The conversations tonight were really kind of spectacular, with lots of student engagement, as we were talking over two chapters in Andrew Greeley's book The Catholic Imagination. These two chapters discussed in art and sociology two images of God: the passionate image of God as reflected in human sexuality, and the mother-love image of God as expressed in the figure of Mary in the Catholic imagination. Naturally, the sexuality image took up most of the two periods, with the expected reservations a lot of students tend to have with such an image, which is always kind of interesting to see in a culture as sexualized as ours. The logic of sexual psychology as it impacted Christian sexual ethics and spirituality got a lot of time, and in the second class it was especially difficult to stay on the topic of this as an image of God because the students really had a lot to say about current campus sexual culture and the understanding of sexuality that they felt characteristic of their generation. That class only has nine people in the section, so sometimes it can be a little extra work to try to pull them out of a kind of shyness since they all have to participate more frequently (being unable to "hide behind" lots of classmates) but today it was much more a matter of trying to give everyone time to say all that they wanted to contribute.
The work in Thomas Aquinas's theology of grace for my course The Experience of Grace this week has been really enlightening. As I learned when I began teaching high school, you sometimes learn things with a new depth when you have to teach them yourself than when you are just studying them as a student. For me, the "theorem of the supernatural" has been just such an insight. I understood, in a basic way, that the concepts of "nature" and "supernature" or the "supernatural" were discerned in the 12th century by Philip the Chancellor, head of the University of Paris. But I never got so clear a grasp, as I remember, on the significance of the ideas, particularly here for Thomas's work on grace, as he inherits this new understanding at Paris. The concepts are different than what Moderns have made of them, where the "natural" or "nature" is a self-sufficient reality, and "supernature" (if there is such) is beyond and disconnected from nature, something to be added to nature, perhaps. That's where the current idea of the "supernatural" as sort of the "special effects" of mysticism, or spirits, or magic has come from. For the mediaevals, the distinction was purely an abstract one, and like all abstractions, it is useful for considering different aspects of some reality, but it is a serious error or problem to think that the distinction is one in reality. So we can abstractly divide our gender and our nationality or culture, for example, but in reality you cannot separate the two, and trying to act as though you can would only give you a distorted understanding of some person, because in truth those different aspects inevitably will affect one another as they make up the whole person.
In Thomas, he uses the distinction between natural and supernatural in understanding the hierarchy of different sorts of beings. Plant life exists at a higher level than basic matter or mineral reality, as it possesses life as well as the material reality of the lower nature. Animal life likewise is a higher order than plant life. Human life (possessing such powers as capacities for reason, freedom, love) is distinct from other animal life. Above the human level of existence is God, with perhaps an intermediate level of spiritual forms of live: mental or non-material finite beings of the sort we call angels and such. What is "natural" to any order of existence is that which is proper to its level of existence. What is "supernatural" is anything at a lower order that is proper to a higher order. In this case, we would see in human beings such strange powers as reason, freedom and love, which transcend the purely animal and mechanistic forms of "pre-programmed" instinctual behaviour. This is fascinating in that it anticipates modern or post-modern assaults on these human powers, such as the current denial of reason in many thinkers, or the reductionisms of biological behaviorists who see in the brain only a complex machine that might possess the illusion of freedom or reason or love, but which (if truly finite and entirely mechanical) can not be in possession of such powers, which are then said to only be romantic names for complex forms of instinct or genetic programming. What's great about this mediaeval approach is that it doesn't buy into such absolute reductionisms while remaining perfectly comfortable in admitting the animal, material or even "mechanistic" aspects of human nature (thus in keeping with our sciences), while not having to say that this is all that we are.
So, in preparing a few of the questions from Thomas's treatise on Grace in the Summa for today (Summa Theologiae I-II, qq. 109 - 110), coming to a stronger understanding of what the significance of that natural/supernatural distinction meant to Thomas has been really clarifying for reading the original text. I'm curious to see if that made an impact on the students' readings. They have certainly come to understand why I warned them at the beginning of the semester that this was far and away the most difficult and subtle topic in Christian theology, and I think that I've learned a few ways in which I've got to make this course simpler the next time I teach it!