Does Catholicism Lead to Atheism: A Dialogue Between a Palamite and a Thomist

Does Catholicism Lead to Atheism: A Dialogue Between a Palamite and a Thomist

By: Michael Lofton

 

Palamas: Good morning, Thomas. I have not seen you since we were both Presbyterians. Fancy seeing you here in this coffee shop. By the way, I converted to Orthodoxy five years ago and I heard you became a Catholic. Is this true?

Thomas: My friend, Palamas, it has been so long! Yes, I converted to Catholicism and I heard about your conversion. Did you consider Catholicism first?

Palamas: I did.

Thomas: What led you away from it and to Orthodoxy, if you don’t mind me asking?

Palamas: Well, it is quite simple. I believe Catholicism leads to Atheism.

Thomas: My goodness, that is quite a claim! I suppose this is not so evident to me. Would you mind indulging me further and explaining how this is so?

Palamas: Yes, I have some time to spare if you have a few moments.

Thomas: Indeed.

Palamas: I believe several aspects of Thomism lead to Atheism.

Thomas: At the outset, it should be said that Catholicism is not to be univocally identified with Thomism as the latter is one among several approved philosophical schools in the Catholic Church. In fact, Eastern Catholics who are in communion with the Pope venerate and affirm the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, your namesake. But, as I am a Thomist, I will do my best to offer a response from this perspective.

Palamas: I would be delighted to hear your response.

Thomas: Please proceed to expand on your claim that Thomism leads to Atheism.

Palamas: It is simple. You say that God is uncreated but grace is created. If this is so, and God cannot be divided or made finite, then what you receive in the sacraments is something created and thus it does not unite you to the divine. Moreover, if you never know the divine but only created grace, then you never truly know God and must conclude Atheism.

Thomas: That is quite an argument and one which I must say is filled with misunderstandings and non-sequiturs.

Palamas: What did I misunderstand?

Thomas: For one, it assumes grace is a substance – a thing, if you will. And it also misunderstands what created grace means.

Palamas: Can you expand on both of these points?

Thomas: Yes, grace is not a thing that exists between the creature and the creator.[1] Rather, it is an accident inhering in the soul, much like the color blue is not a thing but an accident that inheres in a substance like a blue chair. Also, grace is defined as “a participation in the divine life.”[2] One truly participates in God, not in a created substance, when one receives grace.

Palamas: How can this be if you do not distinguish between God’s essence, or what He is, and God’s energies, God’s activity? You must either say you receive the essence of God, which is impossible for a creature, or you must say you receive a created being.

Thomas: Neither is true. We truly receive God, but we receive him in a finite way.

Palamas: So, you receive a finite portion of God? That is abhorrent because it divides God into uncreated and created, infinite and finite parts.

Thomas: No, we do not receive a finite part of God, we receive the undivided and infinite God in a finite mode, as is fitting for a creature who is finite and created. In other words, what we receive is not what is created; rather, what we become by receiving the uncreated is what we call created. This is what we call created grace, namely, that which we become when we receive the uncreated. This safeguards against the ideas that the creature becomes uncreated or that we merely receive a created substance and not the uncreated God in deification. But I have a similar concern with Orthodoxy.

Palamas: What is that?

Thomas: You say that when we receive grace, we never receive the divine essence but only the divine energies, right?

Palamas: Right.

Thomas: Do you thus divide God?

Palamas: No, because we say God is simple, with the energies fully in the essence. This is why we say God is fully in each energy. We make the distinction between essence and energy in a similar way to how you would distinguish between the intellect and will. We agree the intellect and will are distinguishable but we cannot divide them.

Thomas: So, the energies are fully in the essence but we only receive the energies of God?

Palamas: That is right.

Thomas: So, when one receives grace, they receive something that is not God, namely the energies of God?

Palamas: No, because we say the energies of God are divine and uncreated. There are created energies, which we do not claim are divine, such as God acting in time. But the energies we receive in the reception of grace are uncreated and divine energies of God so we truly receive God in the sacraments.

Thomas: How can there be something that is divine which is not part of God’s essence?[3]

Palamas: We say that the divine energies are essential properties belonging to the divine essence, but we also say they are distinguishable from the divine essence itself.

Thomas: But this seems to violate the principle that God is simple.

Palamas: No, because we are just making a distinction, not a division, much like the Scotists who claim the same distinction when they speak of the formal distinction.

Thomas: It seems both of us are concerned with safeguarding against the same errors, namely violating the simplicity of God, making the infinite finite and making the finite infinite.

Palamas: Yes, it seems we have the same concerns, but we have different approaches in the matter. It also seems we have emphasis in different places as the essence and energies distinction is concerned with how we communicate God to the creature and the notion of created grace is concerned with how the creature can receive the uncreated.[4]

Thomas: Allow me to once more turn the tables around. Your own theologians call God “absolute unknowability”[5] and yet you claim our notion of created grace leads to Atheism. How do you not fall prey to the same claim?

Palamas: I see you are familiar with our theologians. Yes, we can speak of God in this way, even as St. Dionysius the Areopagite does.

Thomas: How do you avoid the charge of Atheism?

Palamas: Because this refers to the essence of God and not his energies.

Thomas: But the essence is fully in each energy, as you said earlier. If you know an energy, how do you not thereby know the essence?

Palamas: It is a mystery.

Thomas: And yet we claim the same about created grace.[6]

Palamas: Fair enough, but I have other concerns about Catholicism that I believe lead to Atheism.

Thomas: I am willing to entertain them.

Palamas: Thomism lead to the Enlightenment. This in turn led to skepticism and Atheism.

Thomas: That is quite a charge.

Palamas: And yet I stand by it. How else do you explain the fact that the Enlightenment came after Scholasticism, a period in which Thomism reigned supreme?

Thomas: Scholasticism cannot be reduced to Thomism as it began before St. Thomas and had other forms like Scotism, as you noted before. But as to your question, I believe it is much more likely the Enlightenment was caused by Hume’s skepticism.

Palamas: How so?

Thomas: Hume denied the principle of sufficient reason, that is, that everything has a cause.[7] He believed we can only know what we sense, and that something has a cause is not something we immediately experience.[8]

Palamas: What does this have to do with Atheism?

Thomas: Because most of the scholastic proofs for God depended on the idea that everything has a cause and must, in some way, go back to an uncaused cause. I also should note these scholastic proofs properly safeguard against any charge that Thomism, or Catholicism as a whole, lead to Atheism.

Palamas: Can you explain how Hume’s denial led to Atheism?

Thomas: Yes, every cause that we experience in reality is not inherently necessary. In other words, any cause that encounter cannot be said to be absolutely necessary to exist. For example, if we look at a river causing erosion, we agree the cause of the erosion is the river, but that the river exists is not absolutely necessary. Yet, we know that the river exists; so, we must ask, why does the river exist if its being is not absolutely necessary to exist? It must in some way have its existence from something else whose being is necessary to exist, and this is what we call God. However, if we remove causality from the equation, we cannot argue back to the existence of God, which leads to Atheism.

Palamas: How do you know there is such a thing as causality if we can only know what we sense?

Thomas: Because there are things we can know from our intellect that are beyond what we can know by our senses.

Palamas: But isn’t everything we know in the intellect known first by the senses?

Thomas: Yes, but just because something is built on the senses does not mean it is limited to the senses.

Palamas: We claim that we don’t need the intellect to know there is a God because God enlightens our nous directly.

Thomas: Many have claimed to receive immediate revelation from God, what makes you any different?

Palamas: Because the Church Fathers and the Holy Councils confirm our claim.

Thomas: The Catholic will argue the same.

Palamas: So, we must then examine the evidence.

Thomas: Agreed, but this removes us from the subject realm of the nous and into the objective realm of evidence.

Palamas: I agree, but we do not do this to obtain knowledge of the divine, only to confirm it.

Thomas: I would agree with this as well, as I would never claim examining evidence from church history or philosophical proofs will bring about the supernatural grace of deification, they merely serve to give credible reasons for believing we have deification from God.

Palamas: What of a life of sanctity? Does this not serve to prove one has been deified?

Thomas: To an extent. However, there were holy men of old who were not Christians so we cannot depend on this as an ultimate criterion.

Palamas: Perhaps, and I’ll need to ponder your claim that Hume led to Atheism rather than scholasticism further, but for now I have one more concern about Catholicism.

Thomas: What is it?

Palamas: In Thomism, God is so simple that His knowledge is identified with his essence. So, God’s knowledge of creation is identified with God Himself. Doesn’t this mean creation is absolutely necessary if it is part of His essence?

Thomas: No, because God not only knows Himself but He knows exhaustively how every creature can imitate Himself and this includes creation.[9]

Palamas: But how is He still free to create?

Thomas: Because He knows how every creature can freely imitate His being.

Palamas: Does this not mean creatures are now identified with the essence of God?

Thomas: No, because it is the knowledge of God that is identified with the essence of God, not the actual creatures. Think of it like this, God knows humanity and the knowledge of humanity is identified with the essence of God, but that does not mean humanity itself is identified with the essence of God.

Palamas: I will not say that I am absolutely convinced you have defended your position sufficiently, but I will reflect on this further and be less hesitant to claim Catholicism leads to Atheism in the meantime.

Thomas: That is understandable and I am willing to engage this topic after you have examined the issue further.

Palamas: Yes, let’s meet again at this same coffee shop and we will continue the discussion. I’ll contact you soon.

Thomas: Lord willing.


[1] See E. L. Mascall, The Openness of Being (London: Darton, Longman & Todd) p. 220 where this is argued by the author.

 

[2] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, INC., 1960) p. 256.

 

[3] See E. L. Mascall, Via Media: An Essay in Theological Synthesis (London: Longmans, Green and Co), p. 163 where the author raises the same concern.

 

[4] See Mascall, The Openness of Being (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970) p. 220 where this is noted by Mascall.

 

[5] See Mascall, Via Media: An Essay in Theological Synthesis (London: Longmans, Green and Co), p. 158-159 where the author quotes Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church as describing God in this way.

 

[6] See Louis Bouyer, Introduction to the Spiritual Life, p. 196 where the author notes the concept of created grace is ultimately a matter of mystery.

 

[7] Everything other than God has at least a hierarchical cause. See Edward Feser Five Proofs for the Existence of God.

 

[8] See Samuel Enoch Stump, Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy, (Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill, 1999) p. 274 where the author notes: “Insofar as Hume assumed that the causal principle is central to all kinds of knowledge, his attack on this principle undermined the validity of all knowledge. He saw no reason for accepting the principle that whatever begins to exist must have a cause of existence as either intuitive or capable of demonstration. In the end, Hume considered thinking or reasoning ‘a species of sensation,’ and as such our thinking cannot extend beyond our immediate experiences.”

 

[9] See Frederick Charles Herx. 1951, “Exemplarism in Saint Thomas Aquinas,” Dissertation. Loyola University of Chicago, p. 34.

 

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