On the Trinitarian God, Friendship and the Wonder of Creation – An Interview with Father James V. Schall

Father James V. Schall, S. J., currently a political philosophy professor in the Government department of Georgetown University, is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of the West’s greatest writers and thinkers. In addition to being an ordained Roman Catholic Priest and teaching classical, medieval, and Christian political philosophy as a university professor, Father Schall has served on the National Council on the Humanities and the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace in Rome. A prolific writer, he has written dozens of books and essays on political philosophy, faith and reason in Christianity, liberal arts education, and more. In this exclusive interview conducted this past spring, Apologia offers you a chance to join generations of students in listening to the venerable reflections of one of Georgetown’s most beloved professors.

You have written and spoken many times about friendship and God. How do you define true friendship? How does this notion of friendship relate to the revelation of the Christian God as Trinity?

It is always difficult to improve on Aristotle. Friendship differs from justice because it is reciprocal good will. We not only will the good of the other, but the other in turn wills our good. Benevolence means to will good to another, whether or not reciprocity occurs. Essential to this reciprocity is its mutual freedom, its lack of coercion. Friends not only will the good of the other, but will him the highest things, the things that are ultimately important. Friendships based on utility or pleasure may be perfectly decent and good. We cannot or do not want to get along without them. But they are limited to their object. The highest form of friendship is concerned with the exchange of what is really significant and important. Thus, it is also based in the truth.

The notion of friendship relates to God firstly because, in the books of revelation, Christ says specifically, “I have no longer called you servants, but friends.” Our relation to God is not submission or subjection. For many philosophical and religious systems, this attribution of a friendship between God and man is a shocking notion. It is said to demean the Godhead. And Christians would agree that they themselves could never have imagined this relationship, had it not been revealed to them. This divine friendship was offered to them not by their own theories but by God revealing Himself. The idea never would have occurred to Christians on their own reasoning. But once revealed to them, they can think about just why the relationship might exist, might make sense with the understanding of God as revealed.

The essential answer begins with Aristotle’s wonderment about whether his God was “lonely.” The issue arises in the Tractate on Friendship. If friendship is seen by Aristotle, the philosopher, to be the highest external relation we can have with others, it seems that this relationship does not exist in God. Therefore, He seems lonely or defective. Once the inner nature of God is revealed as Trinity, as having within it an otherness of persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, it becomes clear that God does not necessarily lack within Himself what amounts to the love of another. Indeed, the definition of the inner life of the Godhead is a relationship of Persons to one another in which they exchange the highest things of their being.

If the inner life of the Godhead is itself a friendship— a love of one another for the sake of the other— it would seem to follow, at least as possible, that God could offer to free and rational persons a share in this inner life. It is not something that they could merit or earn simply by themselves. But it is possible that it be a gift to them. They can still individually reject to receive it. Not even divine friendship can be coerced. But the fact remains that it is not unreasonable to suppose that such a relationship might logically follow from a proper understanding of the inner life of the Godhead and the nature of friendship.

You’ve spoken before of the relationship of the doctrine of the Trinity to the philosophical question of “why there is something, not nothing,” or “why is there a creation?” Here it seems that Christian revelation addresses itself to one of the foremost issues of philosophy, namely the question of creation. Can you explain this solution?

As Robert Spitzer, S. J., in his New Cosmological Proofs for the Existence of God and Msgr. Robert Sokolowski in his God of Faith and Reason have well said, two issues should be separated: one is a metaphysical question of whether something can come from nothing. (It can’t). The other is the state of contemporary science that seems more and more to acknowledge that the cosmos began some 13.7 billion years ago, that before it existed exactly nothing existed, yet everything seemed to come into existence in an orderly fashion. Indeed, many scientific facts seem to indicate that the cosmos itself has within it an anthropic principle, that is, it seems to be so designed that a rational being could exist within the cosmos.

Once we arrive at this position, which is also the Genesis position, the crucial question becomes: “What is the purpose in a universe of intelligence that is not itself divine?” It would seem that the universe itself is not complete unless it has within it an intelligence that can understand and appreciate it. As I like to put it, the universe does not look at us. We look at it. We seek to understand it. Moreover, the universe seems to betray an order (see my Order of Things) that forms or checks the human knowing mind. That is, we seek to know what is, what is already there. We can check our mind, our theories, over against an intelligence that is found in things, a “substitute intelligence,” as Charles N. R. McCoy called it in his great book, The Structure of Political Thought. In this sense, the intelligibility within the universe is meant to be discovered and known by the intelligent beings within the universe. But they are to know these things as part of or intrinsic to their own reaching the end for which they were personally and individually created.

This reflection brings me to your basic question, a good one. Some theories about the supposed lack of friendship in God suggested that God created the universe because He was lonely. He created it to find someone else to love. While such a position is wrong, we can see why it might be proposed. But if God in His Trinitarian life is complete, He needs nothing else. He is not lacking in friendship. Indeed, He need not create at all. God is complete whether the world exists or not. Creation does not change God. It brings into existence what is not God. The universe is not God. Or as Sokolowski says, “God is not the top most part of the universe.” He is outside the universe. But the origin of the universe or cosmos is not itself. It has a purpose. Basically, this purpose is that other free and rational beings participate in the inner life of the Godhead.

This was the initial purpose of creation. From the beginning, God did not create a universe then wonder what to put in it. Rather, the cosmos was the result of His original intention. Man was to achieve something that was in fact beyond his given nature. No purely natural man ever existed. None exists now. We are all imbued with Augustine’s “restless hearts” that will never allow us to be satisfied with anything other than the original purpose of our creation. The history of the cosmos and the history of revelation as related to it is the explanation of how this purpose is to be carried out in the light of man’s free will.

What do you mean by the notion that the human mind should be open to the whole of reality?

A good place to begin to think about such a question is with E. F. Schumacher’s little book, A Guide for the Perplexed. This is a very brief and insightful sketch of how modern notions of certitude and methodology combined to limit our insight into reality, to what could be known by what is called “scientific method.” Essentially, if something cannot be “proved” by this method, almost always itself something that presupposes quantity, the conclusion follows that it does not exist. By this method we cannot “prove” that we ourselves exist. The ways we know the most important things are rarely based on scientific method, yet we know them. We know that our mother loves us, but there is no way to “prove” it.

The word “proof ” technically means to begin with something that is known for certain and proceed by logical steps to conclude to something that is not yet known. But all proof depends on something that is known by itself, for its own sake. We reach the foundation of proof when we grasp the meaning of the principle of contradiction. Even if we verbally deny the proposition, we implicitly affirm it by claiming that our position is valid.

The definition of mind in Aristotle is that power in us that is capable of knowing all things, all that is. Our minds are open to the “whole” of what exists. This openness is why it is all right to be a human being. What is not ourselves is open to us, given to us, by the fact that we can know it. When we know something, it does not cease to be what it is. But we change. In knowing, we have both our being and intentionally the being of what is not ourselves. This is the real foundation of our dignity and indicates the purpose for which we exist, to know what is, including its cause, and to love its reality and the fact that we are included within it.

On faith and reason, you write in The Modern Age, about basic evidence that is left out today. How does this relate to the idea that the human mind should be open “to all reality”?

This question follows on the previous one. The human mind is “capable of knowing all things.” But one can understand philosophy or science to mean that we can only “know” what we know by modern methodology. The methodology limits us to know what the methodology presupposes. Since we really know things with our intuition or general understanding, we in fact know more than what science knows by its methods. Moreover, revelation contains intelligibility. If we exclude the intelligibility of either of these sources, we are cutting ourselves off from the whole.

The issue of revelation is of particular importance. Faith, as least in Catholicism [and amongst orthodox Christians], is not considered to be “absurd” or idiotic. It is directed to intellect. That is to say, revelation is addressed to intellect when intellect is being most intellect. That is, when the human intellect actively knows all that is can know, it still recognizes that it does not possess a knowledge of the whole. Since many issues remain for it to answer, it is confronted with the issue of whether the “reason” that is found in revelation is not in fact posed precisely as an answer to the questions as posed by reason but which it cannot answer by itself.

When we say that something is posed by “faith” or “revelation,” we do not mean that it is not intelligible. We may mean that it is not originally something that the human intellect was able to figure out by itself. But we do not mean that, once revealed, it becomes “irrational” or “unintelligible.” We mean the opposite. We mean that it explains a link that we could not figure out but one that needed some additional intellectual input to make complete sense. The revelation of the Trinity itself was precisely of this nature.

The validity of revelation itself, like all faith, depends on the testimony of someone who sees. Faith does not depend on faith ad infinitum. It reaches back finally to someone who in fact sees. So if there is a coherence between revelation and reason, it is because the same “seeing” is at the origin of both.

What exactly do you mean by the phrase “what is” that you often use in your writing?

Ultimately, I suppose, it comes from Plato, truth is “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.” The phrase has two sides, the “what” side and the “is” side. The first step of the human mind when it knows is to note a “what,” a “form,” that is, this thing is not that thing. A cow is not a toad. The second issue, though it grounds all “what” things, is the “is.” Does this thing stand out of nothingness? Is it there? We put the two together when we affirm that this (this what) exists. The “is” is Aquinas’ “esse,” the “to be.”

The passage from nothingness to an existing thing must be accomplished by the agency of something that is. Ultimately, this leads to a being whose “what” is an “is.” This is the most basic understanding of God, whose being is not limited by any finite form. His being is His what. We seem to have arrived at this understanding with the help of revelation, especially the response of Yahweh to Moses who wanted to know what name to give Him. The answer was to tell the people that “I Am who am.” The New Testament is filled with “I Am” statements on the part of Christ who thereby identifies Himself with the origin of being. These two strands meet when the philosopher, taking his thought to its limits, encounters the “I Am” as a response to the question of “why is there something rather than nothing?”

The significance of what is, I think, lies in the wonder we encounter when something not ourselves comes into our ken. Aristotle said that the beginning of our thinking is wonder, not some necessity or coercion. We just want to know what the thing is. We do not initially want to do anything with it. We have first to figure out what sort of a being it is. We act according to the nature of what we encounter. That is, we treat human beings differently from birds or rocks because of what they are. Moreover, we find a delight, a pleasure in just knowing that something is, what it is. We could never by ourselves concoct the variety of things that are. It is almost as if what is not ourselves is out there so that we might know it. In this sense, the reality that is not ourselves appears to us as a gift, not as some configuration of our own mind. If it were, we would soon be bored with it.

You have taught college undergraduates for many years. You know the intellectual tradition of the West in great minds and ideas through things we call books. What are the basic questions of meaning and purpose that every liberal arts student should consider?

Interestingly enough, sources as widely divergent as Leibniz, Eric Vogelin, and Vatican II give pretty much the same list. They would include: Why am I rather than am not? Why am I this thing rather than that thing? Why must I die? Am I responsible for my thoughts and actions? Why am I the only kind of being in the universe whose ultimate perfection or goodness depends on himself, not instinct or someone else?

In the first chapter of book 19 of the City of God, Augustine affirms: “Nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisi ut beatus sit—No cause of philosophizing can be found for man other than that he be happy.” The reason ultimately that we go to college is not to find jobs, learn some skill, or play around. No, we go so that, in our leisure, we might come to know ultimate things. What else that we do makes sense only if we have an understanding of what the whole is about and of our part within it. Never to reflect on the sources of wisdom, of what is, is to live an “unexamined life,” a life that Socrates warned us not to live.

It is true, again to follow what Plato told us about the steps in our education in the sixth and seventh books of the Republic that when we are twenty or so, we only have begun. We have not yet the experience to be wise about the important things. And yet, as Aristotle told us, if we are brought up with good habits, when the important things come into our lives, we will recognize them. We will know that some things contradict reason before we can articulate what the principle of contradiction is. We can look on human life as an adventure in the knowing what is. If we combine the notions of adventure and gift, we will come close to the spirit in which we should live our lives.

Finally, we should know something of evil and its origins. We should wonder about why evil things exist, especially in ourselves. But, in the end, all evil is found in some good. And as Augustine said, no evil would ever be allowed to be present in our lives unless, out of it, some greater good could, but need not, come forth.

I would not conclude by touching evil were it not the other side of our freedom. We really are responsible for ourselves and one another. We can choose to put an action in the world that lacks something that ought to be there. This is what evil is. God could not possibly invite beings to His inner Trinitarian life if they were not free to love Him. This is what the divine friendship is about. We may learn about it before we live it. But unless we live it, we will learn only about ourselves, not the what is that includes ourselves, the what is of the greater glory that includes all that is.

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