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.