On Love and Knowledge
Catholics have always enjoyed thinking about what heaven will be like. Whether through theology or art, we seek a glimpse of our longed-for home, where we will rest eternally in the presence of God and the company of the saints. On occasion, St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day we recently celebrated, is accused of painting a rather stuffy, inhuman picture of heaven. In Theological Negotiations, for example, Douglas Farrow argues that Aquinas’s beatitude is more fit for an angel than a man, because Aquinas thinks that in heaven there will be neither plants, nor animals, nor politics. Instead, according to Farrow, what we get is a world with “no real analogue to be found other than that which appears in the spiritual life of the philosopher or the scholar-monk.”
I admire Farrow but disagree with his critique, for reasons I lack the space to develop here. I simply want to note that there is one feature of Aquinas’s account of heaven that strikes me as deeply human, namely, his explanation for why some saints see God more perfectly than others.
We may think this is so because some saints have a greater intellectual capacity than others (which, incidentally, is how Aquinas accounts for the angelic hierarchies). But no, Aquinas argues in the Summa Theologiae that “he who possesses the more charity, will see God the more perfectly, and will be the more beatified.” Why? Because “where there is the greater charity, there is the more desire, and desire in a certain manner makes the one desiring apt and prepared to receive the object desired.”
Knowledge, for Aquinas, is a receptive act, and so love, in both its natural and supernatural forms, has a cognitive dimension. It paves the way for receiving and thereby knowing both God and our fellow human beings. What this means requires a bit of reflection because love is a complicated phenomenon, so much so that Josef Pieper once despaired over ever finishing his seminal book On Love, which he published only after years of intellectual labor. Exactly how love allows for the kind of intimate knowledge that we find among spouses and friends, or that Aquinas envisions in the visio Dei, is not immediately clear.
Some philosophers, like Max Scheler and Emmanuel Levinas, suggest that it is the affective or feeling aspect of love that gives it its cognitive dimension. In other words, I come to know another through a distinct feeling in the heart—the beloved impresses himself or herself on me in a way that no one else does. The problem, however, is that feelings in themselves are not cognitive. Rather, they flow from some prior cognition. I become angry, for example, when I witness injustice and afraid when I sense danger. And I experience love because I first see something good in a thing or person.
So, love arises out of the intellect in knowledge. But then love builds upon and perfects knowledge, just as, in an analogous way, faith precedes and is subsequently deepened by hope and charity. I love someone because I first recognize his or her goodness and uniqueness, and then the desires associated with love, both the desire to be in the beloved’s presence and to promote/affirm the beloved’s goodness, allow for a clarity of vision that would otherwise be impossible. This is what Aquinas means, I think, when he says that desire disposes one to receive the desired object. And it coincides with common human experience. We all know that hatred blinds us to objective assessment, while love allows us to see in another that which may be easily overlooked. Perhaps in some instances, it is only the love of a saint that can open our eyes to the goodness and dignity of others, especially when it comes to the poor and downtrodden (thus the enduring appeal of Mother Teresa).
With respect to God, little can be known of Him in this life because of His radical transcendence and the limitations of our intellect (which is not, of course, to downplay the importance of sound reasoning about God). What Aquinas says about the vision of the elect, then, should give us solace as we grapple with God’s elusiveness, especially in prayer. Whether we are struggling with the dark night of the soul or just the mundane distractions that come while sitting before the Blessed Sacrament, we should take comfort in the following: even when prayer yields neither theological insights nor consolations, it still deepens our desire for God and thereby our capacity to glimpse Him in this life and be united to Him in the next.
Along these lines, I shall give the last word not to Aquinas, but to one of his contemporaries. In Journey of the Mind to God, St. Bonaventure teaches that if we wonder how to achieve a foretaste of the visio Dei, we should “seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of will, not in the understanding, in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love.”
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