He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Apocalyptic Sciences

Today I was talking to a Dominican novice, newly vested and with his first month of Novitiate life behind him.  We talked about many things: learning chant, praying with the Psalms, Lectio Divina, and the Thomistic understanding of predestination.

Probably the most interesting thing we talked about was mystery.  Both of us had the experience of coming to accept the Thomistic view of predestination despite that being uncomfortably close to Calvin's view for our liking.

I suspect that our reluctance to embrace a stronger view of predestination is due to our Western upbringing.  In the West, the assumption we hold is generally that we have not only free will, but strong wills capable of over-powering almost anything else.  In reality, our wills are generally pretty weak, which we find out very quickly when we try to give up our small comforts.

The newly-vested Dominican novice explained that it is (not to cast aspersions on all the excellent reasoning done by Dominicans like Garrigou-Lagrange who convinced him that the Thomistic view was correct) ultimately a mystery as to how exactly free will and God's sovereignty intersect in each moment of our lives.

This prompted me to think that theology is fundamentally an apocalyptic exercise.  An apocalypse is, literally speaking, an uncovering.  It is an unveiling of Truth.

When a bridegroom unveils his bride, he is not providing himself or the witnesses to the wedding with all the answers about who his bride is and all that she has done.  Instead, he is revealing the mystery to whom he has committed himself for life.

Even if he is an unusually good husband, he will spend his entire life learning more about his bride, and at the end of his life, she will still be a bit of a mystery.  No matter how intimate they become, the bridegroom who becomes the husband will never quite know everything there is to know about her, the bride who became the wife.  And vice versa.

In the same way, when we Christians unveil the truth very haltingly and with frequent missteps as we do our humble theological work (or even when Doctors of the Church like St. Thomas Aquinas do that work exceptionally well), we are not providing ourselves with all the answers about who God is and all that He has wrought.

Even an unusually good theologian who investigates thoroughly the things of God will never quite know everything there is to know about God.  Indeed, they may feel, like St. Thomas Aquinas did at the end of his life, that all their great theological treatises and syntheses are like mere humble straw compared to the immensity of the mystery of God which has been revealed to them.

As with the physical and social sciences, our theological investigations, no matter how many questions we have have reasoned through, leave us with yet more questions.  The scientific work we do uncovers some important answers, and it also leaves us with more mysteries.  Science is apocalyptic in the sense that it unveils, yes, but what it unveils is that there is a still deeper mystery.

Theology, the Queen of the Sciences which St. Thomas Aquinas served so faithfully and well, is likewise an apocalyptic science.  It is not the writing down of all the answers, but rather the work of unveiling the divine mystery.

And just as with the bride and her bridegroom, the beauty of the mystery is indeed all the greater for the unveiling.

Related:  Is Thomas Aquinas a substance dualist?

The above is a picture I took of a statue of St. Thomas Aquinas at the Dominican House of Studies.

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