How the West Became Atheist

How did the West’s centuries-long journey from the Christian faith rooted in the tradition of the Church slide into atheism and outright theomachy, the war against God? In my twenties, I was completely invested in the fortified religio-philosophical system known as Thomism. Catholicism was an unassailable castle of argumentation that was impervious to any skeptical challenger that might bombard the system with (what I assumed were) futile attacks. I recall reading that  in his dissertation on Aquinas’ aesthetics, Umberto Eco commented that he, too, was once an ardent Thomist until he came to the conclusion that the system just didn’t work. At that time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would come to that conclusion. How could something so vast and, as my friend James Kelley said, “elegant,” be fundamentally flawed? That was some ten years or so ago, and in that span of time, Thomism was completely dismantled.

Furthermore, the Thomistic schema is precisely what led to the Enlightenment and the subsequent deism and atheism of the West.  We are examining neither Augustine’s nor Aquinas’ motivations or psychology, nor Calvin’s for that matter.  What’s in question is the actual published position of Aquinas (and Augustine by extension) in terms of whether it exercised an instrumental influence on the Enlightenment and the trek Western philosophy took into modernism and the endless word-sludge we see in philosophy today. It is my contention that this is correct: the lesser known Eastern critique is right in making the strong claim that Thomism is a pivotal step in the Western trek from what might be termed a revelational epistemology to Enlightenment empiricism, scientism, deism and atheism.

We’re assuming knowledge of Thomism on the part of the reader, too, since those interested in an abundance of footnotes and citations can easily search our archives for numerous articles full of citations. It is here that we’ll directly address the system’s golden chain of internal “Dumb Ox” logic. This also doesn’t mean that I think the Eastern view is itself free from all problems or difficulties, but rather that it provides a strong enough critique that I doubt I would ever be reconciled to Thomism again, just as I would never be brought back to Protestantism. Indeed, it is quite evident to me (and has been for the last several years unchallenged) that Thomism, for whatever good points might be salvaged from it, is so fundamentally flawed that it actually propelled the West down its spiraling path of dissolution.

The key issue to investigate in order to understand this problem in Thomism is God’s relation to, and action in, the world.  Aquinas starts with the assumption of divine simplicity meaning that God is what God has, and God is what God does.  God is actus purus, or pure act, with no potentiality.  His essence is utterly simple, such that anything predicated of God is only distinguished logically.  That means the distinctions made between attributes are only distinctions suited to human finite cognition, and not actual distinctions in reality.  Thus, God’s act of creating might be distinguished from His justice or foreknowledge in the human mind, but in actuality, those acts, attributes and predicates are strictly identical to the divine essence, or ousia, in reality.  This is a fundamental law in Thomism, as well as in Augustine, and should be without question to those who are studied Thomists.  This is abundantly clear in both Summas, as well as in other works like De Veritate.

How, then, does a Being so constituted operate in a world of flux and temporality?  Aquinas’ answer is dominated by the idea of the analogia entis: we know God by His created effects in the world.  This is why causality plays such a large role in his theology.  God is not only the First Cause, following Aristotle, but also the providential sovereign over history and temporal causality within history, too.  God’s foreknowledge is His justice and love, and all history is in the process of its summation in the grand telos of all things returning to their source, the First Cause, in the beatific vision of eternity where his renewed rational creation will see all things in that singular, supremely simple divine essence.  That is an accurate, general statement about the totality of the Thomistic system, but what emerges is a serious problem: how does a deity so defined actually act in this world?

For Augustine, Thomas’ chief theological mentor, God acted through created effects such that even the apparently direct actions were still created effects.  Or, to be more accurate, created special effects: in De Trinitate, Augustine stipulated that the manifestations of the Angel of the Lord could only have been temporary angelic holograms.  They could not have been the Logos (despite what other patristic writers had said).  This conclusion was reached because it was impossible for the divine to manifest directly in time and space, since that would mean God was no longer simple.  Any being located in a certain place at a certain time was a being composed or parts, and therefore not absolutely simple.  For Aquinas this law holds as well, inasmuch as the analogia entis is a central component of his superstructure: God is only known by analogy to created things because we have no access to the divine ousia in this life.  God grants illumination, to be sure, but those gifts He gives are still a created effect of supernatural grace.  Knowledge of God and participation in divine life are theologically precluded from any direct divine experience until the beatific vision.  That is not to say that God can’t speak to men or convey blessings, but these are still, for us, created effects.

To be fair to Aquinas and Augustine, they do speak of “divine life,” “deification,” etc., but how this is possible in both theologians is often very hairy.  Sometimes it sounds as if believers are participating in the divine essence, and other times the impossibility of such an idea precludes them from really making sense.  The Roman divisions of grace into all the “categories” like prevenient, sanctifying, supernatural, etc., are often marshaled as explanations, but none of these serve to answer the problem at hand: how do we participate in this divine life if there is no access to the divine ousia in this life?  Indeed, when Christ was resurrected in classical Christian theology, what was the divine light shown radiating from Him?  The answer of the East is quite different from the answer of the West.  For the West, the light is a created effect, while for the East, it is the divine energy itself.  The question of Tabor really serves to solidify these two positions, since the question of the “deification” of the flesh of Christ is the same issue as the deification of the believer.

Likewise, for Aquinas, revelation of God can only be had through created effects because of his empirical approach to theology.   Since he accepts the basically Aristotelian approach to the human psyche, man’s knowledge, even of God, comes through sense experience.  Since the human mind, even in obtaining of natural knowledge, does so by abstracting a universal concept from the phantasm presented to the mind through sense experience, the same problem as above arises for epistemology due to where Thomas locates the universal.  Universal concepts are located in the divine Mind, which, as you can now see, is also the divine essence.  In classical and medieval philosophy, this is called exemplarism.  It means that the ideas behind things, often functioning as the essence of a thing, are ultimately contained in the Mind of God.

For Aquinas and Augustine, exemplarism is true, and the exemplars, or forms of things, are located in God.  Thus, for Aquinas, even the knowledge men have naturally is had through empirical experience that ultimately draws upon a universal concept located in God.  But a dilemma emerges: how is the human mind supposed to abstract the universal in its little mirror in the human mind, when it has no access to the divine directly?  The only way this can work is if there is some bridge between the phantasm and the actual concept in the divine Mind.  But even if it’s said to be a faint mirror of the “real” concept in the divine mind, it wouldn’t matter, since the definition of divine simplicity has already precluded distinctions in the divine Mind (because it is the divine essence).   In other words, the problem is moved back a step, since no mind in this life has access to the beatific vision. For Thomas’ scheme to work, he needs access in this life to the divine directly in some form or fashion.  But remember: his working definition of simplicity absolutely precludes such a direct, revelational experience of divinity itself. All that can be known of God in this life are His created effects in the world which in a faint way are supposed to show us some analogy of His essence. This is also why Maximos the Confessor identifies the logoi (his version of exemplars) as divine energies, not the divine essence.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti Allegory of Good Government

Where’s the energy in this place? Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government.

Another problem this view has is that the analogia entis sets up God as somehow operating on a continuum of being where, because Aquinas interprets ‘I Am that I Am” as oddly meaning “I am Pure Being,” that therefore God’s being is like all other being. This is the basis of the analogia entis, wherein the assumption is made that things “be,” and God “bes,” so there is some kind of faint analogy of “being” that can be grasped between created being and divine being. However, the same pesky problem emerges again with the question of absolute divine simplicity. How can there be any similarity in the “being” of created, temporal being and uncreated, eternal “being”?  There is no similarity at all.

Indeed, apophatic theology, which Aquinas professes to hold to, dictates that the infinite and uncreated is only understood by negation – by what it is not.  “But wait,” you might retort, “that means we cannot know God, since there is no analogical predication. Aquinas rejects univocal and equivocal predication of God, opting for analogical predication. See, it’s the happy medium!”  Mr. Thomist, you’ve missed the point.  Aquinas has not solved his dilemma, but compounded it, by making the divine essence somehow analogical to created being (which is idolatry).  It’s the divine energy that is known, not God’s essence.  The divine essence is utterly impossible to know or fathom, precisely because the created mind will always be finite. No man or angel could ever take on omniscience or omnipresence or omnipotence.

So what presents itself is a two-fold path Thomism can take with all these working assumptions.  It can 1) say that the divine is confined to its realm, only interacting in this world through created effects and created grace and various created causes, but this path would mean the fundamentals of Christianity are no longer possible.  The divine Person of Christ could not really deify flesh, the sacraments are just conduits of more “created grace,” and  human knowledge this life is never really a divine illumination, or 2) it can make the divine essence become something to be shared in by created being, in which case pantheism would ensue.  Either path is a dead-end, and either path is necessitated because of the rejection of the essence/energy distinction and the inflexible, rigid Neo-platonic definition of what simplicity is.  I want to stress that it is the same problem throughout these examples because it’s constantly the question of how to relate Thomas’ idea of an absolutely simple being of Pure Act to a created world of flux and time.

Once this framework is grasped, it now becomes clear how this might lead to Enlightenment skepticism, deism, rationalism, and atheism.  If all that is ever known of God are created effects in this life, or if God is placed on a continuum of “being” where the divine essence is likened to created being, then it makes no sense to believe in this God, especially when the starting point for theology is empirical.  How could empirical sense-data ever give any “evidence” for a being that, even according to Thomas’ definition of divine simplicity, bears no real relation to created being?  The absolutely simple divine essence itself has no cause, and is not itself caused or a cause, so what use is the analogia entis in saying it’s a “First Cause”?  It’s a meaningless phrase, as it tells us nothing and still never bridges the impenetrable gap of Thomistic simplicity.  What use is it to say that human knowledge is grounded in the untouchable exemplar in the divine essence?  Again, it’s worthless and tells us nothing – indeed, it’s impossible on this systems’ own grounds!  Those who have read Palamas’ argumentation with Barlaam the Calabrian will immediately be familiar with the similarities of argumentation.  In fact, it is precisely these points that Palamas makes to Barlaam that lead him to prophetically conclude that the track of the person who adopted this would be atheism, logically carried out.  Regardless of one’s view of Eastern theology, Palamas was prescient when it came to where Western theology would go.

The path to Enlightenment skepticism, deism, rationalism and scientism proceeds directly from the empirical theology that even preceded Aquinas in thinkers like Abelard and was contemporary with Aquinas in people like Ockham.  Though Thomas was not a nominalist, he accepted the same epistemic starting point of the nominalists, namely, empiricism, and empirical based theology, that, again, derives from the analogia entis.  Nominalism is absurd, and certainly worse than Aquinas in many respects, but insofar as the two systems of thought shared the same empirical starting point, they were more consistent.  If God is banished from being directly present in the world through His immanent energies, all that is left is a material world of causation presided over by an unknown deity locked within itself.  That position is deism, and deism quickly leads to atheism.  If sense-data is the only source of human knowledge, and sense-data is therefore the source of knowledge of God, none of these created causal effects amounts to real knowledge of the divine itself.  The divine is never accessed or experienced at all, but rather just a series of created causes. That, my readers, is the view of David Hume – and it is how Thomism leads to Enlightenment atheism.

*For further reading, I recommend Dr. Sherrard’s criticism along the lines above of Teilhard de Chardin – another shining example of the end result of empirical Roman theology.

Read all Jay Dyer’s work on philosophy, science, geopolitics, conspiracies, and culture at Jay’s Analysis.


11 thoughts on “How the West Became Atheist

  1. This is the problem of laying any attributes to God, no? It all leads to mind benders. If God is infinite (outside of time itself) knows everything and has always known everything. How can the infinite actually interact with the finite, or the finite with the infinite, without using some kind of anthropomorphism? As images of THRONE, HEAVEN (pearly gates and all) etc seems to place God in some kind of temporal, contained, space. Which also begs the question about prayers; a moment in time appeal to something outside moments of time, how do they make contact (Horton hears a who?)? Since to answer the request would seem to require being part of a moment, which infinity seems to lack. I am cranking this out at like 3 am in the morning so it may not be perfectly laid out, but this is the problem I have with Thomism or any other philosophical/theological system that aims to “contain” God somehow – as they all, in one way or another, lead to Gordian knots. God just IS, is the only thing that seems to make any sense to me, as well as, our perceptions of things are inherently faulty (Plato’s cave, etc). We tend to think linearly which seems to fall apart when contemplating infinity. It is also interesting to me the theological work arounds to deal with why there seems to be silence from God compared to the several radical interventions we read of in the biblical texts (if they have any literalness to them, if not, then there was no intervention in those days either), particularly the OT.

    Now, all of the above is generally answered by saying that Jesus was and is the answer to all of these questions, but as the ever increasing gap of time between his existence and ours is driving a wedge in the Christian belief system(s), as how many times can people quote the phrase “a thousand years as one day”, or how many times down through the centuries people believed “this is the moment, or the time of his return (including several of the Early Church Fathers)” to only be disappointed? As more people read, say pre-250 Church Fathers we find there was anything but consensus on many important things. In our age of technology, the obvous politics and coverups of the institutional churches and the charlatanry of many “christian” leaders, particularly the TV ones, has not helped the cause of Christianity but has bolstered the radical athiests cause. I for one believe in God, because I think that is the only logical answer to why anything exists at all, as I do not believe matter to be self-creating or without cause. I know Balthasar in his monumental Theo-Drama and other works tried to step away from the Thomism’s of his Jesuit upbringing, tending more toward the mystical, especially with his support and promotion of Speyr, just not sure that he accomplished anything. There is also this move, by some, to head to “orthodoxy” thinking they are closer to the “truth” of the Christian witness, but this seems to ignore some significant portions of history (especially Russian Orthodox) and from my experience in traveling the Greek islands for several months in 2002 and witnessing their highly superstitious beliefs in their wonderworking and floating icons, relics, etc. I am not so sure that I could sign up for that either, but I am with them on, at least, the apophatic side of things. Another question that does bother me is how can God plan something? As we do often hear men of the cloth talk about God’s plan for the world. What is this plan? And when did God concieve of it?

    Keep up the good work Jay, with your thought provoking articles!

  2. Great to read this again. Given my looking east, I am doing Aquinas for my reading in school and with the essay questions it was interesting trying to figure out my take on the essence thing. I answered the questions objectively, but I think it was clear my problems. Still, I’m rather infatuated with Thomism. It’s like a girl you can’t quite get over, even though you know shes trouble.

  3. You cannot equate Thomism and Augustine’s thought, totally different epistemology and totally different conceptions of the relationship between God and the world. (Augustine was adapting Plotinus, and Aquinas was adapting Aristotle.) Moreover, Meister Eckhart was influenced by Aquinas, but took Aquinas in a different direction from say William Ockham. One may disapprove of Eckhart along the lines of Lossky, but Eckhart, at least, cannot be faulted for the spiritual decline of the West.

      • The question of how we know or experience God is an epistemological one. Augustine and Aquinas have (arguably) radically different epistemologies (which I say because Augustine is not systematic, e.g. his theology is open in a way Aquinas’s is not, and some have tried to read Augustine as a Thomist). Augustine’s epistemology includes both scientia AND sapientia, the contemplation of eternal truths in the mind which are not derived from sensible experience. We don’t just know of God from created effects as an Augustinian (in fact, the concept of simplicity itself is an innate idea).

        Moreover, the distinction between essence and operations is itself derived from Neo-Platonism, and can be found in Plotinus. The Intellect emanates from the One, and is in this sense an operation of the One. The Soul emanates from the Psyche. The One is simple, but is manifest in the Intellect. The intellect is simple, but is manifest in the Soul. Augustine doesn’t want to have God actually in the world, because he is trying to distinguish the contingency of creation from God, and maybe he is not as clever as Palamas. But he is not denying that we can only infer God from the effects of Creation, we know God through contemplation. The sensible world causes us to recollect the eternal order that gave birth to it (and our capacity to know reflects our status as creatures).

        Augustine is not a modern Eastern Orthodox theologian, especially with respect to the Trinity and Grace, and it is difficult to say his point of view on something like Hesychasm (or Aquinas’s for that matter), but what you seem to be complaining about is an Aristotelian empiricist epistemology, not the indivisibility of God. After all, if the essence of God is unlimited, then we cannot know the essence, and therefore, there can be no meaningful distinction between the essence and the operation, as the “essence of God” cannot signify anything, and any divine operation which we might know cannot be unlimited. The essence/operations distinction is epistemological, God as known versus God as unknown, and cannot be made into a metaphysical distinction because we have no words in which we could meaningfully express such a thing (or non-thing).

      • Forms are ultimately processes, and ultimately open-ended processes that cannot be defined by their effects if incorporeal. Thus, forms cannot be reified as the Aristotlelian would have us attempt. The essence / operation distinction emerges because spiritual processes are open. There is an intelligible pattern, but what it signifies cannot be defined by its effects. Thus, we can distinguish between God’s creative power and the universe, because the universe does not exhaust God’s creative power, without being able to say what God’s creative power is. . . we can see its effects. To say God is pure act is to claim that God acts on the world, but is not acted upon by the world.

        The problem is that if you have an empiricist epistemology, the knowledge of God must come from an external reality. Then the knowledge of God is mediated through the world, and something like a mystical apprehension of God is not possible, as God would have to be contingent. On the other hand, if an idea like simplicity is, so to speak, “hard-wired” in the human soul, and sensible experience acts as a mneumonic key to awaken the heart, then we have direct knowledge of God through the Soul. We remember God. Further, God can act in the soul directly, the operation of God. The operations of God are not distinct from the Divine essence, they symbolize the Divine essence, while being distinguishable from the Divine Essence (similar to the non-exhaustion of numbers by the act of counting).

  4. Very interesting article. I think it is very important, regarding the relationship between Thomism and the Catholic Church, to distinguish between traditional Thomism on one hand- which existed (pushed by the Dominicans and the Jesuits) in a fortunately philosophically and theologically pluralistic Church alongside other traditions such as the Augustinian (favored by the Oratorians), Franciscan and the “Ontological” of Malebranche and Fénelon – and on the other hand the Neothomism that was brutally universally imposed by the Hierachy (Leo XIII, 1879 – Aeterni Patris) together with the extirpation of all the other superior and venerable philosophical and theological traditions (such as ontologism ) which were just as Catholic, and in some cases much more, than Thomism. This Neothomism is by and large a 19-century fabrication and a gross naturalistic and empiricist distortion of original Thomism – which suited the new agenda of aligning the Church with scientism and the rejection of Neoplatonic-idealistic philosophy and theology. It is true that there are real elements in Thomism that were seized and exasperated by the Neothomism (mainly Aristotelic) and that suited their ends, but there are doubtless many fundamental elements in the texts themselves the contradict flatly the naturalist and empiricist world-view. These are the Augustinian and Areopagitic Elements and the “smuggled” Neoplatonism that was branded “Aristotle” : De Causis, etc.
    However your article is absolutely correct in focusing on the central topic of the soul’s relation to God and her illumination and deification in the state of divine transformation, union and knowledge. Though the framework of Thomism does not, I argue, contradict the possibility of elaborating the theory of this process, it is certainly not worked out at all by Aquinas and indeed, as you observed, there are places where it seems to be flatly denied. That you are right about this can be seen in the both the Thomists’ and Neothomists’ embarassment with, and downright rejection or distortion of, the writings of one the greatest spiritual master’s of the West: Saint John of The Cross. Even though there is alot of via negativa methodology present the texts clearly state that the soul ultimately achieves Divine Illumination and directly and progressively knows Divine Wisdom . A very interesting fact is that Saint John of the Cross was only declared a Doctor of the Church in the 20th-century after the Pope has consulted a Neothomist (Garrigou-Lagrange) to make sure he was is alright (Garrigou-Lagrange devoted 1000 pages to proving that John of the Cross and Aquinas do not contradict each other!). Neoplatonism is constant it its rigid distinction of mere individual discoursive reason from the superior pure intellect to which the soul has potential access to (so the negation of one can be the affirmation of the other). However above this superior intellect it places the ineffable One. It is interesting how you argue a Proto-modern Thomas from Augustine and Neoplatonism as well as Aristotle, stressing the via negativa, in the same way as the Orthodox. I personally have trouble with the via negativa of medieval Franciscans such as Bonaventure, but I believe that in the Dionysan Texts there is ultimately a positive affirmative gnosis behind the negations.
    I tried to trace the true tradition in severals texts of the middle ages (Viae Sion of Hugh of Balma for instance). Perhaps it is the late pagan neoplatonism such as Damaskios that became so decadent and distorted so as to become in its agnosis- methodology a theological version of Sextus Empiricus !
    It would be interested to know if the Orthodox Church attaches much importance to Clement of Alexandria and Origen, both masters of the positive spiritual gnosis.

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