Confessions of Wonder

The following was an assignment for a course for which I was asked to analyze a philosopher and a theologian inspired by that philosopher using an alternative writing technique. I chose to analyze Aristotle and Aquinas, but instead of using their methods, I used Augustine’s Confessional style. The Confessions was one of the first theology books that I read and reminded me of how I was taught to pray. I was taught that we should talk to God as though God is a person, and that it was less about requests (although that was a key part) and more about expressing one’s passion for God and the world. The Confessions is filled with beautiful language and inspires wonder, elements that are seldom replicated in theological literature. Thus, in my Confession, I attempted to replicate that style while unpacking two analytical and systematic texts: Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 1 and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica part I Q.1-6. While I didn’t perfect the form, I thoroughly enjoyed writing this and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Oh, Divine, where do I begin confessing to You when my confession is that I failed to find You. Do I begin with what I feel? What I see? What I hear? I feel anxious, perpetually hesitating under the anxiety of being. Unlike Plato, I do not see many shadows – just a blinding light beam, blurring my periphery, saturating the room, and distorting my vision. I don’t hear a silent cave but rather a deafening city ceaselessly calling my attention elsewhere. But among all this chaos, among all my futile attempts to center my mind on You, what prods at me is not the mystery of You, but the wonder of the world. Is it not precisely this wonder that causes me anxiety? Is it not the seemingly infinite wonder around me that distracts me from You, that makes me feel unsettled, that drives me to pursue answers to frivolous questions. Wonder is the cause of my anxiety, but what is the cause of wonder? Why do I feel the need to ask “why?” 

 For Aristotle, wonder fuels humankind’s desire for knowledge, and it begins with the sense, and thus, wonder is wrapped within the fabric of our being.[1] Wonder calls to us through our senses to grasp a thing in its particularities, which produces experiential knowledge.[2] But upon gaining this knowledge, wonder again beckons us further – to ask the question “why?” Why is a thing this particular way? What is its cause? Through chasing wonder through these questions, a new knowledge of skill or art emerges.[3] Aristotle emphasizes that this is a higher knowledge, a wiser knowledge because it is a step closer to the first cause. But, this step does not quench wonder’s “why?” It asks again and again in perpetual repetition that annoyingly childish question, “why?”  The philosopher, the one haunted by wonder, is not satisfied with a wiser knowledge but with wisdom itself, the knowledge of first causes and principles.[4] Wonder beckons us to seek the cause of all causes – the universal cause of all particulars where the Supreme Good resides.[5] “For Goodness is what all desire,” and thus is not Goodness that which stokes wonder’s fire?[6] Aristotle is attempting to forge a path to You. Like me, he is searching You, and wonder is what calls us both to this task.

As Aristotle begins to investigate and articulate the science of wisdom, he emphasizes that the seeker of universal knowledge must not forget about particularities or they risk falling into error.[7] However, for Aristotle, the pursuit of wisdom cannot be concerned with practical application but rather must pursue knowledge purely for knowledge’s sake.[8]It is in light of this precarious tension between universal and particulars that Aristotle begins to articulate his science of first causes and principles. Aristotle recognizes four causes of any particular thing. The first cause is the material cause: substance/essence of the thing.[9] Next is the formal cause which is the structure or form of the thing takes.[10] The third cause is the efficient cause, which the source from which the thing emerged.[11] The last cause is the purpose of the thing, its telos or final cause.[12] For Aristotle, while some philosophers recognized the material cause, other’s the efficient cause, and Plato the formal cause, no philosopher until Aristotle wondered of the final cause. While he recognizes Your wonder’s call within the small things of the world, Aristotle hopes that his four causes will allow him to forsake them. Through analyzing them, he hopes to move beyond them, to intellectually ascend wonders latter to a lofty place where he assumes You reside. Thus, upon these four foundational causes, Aristotle’s metaphysics begins, but with Aristotle, Your wonder would not end. 

Wonder continued to taunt humankind, and centuries later, inspired by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas would seek to exhaust it again, this time equipped with the scholastic method. Yet, does not Thomas’s method itself capture the futility of his task, that is, as an unending pursuit of questions and answers? In fact, Thomas’s first attempt to explicate this wonder would be abandoned, and the second would remain unfinished.[13] Wonder, it seems, brought Thomas to silence, be it through a mystical sight or his soon-to-follow death.[14] Regardless, for Aquinas, like Aristotle, one should follow the effects of a thing to uncover its cause, and since every effect requires a cause, a cause must pre-exist the effect.[15]While for Aristotle, the first cause is the unmoved mover, Aquinas adds a dynamic in that God is that which nothing greater can be thought, and thus he believes You to be in the loftiest of places[16] And despite Aristotle’s influence, Aquinas, it would seem, sets himself up as the arbiter of Your lofty wonder.[17]

For Aquinas, while philosopher such as Aristotle may come to preambles of You, of Goodness, and of truth through scientific inquiry, You nevertheless democratized this knowledge through divine revelation, which can be accepted through faith.[18] Through this gesture, is not Aquinas taking the elusive high wisdom of the Aristotle’s philosopher and replacing it with the wisdom of the theologian?  For as Aquinas says, “this sacred doctrine is wisdom above all human wisdom…absolutely.”[19] Aquinas makes this substitution on the grounds of divine revelation. Divine revelation is superior to human wisdom, which can err, but You, God, cannot err.[20] Thus divine knowledge revealed through divine revelation is the highest knowledge, and sacred doctrine, not philosophy, is the science of wisdom. 

Yet even while emptying Your wonder out to all, Aquinas, seems to close it off to the few. Aquinas argues that if any other science finds something that is contrary to Sacred Doctrine, then that science must be deemed false.[21]Additionally, since Sacred Doctrine is the most authoritative knowledge, keepers of the Doctrine (e.g. Aquinas) will consider worthy of debate only those who accept some of their articles of faith.[22] Thus, by centering his own particular pursuits of wonder (Sacred Doctrine) as if it was universal – as if they were the only way through wonder – Aquinas has fallen into error. While his concept of divine revelation permitted wondrous wisdom to be revealed to all, Aquinas’s barriers around Sacred Doctrine immediately subjected to the clergy and theologians both wonder and all who would seek it. 

But Divinity, Your wonder finds a way. Aristotle is not the revealer nor Aquinas either, but it is You. You pour out Your wondrous revelation upon whom and what You please, though it be foolishness to the philosopher or theologian. In all his assurances, Aquinas must admit, “we cannot know […] the essence of God,” or elsewhere, “For what [God] is not is clearer to us than what [God] is.”[23] In other words, while Thomas may hesitate to put it so bluntly, the science of Sacred Doctrine is reduced to but a tracing of Your wondrous effects.[24] Even in its Holy Writ, Sacred Doctrine can only glimpse You in metaphor. “We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils.”[25] But, we play in sacred metaphor, for as it grasps at facts it also, “reveals a mystery.”[26]

Is not this mystery but another word for Your wonder? Do not all of our answers to “why” unravel through wonder’s persistent interrogation. We seek to capture You in a body, be it a text, a church, or in metaphysics, but no/body can contain You. You are the pure act of Spirit, forever beyond the potential of our grasp – that Ghost that haunts the horizons of our being.[27] Yet, You do not offer us judgment, but a wonderous decentering whisper. A “Why?” That ghostly whisper calls us forward, even if through anxiety. It calls us to break free from the siloed sarcophaguses of elite signifiers that fail to capture You. It calls us to turn our attention from the well-considered platforms of knowledge toward the unconsidered, the common things that we despise. For me, oh Divine, are You not haunting me with my anxiety? Is it not simply wonder gone awry? Did I let wonder go awry by closing it off – by shunning the city sounds, by closing the blinds? Did I not waist wonder by pretending as though it resided in some metaphysical center that I could ascend to if I but stilled myself like the pious. Oh, Divine, if You are anything these philosophers have attributed to You, You are Supreme Goodness, but perpetually a Goodness unconsidered.[28]  Your Goodness is not above us as some ideal form or some uncaused cause, but Your Goodness is always at hand – persistently among us. You have emptied Your Goodness upon all flesh, and its effect is wonder. We seek it to name it, and we seldom find it. But, like a whisper or bang, it captivates us when we least expect it. The moment we point to it, we have missed it, but it is always nearby, hiding among the unconsidered.            Thus I must confess my failure. My pursuits of You like Aristotle and Aquinas have been futile. I have searched for You in the stars and in the sky, in the loftiest of theologies and in the highest of philosophies, but these high grounds are void of wonder. By claiming to own it, they have lost it. Wonder can not be possed, but it possesses all things. In Your Spirit, it calls us not just to the Good but to a pronouncement of Goodness. Wonder calls us to consider the small things, the strange things, the weird things, and the wild things. Wonder beckons us to call them Good, and thus to find You, oh Divinity, there, here, ceaselessly in our midst. 

            [1] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. Newburyport: Dover Publications, 2017. Accessed March 8, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central. 1-2.

            [2] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 1-3.

            [3] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 1-3.

            [4] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 4 -6. 

            [5] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 6-7.

            [6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I Q. 5 Art. 1. ( Coyote Cnyon Press, Claramont, Cal. 2018). 35.

            [7] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 6-7. 

            [8] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 6-7. 

            [9] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 7-8.

            [10] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 7-8.

            [11] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 7-8.

            [12] Aristotle. The Metaphysics. 7-8. 

            [13] I am referring here to Aquinas’ first attempt, the Summa Contra Gentiles, which he abandoned for the Summa Theologica, his second attempt. The Summa Theologica would also not be finished before his death. 

            [14] Jean-Pierre Torrell, Aquinas’s Summa: Background, Structure, & Reception (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 2005).16. Torrell tells a story near the end of Aquinas’ life when he suddenly stoped writing his Summa and teaching. Aquinas reported told a friend who inquired about why he stoped writting, “I cannot. Everything I have written seems like so much straw in comparison to what I have seen.” It was suggested in a Aquinas course that this might have been a sort of mystical wonderous experience. Regardless, for whatever reason, some sort of wonder stopped Aquinas from trying to answer the questions, and his Summa remained unfinished.

            [15] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I Q. 2 Art. 2. 30. 

            [16] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I Q.2 Art 1. 30.

            [17] Although the Summa Theologica is set up as dialogical process, there is always a proper answer given which gives the illusion of a single proper path through wonder.  

            [18] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I Q. 1 Art. 1. 27.

            [19] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I Q. 1. Art. 6, 28.

            [20] Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1. Q. 1 Art. 5. 28

            [21]Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. Q. 1 Art 6.  28

            [22] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. Q. 1 Art 8. 29.

            [23] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. Q. 1 Art. 7.; I. Q.1 Art. 9. 28-29.

            [24] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. Q. 1 Art 7. 28  

            [25] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. Q. 1 Art 9. 29

            [26] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. Q. 1 Art 10. 29. The sentence from Aquinas reads, while referring to metaphore and Holy Write, “ while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.” By changing the term “describes a fact” to “grasps at a fact,” I am suggesting that “describing a fact” is still too certain for the mysetery of God, Goodness, and wonder. 

            [27] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. Q. 3. Art. 1. 31-32.

            [28] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. Q.5 Art. 3 – Q. 6 Art. 2. 36-38.

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