperation of faith and reason of philosophical and theological understanding, so on the one hand it’s a really profound reflection on the mystery of Christian faith. The analysis of the person Jesus Christ in the third part of that book is simply astonishing and profound but it’s not free from a debt to philosophy. There’s an enormous amount of philosophical speculation - deep thinking about the human person, about God - that’s going on throughout, so if you want to talk about it as an archetypal model, you could say this is a person pushing you to think about the deep cooperation between reason and faith in the act of understanding the Christian mystery.
Now the second thing I’d say about the Summa Theologiae is the anthropology is really robust and attractive. Aquinas has a very strong awareness and gives detailed analysis of human emotion, imagination, sensation, and he has a sense of a physiological grounding of this in the animality of the human person. So while he’s not anything like a modern biologist, there’s a great respect for all of the vehicling of our sensation, imagination, and emotional life in and through our corporal reality. Which in a contemporary context gives you a way to interact pretty robustly with biophysiological theories of how human beings feel and even think. But at the same time, Aquinas is also going to give a very refined analysis of human concepts and thoughts and judgments and free will, intentions, choices, desires, and prayer that’s going to emphasize that there’s dimensions of us, of our person, that are not simply reducible to the material.
So there’s a really strong materialism, if I may put it that way, and a very strong affirmation of the spiritual dimension of the person including the religious dimension. And then he’s really trying to show how they are deeply interrelated, and it’s meant to be that way because we are rational animals.
Question: What is Aquinas’ proof of the existence of God?
Thomas Joseph White: Aquinas has a number of writings on the rational demonstration of the existence of God, and he wants to avoid two extremes: one extreme is what you would consider a certain kind of Christian triumphalism or overoptimism which would say that God’s existence is self evident to the human mind: rationally self evident, not by faith but by reason. Another extreme is the extreme which you would term a kind of Fideism which would say that we simply have to believe that God exists and there is no rational demonstration, philosophically, or lack of demonstration: it’s simply a question the human mind cannot cope with by its own natural lights. He offers maybe in his whole corpus as many as 20 or 25 different kinds of arguments for the existence of God, but famously he has a centerpiece, a synthesis of this, briefly [in] the Summa Theologiae, where he offers five ways to convince [someone] of God. And those are not arguments from cosmology of his age or strictly speaking, not from the scriptures or the Bible: they’re arguments based on what we might call the metaphysical structures of reality.
So he looks at contingency, change, and movement of things, examined philosophically. He looks at efficient causality: that things are both causes of other things and in themselves caused and dependent. He looks at radical contingency, the capacity of a thing to "be" or "not to be" which, of course, characterizes everything around us, including ourselves. Grades of perfection in things. Degrees of beauty and truth and goodness in persons, in reality. And then he looks, lastly, at purpose or ordered teleology in realities that tend toward final ends.
What he’s trying to do is highlight, in each of these five ways, how there’s a certain kind of interdependency in the realities we experience, including in ourselves, that shines forth - that pushes you to ask the question of what exists or perdures over the horizon of contingency and interdependency. And he’s showing that there’s what he calls an a posteriori demonstration, from effects to causes, that there must exist some transcendent cause of this web of interdependent realities of which we make - a part [of] which is the fabric of existence around us.
So he thinks there are indirect demonstrations of the existence of God. Not immediate intuition, not a mere question of faith but a kind of fragile but real reasoning towards God as a term of human thought.
Question: Is having faith in God is more important than rationalizing his existence?
Thomas Joseph White: Well there’s always been, in the Christian tradition, a certain more marginal strand of thought that is a radicalization of Augustine’s thought. Augustine himself held that there are arguments for the existence of God by reason alone, but this strand of thought would argue that, in fact, human reason is so frail, so diminished by compromises, the complacency of the human will have so diminished reason’s capacity to vibrantly reason lucidly for itself, that really trying to reason about God or argue philosophically for the demonstration of the existence of God is a waste of time and in fact probably a pretension. And this is actually, I think, rather forcefully argued in Luther’s thought and it has become a commonplace theme in some Protestant thinkers like Carl Bart.
Aquinas has the famous dictum: Grace does not destroy nature but heals it and perfects it. Yes, human nature is frail and human reason is sometimes very weak and fallible. It’s also very noble and dignified. And if you in the name of grace in the exultation in the divine revelation of God diminish human reason, not only do you diminish God’s creation thereby and dishonor God, the creator. But you also will end up repressing one of the deepest most noble dimensions of the human person which will have its revenge on you. And your human nature will seek, eventually, to reassert itself and establish its own rational autonomy. So you can get a dialectic that exists between a position of faith alone versus rational autonomy which is one of the oppositions that Aquinas is careful to avoid in which is a very false opposition.
Question: Does relying on faith alone lead to inevitable doubts?
Thomas Joseph White: Not necessarily but you’re going to be an incomplete person. If you rely on faith alone, without the cooperation of your natural reason, that could be by humility, because there are people who are simpler. They are not going to be able to solve all the great problems of the world. And faith is a grace, a supernatural grace. We’re talking about divine faith, not simply human trust in other people, which is not always a bad thing. But divine faith, the trust in God that comes from the grace of faith, enlightening the heart and mind allows people, even simple people, to have great intimacy with God on a very sophisticated level.
That’s one of the amazing things about faith but it shouldn’t be used as a pretext to diminish or suppress what in us is deeply good and natural. And well a danger is you’re going to end up harming the human person and in fact, compromising the rational intelligibility of faith itself.
Question: What if reason leads to atheism?
Thomas Joseph White: Well, since the enlightenment, you had a number of extremely influential thinkers reassert the autonomy of reason. And to say that the autonomy of reason really, to be itself fully, has to askew the good of faith, or that reason can demonstrate the illogical or unhelpful character of faith - the first Vatican counsel of the Catholic church of the 19th century took a contrary view by arguing that the dignity of reason is such that it can ascend towards the question of God. And the question of God should not be neutralized because that actually diminishes the nobility of man. So allowing the question of God or the question of the soul, the question of the religious and metaphysical meaning of human existence to emerge, is a sign of liberation of human reason.
And human reason can also come to reflect on its own limitations, not by artificial frustration of itself by something outside of itself, but by being aware that going to term of its own reflections, it’s never the less seeing that there’s certain fundamental questions that [it] can’t fully resolve for itself.
When you hit up against questions like the meaning of evil or the meaning of human death or the question of God, [or] the moral drama of the human condition, there’s a certain amount of intelligibility natural reason can shed on those subjects, but [there's] also going to be frontiers where the mind is left looking off into a horizon, and it has questions that remain unanswered; natural questions. And that’s a natural openness towards the idea, or the question, of divine revelation. Why could God not reveal something which addressed [the] deepest aspirations of my human reason? While, in fact, doing so in such ways liberates me to seek the truth more deeply.
Question: What do you find to be the strongest case against the existence of God?
Thomas Joseph White: Well St. Thomas says that the stronger argument against the existence of God is the existence of evil in the world, which is the argument also mustered by David Hume. As I have gotten older in life, I've thought that that made a lot of sense because I have experienced more moral or physical evil in the universe. It's not convinced me, but I think that's an interesting argument. Actually, Aquinas has a really interesting argument positing that the ontological reality of evil, the privation of good in things, is itself ultimately rational grounds for arguing that God does exist, because there is a supreme good that's the measurable of the inferior goods that get eroded by evil.
However, my own education was more in the post-modern guild and I was experiencing – at 18, 19, 20 years old - the literature of Foucault and Nietzsche and that kind of crowd. So for me the real problem wasn't arguments for or against existence of God, it was the question of finding any kind of stable orientation or foundation upon which you would build any kind of rational or logical structure by which to understand reality. I was very skeptical about that. I still think that - although I don't agree with that position anymore - I still think that Foucault and Nietzsche, particularly Nietzsche, diagnose a lot of the syndrome of the relativism of modern human discourse and reason. They put their finger on the crisis, I think, rather profoundly. So I think Nietzsche is a really important figure for helping us to understand where we are as a culture today.
Question: Do you support the influence of religious groups in American politics today?
Thomas Joseph White: I think, in a sort of secular subculture, there’s a perception that religion has a great impact on contemporary society. This is, of course, a somewhat relative judgment. It depends on what kind of secularism you’d like to aspire to, or what kind of religiosity you consider, historically speaking. I mean, I think that American religiosity is very ambiguous. On the one hand it has sort of a seemingly healthy, I would say, natural aspiration to try to find some vantage points, some orientation about basic morality. About a relationship about God, maybe. Certainly, I think that most human beings in America who are religious tends to be pretty tolerant in terms of their capacity to relegate political space to others including Atheists.
On the other hand, you can see that by making scientific discourse the unique common language of our culture, maybe the discourse about human rights on some very modest level, you know, of American liberalism, we’re not really giving ourselves a way to talk about religious issues in a sophisticated way sometimes. I think there’s a fear on the part of a lot of secular people that letting God enter into the common discourse of the culture is going to create a more intolerant society. And that certainly could be the case. But it’s also the case that we need an intelligent discourse about God. And by suppressing it, by pushing it to the margins, by treating people who want to talk about God or [who] are interested in religious questions as necessarily fanatical, as necessarily - we will use this word which is vague and impolite - fundamentalist, which could mean something but doesn’t necessarily always mean something when people use it, I think that we push the discourse to the margins, and I’m not really sure what the answer to that question is. [There is a] dialectic between an attempt to make culture purely secular, and on the other hand, to have maybe two motivists a discourse about religion, that’s unhelpful. We need to be able to analyze the questions.
Question: What is the ideal way for religion to exist within a society?
Thomas Joseph White: Well when you talk about religion and modern liberal secular culture, I’m not interested in reinventing the wheel. I take a classical Catholic line on this. Two things. One is that in a very pluralistic society, you need some kind of framework that can allow people to cooperate for the common good based on common shared convictions that are accessible to human reason - that are going to allow people to coexist in productive and healthy ways while respecting those who are most vulnerable. And providing for the good of as many as possible in the best and just way. That doesn’t require religion but it also allows religion. And I would even argue religious people are going to be, in many cases, inclined to contribute to the common good in very significant ways. And so religion can be very good for the culture in that way.
And secondly, the Catholic Church - this is really very fundamental - has a traditional distinction between mysteries of faith and the natural law. This is not a customary distinction always in Protestant thought. And since our culture is historically more Protestant influenced, it’s hard to get this traditional medieval teaching a hearing. But it’s really a distinct thing to emphasize - there’s mysteries of faith.
For example, in the belief in the divinity of Christ - that should not or may not be legislated as a matter of natural reason, so you couldn’t, as it were, enforce this on someone as something they had to believe as a matter of political law; which is actually a very classical Catholic teaching. Versus things that in principle, people can recognize by their own lights, by the force of natural reason. Such as when human life exists - it begins at conception. The Catholic Church would argue that that’s a rational truth. [There's also] certain basic principles of justice for the distribution of goods in a civil society. And there’s certain basic goods that everyone has a right to such as education, food, clothing, shelter, etcetera.
And so I think that distinction is really helpful to avoid a lot of interminable disputes about "That’s your private view." "That’s a subjective religious disposition of faith." "No. That’s an argument for natural reason." You might not believe it, but it’s in fact totally within boundaries of a healthy view of the civil society of common good that one could enter into the political and cultural world and make arguments for natural reason about basic common goods.
Question: Are you worried about the secularization of society?
Thomas Joseph White: Well, secularization of society isn’t something that I would consider a personal crisis. I mean, I find it interesting. I enjoy talking to secular people about what makes them tick, and I read a lot of secular authors. It’s not something I rejoice in or I’m happy about. I do think, objectively, it represents a certain loss for European and American spiritual patrimony that’s significant. But, you know, my life is really set up in such a way that I’m not really, I don’t think worrying about things like that is, first of all, very practical.
But second of all, it’s not really a Dominican friar’s job to worry. We’re happy people. You know, when you’ve found God or when you think you’ve been found by God, there’s a certain deep radiant joy and even if you’re emotion in psychology and your emotion and intellectual experiences of the world, obviously, are completely natural and human. And so you have down times or times where you are more pessimistic about things. I mean, deep down there’s a kind of sense of the conviction of the abiding reality and presence of God and of Christ. And you know we do see a lot of conversions. Most of the people I work with are people who are coming to the faith. Or coming back to it, sometimes after a long time. But I’m certainly interested to interact with people who are skeptical when they’re interested. I do that a lot and I find it enriching.
Question: Are you worried about the declining ranks of priests?
Thomas Joseph White: I think that one thing to keep in mind is that the priest to person ratio, priest to layperson ratio in the church, while it has changed and there are less priests - there’s also less people practicing the faith.
I think that in the 50s, the 1950s, two-thirds of Catholics regularly attended Mass, and today it’s one-third. So the number of people that the priests have to minister to has gone down. I am not at all convinced that we have a crisis of shortage of priests in the United States. I think that people, at least in the East of the Mississippi, have no trouble receiving the sacraments if they want them. In the end, you have to ask yourself, "Do you think that there are basic principles involving priesthood celibacy that are spiritually positive and beneficial for the church? And would we, if we traded that good, for the good of married priests also be wedding ourselves to a whole new set of social and anthropological difficulties?"
The truth of the matter is, in our own civic society, there are a lot of instances of crisis in marriage. And there’s no real naïve reason - it’d be naïve to think that those problems would not enter into the parish setting if we had married priests.
What I see is a resurgence of young people who are certainly a counterculture and a minority, but very interested in the faith. From where I’m sitting in my 30s, I’m seeing people in their 20s that are very committed. And I don’t think we’re going in the same direction in terms of secularization as a lot of the European countries. I think that there’s a sort of significant substantial and very proactive subculture of young Catholics in America. It’s kind of encouraging.
Question: Should the requirements to become a priest be relaxed?
Thomas Joseph White: Well, no. I don’t think the standards to reach the priesthood should be relaxed. The priesthood is a mystery of grace. Now when you talk about grace, you are outside the domain of what we can immediately physically demonstrate to exist. But grace is something very real and very concrete that acts in people’s lives. And the priesthood is only possible by God’s grace. And even with God’s grace it requires a sacred cooperation from a human being. It ennobles the human being if they cooperate faithfully with that vocation and I would say, although some of the worst people I’ve met in my life are priests, for the most part, the best people I’ve met in my life are often Catholic priests and Catholic religious nuns and sisters. It’s a very high calling. It’s a very difficult calling. But the beauty of it is the nobility. It is the sacrificial aspect.
If you take away the sacrifice, I think that you take away, in a certain sense, the standard to which the human being is called. We’re not mediocre beings. I mean, we’re made for something very glorious and very great in the spiritual dimension of ourselves. And I think the priesthood is an attempt to maintain that calling in human existence of radically sacrificial action. That we don’t arrive at doing it that well in many cases. Well that’s too bad. But in a way, sometimes we do. Sometimes some of them do. But in many cases, it’s very important to have the goal. If you lose all idealism - I mean, the world has enough cynicism. We’re fine at being cynical. We need to tend towards the higher ideal and be called toward it.
Question: Do you have stories about the worst people in you life being priests?
Thomas Joseph White: No, I don’t have stories. What I just mean. I mean, I’m exaggerating when I say some of the worst people I’ve met are priests. But what I mean is that - maybe I should recharacterize that. But I would say this. The human free will is left on a long leash by God. And there’s nothing that God has given to other human beings that he hasn't given to the priest, including free will. So you know the priest can be lazy, the priest can neglect his duties. The priest is capable of moral compromises. But our society likes to point out the failings of priests and that's -- in some ways that's normal and healthy and it's a good reminder that we need to reform ourselves. That's fair, in a way.
But in another sense, it can be a little blindsided because we need to see that there are incredible people in the religious life, in the priesthood.
Question: When did you find your calling to become a priest?
Thomas Joseph White: Well I’m a convert and I was not baptized as a child. I’m from an inter-reglious background. My father’s Jewish. My mother’s Presbyterian. I just had religious and philosophical questions in college. And just started reading. I started reading Christian but also other religious theoretical writing, Buddhism and Hinduism. And little by little I got very interested in Christian theology. And my personal experience was I was at Brown University and I was in the basement of the science library one day at the term of some of this period of searching, and I was reading a book by a theologian. And I suddenly – I think I would say I received the gift of faith. I just had this very strong sense of the presence of the person, Jesus Christ. And I suddenly knew he was real. And it was very strange because until that point, the question wasn’t, by no means, resolvable for me. And so I sought baptism. And then I spent some years studying early Christianity and the history of Christian thought and gravitated towards Roman Catholicism.
Question: Who are your heroes?
Thomas Joseph White: You know, it's funny when you ask about a hero for a Christian or especially for a religious - you know, of course, that's a word from a Greek pagan background and it suggests a kind of triumph of the human spirit. So I suppose the right answer for me would be to say St. Augustine, because in Augustine there is a great humility about the fact that we really only accomplish great things with God's grace. That's a very fundamental attitude from a point of view of a priest in a religious [calling] - that with God many great things are possible, but without him we can't do very much.
Of course, one can see all of the great triumphs of human spirit in arts or in culture and sports and that kind of thing. But I mean Augustine had the humility; he was the most brilliant man of his generation in the fourth century. He had the humility to turn himself over radically to God and to put his mind and his heart at the service of very simple people in Hippo in North Africa where he was Bishop and to spend his life as a servant. He gave up a great career in law and politics and in Rome to pursue the gift of himself to other people. That was a lowliness he could only acquire by grace.
Question: How did Flannery O’Connor inspire you?
Thomas Joseph White: Oh, I think Flannery O'Connor is a very deeply spiritual theological voice. She said in one of her letters that she's writing stories about how people receive grace who don't have sacraments. And she studies St. Thomas Aquinas' thought and in St. Thomas' sacrament is a sign and instrument of God's grace - a visible sign and agent. So in Flannery O'Connor, what you have is a world people described as grotesque but it's a world in which God's grace is being communicated as almost as if by violence, sometimes through violence, in signs that are instrumental. And the whole world becomes a kind of epiphany of the mystery of human sin but also the human capacity to love transformed by God and really radiant with the glory of Christ.
There is an amazing depth to her fiction. Of course I'm Georgian so I am prejudiced about that, I think.
Recorded on: August 20, 2009
A conversation with the Dominican Friar and theology instructor.
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