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Philosophy of the Supernatural

From the American Catholic Quarterly for January, 1876

We have no intention of reviewing at present the very remarkable work, the title of which is placed at the head of this article. We have as yet received only four of the five volumes of which it is to consist, and these we have not sufficiently studied to be able to pass an intelligent judgment of their contents. We introduce them in order to express our cordial approval of the author’s design, our sense of the rare philosophical and theological learning and ability with which it appears to be executed, and also as a text of some remarks of our own on the general subject, or the so-called philosophy of the supernatural.

There may be readers who doubt if there is or can be any such thing as a philosophy of the supernatural, for there are many persons, who, though they deny not a supernatural order, never recognize any relation or analogy between it and the natural order. For them the Creator’s works, instead of forming one dialectic whole, exist as two separate and unrelated, if not antagonistic orders. The author of the work before us is not one of these. He holds that the Creator’s works form a complete and harmonious whole, and that the natural finds its complement or fulfillment in the supernatural. The natural and the supernatural form in his view only two parts of one homogenous and indissoluble whole, and therefore must have a real relation the one to the other, and necessarily have not only their points of analogy, but also somewhere their points of contact. Both orders are homogenous parts of one system, or of one design, one divine decree, or of the one divine creative act. If this is so, there may be a philosophy of the supernatural as well as of the natural.

Philosophy is the science of principles; not, as the superficial thinkers or unthinkers of our materialistic age would have us believe, of sensible or material facts, the proper object of the physical sciences, as astronomy, electricity, chemistry, mechanics, geology, hydraulics, etc. Principles precede facts, originate and govern them. Indeed we know not facts themselves, nor understand their significance or meaning, until we have referred them to their principles. What in the English-speaking world is in our days called philosophy is simply an induction from the observation of the facts of the physical order, and is confined by Sir William Hamilton to physics, psychology, and logic, and excludes not only the supernatural, but the supersensible or intelligible, though within the province of natural reason. But without meaning to disparage philosophy in this sense, or the physical sciences, the fruits of which are seen in the mechanical inventions and material progress of the age, we must maintain that it is infinitely below philosophy, properly so-called. It is, in a subordinate sense, scientia, but not sapientia, according to Aristotle, the science of principles which are supersensible and not obtained by way of induction from sensible facts, whether facts of external nature, or of the soul itself. All principles are supersensible and are objects of the intellect; in no case of the senses. Some of them are known or knowable by the light of nature; others only by the light of supernatural revelation. The science of the former is the philosophy of the natural; of the latter is the philosophy of the supernatural.

These two philosophies are of principles equally certain; for the light of reason and the light of revelation are both emanations of the divine light or Logos, and each is infallible. We may err and take that to be reason which is not reason, or that to be revelation which is not revelation; but neither can itself err, for both rest on the veracity of God, who is Truth itself, and can neither deceive nor be deceived. The science of revealed principles is as truly science as is the science of principles known by the light of nature, and differs from it only as to its medium. We may then speak of the philosophy of the supernatural with as much propriety and confidence as of the philosophy of the natural.

The philosophy of the supernatural follows the analogy of the natural. The philosophy of the natural presents the principles of the natural so far as they are cognizable by natural reason in their intelligible phase, their relation to one another, and the facts of the sensible order which they explain and govern. The philosophy of the supernatural presents the principles so far as revealed of the supernatural order, their mutual relation and reciprocal dependencies, and their relation to the natural order which they explain and complete, and which without them is not only incomplete, but absolutely without purpose or meaning. This is what the professor has attempted to show on his Principii de Filosofia Soprannaturale, with what success we are not a competent judge; but so far as we have read the volumes published, and are capable of judging, he has not failed; and if he has not completely succeeded, he has proved himself a philosopher and theologian of the first order, and produced a work which for depth, originality, and importance, has not been surpassed, if equaled in modern times. While the professor accepts the maxim, gratia supponit naturam, he refutes the rationalistic assumption that the natural exists for itself alone, that it does or can suffice for itself, or is any thing without the supernatural in which it has its origin, medium, and end.

The questions treated belong properly to the domain of theology, but lie back of those ordinarily treated by our modern theologians. Since the rise of scholasticism, theology has pursued the analytical method, and has been, for the most part, studied in separate questions and articles in detail, rather than as a uniform and indissoluble whole. The articles and dogmas of faith have been dissected, analyzed, accurately described, and labeled, but except by a few superior minds not presented in their unity or as integral and inseparable members of one living body. The objection of the traditionalists to the scholastic method that it is rationalistic and of Dollinger and German professordom that it is theological, not historical, and places reason above revelation, deserves no respect, and, if we are not mistaken, has been reprobated by the Holy See. As against the traditionalists and the German professors, the scholastic method is approved in the Syllabus, but this does not prohibit us from pointing out that it tends to make the student lose sight of the faith objectively considered as an organic whole. What moderately instructed theologian ever regards the natural and supernatural as parts of one dialectic system, distinct, if you will, but inseparable in the divine decree, or that does not look upon them as two disconnected and independent systems? Who ever thinks of looking below the dogma to the catholic principle that underlies it, governs it, and binds it to every other dogma, and integrates it in the living unity of the divine purpose in creation?

We do not pretend to enumerate and describe the principles of the supernatural philosophy, for we are neither philosopher nor theologian enough for that; we lack both the ability and the learning to do any thing of the sort. All we aim at here is to show that there is a philosophy of the supernatural as well as of the natural; and that we live in times when for the vindication of the faith against the various classes of its enemies, it is necessary to recognize and study it to a far greater extent than it is ordinarily studied in our seminaries. The age has no respect for authority, and though we prove conclusively that the Church is divinely commissioned and assisted to teach the faith, and is therefore infallible, we do not meet the real difficulties of the more cultivated classes of unbelievers, or prepare them to accept any article, dogma, or proposition of the faith for the reason that she teaches it. The world outside of the Church may be credulous and superstitious, able, as Clemens of Alexandria said to the Greeks, "to believe any thing and every thing except the Truth," but have undeniably lost all faith in the supernatural order, and really believe only in the natural, if indeed even so much as that. Our spiritists, who profess to have communications with the spirits of the departed, do not really admit a supernatural order. The real cause of this unbelief, so far as it is intellectual, not moral, is in the assumption that the natural and the supernatural are held by the Church as by the sects to be two separate, independent, and unrelated orders, indeed as two antagonistic orders. They take their views of Christian theology not from the teaching of the Church, but from such errorists as Calivinists and Jansenists, who in their theories demolish nature to make way for grace. The supernatural appears to them an anomaly in the Creator’s works; something arbitrary, illogical, without any reason in the nature of things, or the principles of the universe. No amount of evidence, they contend, can suffice to prove the reality of any order that is above nature or above the reach of natural reason. Hence they attempt to reduce miracles and all marvelous events, too well authenticated to be denied as facts, to the natural order, explicable by natural laws, though we may as yet be ignorant of these laws. Carlyle, one of the oldest of contemporary British thinkers and writers, in his Sartor Resartus, has a chapter headed natural-supernaturalism, in which he reduces the supernatural to the natural, and therefore really denies it while apparently asserting it. Natural supernaturalism is a contradiction in terms; and it is more manly to deny the supernatural outright than it is to attempt to explain it by the operation of natural laws.

Now, it is necessary, on order to meet and refute this objection, and the reasoning by which they who urge it attempt to sustain it, to show that without confounding the supernatural with the natural or obliterating the distinction between them, the supernatural is not anomalous, arbitrary, or illogical, but is as original and integral in the Creator’s design as the natural itself. The natural and supernatural are two parts of one original plan of creation, and are distinguished only as the initial is distinguished from the teleological or completion. The natural is initial, the supernatural is teleological, or the perfection or fulfillment of the natural. It was in the beginning, in principio, the design of the Creator that the natural should be perfected, completed, or fulfilled in the supernatural. Indeed, we do not understand how the natural could possibly be perfected in the natural, the creature, which is necessarily imperfect, in the creation. To assume that man can be perfected in the natural order is to assume that he has no destiny, his existence no purpose, and therefore no meaning, which would be tantamount to assuming that he is a mere nullity, nothing at all. Man, nature, the universe, all creation, originates in and proceeds by the creative act of God from the supernatural, for God the Creator is necessarily supernatural, that is, above and over nature. Nature originates in the supernatural, and since we know from revelation, and might infer from reason itself, that God creates all things for himself, it has and can have its destiny or end only in the supernatural. The good of every creature is in attaining its end, the fulfillment or perfection of its nature, and hence the notion broached and defended by some theologians- not, indeed, of the first order- of a natural beatitude, is inadmissible, and originates in a superficial and incomplete view of the Creator’s design in creation, and, we may add, of the nature of things, in the very assumption on which is founded the objection of the unbeliever. They consider nature as a whole, and once created with its laws, that it suffices or might have sufficed for itself- a purely deistical conception, and not changed in its nature by what these same theologians add, that God by his superabounding goodness has provided for those that love him something better, even supernatural beatitude. There is and can be no natural beatitude; because, whatever is natural is finite, and the soul hungers and thirsts for an unbounded good, and can be satisfied with nothing short of the Infinite; that is to say, God himself, who is the Supreme Good in itself. "I shall be satisfied," says holy Job, "when I awake in thy likeness." There is rest for the soul only in God. Prophets, poets and sages of all nations and ages, as well as Christian preachers have borne witness to the insufficiency of every created or finite good to satisfy the soul and give it real beatitude. All this proves that man was created for a supernatural, not a natural beatitude or end, and therefore that the supernatural entered into the divine plan of creation. Whence it follows that the alleged status naturae purae is a pure abstraction, and has never existed in an actual state, as the theologians who insist on it, for the most part, concede and hold, as we do. We are laboring to prove that man, in point of fact, is and always has been under a gracious or supernatural providence, and, therefore, from the first destined to a supernatural end, attainable only through a supernatural medium. The original justice in which Adam was constituted, and which placed him on the plane of his destiny, was supernatural, not produced by his nature, and when by his prevarication he lost it, he fell below his nature, became darkened in his understanding, weakened in his will, and captive to Satan, from whose power he is delivered only by the Incarnate Word.

That man is created for a good that transcends nature is indicated not only by his inability to satisfy himself with any natural, that is, created good, but also by his consciousness of his own imperfection or incompleteness, that his reason is limited, and that he is capable of being more than he is or can be by his unassisted natural powers. There is something mysterious and inexplicable to us in this fact- a fact which seems to us to imply that we have an obscure sense of the supernatural, which the vast majority of mankind in all ages and nations in one form or another recognize. Gioberti, in his Teorica del Sovranaturale, ascribed to it a faculty of the soul, which he calls Sovrintelligenza, that is to say, a natural faculty of knowing what transcends nature. But this seems to us inadmissible, indeed a contradiction in terms. A faculty is a power, and the faculty asserted by Gioberti would be the power of knowing the superintelligible. But if we have a natural faculty of knowing the superintelligible, it is not superintelligible, but intelligible. Yet the fact that reason asserts her own limitations, and therefore something beyond which limits her, or that nature asserts her own insufficiency, whatever the explanation, is indisputable. This to us proves the reality of the supernatural and its relation to the natural, though it tells us not what the supernatural is, or what are its specific principles.

We may perhaps establish even more conclusively still the reality of the supernatural, and the relation of the natural to it, by rational science or reason itself. The Holy See has defined against the Traditionalists and anti-scholastics that the existence of God as well as the immortality of the soul and the free will of man can be proved with certainty by reason prior to faith, and we think that we have fully proved that God is, in our Essay in Refutation of Atheism, whatever may be thought of our criticisms on one or two popular arguments commonly adduced to prove the divine existence. The principles of rational science, as the author of the work before us asserts, are all included in the ideal or rational formula, l’ Ente crea l’ esistenze, or Ens creat existentias. We say nothing here as to the way in which the minds comes into possession of this formula, but this much we hold is certain, that there is no mental operation and no mind possible, without the principle summarized or expressed by it. These principles connect all existences with God by his creative act, and consequently show that the natural is really related to the supernatural, for the Creator of nature is necessarily above nature, that is, supernatural.

As existences proceed from the supernatural, mediante the creative act of God, it follows that the assumption of unbelievers and modern infidel scientists is inadmissible, namely, that the natural and supernatural are two distinct, separate, and unrelated orders, and that the supernatural is not necessary to complete the science of the natural. The contrary is the scientific fact; and, as the natural does not and cannot exist without the supernatural, the science of the supernatural by divine revelation or otherwise is essential even to the science of the natural. There is no science without principles, and all principles are supernatural, even the principles of the natural order itself. They who undertake to explain the cosmos by what they call natural laws, which are obtained by induction from the facts they observe, uniformly fail, and fall into the greatest absurdities, as we see in old Democritus and Epicurus, as well as in such miserable charlatans as Darwin, Tyndall, Huxley, and Herbert Spencer; because induction from facts gives only generalizations, classifications called natural laws, never transcending the region of facts or the particulars generalized or classified. It never gives us principles, which always precede the facts, produce, underlie, and control them.

We have established two points, namely, that the supernatural really exists, and tha the natural has its principle, origin, and end in it, and therefore is dialectically or really related to it, dependent on it as the creation is dependent on the Creator, or the effect on the cause. We speak with diffidence, for we are fully aware of our own limited knowledge; but we think that our theologians have not dwelt with due emphasis on this second point, the dialectic relations of the natural to the supernatural, and have, by their neglect, given occasion to unbelievers to suppose that we really, when we are not assumed to deny nature in the sense of Calvinists and Jansenists, exclude the supernatural from the primary design of creation, and hold it and the natural to be two separate and unrelated orders. We know that it was a long time before we learned to connect them by a real nexus, to think of them otherwise than as two parallel orders, without any real passage from the one to the other, any reason in the constitution of the natural for anticipating or asserting the supernatural. They seem to us, in their fear of running one order into the other, and confounding nature with grace, to have left it to be inferred that the natural order would have sufficed for us, if God in his excessive goodness had not resolved to provide something better for us.

Having established by rational science the reality of the supernatural, and of the dialectic relation of the natural to it, or that the natural and the supernatural are parts of one and the same system, we may proceed to inquire what are the principles of the supernatural, or, as says our author, "of the philosophy of the supernatural." This is a subject that is only imperfectly treated by our modern theologians, for our theologians have, from the scholastics down, generally pursued, as we have said, the analytic method, and have been more intent on stating, elucidating, and defending the several articles and dogmas of the faith separately than on considering them as a whole, or in their synthetic relations. They have dissected the faith for the convenience of teaching it; studied and described with due precision and exactness its several parts; but they rarely enable the student to view the faith as a whole, or its several parts in their systematic relations, or in connection with the principle from which they all proceed. The theologians follow the method of the catechism, indeed, but rarely do more than simply develop and amplify it. We say not, and must not be understood as implying that they do not teach the truth, or all that is necessary for salvation. Indeed for the generality of mankind the analytic method is the only practical method. It is the only method possible in catechisms, and in them we must adopt it, or abandon all catechetical instruction. This method is natural, is sufficient for all except those whose duty it is to set forth and defend the faith against its more subtle assailants. It does not suffice to refute the objections of unbelievers in our day, who have gone so far as to reject all authority, not only of revelation, but of reason itself. To meet these we must have the philosophy of the faith.

The principium or principle, as we have seen, of philosophy, or rational science, or the science of reason, is Ens creat existentias, or as the author of the work before says, l’ Ente crea l’ esistente. Being creates or is creating existences, corresponding to the first verse of Genesis. "In principio, Deus creavit caelum et terram," or to the first article in the creed, "I believe in one God maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." Those scientists, whether in ancient or modern times, who seek to explain the origin of things without the recognition either of one God or his creative act are worthy of no consideration, and may be set down as ignorant of the first principle of all science, and as perceiving no distinction between a principle and a fact, or a fact and a factor. The world is not eternal; for what is eternal is one, and immutable, and cannot of itself change either in substance or in form. Yet the world is multiple and constantly changing. All things change their form at least under the very eye of the spectator. There is no change without motion, and there is no motion without a first mover itself immovable; for an infinite series is an infinite absurdity. It matters not that it is said only the form changes, for the form cannot change itself any more than the substance can change itself. The change must have a beginning, which must be the effect of a cause independent of itself. Hence Herbert Spencer’s pretence that the universe is explicable by evolution, by matter and motion, by the simple processes of expansion and contraction, or concentration and dispersion, is repugnant to every principle of science and reason. Whence the concentration of the dispersion? They result from the inherent laws of matter, it is said. But the inherent laws of matter must be always the same, and operate always in the same direction, and therefore cannot of themselves produce such contrary results as concentration and dispersion. Wherever there is change there must be a cause independent of the thing changed, and this necessarily induces the assertion of a First Cause, itself uncaused, and effectively disposes of the doctrine, which asserts that the principle of things, though intelligent, is inherent in the cosmos, or that makes God the soul of the world – as did Plato and Aristotle, or as does Brahminism.

The universe is explicable, and science in any degree possible only by virtue of the rational formula, Ens creat existentias, Being is creating or creates, existences or creatures. This is the first and last principle of all rational or ideal philosophy.

The principle of theology, or what we call here supernatural philosophy, and known to us only by revelation, is, our author says, "The Father through Christ, (per Christo) deifies or is deifying existences or creatures," that is, supernaturally elevating them to union or oneness with God, the creature to oneness with the Creator. The medium of this deification is the Incarnation, or the Word made flesh. The fact affirmed in the ideal or rational formula that existences proceed from God by way of creation, or that God creates the world, and is its first cause, proves that he creates it for some end, that it has a final cause, and a final cause and end, like its first cause above and beyond itself. We know from rational philosophy that our final cause or the end for which we are created is supernatural, but we know only in a general way that it is supernatural, not specifically or in particular in what it consists. This we know only by revelation. We can know from reason that God creates us from himself, because beside him there is nothing for which he can create us. But we cannot know from reason, that he creates us to deify us, to make us one with himself, "partakers," as St. Peter says, "of his divine nature," naturae consortes divinae. Nor can we know by natural reason that this deification of the creature is to be effected through the Incarnation or the Word made flesh. The whole principle and scope of the teleological order, or what Gioberti calls the second cycle or the return of existences to God without absorption in him as their final cause or last end, transcends the reach of our natural faculties, or the light of nature, and is known only by supernatural revelation.

As the philosophy of the natural order consists in the reduction of the facts of that order to their principles and their integration in the ideal or rational formula, Ens creat existentias, so supernatural philosophy, or theology, consists in the reduction of all the facts, mysteries, articles, and dogmas of the supernatural order and their integration in the revealed formula, "The Father through Christ deifies or is deifying existentias," or the creature, that is, elevating the creature to oneness with the Creator. The medium of the revealed formula is the Word made flesh or the Incarnation, that is, the Hypostatic Union, by which the created nature becomes the nature of God, or the creature is made one with the Creator, as the medium of the rational or ideal formula is the creative act of Being, Ens, or God. It is in this medium or creative act that the natural and the supernatural coalesce and become one, for the Hypostatic Union, or the Incarnation of the Word is effected by the creative act, and is that act raised to its highest power, is its supreme effort; for it is impossible for the creative act to rise higher or to go further than to make the creature one with its Creator. The two orders, the natural and supernatural, are dialectically united by one and the same medium, and- inasmuch as both proceed from the same principle- by one and the same divine creative act.

The point we make here is that the act which creates the natural is the identical act which creates the Hypostatic Union, and founds the supernatural. The Hypostatic Union, or Incarnation, is itself in the initial order, in the first cycle, or the order of the procession of existences by act of creation from God as its first cause. It completes that order of carrying the creative act to its highest pitch, and initiates or founds the teleological order, or the order of the return of existences without absorption in him to God, as final cause, or their last end. This order, called by St. Paul the new creation, and usually termed the supernatural order, is therefore founded on the Incarnation. In it we enter by regeneration, and the race are propagated by the election of grace from Christ by the Holy Ghost, as in the first cycle, or the initial order, they are propagated from Adam by natural generation. Hence Christ is called the second Adam, the Lord from heaven. He is the father of regenerated humanity, as Adam is of generated or natural humanity. Hence we see the reason why without the new birth it is impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven or to see God.

If the natural and the supernatural universe are homogenous parts of one and the same system, the point on which we here specially insist, the whole of both parts have their unity in the principle from which they proceed, and as the natural is created and exists for the supernatural, it is integrated in the principle of the supernatural, Verbum caro factum est, or the Incarnation. Hence it follows that the entire creation, whether in the natural or supernatural, the initial or the teleological order, exists for the Incarnation, and finds in its relation to the Word made flesh its significance, its purpose, its unity, and its integrity. This granted, it follows again that the denial of the Incarnation would be the denial not only of the entire supernatural order or the whole Christian system, but of all existences, whether natural or supernatural, by denying this final cause, as essential to any created existence as the first cause. It would deny the very end for which all things exist, and deny the universe itself, by denying it any purpose or meaning. What means nothing is nothing. The Incarnation is the key to all the Creator’s works, and we have not mastered theology or the philosophy of the supernatural, till we are able to say that the denial of any one item in those works involves the denial of the Incarnation, or the Word made flesh. It is the highest and supreme principle of all science, and without it nothing in the universe is scientifically explicable. The greatest absurdity into which men can fall, is that of our modern scientists, who imagine that there can be science without theology, and who affect to treat theology as no science at all, but a vain imagination, or the product of a superstitious fancy. The Scholastics understood the matter when they treated theology as "the Queen of the Sciences." The feebleness, superficiality and conceitedness of the modern sciences are unquestionably due to the very general neglect in our day of the study of theology. By that neglect men have lost the key to the sciences, become weak in understanding, puffed up with a foolish pride, and nearly as stupid as the brute beasts from which they imagine they have been evolved. In reading their works, one is tempted to doubt the fact of the evolution. A respectable monkey might well disown the speculations of a Darwin, a Tyndall, a Huxley, a Sir John Lubbock, a Herbert Spencer, to say nothing of their congeners in France and Germany. Yet these are the instructors, and held to be the great lights of the age, entitled to look down with pity on a St. Augustine, a St. Gregory the Great, a St. Thomas, and all renowned theologians who, under God, have rescued the human race from the barbarism, ignorance, and superstition into which the great Gentile Apostasy had plunged them, and into which apostasy from the papacy is plunging them anew.