During the past decade, a young Notre Dame philosopher, Thomas V. Morris, has published some books which reward careful study. I know little about him, though he was reared in the South, involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, graduated from the University of North Carolina, and took advanced degrees from Yale University. He brings to his works a refreshing enthusiasm and scholarly richness which rewards his readers and reminds us that solid Christian thinkers of the first rank still flourish.
Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1992) is the most recent and accessible of the publications I’ve read. “When you stop to think about it,” he says, “life can be very confusing” (p. 1). Given that reality, we need good guides to show us how we should live. Blaise Pascal, Morris insists, is one of the greatest guides, attuned to our concerns though he lived 350 years ago.
Pascal was, of course, one of the most brilliant thinkers in human history. Making original contributions in mathematics (on his own he replicated Euclid’s geometry at the age of twelve and wrote a ground-breaking treatise on conic sections four years later) and science (inventing the first calculating machine, the forerunner of today’s computers), he became a fixture of France’s intelligentsia.
Then, “on the night of November 23, 1654, at the age of thirty-one, Pascal had a profound and deeply moving mystical experience that dramatically turned him around, reorienting all his priorities” (p. 9). He met God. He met the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Immersing himself in spiritual concerns, Pascal, during the next eight years, jotted down notes for a theological treatise he planned to write–an explanation and defense of the Christian faith which he hoped would appeal to unbelievers. Tragically, he died at the age of 39, leaving us only the loosely organized collection of thoughts, his Pensees, one of the greatest and most quotable of Christian classics. These thoughts, Morris thinks, may guide us to our own awakening, our own discovery of life’s meaning.
Pascal incessantly prods us to ponder life’s great questions. How misspent, he thought, is the life of one who slides along without seriously attending to life’s essence. Our bored indifference to ultimate realities, timeless truths, is surely our greatest flaw. As he viewed it, “This negligence in a matter where they themselves, their eternity, their all are at stake, fills me more with irritation than pity; it astounds and appalls me; it seems quite monstrous to me” (p. 23).
Monstrous is a good label for it! It’s like hoarding pennies while using thousand dollar bills for cooking fuel! We who teach philosophy and theology, of course, almost daily face the same apparent indifference Pascal condemned! (It is at least consoling to realize folks were equally unmoved in Pascal’s day!) I’ve often been mystified by the interest students show in some trivial campus event compared to their frequently bored response to questions concerning heaven and hell, death and immortality!
If we don’t just ignore ultimate issues, however, we find ways to keep our minds on other things. Diversions fill our waking hours and dull our minds to the possibilities of more important things. No writer, in my experience, better dissects this malaise. “‘Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance,” he wrote, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things'” (p. 31).
What he’d have said about our media-dominated culture, where as Neil Postman suggests we’re “amusing ourselves to death,” one can only imagine! But it’s clear that many of us seek shelter from reality by making sure we’re forever immersed in noise and activity.
Beyond trying to shock us to think more seriously, Pascal sets forth ways to do so. He struggles to discern what makes life meaningful, what makes life good. Such questions cannot be reduced to scientific inquiry with empirical data and logical proofs. Thinkers who seek to make metaphysics or theology purely rational, endeavoring to “prove the existence of God,” for example, forever fail simply because they take the wrong approach. They fail to remember Aristotle’s wise advice to always use the right methodology when approaching a given realm of reality.
Christians, of course, use reason–Pascal did it with the best–but they know there’s more to reality than reason, that some realms of reality need to be encountered through other means. As Pascal said: “‘We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them'” (p. 82).
Thus we know God, who is largely hidden from us, more through the heart than the head. As he explains it: “‘What can be seen on earth indicates neither the total absence, nor the manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a hidden God. Everything bears this stamp'” (p. 94).
God, and the meaning of life, become known to those who truly seek Him. He does not reveal himself to the intellectually able who demand He conform to their standards. Indeed, he remarked, “‘Pius scholars rare'” (p. 37). Would that were not true! Bit we who seek truth in the realms of scholarship often get ensnared in our own hardened mental vises–vises which become vices in time!
No, God comes to those who welcome Him, those who open their hearts to Him. “‘Truly religious people must humble themselves in the worship and obedience of a creator they do not see'” (p. 146). He comes to those who are willing to bet their lives on the truth of His Being. Thus we must understand Pascal’s famous “wager,” whereby he challenges us to risk believing in God, to dare to commit ourselves to the living truth that God-in-Christ unveils reality and assures immortality. This grows out of his insistence that we encounter God in our hearts, not our heads.
To find meaning in life, of course, we must understand not only truth about God but truth about ourselves. Addressing the nature of human nature, Pascal recognized both the dignity and depravity of man. He celebrated man’s uniqueness, with his capacity to think and act. But he also recognized how tragically flawed, how abominably sinful we are.
Only the Christian religion, he argued, properly appreciates both aspects of human nature. Involved somewhat with the Jansenists of his day, he was profoundly influenced by Augustine, taking a somber view of humanity, and attacked the Jesuits of his day who minimized the enormity of sin. But he never slipped into the dark pessimism of those Reformed theologians who stressed the utter totality of human depravity.
Though I’ve focused almost exclusively on Pascal, the focus of Morris’s Making Sense of It All is much more than an scissors-and-paste collage of quotations with transitional comments and explanations of the French genius. To show how contemporary are the issues Pascal raised, Morris injects illustrations ranging from Tolstoy’s novels to Woodie Allen’s movies.
This book is a marvelous illustration of a gifted teacher at work: introducing students to one of the greatest philosophers, making his ideas clear and relevant without compromising the essence of his positions. Arthur Holmes says “This book deserves the kind of popularity C.S. Lewis’s apologetic writings have earned,” which is high praise from a respected evangelical philosopher. While I would demur from lifting Morris to Lewis’s level, I am genuinely impressed with this book.
* * * * *
In Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1991), Morris tackles the idea which has most absorbed him as a Christian philosopher. Whereas his book on Pascal sought to share Pascal’s perspective on various issues, Our Idea of God seeks to rigorously develop Anselm’s ontological argument into a convincing contemporary philosophical theology.
This is a volume in the “Contours of Christian Philosophy” series, written for the general reader, designed “to serve as an elementary introduction to philosophical theology” (p. 11).
His purpose is modest: “I attempt to provide an example of how some simply, straightforward philosophical methods of thinking can shed light on theological matters which might otherwise remain obscure” (p. 11). Fair enough!
He begins by defending the viability of the endeavor, arguing against those who hold we can know nothing about God except through special revelation, or that all knowledge about God is so ineffable as to be incommunicable. Incomplete though our knowledge is condemned to be, it is, at least possibly accurate and edifying.
In a carefully designed statement, which we academicians should heed, Morris says: “The challenge for the Christian philosopher or theologian should not be that of confining what he says about God to what the Bible has already said, but rather it should be that of constructing a philosophical theology which is thoroughly consonant with the biblical portrayal of God. What should be sought are not just philosophical ideas which happen to be logically consistent, or minimally compatible, with the biblical materials, but rather ideas which are deeply attuned to the biblical revelation, and thus consonant with the whole tenor of the Bible” (p. 31).
The best strategy to accomplish this, Morris thinks, is the “perfect being theology” established by St. Anselm nine hundred years ago, though he would mesh it with the creation theology espoused by St Thomas Aquinas and biblical revelation in appropriate ways.
Essentially, perfect being theology asserts: “God is a being with the greatest possible array of compossible great-making properties” (p. 35). Just as we have firm intuitions concerning the world around us, taking for granted that 2+2=4, for example, so too we have clear intuitions concerning some qualities of God such as consciousness, power and goodness.
Having justified the validity of his method, Morris then explores some perfect being theology’s ingredients. He deals with God’s goodness. Boethius declared that “The substance of God consists in nothing else but in goodness” (p. 47), an assumption most of us gladly embrace. To think of God as maximally good, the source of all goodness, satisfies our intuition of the kind of being God must be.
That said, of course, we must then deal with the problem of evil, one of the true conundrums Christian philosophers face. Morris explains, dissects, and discounts arguments attacking God’s goodness simply because we experience evil, concluding it is reasonable to consider God fully good in granting creatures the freedom to fail and do evil.
In a chapter on the power of God, Morris argues that one must carefully define “power,” understanding that God cannot do what’s illogical or impossible–making round squares or male females or stones too large for Him to lift! Rightly formulated, we can hold that “with God all things are possible.”
Perfect being theology further holds to God’s omniscience. Here, of course, we encounter the problem of foreknowledge and free will. If God knows all, the future included, how can free will be more than an illusion? After explaining the various approaches theologians have taken (basically by either denying free will to uphold foreknowledge or denying foreknowledge to uphold free will), Morris argues for a subtle distinction enunciated by Luis de Molina, identifying middle knowledge as a way to escape the horns of the dilemma.
“Knowing how every individual he could possibly create would freely act in every complete set of circumstances he could possibly be placed in, God, by deciding who to create and what circumstances to create them in, completely provides himself with the knowledge [i.e. middle knowledge] of everything that will ever happen” (p. 96). This may be overly fine hair-splitting, but it is, Morris, thinks, a way to resolve the predestination/ free will tensions which plague much theology.
Following chapters exploring the being and eternity of God, Morris deals with creation. The words “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” provide us “the key to a distinctively theistic perspective on reality. This one statement captures the heart of a theistic world-view. We live in a created universe” (p. 139).
The metaphysical doctrine of creation has nothing to do, specifically at least, with the “big-bang” theory in physics or evolutionary theories in biology. Metaphysically, the basic truth is that if God IS then all that is depends on Him. All that is created derives its being, its power, its goodness, from the Creator. “Every created object depends upon God directly for its existence” (p. 154). As created, creation was intentional and has purpose. There’s design, by Mind, to what’s created. There’s nothing accidental or blind about creation.
Finally, without denying the ultimate mystery of either, Morris argues that the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, when understood according to perfect being theology, do not violate our reason. We can, on a certain level at least, make some sense of the two main tenets of the Christian Faith.
Our Idea of God is a fine treatise. I was impressed when I first read it, soon after its publication. I was more impressed on the second reading, done a few months ago while preparing for a session in my Introduction to Philosophy class. Morris writes carefully, insisting you read with care, pausing to reflect on his explanations. Careful reading, however, brings its dividends. In my judgment, this is one of the few books in the Anselm tradition which enables general readers to appreciate its integrity and strength.
* * * * *
In The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, c. 1986), Morris seeks to defend Chalcedonian Christology from charges of incoherence as well as heterodox alternatives. Whereas Our Idea of God is addressed to general readers, The Logic of God Incarnate focuses on scholarly readers, those who wrestle with the more mysterious aspects of the Christian faith.
In his Preface, after telling how his interest in the subject developed while doing graduate work at Yale, Morris says: “In the course of thinking about the Incarnation for some years now, I have come to see that a few simple metaphysical distinctions and a solid dose of logical care will suffice to explicate and defend the doctrine against all extant criticisms of a philosophical nature. That is what this book attempts to show” (p. 9).
The Incarnation, of course, makes the extraordinary claim that Jesus was in fact fully God and man. Extraordinary, however, does not mean illogical or absurd. “The Christian claim is that because of the distinctiveness of divinity and humanity, it was possible for the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, to take on human nature while still retaining his deity. The two particular natures involved, despite appearances to the contrary, allowed this unusual duality” (p. 40).
In becoming man, the Son did not lose or even temporarily surrender His divinity–Morris respects, but does not accept, what he regards as a fatal compromise implicit in kenotic Christology. In being assumed by God, the man Jesus did not lose his humanity–though we must understand that his humanity was “fully human,” realizing God’s design for man, not the “merely human” being we tend to think of, taking ourselves as models. Accordingly, “The God-man is, according to orthodoxy, both fully human and fully divine, but at the same time more deeply or fundamentally divine than human. The Person bearing the two natures is an essentially divine Person” (p. 52).
Taking such a strong position concerning Christ’s divinity, Morris turns to explaining how divine attributes (omnipotence; omniscience; goodness; etc.) could be present in a fully human person, Jesus Christ. He argues for what he calls a “two minds view of Christ” whereby in becoming man “God the Son did not give up anything of deity; he merely took on the nature and condition of humanity” (p. 104).
The “two minds view” suggests Jesus Christ combined deity and humanity in somewhat the same way we combine our conscious and unconscious minds. Our unconsciousness always underlies our consciousness, though we generally function in accord with our consciousness. Thus Jesus generally functioned in accord with his humanity, but his deity was always more basic and formative.
Taking this position, of course, commits Morris to the somewhat unfashionable defense of the “impeccability” of Christ. If God cannot sin, God’s Son, fully God, cannot sin either. This does not, of course, mean that he was not fully human, since sinning is hardly a necessary quality of humanity! “Merely human” beings may unfailingly sin, but “fully human” beings need not! Thus Jesus the God-man could not have sinned.
He could, however, have felt the power of temptation in his humanity. There are, analogously, “epistemic” possibilities which we consciously consider without them being in fact “real.” I can know, it seems to me, what it means to be a NBA superstar like Michael Jordan, though to actually be one is impossible. (Morris sets forth a better, multi-paged illustration concerning a hypnotized patient). So, he argues, “In order that he suffer real temptation, then, it is not necessary that sinning be a broadly logical or metaphysical possibility for Jesus; it is only necessary that it be an epistemic possibility for him” (p. 148).
Morris has set forth a persuasive case. He clearly thinks before he writes, uses words carefully, and seeks to make the Christian position as logical and coherent as possible. While he nowhere suggests one can convert skeptics to Christianity simply through logic, for only the Holy Spirit seems able to accomplish that, he successfully shows how believers need not fear their faith is logically flawed and defensible only through the refuge of incomprehensible “paradoxes.”